People say to enjoy India you have to be somehow mature. Surely, you have to be ready to question any idea you had about the country.
A silent video on the metro station’s TV screens advertises flights for New Delhi. In the background only one gorgeous picture, the Taj Mahal. Tour operators and travel agencies show a lot of India’s sights: all of them are exotic, full of colours and charming atmosphere. Movies, documentaries, reportages and novels describe India as a poor but mystical and passionate country. Hermann Hesse’s Siddharta highlighted its spirituality, a world, in Italian writer Giorgio Manganelli’s words, completely made of ‘Masters and Disciples, Experiences and Revelations’. He also wrote: ‘Is India really like that? Reading Hesse’s book you may forget about the existence of excrements.’ A grotesque and effective line summing up all the convulsive emotions a traveller may experience when getting in touch with India for the first time.
India is not a mystically exotic world, it’s a hard hitting reality: there is no time to get used to it, India immediately shows its emotional charge and all its conflicts at first sight; since the first few steps, among disturbing smells and delicate scents, colourful saris and heartbreaking misery. The first few minutes hit your guts leaving you breathless, and you understand how senseless is to go looking for the mystic side, the spices and the expensive silks. There is no exoticism, nothing of that beautiful marvel you dreamt of. The search for your ‘self’ through prayers and meditations is an idea we magnified in the West, while Indian religion is made of mechanical rites.
Spirituality is in the people’s kindness, in its pride and respect. And it’s a very practical spirituality, a way of living and thinking which comes as naturally as the sunrise or the trash along the streets. As practical is also the hunger: it allows no slush or tenderness, a biscuit generously offered to a pup is just a wast and it doesn’t matter if you try to do better by keeping the plastic glasses or the scraps till the next trash bin.
Less practical are often the Westerners. It’s impressive how many Europeans and Americans moved to Pushkar, Rajasthan, in the Sixties and Seventies following an imagniary India they created on their own.
True Indians are to be looked for in a folly of nostalgic hippies and wannabe travellers. Deepak is one of these, a kid roaming the town trying to sell ankle bandages. He speaks English but can’t write. He doesn’t go to school: primary school is granted by law, but many drop out to work and help their families.
His hook-up line, ‘I’m not Bramin’ – as to say ‘don’t worry, I’m not looking for an offer for the temple’ – shows how the legally banned social hierarchies are still strong deep in their culture. He glows with pride when he shows all his foreign coins and notes, enough to need a family for several weeks, but that money has for him an affective value: ‘Money comes and goes, what matters isn’t to get rich, but to work honestly.’
That’s the only way to get a taste of India: in your eyes the clothes’ bright colours and in your ears the horns from the traffic jam, smog and humidity stuck to your skin and your nostrils filled by spices and incenses mixed to fried food and rotting garbage.