India: Encounters

I’d heard before arriving that India is the type of place that you can love and hate in equal measure. That it exhilarates and exhausts you. Nothing has quite tested my patience, not the lack of hot water, the constant honking, or terrible coffee (precious, perhaps, but important for general functionality), so much as our futile attempts to withdraw cash from an ATM. We take for granted how simple it is to access money, in all its forms, in the West: pay-wave, ATMs, online banking, money exchange. One would assume that if you have money – which we do, a lot of it by Indian standards – you can use it. Not so, apparently. Recent government regulations have meant the removal of certain notes from circulation, along with low maximum withdrawals in single transactions and – inevitably – vast shortages of available cash. Having a tuk-tuk drive you to bank after bank after bank to find ‘no cash’ is gruelling and, honestly, kind of bizarre. It is a particular kind of joy to finally grasp those limp, thin notes in your hands and know you can finally buy water.

I’m in Agra right now, home of the Taj Mahal, which needs no introduction. It’s a magnificent, awe-inspiring structure, and I don’t think there are any original thoughts that I can pen to better describe it than already exist, so I won’t bother too much except to say that it invaded even my dream last night. Agra itself, however, is, well, not exactly my favourite city. And that’s really a very light assessment. Scam city, I’ve come to term it. Doesn’t seem to be anything particularly redeeming about it except the Taj (well, perhaps the Baby Taj). The air is thick and dirty, and I’ve been congested, hacking and sniffing, since we arrived. Leaving the hotel for even two minutes means not only the return of gunk to the lungs, but the constant harassment of drivers and pedlars. Agra is filthy, and where the trash can be ignored for the charm of old derelict buildings and fascinating daily life spilling into the streets in other cities, here, there doesn’t seem to be any equivalent. No amiable narrow alleys, or smiling, curious locals. Instead, everyone’s out to get something from you. Even the drivers that took us to the Baby Taj tried to get our tickets from us once we were inside, claiming they needed them for parking validation, and not to sell on to other tourists, their real intention. Our train has been delayed due to fog, and so instead of waking up in Varanasi, the city I’ve been most looking forward to on this trip, we’ll be spending the better part of the day on a train. But that’s okay. Because for every frustration in India – of which, quite obviously, I’ve been experiencing a bit of in the last few days – there is something truly extraordinary.

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I’ll begin with the people. The swarms of them. People in such numbers I struggle to imagine the daily realities of their lives. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite such nihilist thoughts! Thinking about it is like knowing that the universe is expanding, infinitely. It’s just too big. And we stand out so much. I’ve hardly seen any other Westerners except in the really touristy destinations: the riverbank of Udaipur, the Amber Fort at Jaipur. The stares are unashamed, unabashed. At first they made my skin prick with suspicion. After all, I’d been warned about pickpockets, gropers and worse. It didn’t take long, however, to realise that most of the time – except in Agra, fucking Agra – those glances are of innocent curiosity. Usually they’re just trying to figure out how to ask you for a picture. They selfie, gleefully, giggle, and turn away with an Indian shake. I must be in so many photographs by now, posing politely beside strangers. Sometimes they thrust children into your arms, unhappy little ones crying for their mamas, who stand and smile and snap away. Sometimes, when there is a chance, they just want to talk. On the train to Jodphur we met a family who joined us for several hours. They approached nervously at first, with tentative creeps, shuffng feet, nods and smiles from the aisle. There was the mother Meenu (‘not menu!’ she laughed, delightedly, without prompting), two daughters, and eventually, the father, a bashful son. We talked about food and Bollywood, Justin Bieber and 4G internet. They called me Selina, for Gomez, and by the end of our voyage we’d exchanged Facebook and WhatsApp details, promised to keep in touch. It’s these kinds of encounters that I like the most: joking with a cheeky tuk-tuk driver, catching the wave of a girl passing on the back of a motorbike. These kinds of moments are almost magical in their strangeness, because again, I think I take it for granted living in a diverse, multicultural society that I’ve seen many different kinds of people. I am Other to them, as much as they are to me. For every man clad in twisted turban, white mundu, an orange bindi streaking his forehead that begs my attention, the turn of my lens, so too do my now ripped jeans, my blue eyes, my side-plait, attract the gazes of strangers and their not-so-subtle phone tilts. We’re all as curious as each other. Perhaps the world is not as globalised as I’d thought. And that’s quite a nice thing, I think.

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In every city, on almost every night, we’ve encountered the explosively loud and colourful processions of very-soon-to-be-newly-weds. Our first day in Delhi, sitting at lunch in a crowded restaurant, the banging of a marching band and the blaring of horns through lined megaphones on a cart drew me outside. Crowds of people pushed down the street, dancing, singing. A man clad in marigolds followed the band, the groom to be, but I didn’t know that then. It was just a riot. Something so astounding and unexpected I stood mouth agape as they passed.  Such scenes are daily now. In a narrow alley in Jodphur, five of us squished in a tuk-tuk, rode right through the middle of one such parade. Fireworks glittered above us as revellers rushed for selfies as we passed. We were held up by four processions in Pushkar, the holy city, where newly-weds must be drawn to the sacred symbolism of the lake. They pulled in some of the guys to dance. I stood outside and watched, unsure of my place as a woman in such as ritual. Later that night, Brendan and I followed one down the entire main market street, unable to pass. Men carry bright shimmering lamps connected to a giant generator that is pushed down the street behind them. They dance for hours, and the music can be heard echoing down every street for kilometres around. The fireworks startled Brendan and a cow, very nearly causing a trampling.

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We did nearly end up in a stampede in the winding old town of Jodphur. Admiring the blue painted houses, a colour used originally to identify the Brahmins – the priests – and to keep away the mosquitos, I missed what had caused the commotion. But there was yelling, Abhi, our guide, signalling us towards the wall. I leapt into the open crevice of a crumbling storefront as four or five cows stampeded past. We had just been zip lining over the fort and my leftover adrenaline spiked. A blur of white and brown, huge beasts, horns first, buckling. A small cow in white, just when we thought the coast was clear, rounded the corner. We laughed, but how narrowly we escaped serious injury I’m not sure. Still, I don’t feel the need to go to Spain to run with the bulls anymore. Another cow horn-butted me, accidentally or otherwise, further along the twisted streets. The space is narrow, and they take precedence. For the most part though, they are lovely. They appear in numbers far higher than I had actually expected, trying, as I was, to avoid stereotypes. Even in Delhi, a bustling, crowded city of 30 million, they wander the roads and roundabouts, expecting traffic to bend as they do. It does. By the lake in Pushkar, a tiny cream thing sniffed my hand, gave me a nuzzle.

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Dogs receive less respect. They whimper in gutters seeking food. Sometimes they sleep in the strangest places – in busy intersections, on rooftops, in empty troughs. For the most part, surprisingly, they don’t look terribly unhealthy. They must be expert hunters – scavengers, more likely, or beggars. In the desert cities, Jaislamer and Bikaner, camels are frequent in traffic. They pull carts loaded obesely with huge white bundles tied with rope. They grunt and spit, and drool as they make the strangest noises. One of my favourite encounters with the city-dwelling wildlife of India so far though, is the monkeys. They are not kind or curious, like the cows, nor do they harmlessly mind their own business. But they are a remarkable thing to see leaping across a rooftop. In the pink streets of Jaipur they stalk the rooftops. An enormous alpha swung down the tangle of electrical wiring and slammed his fists onto the roof of a parked white car. As we watched the sunset from the hilltop Monsoon Palace in Udaipur, completely unbothered by my presence, an old monkey with greying beard watched regally over the rolling, fading hills.

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