This is India!
A common quote attributed to Henry David Thoreau sums up a foreigner’s experience in India, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
Living in India can be an intimidating feat, as most of the environment is of such a foreign nature that the mind yearns to find some semblance of normality through which it can draw connections and relate.
But if the surroundings were all you looked at, you’d never see the real India…
It was a Tuesday, under bright skies and beaming rays of sunshine, we walked down a dust-ridden alley along cobblestone streets. The air was soaked in a smell of stale exhaust and the discordant sounds of farm animals echoed off the corridor walls, despite the fact that we walked in the heart of a bustling city with no farms around.
Reaching the end of the alley, the scene blossomed into a dense, vibrant and thriving marketplace, abuzz with people, commerce, trade and traffic. Local shop owners were cawing at those on the streets to enter their shop, while unruly auto drivers laid into their already over-used horns in a futile attempt to part the tottering swath of humanity that stood idly in front of them.
At first look, the scene was chaos, not even organised chaos, just chaos in its most virgin form, powerful enough to incite the mind’s most primitive survival instinct, the fight or flight response.
Having watched too many movies on clandestine operations and having a subconscious that had soaked up all the negativity espoused by news outlets, the mind turned its attention to all the potential vulnerabilities and negative externalities that could prove fatal, given the nature of the environment.
As we meandered through the coconut selling, rug trading, spice indulging, chai sweetening, chicken wrangling stew of the marketplace, we began to see that it was not chaos at all, but pure unadulterated hustle.
It was as though every person there had an agenda. Not a malignant or nefarious agenda, but one of personal self-advancement. A mango seller catches your eye and walks with you for 100 yards trying to extol the virtues of mangoes upon you, until you are passed off to a flower salesman who for a quarter mile shovels flowers into your face attempting to exemplify the power of fragrance, paying no mind to the fact that upon further inspection the flowers are wilted.
Pressing onward, deeper into the maddening crowd there is a shop owner selling trinkets, jewellery and heaps of gold with an unmistakably candid poster of a gold laden brothel on top of gold-encrusted chariots with gold-infused humans plastered on the front of the building. No doubt this was the type of signaling that inspired Martin Luther’s edicts against indulgences, regardless of the seller.
Arriving towards the center, we stopped to take in the sheer order of magnitude of what was transpiring around us. It was as though slow motion rendered itself available for use to our eyes. The world slowed down giving the mind time to extract some bit of truth and understanding from this tapestry of humanity.
In the haze of observation, we could see that these traders, sellers, buyers, herders were all just people. Excited by the prospect of wealth, perhaps motivated by the enhancement of well-being for their family, or gravitating towards the chaos because of their proclivity for pure gamesmanship. Whatever the reason, this was life in its essence. Individuals brought together by supply and demand, by opportunity, by the audacity of hope that setting up shop in this area would make them better off than they were the day prior.
In the midst of it all, we realized that while at first we may not have been able to draw connections or find rumblings of normalcy in the haphazard goings-on of the marketplace, we found solace in the behavior of humanity. As no matter where we had been in our lives we recognized that tendency in others that we find in ourselves. To make the most of the situation we’ve been given and try to work as hard as we can to be just a little better.
This was chaos, this was order. This was madness, this was sanity. This was virtuous, this was vanity. This was humanity. This is India