India 101: Slow Down, Have Patience, Enjoy.
I am a total novice to India. Everything that I know about it stems from a long-standing obsession with the beautiful verbal tapestries woven by a handful of my favourite authors. But life is stranger, more colourful and complicated than fiction. On this journey I am very fortunate to have an amazing friend, guide, guardian angel and teacher with me to ease the transition from life in South Africa to life in India.
My introduction to the country is the opposite of arriving on a fast paced, carefully selected tourist itinerary. I am plunged into a small albeit abundantly populated universe and settle into a daily routine. At first, I could not help but be overwhelmed by the sheer number of things happening. A mass of people shopping, screaming, singing, sipping chai, walking, selling, buying and eating food, dancing and sitting. My nose adjusts to the smell of delicious spicy foods, incense, fresh chai and the not so delicious smell of the Nala (open sewer) or that very specific smell of the stale burnt plastic haze that contributes to the omnipresent smog. My ears adjust to the sound of car horns and squeaky rickshaw horns and motorcycle horns used liberally and for reasons I am still to figure out because traffic here is an unstructured, chaotic dance that somehow works – one miracle at a time. The act of walking is actually an act of swimming amidst a stream of people and vehicles and vendors. The only ones allowed to walk wherever and however they want is the cows, and the cows definitely know it. This particular place is a collection of streets, a maze of life in its joys and tragedies. It is unique and probably very similar to others. I have the constant sense that three centuries are stacked on top of each other, simultaneously.
At night I hear the street dogs, barking at each other, passers-by and the moon. They are interrupted by the solitary security guard with his stick and lonely whistle. The whistle issues a shrill warning to potential burglars and wrong doers in the dark alleys and the underbelly of the night. Being used to fortified walls, armed guards, fences and layers upon layers of security and the paranoid middle-class inhabitants of South Africa’s notorious gated communities – this method of security strikes me as quaint, if not naïve. At the same time, I should note that the night is in no way as intimidating or ominous as I am used to.
I soon learn that the vast quantity of things happening at the same time could easily fool you into thinking that it is also happening at a fast pace - while the opposite is true. Once you focus on an individual occurrence it becomes more and more apparent that it is happening quite slowly. So slow in fact, it could even be some infuriating form of slow motion.
I first noticed this when I started to pay attention to the pace at which I am walking to keep up with others. Keeping up might imply an acceleration of pace, but I need to consciously remind myself to slow down, and keep it at a leisurely, casual stroll. Even when I am in a hurry or pressed for time. Here, there is no sense of urgency great enough to sufficiently motivate a faster walking pace. I generally consider myself quite a slow walker, often taking the time to tell people who walk with me and seem in too much of a hurry to slow down and take in their surrounds, to enjoy life. Imagine my surprise at finding a place that makes the calmest version of myself still feel like I am in too much of a hurry. Keep up by slowing down: one of my first lessons in this new universe. Once my senses have calmed down and adjusted and settled in their new environment, I am introduced to two things. Thing One is Consensual Kidnapping which often leads to Thing Two: Kindly Being Overfed.
While I was warned about Consensual Kidnapping before I came, yet there is always the stubborn disconnect between conceptual understanding and tangible, experiential comprehension. I was warned that any concept of personal space I might have will evaporate. I was also warned that community life trumps any concept of ‘personal space’. Any ambitions to have some ‘free’ or ‘personal’ time will soon disappear down a river of futility. Space is always shared – and the only rule is that there is always room for more. However, all these compromises have the huge reward of warm and open hearts, kindness, heartbreakingly generous hospitality and being adopted by multiple families at once.
As I do not speak Hindi or Bangla, I resort to my skill of reading the atmosphere, the general feeling, body language and tone of the conversations taking place around me. While this is always useful, it does not mean I do not misinterpret a lot of things. But I have a world class translator, and I learn, one day at a time.
In this quasi-mute way of being in a different world, I am struck again and again by the incredible stories told by people’s eyes. The generosity, the sadness, the heartbreak, and the kindness. The child-like happiness which radiate from the eyes of grownups and the ancient wisdom that is found in the eyes of children.
I am not rapidly moving from place to place but walk the same street every day. With that comes the friendly wave of the ladies who sold us our sleeping mats, the slight nod and wide smile of the stationary shop owner and the welcoming grin of the man who sells chai on the corner of the street. The strange becomes familiar. It’s a gradual and accumulative process, that I mainly gauge through the way in which the curious glances from strangers become smiles or nods of recognition. It’s the small things.
The amount of time that goes by is directly related to the amount of invitations we receive. The thing about an invitation is that it is near impossible to decline – even if you have so many that you are guaranteed two meals a day from different families for the next year. This is what I mean with consensual kidnapping: the impossibility to say no, and the difficulty of leaving.
Why is it difficult to leave? Because from the moment you arrive, one simple act indicates that this will be a long visit: the-bringing-out-of-the-plastic-chair. Every house here seems to have an infinite supply of plastic chairs. If the guest is not sitting, the guest must surely not be comfortable. I have lost count of how many times a plastic chair has been reached for to ensure that I can sit.
Once the objective of getting the guest to sit has been achieved, the second prerogative is to keep them sitting as long as possible. There are many strategies in which this can be achieved, but the best and most effective one is to feed your guest so much food that it is impossible for them to stand up. I have possibly eaten my bodyweight in rice and dahl and roti and chapati and the most delicious range of spices and sauces known to the human palate. I think Indian food is probably one of the most delicious cuisines in the world. But the quantity!
I live with two men who have super healthy appetites and have no problem to clean the plate. I come from a lifestyle of one big meal a day and a few small pecks in-between. My whole life has been a struggle with breakfast, and if I have the choice I avoid it. My body needs to be awake for at least two to four hours before it can begin to consider food. That is just how it is. So, then I sit, eyeballing the last three handfuls of rice, envying my friends for having been able to finish theirs and having the tummy space to graciously accept more.
When I finally finish my food, I feel like I am about to burst. But wait! There’s more!!! To decline a second helping is probably akin to a slap in the face or a deep insult to the capabilities of the cook. I think in some way, the second-helping-as-compliment has a universality to it. I think of all the grandparents and parents I have encountered: Jewish, Afrikaner, Xhosa, Zulu, Cape Coloured, French Canadian, British, Namibian, Malaysian, Chinese – It’s always there. Yet the sheer quantity, with which you are being kindly overfed, in my experience, is unique to India. I have thus developed a strategy, which is to eat really slowly, saviour every bite, contemplate every flavour. If I manage to time it so that I am finished with my first helping by the time my friends have finished their second, it seems somehow more forgivable for me to decline a second helping. My tummy can feel less like bursting and my hosts can feel less offended (I Hope!).
After food some more words are exchanged, and we are compelled to sit just a little bit longer, for Chai or black tea or water, of course. It is not only the hospitality that compels sitting – it seems to be an integral part of the lifestyle.
This was a powerful lesson in pace adjustment. I made my peace with the slow life and came to realize that the classroom of India had just provided me with an introduction to one of its fundamental courses: Slow down, have patience, Enjoy.