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A Manthan On the Move: Visiting India, the Vast Land of Multitudes and Contradictions

A Manthan On the Move: Visiting India, the Vast Land of Multitudes and Contradictions

  • I hope this churning would yield amrit that will empower the Devas of good, love and compassion over the Asuras of evil, bigotry and greed.

Nothing broadens one’s perspectives more than travel. Opening your arms to embrace varied landscapes and novel cultures opens minds as well. Breaking bread with new people breaks barriers, substituting caricatured stereotypes with lived experiences. 

Travels to India, the land where I grew up and lived in till I was 28, hold a special place in my heart. My vision of India is wound in the time capsule of the last century, at the turn at which I emigrated to the U.S. Every visit to India since then peels open multiple new facets of this land. 

Gurudwara Sis Ganj in Delhi on the now pedestrian-only main road in Chandni Chowk that also houses Shri Gauri Shankar Mandir, Digamber Jain Mandir and the Fatehpuri Masjid. Top photo, the ‘matar kulcha’ vendor on Baba Kharak Singh Marg in central Delhi is a must stop in my nostalgic culinary routine on trips to India. (Photos by Ajay Rawal)

These visits are an unalloyed sensory overload — a heady mix of nostalgia, blazing sun’s warmth surpassed by that of family and friends, a scent of promise, and imaginary fancies of counterfactual what-ifs. In this land of contradictions, everyday jarring realities are closely juxtaposed with things that uplift your spirits.

The first thing that hits me every time I land in India is the altered sense of personal space. Traveling from Minnesota, whose entire population would fit in a quarter of the New Delhi metro region, it takes a day to adjust to crowded spaces where people literally and metaphorically peer into others’ lives. Density ties destinies together, however, as neighbors and close-knit communities weave a bond that allows seniors to age gracefully in their own homes, many in multigenerational households, close to their lifelong social networks. 

On the Delhi Metro, a sea of heads of dark hair greets you, hunched over their phones, plugged into the world, a young nation on the move. It is heartening to see young people publicly displaying their affection, untethered by the constraints of a prior generation. The Metro itself is a delight, a streamlined, well-oiled marvel of engineering; an air-conditioned cocoon of comfort coursing through the cacophony of a chaotic city. It is refreshing to see young women comfortably express themselves through a dress sense far less conservative than I can remember. It is a relief to see multiple signs promoting and facilitating the safety of women using public transport. 

Nothing warms your heart more than the sight of young kids, especially young girls, in school uniform, heading earnestly to school. At the same time, the jarring reality of exceedingly limited higher education opportunities stunting aspirations and choking innovation breaks your heart.

It is jarring, however, to see the same young and eager workforce curtly address a non-English speaking, insecure customer far less privileged than me. 

It is uplifting to visit places of worship in India — temples, gurudwaras, Sufi shrines, churches, and to witness devotees of all stripes at complete ease with a sense of strong faith that is seared into their bones, an inseparable part of their identities. It is jarring, however, to see the pluralistic tradition defining the nation threatened by an ascendant nationalist tenor at odds with basic tenets of Hinduism.

It is jarring to see the gray haze that perpetually envelopes the city, blue sky but a distant memory, the sun a dull shadow of itself. Through this hazy morass, it is uplifting to see large mature trees — champa and amaltas — still bursting forth into flowers, birdsongs of varying frequencies breathing life into the mornings.

Development’s double-edged sword cuts both ways. Affordable air conditioners make the punishing heat tolerable indoors while actively contributing to the same heat outside. A fast-expanding economy powered by fossil fuels seeks its pound of flesh, its right to pollute her way to growth like the developed economies now preaching caution but performing little more than lip service to combat climate change.  

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Going to one of the many private banks is a breath of fresh air. A helpful, almost obsequious, cadre of young, enthusiastic workforce smoothens out banking transactions, a far cry from the sweaty half-day-long banking errands I remember at the public banks. It is jarring, however, to see the same young and eager workforce curtly address a non-English speaking, insecure customer far less privileged than me. 

Cyber City rises in Gurugram near New Delhi.

The heat is searing, punishing, relentless. But a bustling metropolis remains on the move, men hauling goods on their heads, delivering refrigerators on rickshaws, sweepers in a Sisyphean battle against the never-ending heaps of trash. The entrepreneurial spirit is omnipresent, forced on a populace with diminishing dependence on agriculture, a skeletal social safety net, and lack of a widespread education or skill-based economy. So the plucky Indian bootstraps for survival — selling papad or cut fresh coconuts at red light signals, setting up stalls for household goods and sundries at neighborhood weekly markets, seasonal fruit stands and snack stalls by the roadside, or offering henna services outside temples, etc.

All nations and societies continually change. In India, a vast land of multitudes, this churning appears particularly relentless in these last two decades of globalization, widespread internet access, smartphones and social media as this behemoth chisels her identity. Harboring a slightly optimistic mindset, I hope that this ‘manthan’, on balance, would yield amrit that will empower the Devas of good, love and compassion over the Asuras of evil, bigotry and greed.

Ajay Rawal is an Indian American physician based in the Minneapolis metro area. Aside from work and spending time with his family, he loves to hike, bike, read, and write his musings about life, politics and society at large. 

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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