From the air, India is an immense puzzle—
–a hazy puzzle of dusted field and clustered village, with broken beige roads like sun-bleached branches on a dead tree.
Down below, pixelated city blocks resemble the square doodles I draw and fill in mindlessly when I am back at home, sitting on hold and waiting for some customer service agent, the anonymous accented telephone voice who is likely speaking to me from one of these same concrete blocks—here, in India.
Our jet’s descent brings the world back into focus, a lifeless landscape honeycombed with dry fields—shapeless patches of personal property in a land where nothing is very personal at all.
On the ground, India is loud—
—the spastic insanity of rubber wheels and sturdy fauna on the road, eager gasoline engines, and above all, car horns.
India is the Hallelujah Chorus of car horns—an overture of beeps and squawks, twitters and bellows, bawdy bursts, melodic runs, bings, bops, machine-gun fire and great sonic booms that make you hop. Some horns sing arpeggios, others curse with the foulest epithets, others are merely testing their lungs on the street—honk, honk, honk!—a reminder that they are still alive.
The cacophony of claxons is so overwhelming, the noise becomes aimless—nobody is getting what they want and the horns only complain louder, like the greatest tantrum on Earth—it never stops, only winds down and then starts up again.
If this were an office, there would be an all-hands meeting: Guys, we gotta talk about the horns.
But in India, there are one billion people here and counting—if such a meeting were ever even possible, the fliers would not have been printed yet due to some sort of hold-up.
Honk if you’re impatient—and they do.
Behind the din is the great numbing smell of the subcontinent. My nose picks out corn and clay, smoke, dung, and jasmine. Tiny clouds of human sweat hit me one by one, interspersed with sweet fruit, coal smoke, incense, spice, car fumes and animal warmth. In the open street, a man urinates on a field of knee-deep garbage, and I follow that smell until the next one comes along—soft orange marigolds on a string, fragrant and divine.
On the ground, India is beautiful.
Hindu temples surprise me, wedged between the square block houses, with sky-blue painted doors, scrawled with ancient designs, hung with colored lights, flower garlands. At dusk the sun is pink and one hour later, the moon turns silver like the jingling bangles around the women’s brown ankles. The women are beautiful—and their clothing is beautiful. No matter the drab backdrop of light brown everything—wait five seconds and another woman will surely pass, wrapped in hot pink or vermillion or light turquoise silk, the hot air swirling her colored clothing like a stage curtain.
The colored saris are the rainbow of this country, draped over the women or hung clean and drying from the houses of the very poor, like oversized prayer flags—one size fits all.
In India, the very poor are everywhere, and so are the very rich. Technology is but one of the many millions of gods around us, and so is the lack of technology. There are the world’s very best cars driving on the world’s worst roads, the fastest computers versus the slowest camel-drawn carts. Incredible India means wonderfully inconsistent India and the longer I stay, the less it makes sense and the more I love it.
In the village outside Agra, I am followed by a pack of barefoot children begging for ink pens and chocolate—the legacy of well-meaning yet careless tourists who have doled out gifts to these, the poorest of the poor, the untouchables, the Harijans—children of God.
The untouchables are touching me—and one child is giggling, pointing directly at me and shouting, in Hindi, Tum lambe ho!
Tum lambe ho. What does it mean? The three words are enough to make all the children laugh, and they all begin pointing as well. Tum lambe ho, Tum lambe ho!
I am uncomfortable with the pointing, self-conscious of the attention, aware that I am being mocked to some degree.
I demand to know what this means, these three words—I ask and ask until I find someone who speaks English.
They translate reluctantly, “It means, Sir . . . they are saying, that you are very long.”
Tum lambe ho—you are long.
Yes, I am long—and to these children, I must be a comical giant.
Fair is fair, I think. Let them define me by this singular trait—that I am so freakishly tall. I have spent my one day in India busily defining all of them, observing the terrific spectacle of everything around me, forgetting that I am part of the spectacle, too.
I am the long, white tourist visiting a rather undeveloped village on the outskirts of Agra with cameras, bottled water, hand sanitizer and hotel key in my bag. I have stared at all of India from a bus window and India has stared right back at me, equally puzzled.
Travel is always a two-way street—if we are viewing others, they are viewing us—and if ever we look at some new city or country or people through the glass of a display case, then surely it is we who are locked up in such a case, being peered at by inquisitive eyes.
In the end, we give all the children gifts of toothbrushes and soap. I am the well-meaning yet careless tourist who finds a plastic kazoo in the bottom of my bag and hands it to the tiniest of boys who immediately becomes a target of the other children. They chase him for his present and he runs barefoot to the street, blowing the kazoo—a newfangled honk added to the tireless car horn symphony that is, in fact, India’s unofficial national anthem.
After 36 short hours, I leave India, jetting away through the haze of smells and noise, returning to the pure blue sky above us all. In five minutes, everything has disappeared below and the great democracy of India returns to being a map on the in-flight screen, growing farther away by the second.
From the air, India is an immense puzzle, but already, I vow to return, because honestly, I am more puzzled now than ever before.