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India: One More Time 

 

Thoughts on returning to India: Being there and returning here (an excerpt from my M.Ed. thesis on Yoga, 2005). 

My first memory of India was as a child. On a crowded bus a middle-aged Indian woman offered me her seat. Actually, she wanted me to sit on her lap and was very persistent. Feeling shy I recall my mother saying it was okay. The woman was happy when I crawled onto her lap and her friendliness made me feel like she knew me. It was a strange sense of familiarity, which remained with me some 30 years later.

At the time of writing, I had been to India 6 times. Today, I have made another 9 extended visits. It is probably no coincidence India is often referred to as Mother India; a land that heals, embraces, comforts and protects. Most Indian women are generous, kind-hearted and giving by nature. Travelling to India can elicit the same deep emotions one has for their own mother. For India, like a mother, has a way of creeping under your skin and nudging you to be with her. As a yoga teacher, it might be easy for me to justify my repeated trips, because without this my first trip would never have been made. In India, I have the time and energy to learn more about the practices of Yoga. However, over the years my sojourns have been equally inspired for the sake of India herself. And like the woman on the bus it is with a good feeling of familiarity.           

When I think of India, I am bombarded with many contrasting images. In my mind there are snap shots of a girl begging while carrying an emaciated baby, a row of mattresses on the railway tracks, a man washing his hair in the market, a kid peeing in the street and a dead body in a chair for a funeral. If I were to make a home-movie it would include women doing rangoli on the steps of their home, a local man kissing a cow and Indian men sipping chai at sunset. My personal experiences also mirror the extremes of taking cold showers at 4 a.m., squat toilets, traffic jams, walking seven kilometers for class and sharing a room with mosquitoes, lizards and ants. The other side has been posh hotels, sleeping in a fort, riding a camel, wandering into ancient temples and palaces, and eating with my hand.

During my early travels I was amazed to understand how interested Indians were of foreigners. I was equally upset by being asked hundreds of time, “Madam – what country you?” “Madam – your good name?” and “How do you feel about India?” My reply, “I like India” seemed so lame next to such exuberence. How do you express the way the Himalayan mountains hug you? How do you convey the energy of the Ganges? How do you explain the way you love the whiff of incense? And how do you convey the annoyance of being stared at? 

"I like India",  sums it up.        

As a woman travelling alone, I am also amazed by the misconceptions Indians possess of North American women; i.e., free and looking for sex. I guess, if it were for sex we'd just stay at home. When I return to Canada, I am faced with an equal number of misconceptions. Many Westerners assume India is hot; no one phathoms snow or safe regions. More outstanding than this, however, was the time a fellow traveller told me she felt the beggars looked content.

That's a bold statement, which assumes too much.  

If I were to name the most difficult aspect of India I would have to say it has to do with the way that pretending to ignore the poverty becomes a way of coping with daily life. The poverty is constantly in your face; a fact you cannot escape. Every return trip to India makes it harder to handle what I call the four facts of India. 

Fact One: It's a standard practice to give money to beggars and have a gang swarming around you.

Fact Two: Little children grab your pants and shirt sleeves protesting, “No mama, no papa, please, lady."

Fact Three: It is easy to be pissed off despite having a full stomach, clean clothes and a return ticket.

Fact Four: The locals frown at you for giving large sums of money to beggars. “Give 1 rupee. That is enough!" (Let's remember this is less than one cent.)

Returning home reaffirms these facts in comparison to normal life in the West. My yoga students remind me these are the reasons why they would never go to India. From this perspective, I am hardly inspired either. And yet when it comes right down to it, I continue to return to India because it's a culture full of life, energy, chaos and urgency. Shopkeepers perform puja (worship) before serving the first customer of the day. Vendors kiss the money they receive and people greet you with their hands in prayer. Undoubtedly, there is a sense of the divine in even the worst conditions. Becoming a part of these scenes has allowed me to reflect on what it means to be a Westerner. In short, what it means to be a white woman and a person of privilege. Something I first became aware of when I lived in South Korea for two years where Koreans told me, "You are a Westener." Without this experience I doubt I would have considered it, but it made me look at how being from the West did indeed shape my thinking and attitudes.                   

As I prepare for the next visit to India, I mull over how this whole thing got started. India is such a big part of me, but I know I will never be a part of her. It is funny when I think of the ‘me’ who knew anything about yoga or India. For if someone had told me, “You will go to India and return many times", I probably would have laughed. 

However, it is like the woman on the bus. She wants you to sit next to her; she will not take no for an answer.         

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