Crimson sarees trimmed with sparkling gold thread.
Chartreuse turbans perched on men with time-lined faces and enormous bushy moustaches. Peacock blue skies and fiery sunsets over caramel coloured sand dunes.
Craggy peaks of snow-covered Himalayan mountains. Forts that look like golden sandcastles perched on sandy hills.
Winding cobbled roads fringed with ancient havelis. Mounds of turmeric, cumin and curry powder piled high in tiny market stalls.
Elaborately mirrored tapestries woven with violet, gold, emerald and scarlet. Women draped in pink and yellow veils herding sheep across hot dusty fields.
This is the India I see when I close my eyes.
But the India I feel is much deeper. And so much harder to describe.
It’s a challenging country. Harsh. Fast. Poor and painful. Streets are littered with piles of rubbish and drivers honk mercilessly on shrill horns, weaving through traffic, seemingly with no regard for safety or sanity. There’s disease, disgust and devastation. Nothing is simple. Everything is intense.
I didn’t know what we’d find before we came to India. I expected dirt, crowds and squalor in this country of 1.27 billion people. I pictured huge masses of pushy people, streets lined with filth, grabby vendors and dodgy men who’d pinch or harass me.
The crowds are there (particularly, for us, in places like Delhi and Varanasi) and there are plenty of assertive vendors (most of whom are eking out a meagre living trying to get an extra Rupee or two from a naive foreigner). I didn’t get pinched or provoked (just stared at) and didn’t see anything that made me want to run and hide.
I did, however, see things I didn’t expect to find. Such as areas filled with incredible beauty, ranging from windswept sand dunes to jagged mountains to gentle, spirit-filled temples and cobbled lanes running through tiny ancient towns. And, mostly, I was forcibly struck by the throngs of people who possessed an outpouring of incredible warmth, kindness and generosity and who turned themselves inside out to help and welcome us.
It started as soon as we arrived. Checking into our AirBnb accommodation, we were greeted by the hosts, Pushp and Vinita, who draped marigold garlands around our necks and went out of their way to take care of us (sending for buttermilk when I had an upset stomach, getting Paracetamol for Skip when he was sick, dropping us at the Metro station, taking us to the hospital and cooking dinner for us when we couldn’t go out).
And so it continued. Like cups of chai, the people of India showed us to be warm, spicy and sweet.
In the overcrowded streets of Old Delhi’s Chowdni Chok, a man working in a shoe stall glued together the hanging sole on my sandal and refused payment. In Leh, a shop owner left his store and walked us to a place where we could buy a power adapter. In Agra, the hotel manager brought me coffee while I was using my laptop in the lobby and let Skip use his phone to call the U.S. to deal with credit card issues.
In Jaisalmer, the fairy castle town of Rajasthan, a bystander heard us inquire about finding a man named Mukesh (a friend of a friend) and walked us to a saree shop where he thought his brother worked. He didn’t, but he happened to know the Mukesh we were seeking, called him on the phone and served us chai while we waited for him.
In every town, strangers stopped us and asked to take our photos. Asked where we were from. Asked how we liked their country.
And in Varanasi, there was Pramod — an uneducated illiterate man who educated us. While the streets were flooded with several feet of water, forcing us to wade through knee-deep sewage to and from our hotel, Pramod literally took us by the hand and walked us through it. He took us by boat to his home (nine feet underwater), travelled back and forth to escort us despite his own hardships and showed us a side of Varanasi we’d otherwise never have seen.
So, when I think back to this whirlwind of colour, dust, aromas and sounds, there are two nights that stand out in my mind.
The first was a warm evening under the stars in the Thar desert outside Jaisalmer where we lay on mattresses under an immense sky watching the cosmos and galaxies shimmer and flicker in the far-off heavens.
The second was a night in Varanasi. One which started by visiting Pramod’s pregnant sister and sick brother-in-law in their tiny concrete box of an apartment in a squalid back alley and continued into a walk through a heaving mass of people headed toward the Ganges at sundown.
As the night unfolded, we found ourselves sitting on a landlocked boat on the edge of the flooded sacred river as holy men tossed rose petals, swung brass incense burners and chanted to the resonant sounds of gongs and bells.
Surrounded by water and centuries-old Indian traditions, we were a couple of specks in an immense universe of life. And I know that this is the spot to which we will return, countless times in our minds, as we recall the mysteries and magic of life in the complicated, fascinating, heartbreaking and heart-warming country called India.