By Anesa Kratovac:
Before coming to India, I had an interesting perspective on the life and issues of this vast land that is the birthplace of so many innovative ideas, goods, religions and cultural diversity. Coming from an international affairs background, I also understood plenty about the issues that are ubiquitously faced by most Indian citizens today, such as poverty, illiteracy, poor healthcare and inadequate infrastructure. Yet, what truly shaped my India experience is the rich complexity of contradictions in everyday life. I’ve truly come to view my India experience as defined by these contradictions, because it is in them that one can truly understand the essence of India and its confrontations in tradition and modernity, flexible nature and the systematic influence of capitalism, reverence towards goddesses and strong patriarchal adherence, public life and private life and urban reality and rural existence (among many others).
Yet, the contradictions that never cease to amaze me are only one part of the story. What also helped shape the most enjoyable aspects of my life in India are the numerous festivals celebrated throughout the year, whose rituals I managed to immerse myself in fully and whose many nuances I would not be able to understand completely unless I became a full-time student of Hinduism. As someone who has been immensely spiritual throughout life (without religious attachments), I’ve also been very fascinated by the inclusion of spiritual symbolism in everyday life- from the popularity of the bindi, to the prevalence of the ‘AUM’ symbol in the public domain, to goddesses and gods displayed on every street-corner and the prevalence of Hindu cultural influence in work-place culture and ethics. Ancient India truly permeates the landscape of modern India in ways that are both very apparent and subtle. The visual feast of some influences is truly captivating- from the whiff of incense on the crowded streets to the sounds of temple bells, and vision of cows making their home in the modern districts of cities. The chatter, the crowds and the senses stimulation on every corner truly define the Indian way of life; it is a place where claustrophobia is not acceptable, spontaneous uncertainty is a way of life and dealing well with stress a necessity.
Another aspect of India that I found personally liberating, yet also quite often frustrating (there go those contradictions again), is that there is no “definite” in anything; things are easily negotiable, can change at any second and can be neglected in the name of inconvenience. Accountability is missing in all walks of life, but that in itself is what gives India its rich landscape of complexity and unstructured livelihood that adds to certain flavours of living in the moment devoid of structure. This is probably why many foreigners who seek to break away from the monotony of life find certain salvation in the chaos of Indian public life and allure in its private traditions and rituals. The bombardment of the senses, the absurdities of life, the not-so-subtle intrusion of public life into the private landscape, as well as the many small frustrations that can come up due to cultural misunderstandings, can invigorate and impassion the most closed-off individuals… be it through the realization of their own intolerance or through the shifting of their own comfort levels!
But there is also the other side of experiencing India for the first time and in depth. Certain cultural complexities can leave one exhausted, confused and frustrated. Some of my foreign friends feel this pressure on a daily basis, mostly through their grudging commutes to work, but have shared that the experiences have indeed made them tougher, more tolerant and patient. I do agree; as much as I am grateful for many luxuries that I am experiencing in my middle-class, Mumbai-based life (especially compared to the circumstances of my prior work in Ghana, Africa), there are still certain cultural nuances that I confront only because I am foreign. Coming from more open and liberal societies, most of my foreign friends and I also feel we have to revert to the dominant cultural expectations- not because we feel we have to, but because we feel pressured to do as the locals do. I assume we do this because we have a certain reverence to the culture but also because we want to blend in and feel more home with our surroundings.
In retrospect, there will be many things I will miss about India. Through many visible contradictions, I got to know more about this country, and it is through them that domestic discussions are generated about India’s social issues and progress. I will miss the smells, the colours, and above all, the temples. Hindu temples have left a mark on me; their inviting, open-door nature creates an ambiance of a home away from home. The spiritual significance of the many gods they house is always mysterious and transcends any surface knowledge I can capture from active questioning of those around me. And yes, of course, I will miss the Indian food! As a long-time vegetarian, India has been my gastric sanctuary. Truth be told, bouts of food poisoning have been interjected with the savouring of sweet, sour and spicy condiments but that never stopped me from exploring. The variety of the flavours and dishes is still astounding to me, and, after almost six months of living here, I can testify that I’ve only tasted a very small fraction of the culinary paradise of India. Although, I am aware that I am probably not alone even among the natives themselves!
Spiritual inquiry, especially in the light of my own practice of Buddhist beliefs since college years, has likewise proven enriching, especially in the light of India being the birthplace of many ancient religions and beliefs. My avid interest in Hinduism was also satiated through books like the Bhagavad Gita, exploration of street life and various festivals and rituals through which I got to dance the garba and create my own rangoli for Diwali. I’ve had an artistic love-affair with the henna cone and even painted a three-foot Ganesh painting on my room wall to watch over me and bestow upon me wisdom and progress. Truly, I can say that I absorbed India and that India will stay with me for life. Through the sometimes bumpy journey of making the country my temporary home, I’ve come away with a truly unique understanding of my own identity through others’ identities and vice versa. It is very clear to me that in experiential novelty alone, we can learn more than all the books we read combined, and travel is life’s best teacher. So, thank you and until next time, India!