Yesterday I left India and as I sat in the sleeper compartment of a busy train heading North towards Kochi I started to feel pensive about my temporary home over the last month. From my top bunk I began to watch one family. A boy aged around 10 slept peacefully on the bed above. Below a baby girl sat on her fathers knee as he stared at her with such an affectionate smile in his eyes. Another son, slightly younger, perhaps around 7, put his head down on his fathers lap and curled up to rest. The mother communicated something in sign language to him that must have been a joke because she began modestly laughing. I allowed myself to drift off into an idealistic glow of warmth from this touching scene. Then they threw all of their rubbish out of the window and bump, I came back to reality. Welcome to India.
And so it was from the start, this world of contrasting experiences. Unlike many other countries I’ve travelled to, India and I haven’t always seen eye to eye. Before I arrived I had heard such a mixture of opinions. Some spoke of magical spiritual energy, warm people, and beautiful countryside. Some spoke of questionable safety for women, outdated cultural beliefs, and littered streets. All turned out to be true.
I landed here with, perhaps naïve, enthusiasm about only experiencing the best of India. In the back of my mind I felt apprehensive about seeing the worst. Maybe I was unsure I wanted to see the real truth of India, because truth always holds equal measures of light and shade. It’s much more pleasant only seeing the good. It turns out India wouldn’t allow me this lie.
It refused to show a super polished image of itself. Much to my initial irritation it did not hold up a mask of perfection, and now I can honestly say that I am glad it didn’t. I spent a long time wondering how I could begin to align myself with things about the country I didn’t like. I tried ignoring it, pretending I didn’t notice. That didn’t work. I tried using my powers of liberal leftism to tolerate and explain it away. That didn’t work.
Then it dawned on me I don’t have to align myself, I don’t need to find a balance, I can let these contradictions co-exist. It’s not my job to “fix” India or to judge India. I am just experiencing it. I am just here for the ride and with every experience that I either like or dislike, accept or reject, I am already part of motioning change.
I’ve found some countries you visit feel like friends. They are on your wavelength, it’s easy and it’s comfortable. India is not like that for me, but it has grown to become more like family. I love and value it, but most importantly have come to accept it just as it is. The fact is that you don’t have to like everything about something in order to love it. Some days you can have arguments with India, other days nothing but happiness radiates. I know many other travellers struggle to balance the contradictions of this vast country.
You see it is beautiful and it is ugly. It is generous and it is money grabbing. It is honest and it is cheating. It is soft and it is hard. It is cleansing and it is polluting. It is fair and it is unjust. It is the future and it is the past. It gives and it takes. Never have I been to a country that so much resembles the very nature of human existence, with the capacity in any given moment to be one extreme or another, and sometimes simultaneously both.
Maybe that is why India is both a special yet challenging place. It reflects everything within ourself. The good and the bad. It holds up a mirror and you cannot avoid the gaze of ALL that you are and not only all that you wish you were. It was an uncomfortable truth for me. I can be greedy and unloving. I can be petty and unkind. I can be selfish and intolerant. But these are just momentary states of being they don’t define me.
Just like some days I may feel anger or sadness it doesn’t mean I am anger and sadness, anymore than I am happiness and excitement on more carefree days. I am both and neither all at once. India is the same. It is pain, chaos, fear. It is joy, generosity and laughter. It is both and it is neither. If you allow India to just be, accept it and embrace it, you can begin to feel the balance. You can begin to make peace with the contradictions.
India came at a time when I’d been thinking about finding balance in my own life. Balance between things I left behind, a so called “real” world that I feel sometimes estranged from and the new path I am carving out for myself. In Kovalam on my yoga teacher training course I met several other women seeking the same in their lives. Women who had started out on adventures and were reluctant to go back, fearful it will mean losing some or even all of the truth they have found along the way. Worried about slipping into a life of illusion again. Not knowing how to participate in a world driven by fear without absorbing that fear and letting it take hold. It was inspiring and uplifting to share with these women.
The contradictions I experienced in India taught me a lesson. I don’t need to try and force together what I view as imbalances in my own life, I can let it all co-exist in one glorious mess. I can allow myself and my life to move from one extreme, one contradiction to another. I can just accept the changes as they come and trust that balance will find itself.
India is not a fairytale destination and I’ve come to realise this is one of its strengths not one of its weaknesses. A fairytale can only ever be a story, which is ultimately just a lie. In denying the whole truth we deny an important part of what life is, we deny the shade. Although it is only natural to favour the light, I am grateful to India for reminding me that it is also essential to accept the shade in the world around me and in myself, instead of fearing or judging it.