India is the vast subcontinent of mystery, beauty, excitement, horror, enlightenment, ecstasy, pathos, generosity, poverty, slavery, transcendence, democracy, violence, non-violence, filth, excess and a million billion other things. Nothing can prepare you for it, nothing can compare to it, and although I was only there for a very short time, I feel like it is the place I have been looking for all my life. It is the ultimate adventure, for sheltered middle class types like myself, because after a lifetime of learning how to set boundaries, to keep people out of my space and out of my psyche, upon arrival into this deep, distant, insanely crowded country, everything must be rewritten. All the walls come tumbling down, and you find yourself not in Jericho, but in Delhi.
Iâ€™ve always wanted to come to India, being the destination of choice for all the Deadheads and artsy drifters of my childhood. It held the dreamy fascination of incense and promise, of narrow hipped long haired boys and outlaw patchouli women, of bangles and The Beatles, of cardamom and cremation, of self realization and Western denial, of murderous goddesses and blue, sexually potent gods, of sitars and sadhus, cobras and curry and colonization. For those who have always thought of themselves as untouchable, India seems like the place to be, and so we go, with heavy backpack and conscience, our passports dangling around our necks like we are endangered species, tagged to chart our progression through the wilderness.
The first day in Delhi was a whirl, driven through the mad traffic by our incredibly deft and courageous driver Om, whose name was the perfect compliment to his calm and non-judgmental acceptance of the road. We passed accident after accident, cars along the side of the road like an ominous reminder of the frailty of life, how we as soft bodies cannot compete with the monstrous nature of trucks and wheels, metal beats flesh every time, like paper over rock. Over the weeks of our journey, I donâ€™t know how many times I saw the splayed, unaware, still booted feet of some poor motorcyclist or passenger being loaded into the back of an ambulance, doors shut forever on a life.
Yet with the way that there are no real lanes, and the sheer variety of the vehicles on the road (tuk-tuks belching out black clouds of diesel smoke to camouflage themselves and everyone else, scooters balancing entire families, possibly three generations on two wheels, bulbous, gas guzzling Ambassadors filled with white tourists arriving from the airport, filled with dread and regret, wanting to turn back immediately, donkey carts pulled by old, old donkeys and driven by even older men, bicycles loaded down with sugar cane and roti and babies, then the undisputed kings of the highways, the enormous Tata lorries, painted in hallucinatory colors, swirling orange and purple monstrosities, blaring some kind of insanely happy Indian pop music, as the speakers sit outside the vehicles, to keep the drivers awake, so I was told, making me think that they are called Tata because that is the last thing you see coming at you, a cheerful goodbye – â€œTa-Ta!â€ before you are crushed underneath their fearsome wheels, cows, just wandering freely, eating garbage in the way of oncoming traffic, dogs and pigs weaving in and out of it all, along with pedestrians who bravely cross because this is all absolutely normal to them) I canâ€™t believe I didnâ€™t see more carnage on the street, that the asphalt didnâ€™t glow red with blood.
And we lived. Om only had one accident with a motorcyclist, and both of them laughed about it after, so he said. We werenâ€™t in the car at the time.