On the Banks of the Ganges [Haridwar]

OR THE DAY I YELLED AT A PRIEST

When you’re planning a trip to India in a constrained window of time you realize pretty quickly that you’re not going to see one fifth of what you wanted to see.

This is for a few reasons:

  • India stretches back in time so far it extends almost beyond it and so the expanse over which amazing things – both natural and manmade – have had a chance to dazzle the senses is higher than other places, and
  • Traversing the subcontinent is not nearly as straightforward as Google Maps might make it seem.

And so you pick and choose, in a matter that feels almost unfairly matter-of-fact:

Temple or palace? River or desert? Ancestral village or modern city?

It was under these circumstances that we found ourselves on the banks of the Ganges River, in Haridwar and Rishikesh, two of Hinduism’s spiritual hubs, tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.

Though there was no intentional pilgrimage thread running through our journey, going to India and not getting some taste of the rich, spiritual quintessence seemed irresponsible. What I’d not completely realized was that the rich, spiritual quintessence is closely guarded by a bevy of charlatans disguised as priests standing on the ready to exploit it.

Hindus believe Haridwar’s holiness traces back to the time before time began, when a drop of the nectar of immortality was spilled there.  Geo-spiritually, it’s where the Ganges River first touches the plains of North India: bathing in the river here is equivalent to absolution.

The river itself is blue-green and cloudy, but not in an unclean way. Having just melted off a glacier, it’s also freezing. And it looks powerful and potent, like some kind of magical elixir you’d carry on horseback in a single vial.  And, as if that’s not enough, every night at sunset the entire town gathers on the banks of the river and offers songful prayers to it, pushing small leaf baskets, filled with flowers and lit clay lamps into the river, till all you can see are small specks of yellow fire dancing on water amid pink and orange petals.

I saw these baskets and my inner-Hindu (not all that different from my outer-Hindu) was awakened; I wanted the full experience, and then I got it.

Minutes after I had the basket in hand, a FauxPriest summoned me to the banks of the river and led me through some super fast devotional in a language I didn’t understand.  I didn’t realize that he was a private operator and momentarily forgot, in all the light and beauty and nature scape, that even if he hadn’t been, those affiliated with religious organizations tend to practice a spiritual commercialism designed to fleece the devotee up one side and down the other.  FauxPriest finished, claimed that during the aforementioned devotional I promised (again, in a language I didn’t understand) to pay him 2,000 Indian Rupees, roughly $50 USD, for his services.

I refused. He got aggressive. My husband got more aggressive. I believe he invoked something called ‘The Law of Puja” which I’d never heard of before. And that calm that comes with doing something truly soothing was significantly rattled.

We went back to our hotel and fell asleep, exhausted, listening to current of the river pull itself ever forward.

A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time [Taj Mahal]

I considered leaving my Taj Mahal entry blank: void of language, absent of photograph, and perfectly untainted by the transition of feelings into words, all of which were sure to fail the emotion of its gleaming, incomparable majesty. Saying nothing seemed a fitting and appropriate tribute to the first thing in my life that has left me utterly speechless.

[Also, once someone describes something with such exquisite language as “a teardrop on the cheek of time,” it’s fair to say that no one really needs to say anything on the subject ever again. Thank you, Rabindranath Tagore.]

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We arrived just before dawn at the East Gate, drifted through the sandstone gateways like a sort of ethereal dream, and stood transfixed in the early morning light and mist which made the background and foreground almost interchangeable. And, at first, we couldn’t put our cameras down, nervously snapping picture after picture with shaking hands, even though any number of photographers have done it better, giddy like a teenagers face to face with a high school crush and having no idea what to say.

Lonely Planet India lists and dispels four myths about the Taj Mahal within the first three paragraphs of the Agra section:  it was not built over a 10th century Hindu temple, there were never plans for a negative Taj Mahal to sit opposite it in granite, the king who ordered its construction did not also order for all workers to have their hands cut off after it was built, and the Taj Mahal is not sinking.

There is a fifth [unverified] claim about the king who ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal and the woman who was its inspiration: upon learning that his wife had died, Shah Jahan is said to have become so distressed his hair turned white overnight.

It seems an improbable thing, but when it ends with the Taj Mahal, a sort of architectural fairy tale made of marble and gemstones and history, you can’t help but want to believe it and believe in the kind of love that it transforms itself into beauty to stand the test of time.

The Places We're From, The Places We Go [Agra]

By Fort 3 and Palace 4 later that week, we’d sort of hit our max for both but as our first of trip, the grandeur and magnificence of the Agra Fort, a 94-acre walled city which dates back to the 10th century from which Agra was governed, was as inspiring as it was imposing.

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You couldn’t help but wonder what it might have been like to live there (as a member of the royal family, naturally, not someone whose function it was to chisel and cart the slabs of sandstone that made up the 70 foot high walls), and what life was like at that time in history.

Standing at the walled perimeter of the Agra Fort and staring across the Yamuna River at the Taj Mahal, we thought a lot about what it means to leave a mark on the world, what defines a contribution, what defines a people.

Obviously, Humera Usman felt the same way and decided one way to leave her mark on someone else’s was to write her name there.

Sigh.

Dancing on A Grave [Humayun's Tomb, Delhi]

What struck me most about all the Mughal architecture we took in around Delhi was the way they used gateways and arches to frame an experience you were about to have with a building before it opened up to you in full.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that the arches were perfect; that structures constructed some 400 years ago, with points more than 1000 feet away from each other, seemed to line up so effortlessly it almost seemed accidental.

Other forms of amazingness were found in the lattice work on the windows, where 10 foot slabs of sandstone or marble, some 6 inches thick, were carved in whole with no separation.

In short, a whole lot of: how do you think they did that? [Note: This was particularly true for us at Humayun’s Tomb which was not only Day 2 of our trip in India, but Day 1 of our sightseeing jag.]

And so I am the first to admit that there is something to be said for the artistic inspiration that comes from beholding something truly beautiful, that there were moments where you saw things that made you want to rethink your place in the world.

There was nothing, however, that made me want to dance. The same cannot be said of the two dancer-types I captured in the photo below (being busted up by a seriously awesome Indian lady cop with a stick) who broke out into some kind of waltz on the terrace next to the main tomb:

At first, when they started their waltz, I thought there was about to be a flash mob. And though I’m not pro-flash mob or anything, there was some sort of weird intrigue in an of-the-moment pop culture phenomenon taking place against the landscape of something so old it can claim to have inspired the Taj Mahal.

But, alas, the flash mob was not meant to be. Their waltz quickly turned into some kind of free movement -cum- interpretive dance. No comment. 

In conclusion: “No, you may not ballroom dance on the main mausoleum of Humayun’s Tomb.”

The Longest Day: Day 1 [Mumbai]

The first day I arrive in India is always a solid reminder to me of why sleep deprivation is such an effective form of torture.

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There’s the 16-hour flight to India, of course; there’s baggage claim, where we stood shoulder to shoulder with the most anxious race of human beings on the planet plus their carts and fought for our luggage like there’d been a nuclear holocaust and the suitcases were actually food and water; and then there was the first moment stepping outside of the airport in Mumbai, when our incredible excitement managed to edge out our incredible exhaustion, where the sweet-smelling humidity pressed into us from all sides as the day dawned like a foggy dream. 

And thus the longest day, chock full of a month’s worth of complex emotions before 5am, began. 

We were exhausted and groggy and tired and pushed to the absolute limit of sensory human experience, all the while clinging to the frame of a righteous, three-wheeling, door-less, swerving auto rickshaw and trying to decide if we were hungry or full or both or neither. 

And then suddenly we were surrounded by family. All of us had been waiting for the day, then it came, and then we were just sort of awkwardly there waiting for the experience to begin. 

And then it did. 

Maybe it was finally meeting my husband or finally seeing me settled into the next stage of my life but my grandfather and grandmother - 94 and 84, respectively - seemed younger, more energetic, more alive than I’d seen them in years. And after weeks of anxiety about every possible aspect of the trip, in those first steps into their bedroom where they sat waiting for us, I was finally happy. Without apology or anxiety or fear of something bad happening to diminish the good. 

When I wrote before I left that the trip felt like the loose ends of my life were tying together, I knew I was being a touch over-dramatic (surprise, surprise), but as I sat on my grandparents’ couch and watched Mark take my grandfather’s hand in his something shifted in my heart.

I was left thinking about the emotions in all of us that lie deeper than words, that speak softer than sound, that shine brighter than light, and how lucky we are to experience them and carry them with us always.

Where Past Meets Future

ON MARRIAGE, IDENTITY & HYPHENICAL HYSTERIA

I told my husband once that what amazed me most about marriage was that every future love I’d experience thereafter would be tied to me through him; every significant, life-changing, epic milestone a byproduct of our chance meeting, a random day in July when he asked me to marry him, and an even more random day the following July when I did.  

Our arbitrary lives lay like a translucent, vellum layer over both sets of parents who immigrated to this country more than a generation ago - mine from India, his from Jamaica - and who lived the kind of American dream that politicians promise in speeches and then vote against in Congress.

I grew up as a self-defined “Indian-American”, spent the bulk of my childhood figuring out new ways to convince my classmates I had never seen the inside of a teepee, and the angsty years after over-analyzing who I was, where I belonged and why it mattered. 

And then one day the I realized, it didn’t have to. There was no dark struggle, no definitive choice, no epic journey between bindis and blue jeans: I could have both. 

After 30 years of hyphenical hysteria, I chose my tangible, sometimes trendy, always interracial future instead of a past that both was and wasn’t mine. And life went on. 

And now we go back, he and I, to India. My heart will flutter when we land. He will meet my grandparents. We’ll see some old things amidst a blurry whirl of new things. And my life, which has often felt loose at both ends, will tie together in a haphazard knot on the soil of a place I’ve never lived but is still somehow so much a part of me. 

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It’s a disorganized jumble of planning and disorganization, excitement and anxiety. 

It’s far from my first trip back, though suddenly it feels that way.