I am not a talented enough writer to find the words to describe this place. It’s amazing and incredible and fascinating and filthy and disgusting and overcrowded and exhausting and exhilarating and so very VERY. Every rule on which you were so very sure the world must operate is turned inside out and upside down. Your waking life becomes so otherworldly and surreal that in your dreams you tell friends you dreamt of a hot place full of filth and decay and magic. But you wake up in that very place, still feeling as though you must be inside a fantasy book, like A Little Princess or some mixture of Indian fables whose names you can’t remember but whose sense, whose aura of mysticism, decided otherness, are impressed upon you in the shapes of tigers, elephant gods, snake heads, carpets and turbans.
Everything about India is life squared. Any 10 square meters of India has every major life activity taking place within it: eating, drinking, washing clothes, pissing, crapping, selling, buying, driving, riding, sleeping, waking, shouting, laughing. Everything everywhere all the time.
How do you describe it? The smell, the filth, the cows, the people and dogs with body parts mangled or misplaced, the monkeys on the roof, the incense, the touts following you with cries of “yes madam, this way madam!” the brilliantly colored saris studded with gems in colors you do not have a name for. The filthy children in brown stained clothing laughing and begging at once alongside the Western-dressed rail-thin Indian man who snaps out his cell phone as he steps over the cow manure and then hops over the brahmin sleeping on his blanket in the shade. The gray red white green dull brown black of the dust and piles of rubble and stacks of loose stone and swirl of smog and wind and duststorm, the fine grit blown in from the deserts of Rajastan pressing into your ears and the corners of your eyes and up your nose as you stumble down a broken street in Delhi dodging rickshaws and heaps of rubble. 1 billion people stomp and shout and wheel and bike and drive and beg and steal and wash and pray and are born and die.
At first, if you have done quality reading about India, you feel prepared for the madness. You feel a steel wall in your mind rising up to block it out, to accept as normal the poverty, the begging, the filth, the fact that everyone is going to try to rip you off or overcharge you because you are white. You know this, and you pat yourself on the back when you don’t feel overwhelmed right away. You congratulate yourself on being oh so very well prepared for India.
Then there a few things. A bull calf in the middle of a train station waiting room, stopping among passengers to pee on floor, blinking sadly. A man crutching past with a leg twisted permanently into a pretzel around half a foot. The press of a thousand people in the traffic circles blowing horns and pushing and pressing wheels into pedestrian backs. You feel them creeping past the wall you’ve put up in your mind and you know on the other side of that wall is madness.
Still you think you are so clever, because you know that there are fake tourist agencies in the square who will rip you off, so you ignore the outrageous proposal made by your hotel’s agency and you find the official office, the one with the words “government approved.” Then they send you to the train station, where the room labeled “tourist booking office” is empty and shuttered and when you ask a man for help, he leads you to a taxi that takes you to…wait…the official tourist office. A different one. A man shows you some stamps and maps and printouts and there is a handful of exchanges in Hindi. You’re told the bus station you know exists does not, that the tickets you have will not work, that the schedule you propose is all wrong. Next thing you know you’re paying him twice what you should for train tickets you can’t get and a chauffeur you don’t need and a ride to Agra you don’t want.
Then you realize, you understand nothing, you have prepared yourself for nothing, you don’t know the first thing about this country. No one is special. No one escapes the madness. The wall will not hold, and you will not get India right away. But right away, India will get you.