We visited northern India two years ago in 2014, when the Ebola epidemic was in full-swing and terrorist threats were plastered all across the Delhi news. We’d spent 30 days in Nepal when we made our way back through Varanasi and Delhi over the course of about 9 days. It was one of the most difficult trips we’d ever done in part because we’d gotten rabies shots in Nepal, which left us tired and weak, and partly because northern India is just simply a crazy, overwhelming place. When I say, “crazy”, I’m being diplomatic, of course. Other words/phrases that come to mind are: f**ked up, stupid, and idiotic.
People always told us that southern India is completely different from northern India. This year, we got to see for ourselves when we spent 2 weeks in Chennai and indeed, it seems true. While Southern India was pretty foreign and strange it was also friendly and sensible. In contrast, Northern India pushes all my hot buttons. “Friendly” people are often scamming us. There doesn’t seem to be any coherent logic to anything here. It’s like everywhere I look I see the wheel being re-invented, but with less skill and no logic (they’re square-ish wheels in Northern India). I want so badly to be mystified and enchanted, but damn it, after 2 weeks here, I’m NOT. Corral the friggin’ cows already, pick up the trash, fix the goddamn roads, and for Christ’s sake, DO SOMETHING about the drivers.
Certainly I’m misunderstanding something about the culture here in Himachal Pradesh. We’ve been in Naddi
Village (about 4 km from McLeod Ganj) for about 8 days now, an area that’s less than 100 miles from Pakistan and right on the border with Kashmir and Punjab. There are stupas hanging off the sides of the mountains, people with bindis of cow dung between their brows, and small groups of Sikh men on motorbikes at the same intersections wearing fluorescent neon colored turbans. I have a hard time understanding the dynamics here. India is not like the United States. Rather than being a melting pot, it’s more of a cold pile of rocks of all different kinds. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and a variety of other religions all coexist here, but not necessarily peaceably.
Pakistan wants Kashmir back. It was in the newspaper this week. India said, “No,” and then asked Pakistan to stop being such an asshole. It would be like if Mexico was threatening to take back Texas, I suppose. I have a hard time really understanding how it feels for Indians to live here. To me the whole Pakistan-Kashmir thing seems silly and small, but if I think about the problem in terms of Texas, I can see how it would make people edgy and maybe angry or at least confused.
And then there’s the fact that Indians are mostly having a free-for-all in terms of laws and regulations. It’s like mom and dad left the kids at home while they went on vacation to some far-off tropical island…There’d be a party in the house. On a day-to-day level, Indians mostly govern themselves like kids who’ve been left home alone. They decide how fast they’re going to drive, whether or not they’ll drive drunk, whether to litter or not, whether to cheat their customers or not, and a variety of other things (like whether cows should be corralled or allowed to roam wherever they please). I would say (based on what I know and what I’ve seen), that most of the time, drinkers and drivers, scammers, and fast drivers don’t often get “caught” or “punished” by anyone for doing the wrong thing. Yet still, many Indians choose to do the right thing, or some socially sanctioned version of the right thing, which is pretty amazing given that the government isn’t really monitoring them or castigating them for bad behaviors.
How does that work? Based on what Indians have told us, the family does what the government fails to do. It’s not easy to see the Indian family as an American tourist in part because I’m not looking for it. In America, “family” is a word that mostly designates blood and marriage-bound relatives who are never or rarely in the same space. But in India, “family” is an actual, visible thing that exists in the same building (usually) and operates according to fairly strict rules and obligations. “Family” is the governor of social action. It’s through familial rules and norms that Indians make decisions about right and wrong. For Americans, many of these rules and norms are set by government. The government monitors our behavior and then punishes us for wrong-doing.
The frustrating thing about India is that corrupt families with questionable ethics can operate easily in society because the government doesn’t punish them for their actions. But maybe this isn’t frustrating to Indians themselves. In fact, maybe it’s necessary for India to be this way since there are so many different strong religions and ethnicities competing with each other here. Leaving it up to Indians to decide may be what keeps the peace…at least most/some of the time.
the web sites that we try to access. John tried to point out the problem to one of the staff when we first got here and he said, “It is fast enough, sir.” John then took his computer up to the man and showed him a speed test, but he got the same response from the clerk. This kind of anti-informative response is so common in northern India that John stopped trying after his second encounter with the staff. If I was to hold up a dirty, blood and poop-stained towel and say, “This towel isn’t clean,” the Northern Indian would say, “It is clean, ma’am.” And I could say, “It is NOT clean.” And he would say, “It is clean, ma’am.” If I order three apples and two oranges arrive at my table, I could say, “These are not apples,” but the Northern Indian would simply bring me a third (or maybe even a fourth) orange and bow and “kindly” walk away.
In two days, we’re going to Tokyo, Japan and I can’t wait. My clothes stink because I’ve been wearing the same things for 7 days now. I can’t wash what I’m wearing because here in Naddi Village, the humidity is at 99% ALL THE TIME during the monsoon season so it literally takes 3 days to dry a pair of underwear after washing it. So I’m just going to put my dirty, stinky India-clothes into a plastic trash bag and wear other stuff while we’re in Japan. But Japan is so clean in comparison to India that I’m concerned about being smelly when we arrive there. I don’t know if I’ll even know if I stink at this point, I’ve been immersed in so much ick and filth for so long. So I bought some incense down in McLeod Ganj a few days ago and stashed it in our bags with the mostly clean laundry in the hopes that it will smell fresh enough for us to not be rejected by taxi drivers in Tokyo.
Tomorrow, we’ll go down the mountain back to Dharamshala to where the airport is located and take an Air India
flight back to Delhi around noon. In Delhi we’ll stay in the cleanest hotel we’ve seen anywhere in India: The Holiday Inn near the airport. It’s a great hotel, but not a representative environs for people who are hoping to get a taste of Delhi or India. To do that, you need to book a place that’s filthy on the inside and the outside and deal with it as best you can (emotionally, physically, spiritually). And then watch how everyone else doesn’t notice the filth or the cows, goats, dogs, or beggars; they don’t notice or care about the child standing barefoot and bare bottomed in a disgusting puddle as rickshaws careen around it; they don’t notice or care about the public health issues like malaria and dengue that are mostly under control in other big cities throughout the world. It’s a real spin to feel like the weird one who won’t walk barefoot into the public lavatory that’s literally covered in wet, old, stale, repugnant urine…and then after, go have tea (without washing your hands) made with dirty water from a spigot that drains onto a dirt road where the cups and dishes are “washed” by a small servant boy with nothing but his bare hands, a cobra writhing out of a wicker basket on the other side of the road as the resident cow froths at the mouth from having consumed too many plastic containers from the nearby pile of trash and toxic waste. The Holiday Inn Airport doesn’t feature any of that. And if you don’t see any of that other stuff, you haven’t really seen northern India.