Extreme everything

2012-01-25 00:00

BEFORE leaving on my trip to India, my friend, who was holidaying in Kolkata at the time, told me that the country would change me. His three-week holiday trekking through the Motherland had helped him find peace within himself and humbled him.

“Didn’t India impact on you in any way?” he asked on my return.

“I’m not sure,” I replied, contemplating. “It made me want to work at becoming extremely rich.”

“To help the poor?”

I wanted that to be the reason, but it wasn’t.

India is a land full of juxtapositions. Three-thousand-year-old temples stand next to modern high-rise buildings, which in turn border on to dilapidated squalor. The poorest of the poor walk the streets, while the country develops rapidly to the benefit of the rich. In Mumbai approximately 50 flyovers were built in the past six years and our tour guide told us about Mukesh Ambani, who has a helicopter pad at the top of his 27-storey house. Apparently, he bought his wife her own helicopter for her birthday.

In Rajkot, where my extended family lives, a whole new city has been built in the past 10 years and is referred to as new Rajkot. When we arrived at their home, I was welcomed into a white-painted skyscraper and their newly acquired luxury apartments (yes, they bought two). I was in awe when I visited their more humble beginnings — a matchbox house attached to a street of matchbox houses. They used to cook, eat and sleep on the floor, but now they have eight bedrooms in just one of their three properties.

Driving to Haridwar, farmers dried cattle dung in preparation for the monsoon while the horizon was being invaded by new skyscrapers, apartments and hotels. Almost every city is moving forward expeditiously with metros being built that are as smooth and as clean as the Gautrain, new airports, new roads, new apartments and new hotels, and accompanied with all the development is a more modern way of living.

My mother made me carry around Indian attire for visiting temples, but at Akshardam, a massive Swaminarayan temple in Delhi, I noticed that most people were wearing jeans rather than traditional Indian wear. Everything in India is changing and the country is developing at a speed that very few places can challenge.

In Mumbai, approximately 65% of the population is poverty-stricken but because religion plays a huge role in their lives, the poor accept their situation with many believing that it is their karma. Our Mumbai tour guide told us that the poor don’t receive money from the government, only education and health care, so to survive, they have to do something. The resourcefulness and ingenuity used to do something to make money is admirable, even if it is merely to con tourists and sell them things that they don’t need.

While in Delhi, I was in awe at the many ways they could make money just using a bicycle. Apart from loading it with an inconceivable amount of goods to deliver or sell, one man on the side of the street had built a type of shop, in the form of a box, around his bicycle and used it to sell small things like sweets and garlands. In Old Delhi, bicycle tyres were used to hold wooden planks to make a type of table to hold goods to sell. Beggars latched onto your legs and followed you around until you gave in. In India, even the dogs know how to beg. While walking through Rajiv Chowk (formerly called Connaught Place) in New Delhi, I saw a dog walk up to two tourists, roll over onto its back by their feet and whimper.

Rishikesh was strewn with people sleeping on the streets. Some would dress up like sages and proclaim to be able to read your palm or future or forehead just to make some money. Others would grab your hand and tie a sacred string for you while praying and then ask for money.

India is such a diverse place there is no way to blanket the experience of it. For many, it would be a shock to the system — the extreme culture, the extreme poverty, the extreme noise, the extreme chaos, the extreme everything. There is even an extreme amount of police and security everywhere after all the attacks on the country. I sometimes had to undergo three security checks before entering monuments, malls or airports. India is an experience, good or bad, life changing or not. My dad says that India is a university everyone should visit, a place where you learn about life and about yourself. If anything, it teaches you that there is always a way to get through the hardest of hardships, even when every possibility seems bleak.

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