A city is more than brick and mortar. It is the sum of the lives that grow and thrive within it, the stories that are created day by day but are never told, and the countless faces that pass you by in the street but remain nameless and anonymous, never to be seen or heard from again.
Coming to India is both a source of joy and pain. My feelings towards my homeland are just as complicated and tumultuous as it is. India is everything Western narratives will love to tell you – loud, messy, roads ridden with potholes, abject poverty, busy marketplaces, various animals that meander through the torrent of people. Other narratives choose to describe India as “exotic” and “mystical”. Those words fall horrendously short of the reality that is India.
The truth is – India is my home. It is where I came into this world – wrinkled, screaming and one month premature. There is no place in the world that can fill my eyes and my heart with so much emotion quite so quickly. For every decibel of car horns, wedding processions, and general chaos, there is a gentle quiet that permeates throughout. A general proclivity for rule-breaking seems to be the default setting within the population, however there is some set of internal unwritten rules that people seem to follow. These rules can be conflicting and difficult to follow yet somehow everyone makes it work.
“Everyone makes it work.” Somehow this is the phrase that best describes India. The inconveniences of the poor quality of living, the unnecessary hindrances from bureaucracy and corruption, the difficulties that accompany day to day life, the compounded problems of casteism, poverty, and illiteracy, and so much more should theoretically make life here intolerable. And yet, the nation comprises one fifth of the world’s population. Everyone makes it work.
Coming to India is like being immersed into a new world no matter how many times you come back. In many ways, it’s like getting new glasses. Logically, you will know you will need some time to adjust, and eventually you will get used to it but the experience itself is always unsettling and foreign. But it is home. And home is always familiar.
Our home is like any other – hidden away in the suburbs and cobbled together from years of love, hard work and a cornucopia of memories. Home is seeing my grandparents for the first time in three years. It is holding their hands and rubbing cold cream into their life-worn palms. It’s eating freshly made kadhi chawal that is always tastier than you first thought it would be. It is curling up under old blankets wrapped in threadbare faded white covers to escape the winter cold and the mosquitoes. It is being pissed off when the electricity inevitably cuts out on you when you need it the most. It’s navigating relationships that you’ve forgotten existed.
I visited a small but famed temple with my mother on the holy day of Ekadashi (the eleventh day of the lunar cycle). It was a beautiful place – small and tucked away in a cramped street in the old city of Jaipur. Our Ola driver (the Indian equivalent of Uber) dropped us off just forty or so metres away from the entrance of the temple itself. The walk to any Indian temple is always predictable. There are always street vendors selling floral garments to be offered to the deities. Then come the carts packed with various sweets to be offered as prasad. And finally, directly outside the gates are the tiny areas where your shoes are removed and kept safe, often for free but sometimes for a nominal fee.
As a practicing Hindu, temples are first and foremost a place of introspection for me. My relationship with God is deeply personal. This temple reflected the way I feel about my religion – it was a labour of love. Decorated painstakingly from ceiling to floor in a mosaic of coloured glass, frescoes made with delicate calligraphy and ornate brushstrokes depicting scenes from various scripture, and patterned marble floors, the temple houses several famous deities. It is far from the largest or most well-known temple in Jaipur but it is a place of heartfelt worship and is visited by a throng of dedicated devotes, the majority of whom I observed were women.
The sheer love that you feel in those walls is oftentimes overwhelming. Every person present there is so sure of the bond they share with God. They experience love and adoration – there is not an iota of doubt in their minds regarding their spirituality. This has always been remarkable to me. To doubt, to be confused, to feel insecure and alone – these are natural human emotions, especially in relation to one’s faith, or lack thereof. But every devotee within that temple was content with how they felt about the world around them and the place of their God within it. That, to me, is incredibly moving.
It is also no coincidence that often you find hidden stories in these people. A memory that sticks out at me is that of an old woman sitting quietly on the steps at the back of the Govind Dev Ji temple, waiting for people donate two rupees to her. Why did she have to do that? What had her life been like so far that she had been reduced to asking for money at her age? Would she have enough money to eat later that day? Where was her family? These questions pestered me the whole day however one detail about this woman stands out to me even now – her smile. It was larger than life.
Even as I am writing this at 9pm with my headphones in, fireworks are exploding outside my window. It is wedding season. A clusterfuck of tradition and capitalism. Every evening countless wedding processions pass through jam-packed streets to wedding venues, clogging busy roads like dregs of food in a sink, without a care in the world. The noise outside is a rude counterpoint to the relative silence of our home.
Somehow this is a moment that shows what life in India is life – a series of contradictions. India is bursting at the seams with life in its rawest, most sensitive forms. It is a place where everything is too damn hectic and yet somehow unbearably slow.
This is my home. It is still not a place that I entirely understand. It is a place where I no longer fit completely but will always belong. This is India.
Ishita Mathur | @ishitamathur7
Ishita is the Diversity Editor for Pelican. She is tired and sleepy but also committed to kicking ass.