Colorful Mass
Julie Costanzo

I spent my two years in India vacillating wildly between romanticizing and criticizing the country. My most intense struggle centered on reconciling what seemed to be two completely different Indias. One lndia — culturally rich, artistically divine, spiritually enlightened — nurtures and propels individuals to spiritual greatness, to create architectural wonders that show genius and a palimpsest of rich history etched in stone, to return to the simple and the real rather than the plastic and chrome. The other India is the blackest of holes out of which few can crawl. This India mocks poverty by piling it on destitution, It laughs raucously at the intention to take one’s life into one’s own hands by dealing cards that could not win even the best gambler a penny.

India, as a friend of mine likes to say, can be both a physical hell and a social heaven. On the one hand, it pulses with life, with humanity, with small wonders: the early mornings when the countryside is fresh and cool, when men and women squat on their haunches in the grass and brush their teeth; the lush green glow of ready-to-harvest rice paddies, where long white necks of geese rise regally out of the fields; the monsoon rain as it beats out its rhythm on the roof; the jingle of bright glass bangles on a woman’s wrist; the graceful welcome of the village women who warmly led me into their homes. It is a place where people openly express their humanity; where connectedness matters, where there is a belief in being part of a larger social order. But on the other hand, India can be impossibly difficult: throngs of people, cars and animals; constant electricity outages; piles of garbage, broken sidewalks and rutted streets; and the unbearable unfairness of poverty, gender and caste discrimination.

Confronting India
I found that I had to work hard to allow myself to feel what India laid out at my feet, to confront that my emotions were as much a product of my own frailties as they were of those I was watching, to push myself to accept without resignation, to prevent myself from tuning out the world around me, to resist the temptation to alleviate physical discomforts that often felt overwhelming.

I am, in many ways, a product of a modern world in which we use (and have been used by) technology to both simplify and complicate our lives: seeking the easiest and fastest ways to travel, to communicate, to exist. All too often, this means enclosing ourselves in imaginary bubbles that protect our sense of physical and mental space. To be physically uncomfortable in India does not just mean traveling down a bumpy road in a decrepit old bus; it means being completely present to the smells and sounds of life on the bus: the feel of a sleeping woman’s head as it drops onto your shoulder, the pressure of a man’s hand on your back as he struggles to keep his balance in the aisle, the belching of someone who has just finished a good lunch. There was no room in India for the physical or mental space that is held so sacred in America. I could not enclose myself in a world made of my own choosing in order to forget that a completely different world existed just outside.

In an oblique way, my time in India allowed me to create a new space in my mind and soul for absorbing and rethinking old ways of viewing the world. All of the logic of my Western education, upon which I had based so much, seemed to take me a very short distance to any real understanding of myself or of the world around me.

Beyond Reason
William Blake once said that Reason is just Satan, that it snuffs out imagination and freedom and emotion. Living in India lit for me again that candle of imagination, of passion, of connectedness. I found that I could logically analyze issues until, as an individual, I was confronted with a reality, a practical enactment of an issue that placed me as a player in the scene. Then the analysis had to be adjusted to include emotions and circumstances, the lack of absolutes. Often these situations were outside my past framework of understanding, and they left me with few consistent answers. This is the only truth there is, I realized.

Living in India rejuvenated my spirit, brought alive parts of me that had faded into the background of a modern life that is sometimes too efficient, where emotions are shielded by good manners, where space exists so bodies do not touch on buses or trains. In India I touched and was touched every day, by people, by scenes, by thoughts in my continuously bubbling mind. With each experience — whether I was accepting pickles from a woman who had nothing else to give or watching a group of men willingly push our broken-down car down a deserted road — I learned that even twenty-five years away from India could not break the basic threads of human commonality that bound us together from birth. It was good to be back. 

Destinations: India

Coming Back

Returning to India

"To be physically uncomfortable in India does not just mean traveling down a bumpy road in a decrepit old bus; it means being completely present to the smells and sounds of life on the bus…"

Reprinted with permission of Seal Press.

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