How could I forget my first evening in India. No, even my first moments in that extraordinary land, since it is not a single country, but a mélange of thousands of shades and colours, cultures and sub-cultures, all loosely united – and often not – as a single entity.
Let me make it clear from the start; I didn’t travel to India on any pilgrimage or search for Truth or Enlightenment, or any of those old clichés that are trotted out as reasons for visiting the sacred and profane India. Almost the contrary, for I was a wild young twenty-one year old out on a prolonged adventure to discover the world, a traveler on the slow and gloriously challenging overland trail between Australia and Europe, taking in all that happened along the way. Plenty, and I soaked it all up, drank my fill and then some.
The first four months of my journey, through South East Asia and Nepal, had surely changed my life forever, exposed me to a world that in naivity and inexperience, I’d never dreamed existed, however much I’d considered myself a young man of the world, relatively aware and awake to life. Ha ha, how I’d been humbled in that brief time, confronted at first-hand with the depth of my innocence and ignorance.
That my life had changed forever was clear after only first three days in Bali, back in 1975. The next four months had only consolidated the awe and fascination, as remarkable, ordinary-extraordinary experiences tumbled one after the other, insisting beyond denial that I reconsider all that had formed my mind and attitudes before taking off from the sheltered, raw culture that had been my Australia.
One aspect of that assault on my senses, of course, had been the religion and spirituality that imbue all the countries I travelled through. Fascinating, mysterious, confronting after 21 years living in a spiritual vacuum, I could not ignore the richness, the diversity and the significance of belief as the bedrock of those different societies.
Still, I observed it all as an outsider, even still unaware of the firmly constructed wall of resistance I’d constructed as ‘protection’ against the superstitious irrationality of such realms. Nah, not for me, mate. However beautiful, gracious and inspiring were all the different manifestations in each spiritual belief system, it was just not my way. I even held a condescension that spirituality was some sort of crutch for those who needed support for handling ‘real life’. Oh dear, how I cringe now at my abysmal ignorance. What to do though, for we are as Life shapes us.
Sure, on reflection there had been strong Indian influences in my early life. At a very young age, perhaps only two or three, I have sweet, clear memories of lying in bed with mum and dad and my older sister on Sunday mornings, in the radio ritual of listening to the Tales of Kipling. This was when a ‘double’ bed was moreorless the same size as today’s three-quarter. So I was very small and young when Mowgli and Sher Khan, Baloo and Bagheera, lit my imagination, and the tale of Kim and his adventures and interaction with India filled my young soul with yearning for such wanderings.
But beyond those impressions, I had no particular pull towards India, imagining as a youth that my destiny and first explorations of the world would be towards South America and what seemed to be a more playfully exotic continent. Certainly gurus and temple prostrations were the last things that attracted my restless desires.
Still, India was a large traverse on the trail towards Europe, so it was inevitable that I was going to pass through it. The tales of fellow travelers along the way during those first few months on the road were many and varied, and quite evenly divided between love for its eccentric challenges, and something like hatred for the filth and inequalities and endless hassles that beset many foreign visitors.
An extended month or so in Nepal did little to increase my attraction for India, since many likened it to aspects of India, but with far less problems and rip-offs and frustrations, and without the overwhelming confusion of such overcrowded and stinking, polluted towns and cities. Still, with winter’s approaching chill in the air, there was no question of prolonging our stay until the snow began falling. Sadly we took the bus down the circuitous mountain road to Birgunj/Raxaul, the Nepali-Indian border-post.
Time seems to have a different frame of reference on the sub-continent. No matter how early you depart, every journey seems to take a full day. If you’re lucky, and all goes smoothly. We were blessed with no dramas to hold us up, but still, in spite of an early start, the day was fast drawing towards night when we were disgorged from the bus at the border.
There was a brief stretch of no-man’s land separating the two border posts. It may be melodramatic to say that the 100 metres of pot-holed road separating the neighbouring countries changed my life. The distance had nothing to do with the transformation, nor any of the elements that filled the scenario. I had seen them all before, one by one, in various situations along the way. Sunset, buffaloes, dust, people dressed against the descending cold. Nothing special, one by one, it’s true.
Of course it wasn’t time and place that created the epiphany, even if both of those perhaps played a role in the moment. Laden down by our backpacks like two distorted turtles, we trudged towards India: a blood-red sun sinking into the gloom of the evening, air thick and pungent with the dust and smoke of a myriad of dung and twig fires; enormous white bullocks, ribs sharply defined as shadow and hide, being led home by their owners; shadowy shapes of people swathed in shawls and blankets, gender as obscure as their faces; sound muted by the intent of everyone bustling and drifting to wherever they called home, occasionally punctuated by the klaxon of an unseen truck or bus.
Oh yes, the scene was evocative. Perhaps the hidden images of Kim and his escapades struck a chord too. Whatever, in those moments I was struck by a profound knowing that this was not simply my entry into India, and a transit on the long road to Europe. Quite simply, I knew that the experiences that would befall me in that vast land, would stamp such deep impressions that would colour my life forever in a different hue.
Forty three years later, that knowing has been reconfirmed over and over. Like all who have come and gone, or come and stayed, India transforms the visitor infinitely more than any impact which an invader or a traveler, an army or a colonialist, may have. I am grateful forever.