A Journey to India I: Redefining Cleanness and Order

In ASIA, CULTURE & SOCIETY, TRAVEL

There are mainly two types of people traveling to India:

One is those bored of watching hot men and women from Bollywood on TV and looking forward to exotic holidays when they could take piles of vain photos. But first and foremost, you need to be rich – never taking a glance at hotels with ratings lower than 5 stars, and never going out without a chauffeur-driven limousine.

But there is another type, who have heard all sorts of eccentric stories and bored of their bosses’ grumpy faces, so they can’t wait to escape their offices, a place where all the disputes and rumors originate and go on an adventurous journey. Being robbed by wild monkeys? Elephants stepping onto the head? They wouldn’t mind the risks. And usually, their dreams of adventure can come true in India.

India the dreamland?

As I don’t have much money, I am probably the second type, who are always curious about the land that breads not only millions of gods including Buddha and Gaṇeśa, but also the tasty curry. However, though China is not far from India, it seems like the route connecting the two countries has always been arduous and dangerous since the ancient times.

As all of us may know, when Xuanzang (one of the main characters in the novel, Journey to the West, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature) trekked to India, he rejected countless female evil spirits who tried to seduce him as soon as they met. Anyway, a travel will never lack challenges. Reflecting on Xuanzang’s stories, I gradually made up my mind to travel to India.

Finally, on a winter morning, I managed to sit by the Ganges with a friend who traveled with me. We were in Varanasi, a holy city of India. Over 2500 years ago, Gautama Buddha established the law of Buddhism, when the religion that has influenced generations and generations for tens of hundreds of years first came into being. Moreover, Varanasi is also the most renowned holy city for Hinduism and Jainism, together with six other towns.

Hindus believe that, if one dies here, the soul will be reincarnated, shaking off all the pain to achieve the ultimate salvation and freedom. Therefore, the city has always been a holy place since the ancient times attracting Indian pilgrims. Every Hindu would rent a place here to spend the last few years in life so that he could die on the blessed land. After he passes away, the body would be cremated beside the Ganges, and the ashes would be scattered into the divine water. As lives never stop vanishing, the city has always been shrouded in wisps of cyan smoke from fragrant sandalwood.

Aerial view of the Ganges

Varanasi

Varanasi

Many long steps could be found on the banks of the Ganges, which extended gradually into the water. Every day at dawn and dusk, a picture would be unfolded here, featuring typical Indian traits: women from the guesthouses on the riverside sitting beside the river, washing the bright-coloured sheets; monks in the temples nearby played a hose on the ground in front of the shrine; dirty feet shuttling back and forth; trampled dung on the road; extinguished firewood; filth here and there; flower petals swirling down… all of these were flushed away by the water from the temple into the river.

Next, to the woman who was washing the sheet, a drowsy young man was brushing his teeth, while bailing water from the river. He looked serious and passionate. In front of him, a few devout Indians were taking a bath in the holy river. They wore nothing but the loincloths, eyes closed, and praying in the water up to their waists. Every time when they read out scriptures, they would dip their whole bodies into the water, to be immersed in the holy river.

Beside them, an old cow was strolling around, wrinkles on the face, who seemed to be contemplating. It tossed its tail from time to time, creating a string of water drops, which outlined a beautiful trajectory in the indigo air. Beyond that, ships were about to depart with sirens wailing, while spitting puffs of black smoke. Some smaller boats have their paddles flapping the water, generating ripples to spread over the river. Not far from where we stood, there was a cremation stage, where the sound of chimes and bells penetrated the thick smoke and pervaded all over the place.

The ashes from last night were poured into the river by a shovel. On a platform over us, a western couple was sitting with legs crossed, practicing yoga while facing the rising sun. Every movement was extended like a slow motion, and looking at them, I felt all the noise and chaos were fading away…

On the bank of the Ganges

On the bank of the Ganges 2

On the bank of the Ganges 3

For those who visit India, the first thing they would do is probably recalling the definitions of ‘cleanness’ and ‘tidiness’ explained by their primary school teachers, and then, redefining them. When I was looking for hotels online before I came to India, I even took ‘cleanness’ and ‘tidiness’ as the keywords to filter my search.

So when I arrived at the reception of the hotel, I was satisfied with my sophisticated prior research as my eyes were caught by the bright and shining floor and I could feel the cool and fresh breeze. However, things changed after I turned the corner when I went into a corridor with few people, as the dusted wires were climbing against the corners, and greasy fans were struggling out creaks. As to the toilet in the room, well, it seemed to be clean, we had to say, but it still looked like full of tricky stories.

Later one day, we walked for a long distance and both of us were exhausted. All of a sudden we saw a drink stall in front of us, of which there were two big buckets for used empty cups. After several days of experiencing India, I thought the shop was hygienic considering the owner didn’t just grab some used cups and wipe them before serving, so we ordered the drinks and paid, but only to find that the guy picked out two used cups from the bucket on the left filled with water, and rinsed them in the bucket on the right, before about to fill them with the drinks for us.

I had to admit that he rinsed quite seriously, but this couldn’t stop me being gobsmacked that I was choked by my own saliva, muttering intermittently, ‘are… are they… clean?’ He looked at me confusedly and might be wondering why I raised such a silly question since I had seen him rinse the cups. Anyway, he  took my doubt seriously as he rinsed them again for us as if carrying out some ritual, saying, ‘yeah, yeah, clean!’ Before I had time to respond, the drinks had been served, and I failed to find any excuses as he had rinsed twice for us. Finally, I took over the drinks from his hands and murmured, ‘ok, thanks’.

In the first few days when we were in New Delhi, our capital, Beijing, had been splashed in headlines all over the world, as PM2.5 exceeded the hazardous limit once again, reaching up to 600. I had an App on my phone indicating the real-time air quality, and those days, the colour of Beijing had been dark red (which means very unhealthy air quality); however for New Delhi, not only the colour was red, the reading was as high as 999, which probably because the App couldn’t show any number over three digits.

Also on that day, we chatted with an Indian at the next table in a restaurant, and we mentioned the air quality of Beijing. The ridiculous thing was, to be polite or something, he expressed his deep sympathy and concern to us, for being born in such a  miserable country. I plucked up my courage and explained to him that actually, the air quality of New Delhi was nothing better. Upon hearing what I said, he looked extremely surprised, pointing to the window, outside which the air was as the same color as coal, saying to me: ‘No, no, no! It’s good! It’s good!’ To hold my eyeballs in the socket, as I couldn’t help but rolled my eyes really hard, I winked twice, and said, ‘well, ok then.’

The air of New Delhi

Back to the river bank of the Ganges, I was quite shocked when several western tourists took off their clothes and jumped into the river bravely to swim. Maybe they did something wrong recently and would like to clean off the sin in the holy river. Under their encouragement, I also washed my face with the water, which I didn’t know at that time, was a seriously wrong deed, and the result unfolded several days later.

After that, we were walking towards the bustling streets of Varanasi along the cremation stage surrounded by all sorts of people. Beside the stage, Untouchables were weighing the wood on a massive scale, calculating for their religious customers that how much they should pay for cremating their family members who had passed away.

Wood for cremation on the boat and the bank

Ongoing cremation – to show respect, no closer photo was taken

To be more exact, we were actually squeezed into an alley, as each street was crammed with… moving creatures – men, women, tuk-tuks, vehicles, children, leaping goats, grumpy dogs, cows wondering why the dogs were grumpy, and monkeys who disdained everyone, no matter dogs or human beings.

Roaring motorbikes were passing by through the space as narrow as 20cm between someone and some cow, with a speed as fast as 60 miles, which braked frequently in front of some children with bare bodies, splashing a blast of mud. The vendors nearby just took good advantage of the chaos and drove all the foreign travelers and backpackers to their shops.

While behind all the mess, several funeral troops were endeavoring to pass through, carrying bodies wrapped in silk and wreaths. Usually, people would shove the monkeys and cows aside to give way to those dead spirits. After all, they were the primary ones.

Who’s the owner of the road?

Dinner was robbed by a monkey

I remember a friend of mine once said: ‘travelling in Europe is like tasting a glass of vintage wine, only by feeling quietly can one understand how many vicissitudes and stories are hiding in it; while travelling in Japan is like having a spa, as the charm of it could penetrate through your skin into the bottom of your heart before you even notice it.’ I don’t know whether the saying is accurate or not, but I know what it is like when traveling in India. It is like swallowing a full pot of strong curry, which is actually crammed by a giant bouncer, who forces open your mouth and sends all the meat together with the sauce down to your throat with a slice. No matter whether you were choked into tears, India wouldn’t give anyone any chance to reject it. The thing is, after a while, when you recall the memory, you would think that it is the most interesting meal you’ve ever had.

As soon as you step onto this piece of land, you’ll be captured by all sorts of loud noises and dazzling colors, and you won’t be able to hide away from them. While as for the order here, well,  it’s very unique. Shortly after we arrived in Mumbai, I discovered something magical – the van. Not because I was born in the rural area and I hadn’t seen any van in my life, vans in India were a mixture of artwork and grocery store on wheels – full of colorful graffiti on the surface and rows of fairy lights, string lights, spotlights… on the carriage sheds, windshields, mudguards… everywhere, making a van into exactly a colorful toad.

I was really curious that on a road without any illumination, would such a shining, loud van become a club stage visible for those miles away? Could the driver be able to see the pedestrians and livestock on the roadsides?

After a few days, I found part of the answers. At the back of each van, coach, or tricycles, there was a huge English word ‘HORN’ printed in some really flashy colors. So that was the thing, the words were not part of the graffiti, but a powerful order – the vehicle behind needed to sound the horn.

Otherwise, how would I know you were there? As the traffic in India is too messy and too intense, the wing mirrors a new car won’t be able to survive for a long time. Therefore, the drivers of tricycles and vans will usually dismantle their beloved wing mirrors and install them inside on the doors, so that they can be fully protected, but the price is, you can’t see backward anymore. As a result, when you sit in a colorful and flamboyant tuk-tuk to drive forwards, only half a meter away behind a van, it’s necessary for you to press the horn crazily for your own security concerns, as a way to tell the van driver: ‘I’m here! I’m here! Don’t break!’

Don’t forget to sound the horn

Cross the street

After going through the challenges of roads from the first few days, we were not surprised anymore when seeing a policeman commanding the traffic at the junction, by tapping the tops of vehicles one by one, or noticing thousands of people squeezing into one coach magically, and the coach could even be rampaged out like a drunk crab while emitting fumes… (to be continued)

Writen by: Sky ( Wechat: skyyouthking )

Translated by: Lu Han

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