India is vast. I spent seven weeks there and experienced Delhi and its suburbs for a few days, and then a tiny subset of the small city of Rishikesh: place of pilgrimage and spirituality. I can as much say I have explored India as someone whose only exploration of London involved buying a cup of coffee at a service station somewhere along the M25.
Regardless, here are the notes on my India. My hitherto India, I should say. India is so vast that not writing about what little I know is tantamount to someone not writing about France because he hasn't also visited England, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy…
I arrived in Delhi deprived of sleep and slightly jet-lagged after a two-part flight, which involved the harrowing Doha airport (see a previous piece: Purgatory). At first, this behemoth nation conformed to the image I had constructed of it in my mind from films, books, the internet and the Indians I had known. Overflowing buses with people sitting on the roof, odours of incense and basmati rice, beggar girls holding babies with running noses banging on car windows at traffic lights, spice markets, rolling hills of rotting rubbish. The sights and smells and stimuli were all there and exciting, but they met my expectations. I wanted them surpassed. I felt, dare I say it, disappointed and short changed.
I now know, and have it confirmed by Indians and tourists alike, that Delhi is not a pleasant place. It is by no means a yardstick with which to judge the rest of India. A 300 km car ride later (over 8 hours travel time: they are still working on the motorways) and I was in Rishikesh. A Hindu Lourdes. People travel from the southern most parts of India just to be able to bathe in the holy Ganges before sunrise. I was able to do this every morning. I was able but only got round to it once. An experience that will not ever be forgotten. The river is not only considered holy - it is holy. A quick plunge into the cold water is enough to feel this.
Ram Jhula is the "borough" of Rishikesh in which I lived and learned yoga for 6 weeks; Laxman Jhula its bigger and more metropolitan sister, a fifteen minute walk away. One of the many striking things about this sacred spot is that nature rules supreme. Humans make way for it: the river, the foliage, the monkeys, the dogs, the cows… and their excrement. Cows are revered here and amble about the streets like lords. Some sport coloured necklaces or red ribbons and bells. Like getting to know the commuters on your walk to the tube station, I got to know and recognise the cows. The one with the missing horn. The one with its horns pointing in different directions. The one with the bandaged ankle. The newborn ones, as fluffy and puffy as chicks. The cows move around as individuals, congregating in a herd - how we are accustomed to seeing them, as cogs in the wheel of livestock farming - only at night to rest.
I also got to know the beggars, who almost outnumber the tourists here. These are not beggars by British standards. Looking like a witch-doctor, shaman and Rastfari hybrid, they wear orange robes, smoke hash, smile a lot and greet you saying what they think is "how are you?", sounding more like "Hare-yoo". The exception which proves the rule is one who took to spitting at me and declaring his dislike whenever we would pass: "I don't like you. Not nice." One morning he had a change of heart and tried to entice me to join him for chai - chai that he would pay for, no less. But his initial presuppositions about my "no good nature" were confirmed when I declined and he hobbled off.
People smile a lot here. The media love to talk about India's GDP, huge population or the starvation in parts, but they never mention the happiness and optimism. India is a very happy country with some of the most consistently genuine and warm people in the world. When a beggar with polio, and one with stubs for arms and legs, sit on the street every day and still manage to beam at you, it really puts the plaintive British mindset to shame.
Some of Hinduism's core assumptions - that are closely linked to the philosophies of yoga - are that the present moment is all there is; the interconnectedness of everything and everyone on earth and the fact that underneath everything we see in the material world is love, happiness and understanding. Where do you think the hippies got all their ideas from?
Everything changes and everything returns according to Hinduism. Even we return. Just with different bodies. The assumption that this life is not the last - and certainly not the first either - has lent the Indian people a buoyancy that pervades everywhere, even if many people may not be actively religious or aware of their culture's ideaology.
Family life is of utmost importance here, and this mentality spreads to a love of people in general. If a stranger wants to speak to you on the London Underground, he is either a freak or after something. If a stranger wants to speak to you here, 99.9% of the time they just want to be your friend.
The Rishikesh locals are the most trusting I have met. If you are short on cash or want to take a bowl of food back to your guesthouse and return the crockery later - no problem! There is a mentality in India that anything is possible. Anything. The stereotype of "developing" nations is that things take longer. In some cases it may be true, but things definitely seemed to get done a lot quicker in Rishikesh than in good old England. Floorboards for the new yoga hall at Rishikesh Yog Peeth were being laid down and nailed in minutes before the first class of the course began. Foundations of buildings are whipped up in a day, and building work takes place anywhere… including in the middle of an exceedingly narrow and exceedingly busy bridge.
Outside my window a new building was being put up over the seven weeks I stayed there. Not a health and safety handbook in sight, risks taken and working arrangements that would have had the council at back home up in arms, yet… NOBODY got hurt. And the building steadily grew towards completion with double the speed it would have had in the UK. How is this possible, you ask with incredulity. All the "contractors" were consenting adults (in case you were wondering) and worked with the tenacity of ants. Incidentally, my room in Korea also overlooked an under-construction apartment block. They must be one of my life's leitmotifs.
India is psychedelic. Colour leaves nothing untouched. The saris (Indian women just don't do demure), the Ken Kesey-style buses looking like they were decorated by enthusiastic children, the artwork and crafts, the murals in cafes, the homage to their deities, the deities themselves. The festivals are always exuberant occasions, more akin to parties than religious happenings. Diwali's display of lights can be seen from space - literally - and sets off more fireworks than the Fourth of July. I now know what it is like to practise yoga to the sound of artillery. Holi, celebrated in February, involves having paint fights and ending up looking like a modern art installation. And you should see how they dance- not a drop of Dutch-courage to drink and they leap and fling themselves about to music that even the most recalcitrant of party-poopers would have trouble not tapping his foot to. You are always sure to be treated to wafts of their gorgeous music everywhere you step: from shops to restaurants to slightly tinnier versions played from mobile phones in alleyways.
One apparent paradox is that of cleanliness. A lot of activity seems to go on in the name of cleaning. Even the beggars scrub themselves properly everyday at the water taps dotted around. Washing is always hanging out to dry. Shop fronts and guest house floors are maintained well. Contrast this to the Indian habit of urinating and defecating anywhere, making certain short cuts in town pungent and overwhelming. Think concentrated festival toilet. And when I say anywhere, I mean anywhere. And with no abashment. Forget ever finding toilet paper in facilities. That's what one's left hand and the water tap are for! The Indians also don't seem to need any sort of tissue-type equivalent when it comes to blowing their nose. Indeed, they let rip all bodily functions without an iota of self-consciousness.
This seems contradictory to their apparent modesty when it comes to exposing bare shoulders and legs. I often became the victim of disapproving looks and comments for my "bad dress" and short hair. I was advised by several gurus, astrologers and yoga teachers that I should not have short hair as it throws my feminine energy out of balance. I assured them I was growing it as fast as my body and nature allowed.
If certain things take longer - the preparation of food in restaurants, the tuning of instruments before a concert - it is because the devotion and care taken in completing these tasks is so great. Food is made with love here. Instruments are played with love. These things are done for the sake of doing them, rather than to turn a profit. This thoroughness and work ethic is reflected in the way the women rinse and wring out the laundry and the cleaners scrub the floors. That is yoga happening: complete union with whatever it is you are doing. And not a yoga mat in sight. In India, everything is a celebration. Life is here to be loved.
One of the most difficult questions I will inevitably have to answer will be "how was India?" India was everything: good, bad, ugly; wonderful, uplifting, inspiring; exhausting, frustrating, overwhelming; alien, comforting, peaceful. India gave me so much. And it will continue to. In memories and when I return. If not in this life then in another one.