Saturday, 8 July 2017

In The Alleys And Valleys Of East India



To describe India, to attempt to describe India, to attempt to describe a region of India would in itself be a self-imposed imminent felony. Irrespective of your prowess in expression (of which I remain woefully amateur) the magic is such that words can try but would inevitably fall ridiculously short of expressing the essence of India.

I will still try as it would be another felony to leave these stories untold. You must understand the monsters I battle as I type this - the constant conflict of contrarian desires where I have to tell you about India, and yet cannot willingly destroy its sanctity by attempting to put it in words. You must understand the sacrifice I make in attempting to pen these thoughts, for it eternally puts me in that club of dreamers who could never truly describe India and once you understand that, I welcome you to construct a statue in my memory for posterity to remember my bravery.

I cannot tell you the best way to travel India because (highly pretentious while that may be) it just doesn't exist. India accepts, invites and warrants spontaneity; abhors formulaic wanderings. But we're not here to debate styles of wanderlust; each has their own and none of them are good enough for India.

I want you to look at this piece not as a travel guide (because really, I would not be so obliviously foolish to assume I have even touched the surface) but rather as a young man's outpour of thoughts. I look at you and invite you to take my proffered hand. Take my hand, and come drown with me in this ocean of colours, cultures, languages, history and emotions. See India as I see it and forever become one with the Quest.

Take my hand, and let us drown in the immense beauty of it all.



Before we begin this journey, you and I, writer and reader, before we transiently embark together on the Quest for a few moments, you need my context to see my India. An inherently Indian man with a lineage from the city of Taj, I have spent my entire waking life outside India. I view this country in short bursts, and it helps me to appreciate the abnormalities and not dwell on the shortcomings. The cracked roads and cacophonous traffic are art and music, and not imprecations I would fling to authorities. India is far from perfect, but to a traveller with no foreseen future in this country, the imperfection is the biggest appeal.

As an intrinsic stickler for the underdogs, I found in East India an untold chapter of the Indian story. Incredibly distinctive by South East Asian influences, it seemed to be a world of its own. Of course, when it comes to India every state with its language, culture and history was once upon a time (and still is) a complete world of its own. This family of seven sisters, however, was cut off from the ruckus, and it seemed to have carved valleys of serenity out of its state of national neglect.

It takes a while to get used, I assure you. A shopkeeper I would've initially guessed to be Chinese (without context, of course) grins toothily, flashing blood-red paan-stained teeth while asking for 'pachaas rupaiya'. A pseudo-South-East-Asian kid walks in and asks for a 'phijut spinner', and receives dumbfounded stares.

Surprise is one element of this ride, as we move on to Meghalaya, where the official language is English in a country that is predominantly illiterate. A state that celebrates matrilineality in a nation of female prejudice. Where children under 14 are strictly prohibited from labour. Meghalaya, which translates to 'the abode of clouds', a state that shelters Mawlynnong, one of the cleanest villages in Asia in a country where educated city-dwellers need celebrities to inspire them to keep their streets clean.

The absurdly varied culture of it all.

I shall drag you up and down the sloping roads of Shillong, very San Francisco-esque in layout, very unheard in coverage, to the teeming Police Bazaar where decked out Mahindra Boleros zoom around with young men blasting Eminem. The Khasi tribe with their pimped out Maruti Suzukis and Bajaj Pulsars that adorn the winding roads. Taxi drivers that paste football club decals on their windshields to flaunt their loyalties.

"Yahan ke log apni gaadi ka bada khyaal rakhte hai." (The people here look after their cars really well)

Do you see it?

We trail through villages in the abode of clouds, honking dogs, cows and children out of the way. The little girl skips across the road mischievously and waves at us ecstatically, delighted at the sight of non-native humans. A little boy holds an umbrella for his younger brother as they hold each other and traipse to school. Wizened men sit on rocks watching the cars whiz past, collecting thoughts and memories that would probably die with them.

The profound depth of it all.



They say East India is the Scotland of the East. Having been to both, I wouldn't bring it upon myself to compare either in terms of beauty and history as they have their own individual charms. The Scotland of the East, however, was definitely lighter on the wallet and much harder to scale. I was able to scour the entire actual Scottish Highlands in less than a week, but could hardly journey through more than three of the seven sisters, which happen to be some of the smallest states in India. The might of India, in full display even in its region of seclusion.

Where seclusion lies, there must lie pain also. The pain is an inevitable part of every trip through India. You can only run from it for a while - you can look at the red traffic lights, imploring them to turn green so you can move on and not have to think about the broken families sleeping right under it. Families that live by a timer, a window of sixty seconds when cars stop to obey traffic rules. Their sixty seconds of glory misery, as sticks laden with colourful balloons, toys, trinkets, food and newspapers bob between cars, trying to make a sale as the timer ticks down. Surely this swarm of peddlers would delay the traffic, I wonder, as the cars on the other side of the junction sputter to a stop.

The signal turns green, and there are no peddlers in site. The whimsical circus that lasted a minute.

You can run from it, ignore the beseeching wails and cries as you walk on the streets until you are stopped in your tracks by a child with a bowl, standing right in front and staring right at you.

What do you do then?

There will come a point when you will have to, be forced to, look at their eyes. In that moment, you will understand the consequences of the Quest.

While we stand here, hand in hand, in the middle of the road in Guwahati and watch children with reproachful eyes, eyes that tell stories of dirt, death, poverty and neglect, outstretched hands and missing limbs circle us, I ask you to not ignore this. Don't fight these thoughts, don't suppress these emotions. Feel the pain they feel, fear the horrors they fear and dream the fantasies they dream.

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. 

In East India destitutes were replaced by entrepreneurial destitutes - where they don't beg openly but try to survive the day by selling water or crisps to tourists. Huts upon huts, in villages upon villages, lined with Lays and Kurkure packets and tourist hats. Hordes of people trying to scrape their way through life and fighting for means to survive in order to ultimately die a painful, neglected and dissatisfied death.

The unrelenting, inescapable sadness of it all.



I must now gaze into your eyes, and ask you to let go of my hand. This is, after all, my party. Your experience and understanding of India will ultimately be your own. Your inferences of art in the muck and patterns in the aberrations have to be your own. The Quest is your own.

In retrospect, I have expelled thousands of words and yet I feel a certain dissatisfaction with the result. The magic seems elusive, probably fettered by the constraints of prose. I shall then attempt to infuse a bit of poetry; utter the poetic incantation that would summon the aura that seems unattainable.

Of the lands of India, I say this
A hundred thousand words would still not do it justice.

That I guess, is as much an appropriate description as it is a flawed one for the ethereal, mystical lands of India.


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