India, My India

 

Better than Heaven or Arcadia

I love thee, O my India!
And thy love I shall give
To every brother nation that lives.
God made the Earth;
Man made confining countries
And their fancy-frozen boundaries.
But with unfound boundless love
I behold the borderland of my India
Expanding into the World.
Hail, mother of religions, lotus, scenic beauty,and sages!
Thy wide doors are open,
Welcoming God’s true sons through all ages.
Where Ganges, woods, Himalayan caves, and
men dream God –
I am hallowed; my body touched that sod.
– Swami Yogananda Paramhansa

As I opened my eyes at 3.30 this morning, body clock still on India-time, I spied a little bit of vibrant pink hiding, tucked up impishly, under my finger nail, and I smiled. You may take the girl out of India, but you can’t take India out of the girl!

Yesterday we left India , in a cloud of multicoloured powder. The Holi Festival of Colour, celebrating the arrival of Spring, is one of many Hindu celebrations, but perhaps the most visually spectacular and globally reported. Over a whole weekend, neighbours and friends pelt each other with balloons of brightly coloured powder or “Gulal”, 500,000 kg of which is made in hundreds of thousands of factories across the country. Our waiter told us tales of his childhood, how he and his friends ambushed passersby from the roof of his parents’ house. I read a journalist’s tales of returning home to be shut out by his unrecognising mother.

As we made our way to the Delhi airport, we glimpsed taxi drivers and stall holders who were dusted to various degrees in primary colours. Some had obviously got away with a paintball type hit, fielding a ‘splat’ on shoulder or back, while others were coated from head to toe in a rainbow hue. Having been travelling the previous day we regretted the fact that we had missed the fun as we entered airport security.

However, India was not finished with us yet. As we checked in our baggage, the controlled, efficiency of the young staff member in front of us was belied by a few dabs of colour on her face. She explained that she had been having fun with some other staff and travellers and pointed out a small dish of orange tinted powder on the desk. Before I knew it, Ian had daubed me, and needing no encouragement I retaliated liberally. This continued as we passed other desks, cheerily encouraged by members of the crew.

Suddenly, the whole tone of our homeward journey changed. The morning donned a much friendlier face. Every native we passed grinned at the sight of our pasty faces, adorned with such careless vibrancy. Airport porters, moving mechanically through their humdrum routine loudly wished us “Happy Holi”, shop staff chatted of their plans to party after duty and the festive salutation rang in our ears all the way to our airline seats. What a send off!

My Indian adventure, from start to finish, was an unexpected, lavishly gilded, windfall. It is also one that I shall be forever grateful for. Due to the circumstances around it, my unprecedented good luck, I arrived in India quite unprepared and in-expectant of what I might find there. Many times had I heard of this country’s magic, its ability to change one’s view of the world, transform lives and weave its way into your heart and mind. Rishikesh, our destination in the Himalayan foothills, is where the Beatles came to seek inspiration when I was barely able to say “yeah, yeah, yeah”.

Those of you that have travelled to this land will understand. One runs out of superlatives very swiftly in India. It is a land of great inequalities as well as one of wonder and beauty. The simple rules of the Hindu beliefs and way of life echo our Christian commandments, and their worship of animals and the power of Mother Nature resonate with my own personal lifestyle. I felt at home in many ways, particularly with the inhabitants of the rural area we visited.

Nevertheless, as a woman, a very different vibe was everpresent. This is a very traditional country and as such has still a long way to go to serve its female population. The recently re-elected government, to my uneducated eyes at least, seem a progressive bunch, with educational schemes for young girls and women and encouragement of women’s craft and agricultural co-operatives very prominent on their agenda. The sense of hope and willingness to change age-old practises in order to make India a competitive, modern contender on the world stage, could be witnessed on every page of the local newspapers I read. The sense of National Pride was refreshing, as was the work ethic and thirst for opportunities seen everywhere.

This “journey of a life-time” elicits many hackneyed phrases. “Life-changing”, “soul-finding”, “deeply experiential”. Like many before us, we have come home vowing to return, planning to make our lives count and to live every day with a fresh outlook. India has returned us relaxed, rejuvenated and ready to face whatever challenges the future may bring. This vast land has so much more to show us and now that we have been privileged to catch a fleeting glimpse of her face, she has left us tantalised and thirsting for more.

“Where Ganges, woods, Himalayan caves, and
men dream God –
I am hallowed; my body touched that sod.”

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