At first glance, I thought he must have some sort of severe joint disorder; his elbows and knees were twice the size of his limbs. Rashid slammed on the brakes, honked three times, and our autorickshaw stopped long enough for me to get a better look. The man sitting cross-legged on the side of the street was staring into the traffic but didn’t seem to be seeing anything. As my eyes darted from his face to his elbows, and back again, I realized that there wasn’t anything wrong with his joints. This man was completely skin and bones. So much so that his skin had grown tight, drawing back from his mouth so that his teeth protruded much past his lips. Several more honks, and the man vanished in the blur of motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles, and cows surging forward.
Rashid pulled up outside the rundown mosque Jama Masjid, and helped us cross the chaotic street. A man sitting third deep on a motorbike leaned towards Kevin as he hurtled past and shouted, “You look like movie star!” The men in India stare at Kevin’s red locks with deep looks of longing, and a lot of them have dyed their own hair a startlingly unnatural shade of orange. We removed our shoes and Rashid assured us he would watch them, as several too-thin women started eying them and moving closer. A man with a disturbing dent on his forehead whisked us off, showing us the minaret that fell down during an earthquake, and the dingy little prayer room segregated for the women. My feet stung on the red marble that had been baking in the sun all day, but it seemed better than the alternative – a matted green strip of carpet turning brown from the dirty feet before us. The man demanded money for the lackluster tour we didn’t ask for, but not before chastising me for neglecting my duties in providing Kevin with male children. I simultaneously felt amused, annoyed, hot, nervous, bombarded, exhausted, and enlightened. Little did I know then that this barrage of emotion would be the norm for India.
My first thought was of surprise as the cramped black and yellow taxi made its way into New Delhi. Huge green trees lined wide colonial streets. Modern cars and buses zoomed past, a shock after the rusted and aging fleets of Kathmandu. Clean sidewalks lined the road, bordered by tidy grass and manicured hedges. There was a lack of trash on the ground, and an abundance of order. Then, I noticed a lump on the ground up the road a ways from us. As we got closer, I realized it was a man. He was motionless, and contorted into an awkward position. Jutting out from beneath soiled and tattered clothing, his exposed skin was grey, and caked with dirt. His stiff belly clearly protruded from bloating. His matted hair shielded his face as we went past. Monkeys played in the trees overhead, and we zoomed on towards the city.
I don’t know if that man was dead, and I didn’t know it then, but that was a very accurate welcome to India. The country is infinitely surprising, and painfully honest. Just as you begin to marvel at the grandeur of colonial boulevards, ancient forts, and modern luxuries, you notice a dying man on the side of the street. India is growing, and developing into a world power, but it is not there yet, and the disparity between the few haves and the overwhelming amounts of have-nots is breathtaking. India is fancy, colorful, and beautiful, but it makes no effort to hide its awfulness. This juxtaposition of a growing and developing nation is painful, and every acknowledgment of beauty comes at a cost. India makes no effort to disguise its poverty, its corruption, nor its social inequities and it welcomes you wholeheartedly into its truth.
We had one day in Delhi before we hopped the Kerala Express bound for Agra. During our day in Delhi, we walked the filthy and crowded streets of Paharganj, Delhi’s backpacker ghetto. Between dodging an infinite stream of honking rickshaws, leaping over flaming piles of trash and feces, and sidestepping grey-eyed junkie tourists there to kill themselves with cheap and powerful Afghan heroin, one doesn’t have much desire to hang around long. We headed towards Connaught Place, the epicenter of British Raj and currently the commercial center of New Delhi. We walked around the circus looking at designer western clothing stores, and Indian men in fantastic uniforms opening doors to expensive air-conditioned cafes. We stopped at Wenger’s, a South African owned deli, for milkshakes. We sipped the cool, flavored milk out of glass bottles alongside middle-class Indian teenagers and businessmen on iPhones. As we were finishing, a young boy came up to the crowd to beg. He was dirty, and wearing rags. He was painfully malnourished, but he had broad shoulders and a wide frame. His square jaw exaggerated his sunken cheeks. In another world, and another life, this boy would be a handsome high school athlete. But here, in this world, and in this life, he was holding his skinny and shaking hands out to a crowd that uniformly and completely ignored him. As he shuffled by, we noticed that he was bleeding from a wound to his head.
Several days later and we had made our way to Agra. We stayed in a guesthouse on the outskirts of the Taj Ganj, a touristy area that was originally housed the migrant workers who built the Taj Mahal. In the evenings, we would climb the stairs to the building’s rooftop to sip chai and watch the hazy, South Asian sun set on the Taj Mahal. Calls to prayer would echo their mournful and loving songs to God from far off minarets. Kites would dip and dart in the orange sky. Monkeys would tiptoe along neighboring rooftops, leaping and bounding across alleyways and into fruit trees at a whim. It was here, during these magical moments spent on rooftops at dusk that I began to love India.
And that’s how it is in India. One moment you love it, and the next you hate it. India grabs you and pulls you into the chaos. It shows you firsthand how most of the world’s people live. It doesn’t let you ignore the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised. It holds you down and extracts everything it can from you, relentlessly. But, in those brief moments where you can get your head above the water and stop for a moment to reflect, you can come to grips with madness and let India flood into your heart.