No amount of reading articles or watching documentaries can prepare you for the complete assault on your senses that is India. After a few weeks, here are our first impressions.
‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’
— Anais Nin
When you think of India, it is easy to visualise the kaleidoscope of colours of vibrantly painted houses, sequinned saris, chains of orange marigold offerings for worship, Vishnu, the blue-skinned god, painted statues of the temples, and the glow of the orange sun through the hazy smog.
Wandering the narrow winding streets of Old Delhi, amidst the sackfuls of spices; saffron, paprika, tumeric, the vegetable stalls and fruit carts, we witness the traditions of age-old manual trades. We witness the incredible dexterity and patience of eagle-eyed labourers in tiny little workshops, handcrafting everything from jewellery, shoes and shawls to ring binder folders, keys and mattresses. We are surprised by the openness and complete visibility of watching people at work, these blurred lines between private and public life. We watch people getting their beards shaved, men ironing clothes on the street, women washing clothes by the river, rickshaw drivers sleeping in their vehicle.
“We often forget that the city is an accumulation of constant sounds: horns, murmurs, motors and heels on asphalt, music coming from shops and radios of buses that stop at the traffic lights, shouts coming from street sellers and newsstand megaphones…”
—Mario Mendoza, Apocalypse
The one thing that everyone says about India is the traffic is absolute chaos, with a zoo of cars, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, bikes, trucks and the occasional cow fighting for their space on the road. This was not unexpected, with similarly appalling traffic conditions and driving in Latin America and in China, but our poor ears were not prepared for the cacophony of constant, relentless honking, 24/7. After every day it feels like you’ve been front-row at a heavy metal concert. However, people do not honk in anger and desperation in order to prevent an accident. Here, people seem to honk out of habit, or for for fun, even if there is nothing in the way. There is a certain tranquility in the chaos, no aggressiveness behind the honking, but a calm acceptance of the Indian pace of life, and people just get on with it.
‘ “I’m curious to know who you are? Will you let me see?” I have no idea what she meant, but I politely consented, without knowing what to expect. She stood in front of me, leaving her bastion by one side, and she started to run her delicate hands over my forehead, my eyes, my mouth, my shoulders. I turned red with embarrassment. Nobody had ever examined me in this way, like an x-ray. No eyes have ever seen me as clearly as these fingertips.’
—Mario Mendoza, The Madness Of Our Time
“Keeping your distance” is a non-existent concept on and off the road. As a pedestrian, you are not only are you fighting for your space on the road against tuktuks, cars and cows, but other people too. There is absolutely no sense of personal space – even compared with Latin America. Strangers brush and barge past you on the street with maximum skin contact; or walk behind you impatiently stepping on the back of your heels; in queues, the person behind presses up against your back; on the trains six people squeeze onto berth for three, or sit on your legs while you sleep; touts and sellers constantly grab your arm or wrist for attention.
Perhaps a more gentle display of their tactile nature is eating with the hands. Although unappealing to some, in India, touch is essential to experiencing your food – feeling the warm, tender texture of each grain of rice between your fingers. The trick is to scoop with the fingers and use the thumb to push food into your mouth! Indians also skilfully tear chapatis with just one hand, dipping and maneuvering their curry with no need for the cold touch of the knife and for – clearly inferior inventions.
‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Food is every Indian’s pride and joy, taste is intrinsic to experiencing India. A typical meal consists of a combination of chapati (Indian bread), lentils, rice, curried vegetables and a myriad of spices. The food is always extremely rich, and often pretty spicy – which we love, even if it leaves our mouths on fire. Indians tend to enjoy mixing their palettes – take a bit of spicy, savoury curry mixed with sour curds and a side of sweet rice pudding, and they add salt and pepper to watermelon and apples.
We tried many foods on the streets of India – but there is no taste like home-cooked food. When away from home, we all yearn for the taste of our mother’s cooking! We found such satisfaction in the lovely mother of one of our couchsurfing hosts, who overfed us as if we were her own children – spiced okra, curried potatoes, the best of all daals (and we have tried many). Often we did not actually know what we were eating, we just knew it was delicious!
The first few weeks in India have been an exhilarating test for all of our senses and a daily challenge to survive the day without feeling battered by one or the other. We have no definitions nor conclusions, but we are continually interpreting, perceiving and savouring India with all our senses. We are in the thick of it, thrown into the chaos of Delhi’s labyrinthine streets with no escape from a permanent headache – it is not easy, and it definitely does not guarantee health, but it does guarantee authenticity and adventure!
“Smells are an invisible cloth that connects all the memories and days… when you are no longer by my side I will remember you more for your odour than for your words”
Rafael Chaparro Madiedo, Opio de los Nubes (Opium in the Sky)
After India, you will never take your nose for granted again. The mountains of rubbish is unsightly, but the penetrating stench of decomposing waste that’s been sitting in the heat for days and weeks, it’s unimaginable. The smells come in waves – first comes rubbish, then perhaps urine, and sometimes it’s cow faeces. You just have to wait for the moment to pass – even though it might mean holding your breath for a few minutes – and hope for some good old polluted petrol air to breathe in. On the streets, the moments pass quickly, but the worst is on the train, when no other sense can helpfully distract you, especially when you are trying to sleep and sudden waves hit you through the open windows of sleeper class.
However, physics dictates that everything has its equal and opposite. So despite the putrid smells of rotting food and excretion are interspersed with enticing wafts of bubbling curries, deep-fried dough balls, exotic spices, chilli, and the sweet aroma of chai.
We don’t consciously experience our day to day via our nose, but it is perhaps the most potent sense in relation to memory. It’s incredible how a smell has the power to transports you instantly to the past, how your nose recognises the familiarity even though it takes your brain a moment to place it.