Pilgrimage comes in many forms, as do wonder and splendour. For some, it has to have a religious connotation even before the trip is planned. For others, it is a spiritual experience.
A journey to India can only truly be appreciated if the person undertaking it has an open mind to what spirituality, rather than religion, means. Also, one has to be able to see with all one’s senses as India is not for those who only see with their eyes.
But then again, just as pilgrimages come in varying packages, so does poverty. 10 days in India forces one to confront questions about poverty and how you really feel about it. India offers you the opportunity to learn, to grow and to add true meanings to words like patience, respect and humility.
And, while it is easy for the privileged to say India is a land of contrasts, it is as easy to say the same thing about our beloved country. The difference: there it is inescapable. Inner city poverty for us translates into a beggar outside your work place – an office in a high riser somewhere in the CBD, right? Or, a beggar at the traffic lights – one that we so easily ignore. India’s poverty is in your face constantly. And nobody chases the beggar away. The beggar, the poor, the poverty-stricken are all part of the DNA of the place. Here, we have successfully managed to place it outside of the mainstream. “Be poor somewhere where I don’t have to look at it,” that kind of thing.
And let’s face it, when we drive in our fancy cars and open the door to our fancy apartments with the burglar bars, alarm systems and electric fencing, far from the real dearth of the city, we can easily make ourselves believe that it does not exist at all. Or, at the very least our indifference and often our desensitization is almost disgusting, inhumane and callous even. That is the sadness that is Cape Town. That might be the sadness in India as well, but also the austere reality of cities like Mumbai, Agra and Delhi. And because this reality is not meticulously hidden, those going to – and from work in their fancy cars and their fancy suits cannot escape it. I like that.
And I am not saying that this kind of constant consciousness, awareness, or reminders are what will turn the tide, but it will surely go a long way to grapple with the issue more head-on. And yes, one can develop as much of a desensitized position on it, but it does not, at the very least, create a delusional obliviousness that makes one believe it does not exist.
Also, in South Africa we are still dealing with poverty as a race issue that has only transmogrified into more of a class/economic concern since we have become a democracy. In India, it is only the latter. They are all Indian – not black or coloured or white Indians; all people are simply Indian: poor and rich, and all in between.
What this means is that we have a racial referent in our minds when we think of the poor and when we use those wretched terms like “previously disadvantaged individuals”. They don’t. “The poor look exactly like me.” That is their (fortunate or unfortunate) veracity.
Then there is the scrumptious food, the numinous culture, the melodious music, the opulent history versus the paucity of the downtrodden; the beautiful people (and the very ugly ones); the heavily deformed and the perfectly sculpted ones…always the perfect paradox.
And I could go on and on telling you about how saw a wedding on the highway at 8.40am on a Monday morning or what the traffic situation is like in Mumbai and Delhi; or how we saw a few people defecating on the pavement, if that is what blows your skirt up (excuse the pun).
Before we left we were warned: India is an onslaught on the senses. Be prepared for a culture shock. Don’t eat off the streets. Don’t drink the water unless bottled. It is very dirty. And yes, it is an onslaught on the senses, even your sixth sense…intuition…following your gut and trusting your intrinsic sense of belonging, empathy and interface. Thing is, you choose how you want to experience and explore a country. A city is a city is a city…you can choose to come back and tell of the dirt or you can have a completely spiritual experience. It’s all about perspective. I guess it’s like life – you gets (sic) what you pay for…