Dear India…

11 Feb

Hey India, I’m coming back!

I’ve got my plane ticket, my shala reservation, and have been taking extra probiotics for two weeks now.  I’m excited to come back, India, but there are some things I’ve really got to get off my chest before we reunite.  Because India, I love you.  But you’ve really got to get your shit together.  I mean that metaphorically, but also literally, because there is actual shit everywhere:


Cow, goat… and probably other kinds, too.

There’s trash everywhere:

Even on an amazing beach like this one, in Havelock.

Even on an amazing beach like this one, in Havelock.

Sometimes it is on fire:


“Stupid humans, lighting these trash fires.”

More accurately, “Set it on fire!” seems to be the best way to deal with unwanted materials of any kind: 


“There’s so much trash, shouldn’t we try to set up some kind of recycling program?” … “No, man, set that shit on fire!”

Yet in spite of all this, India, I miss you.  I think about you all the time.  I’ve only been back for 8 months, but I still spent a significant portion of yesterday researching hiking in Arunchal Pradesh, a place where, according to Wikipedia, you need a special permit to visit because Chinese, Indian, and insurgent army members are known to harass tourists.

But it looks so beautiful! Anyone wanna go to with me?

But it looks so beautiful! Anyone wanna go to with me?

India, I know you’re a solution-oriented, positive place.  You can produce some awesome things:

Awesome entertainment.

Bollywood movies.

This guy, who stars in many of the aforementioned movies.

The best nonsensical outfits ever, as modeled by this Bollywood actor. I picture him thinking “Okay, got my hair gelled, my necklace… a belt, yeah… what am I forgetting? Oh yeah, sunglasses!”

Pattahbhi, also rocking the shirtless look.

Also rocking the shirtless look.

Finally, someone with a shirt.  That was probably made in India.

India is awesome at large-scale tee-shirt manufacturing. Oh, and Ashtanga Yoga, that’s also a good one.

Yeah, and that, too.

Maybe even better than Bollywood movies.

India, you built the f&*ing TAJ MAHAL.  So here is some unsolicited advice:

Get organized.  Why does every restaurant have 10 waiters standing around for every one person sitting down? Why do I have to present my boarding pass getting off the plane?  Oh, yeah: So someone can have the job of checking it!


Well, I guess we do that, too.

In India, you need to show some piece of paper- any paper!- to do pretty much everything.  You’re supposed to show a printout of your ticket confirmation just to walk in the door of most Indian airports.  Heightened security?  Not quite. I still got waved through (three times!) with my laptop open to a random airline website.  I could probably bring a piece of construction paper with “AIR TICKET” written on it in pencil and would be able to get on the plane. You just have to show them something.

True story: when going through “customs” (a hut on the pier) at Havelock Island, a girl at a desk marks the number of incoming visitors as they check in.  Not by noting the name of each visitor or even by making a tally mark to calculate the day-end totals, but by writing down what actual number of visitor you are and crossing out the prior one.  So when I arrived as part of a party of two, my traveling companion was visitor number 37.  She wrote “37” on the page after “36” and crossed out “36.” And then I walked up and she wrote down “38” and crossed out “37.”  Her notebook page had the numbers 1 through 37 written down and crossed out, one number to a line.  I’m sure that notebook page later became kindling for a trash fire, too.

India, you’re a resourceful place.  You must have noticed that there are way too many guys with nothing to do, and that’s why you gave them all jobs at the airport.  But instead of having five different people stamp my baggage tag, maybe put these dudes to work doing things to improve your infrastructure (you know, electricity- how you make light from wires?) because it currently looks like this:


Filling out a form will not fix this.

The upside of this plan is that all these men (and there are so, so, SO many) will then have an actual, physical outlet for all their excess energy.  Which brings me to…

Be realistic about sex.  Remember all those old articles about female infanticide in places like India, because there was a preference for sons over daughters?

529429_10153765426570300_449166059_n (1)

This picture was taken a few weeks ago by my friend David Schuester.

The geniuses that came up with this idea apparently didn’t consider that in a few decades, their population would be inconveniently almost all male.  When you add in the prevailing attitude of “no sex until marriage,” you end up with an abundance of dudes roaming the streets with only one available outlet:

Each other.

Each other.

On my first trip to India, I was so surprised to see this kind of thing.  I actually remember remarking with naïve delight how nice it was that Goa (a fairly liberal, heavily-touristed state) had a gay neighborhood, given how conservative India seems.


I thought it was more weird that they were wearing jeans and sneakers on the beach.

Actually, those people are not gay- in India, holding hands with your male friend is totally straight.  So is one guy putting his hand in another guy’s back jeans pocket, high-schoolers-at-the-mall style.  I know this because the dudes aren’t just lobster clawing each other- they try to do it to random girls, too.  It’s equal opportunity groping.  At least if you grope your male buddy, there’s a chance he empathizes and sort of shrugs it off, whereas a normal girl will punch you in the face.  I know that it’s a gross overgeneralization to say that all Indian men act like frat guys at a strip club.  Individual Indian men have, by and large, been chivalrous and gentlemanly in my presence.  But there are just so MANY of them that their energy takes on a junior-high locker room quality:


Men gaming in Kolkata.

As much as I would like to fix this by simply walking around in western-style clothes and exercising my right to punch someone in the face when they try to cop a feel, that’s probably not a reasonable plan.  India, you’re going to have to handle this with good old fashioned home-grown feminism. Start by making school mandatory for girls until age 17, and see what happens.

Be nice to (all) animals.  You’re off to an awesome start with this whole ahimsa concept.  The cows in the street look really happy.  How about extending that kindness to the dogs and cats? And also, to the women?

I know it’s tough to consider the plight of a street dog when there are, you know, humans with polio living in the streets.  But this problem is actually pretty easy to fix (not the polio, Jonas Salk did do most of the heavy lifting on that one already):  if you don’t want random animals roaming around, figure out a way to spay or neuter them.  There are certainly enough available men (see #1) to perform this job function.

Protect your environment. In 2013, there’s no reason that so much of your country should look like this:

Pretty... oh, wait, it's full of trash.

Pretty… oh, wait, it’s full of trash.

Or this:

Trash everywhere.

Trash everywhere.

Come on, India.  You’re better than that.  Ban plastic bags.  Work on getting potable tap water so that people don’t have to buy so many plastic bottles.  Make Coca-Cola or Pepsico or whoever is selling people all this trash develop a way to recycle said bottles before they’re allowed to sell anything within your borders. With so many smart and entrepreneurial people among your ranks, there’s no excuse for your most luxurious beaches to look, well, like something from the third world.

After reading this, you’re probably wondering why I’d ever want to go back.  You know how when your friend breaks up with her boyfriend and tells you a bunch of horrible stories about him, and then they get back together, and you always sort of hate that boyfriend from then on, even if he’s not even a jerk and actually sort of nice to you?  That’s what most casual observers think about my relationship with India.  They’ve seen me come home gaunt and jetlagged, hoarse-voiced and sad.

But I’m sad because I miss it.

Because for all of the inane disorganization and casual sexual harassment, India is amazing for so many reasons…

Everything is weird and beautiful.  Being in India is like having synesthesia.  In the good way.  In my memory, India is all orange swirls and jangly silver:

Babas in Haridwar.

Babas in Haridwar.

There's this.

There’s this.

And this.

And this.

People draw mandalas on their doorsteps each morning.  The ladies in saris and full jewelery at the market put our yoga-pants wearing Encinitas moms to shame.  It’s like every small action is a work of art for all to enjoy.  Which totally fits with the community-mindedness of the culture, because…

Everyone cooperates.  You’d think that in a country with millions people diving around every day, there would be way more traffic accidents.  Or at least more road rage.  Or more petty crime.

But India feels safe.  India is like that Jose Saramago book Blindness: the true measure of a collective character is illuminated when everyone is anonymous.

Anyone can be anonymous in a huge crowd, and the crowds in India are the most remarkably huge I’ve ever encountered.

Anyone can be anonymous in a huge crowd, and the crowds in India are the most remarkably huge I’ve ever encountered.

Random criminality isn’t really as much of a problem as you’d expect.  Driving in the flow of traffic, no one really cuts you off.   It seems like everyone just wants to get along.  Maybe it’s because…

Relationships are practiced and lasting.  Jared Diamond writes about this in his book The World Until Yesterday.  In “Traditional Societies,” which in this respect India seems to be, relationships are built for the good of the collective whole.  This is amazingly refreshing and realistic- you don’t find a partner to “become your best self” but to become part of something greater than the sum of its components.   There’s a connection to tradition and the past that feels real and alive.  I mean, think about it: why do so many white people take up chanting and calling themselves Radha when they were born a Stacey?  How come that pretty much never happens in reverse?

I’m not qualified to opine on if or why westerners fetishize and/or appropriate “traditional cultures,” but if I had to give a reason for the white-people-singing-kirtan phenomenon I’d say that what we’re really trying to create (or emulate) is their connectedness- to each other, to their physical “place,” and to their shared past.

And this is why “going to India” has that hazy spiritual sheen for so many people.  It’s jaw-droppingly wonderful and appallingly terrible.  It is contemporaneously mind-numbingly slow and lightning fast.  It is out-of-this-world inspiring.  It has its faults, but it is perfect- or maybe just perfect for me.  If that doesn’t sound like true love, I don’t know what does.

So.  I’ll see you soon, India. You must have known I couldn’t stay away for too long.


Sunrise in Goa.

Typical Indian redundancy.

Typical Indian redundancy.

But yes, it IS great.

But yes, it IS great.

2 Responses to “Dear India…”

  1. Monica Doyle February 12, 2014 at 5:03 am #

    Merrin, I would go with you in a heartbeat if I could! I went to India in 2004 and have been pining to go back ever since. I love it for all the reasons you cite, and hate those other things too. Your description is wonderful and lyrical and makes me sad because I can’t go right now, and joyful that you can! Two more years of school and I am THERE!

  2. Eric February 25, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

    I love everything about this article. Thank you for sharing.

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