From the roof of my hotel in Taj Ganj, the suburb of Agra created as a camp in which the 17th century labourers lived while they toiled for 21 years, I had a superb view of their creation; the world’s greatest monument to love; the Taj Mahal. I admired the masterpiece through the thick haze of pollutants while around me, young Muslim boys played rooftop cricket on some of the many surrounding mosques and monkeys cuddled up to one other against the cold. It was to be the best view that I would get, for I had decided that the relatively exorbitant entrance fee would have to wait until a time when I had an income.
As a stop on the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur tourist triangle, the city is used to foreigners who have alot of money to spend, little time to spend it and no idea what anything is worth. Subsequently, it had little time for the likes of me; a white man trying to get a brown man’s price. I found little to hold me there and with just a days rest, I entered the fog yet again, heading ever westwards towards the vast Thar Desert.
In over 15,000 kilometres on the road, I had not had a single rock thrown at me. On the day I departed Agra, I was the target of two. It was as though UP wanted to leave me as bitter as possible to ensure that I never returned, but it did so with a smile on its face. It was a tough day – 65 kilometres of unwavering misery that went much deeper than a couple of wayward stones.
As a solo traveller who does not speak the local language, is so obviously comparatively wealthy and sticks out like a sadhu in Sydney, I have been somewhat vulnerable for the past 19 months. For protection, I have been carrying a mental shield. This shield is in a constant state of flux, varying in thickness and width depending on my environment and state of mind, but it is ever present and nowhere has it been thicker than in India. Cycling through UP, it wrapped around my body and mind, creating an all-encompassing shell of isolation that was so heavy. So heavy. And I felt weak – weak at a time when I was trying to nurture qualities of strength within me to create something that I liken to the earth’s iron core. I was trying to create a core of purity – of love, compassion, peace, happiness and harmony – so deeply rooted upon such a solid foundation that no externality could shake me. Just as our earth needs its core to remain balanced, my core is to enable me to maintain balance within, regardless of the tremors without.
The Thai monk, Buddhadasa, writes that when one is at this early stage of their journey of Truth, one should try to maintain an external environment that is conducive to such nurturing – an environment of peace. I think that it is safe to say that one could adopt a more peace-filled environment that cycling across the ‘Hindu Belt’ of India.
Disturbingly, I actually felt as though my core was being chipped away and the dents and craters filled with impurities such as anger, bitterness, frustration and even hatred. Such an impure core can never know balance.
I realised that India is like any medicinal drug; dosage is all important. If used according to doctor’s orders, it has the potential to cure some of many ailments, including intolerance, impatience, narrow-mindedness and ignorance. Get the dosage wrong however and one runs the risk of infection by far more serious impurities.
I felt that I had overdosed. I could not see the magic anymore. I knew that it was still there, but that I had blinded myself to it with my shell of isolation and I was afraid – afraid that if I held on to it much longer, this shield would become a permanent fixture. I yearned to be relieved of it.
The following morning was the first in weeks in which the sun had smiled upon me, bathing me in its warmth. Perhaps it is for this reason or perhaps it was because of the pillars that I had passed with ‘Welcome to Rajasthan’ inscribed on them, that I felt lighter – somewhat released from the burden of the weight of the previous day and indeed, the previous week.
Upon hitting the road, I was immediately joined by a boy cycling to school, meaning that I had to humour him for the next seven kilometres – “From which country?”, “Your name?”, “Your profession?” etc. We cycled past a low smoke stack that was spewing out thick, black fumes that drifted across the road, “India is very dirty,” he stated.
“Yes it is,” I agreed.
“But India has very good culture,” he countered confidently.
We cycled past two dark women in worn saris emerging from a field carrying heavy bundles atop their heads.
“Good for who?!” I exploded.
Over the last seven months, I have frequently heard about India’s ‘good culture’ from locals who seem to spark a debate of comparison between our respective nations simply so that they can claim this merit over the far more glaringly obvious demerits. I have also read endlessly in Western literature of India’s ‘rich culture’ – ‘rich’ always written with a tone of great positivity.
“Is it good for the woman who works in the fields all day for a fraction of what a man is paid only to come home and cook for a husband whom she was forced to marry, doesn’t love and who spends much of their meagre earnings on whiskey?” I ranted.
“Is it good for the dalit or the Muslim who have to live with a great big Hindu foot of discrimination on their chest?” I raved.
“Is it good for the little girl or boy born into a slum of filth and disease that they can never hope to escape?” I cried.
There is no doubt that after four thousand years, there are many facets of Indian culture that we can all take heed of. I have seen a culture of unbreakable family ties and selflessness. I see a culture of hard work despite deplorable conditions and the only reward being to live to work another day. I see a culture of democracy, political consciousness and debate. I see a culture of great religious and ethnic tolerance (though an equal amount of intolerance exists). I see a culture of profound spirituality.
But I also see a culture that deeply oppresses its women. A culture that puts money before love. I see a culture that heavily discriminates based on an archaic caste system. I see a culture of mob mentality that discourages individuals from looking inwards and stifles innovation and free thought. I see a culture that bases a person’s worth on their material wealth. Wealth as status. Status as ego. A culture of envy. I see a culture of unsustainably large families and dangerously poor hygiene.
“Good for who?”
My companion barely understood a word that I was saying, but he knew that it was not pleasant and wanted to hear no more. He left me soon after and I was surprised to find that this venting of hot air had left me feeling lighter still.