One of the perhaps most defining characteristics of India and its people is the lack of angst.
"Angst" is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as:
- [F]ear or apprehension, a feeling of deep anxiety or dread - typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.
The stuff European dreams are made of, in short. Why is this important? Because angst nurtures, or the lack of it doesn't nurture, many things relevant to humanity as we know it. What is ambition really, if not the slightly perverse notion that the finiteness of life and logically following fear of the mystery that is death can be put on the back burner if only you make something of yourself? That if you get a certain job, have a certain number of beautiful children with your certainly gorgeous wife in a certainly big house, you've got nothing to be nervous about when death comes a-knockin' because you did your best, not like your loser of a high school best friend who rarely wears pants and lives on a diet of cereal with "that'll-still-do" milk?
"Being two hours late to anything besides the airport is not only tolerated but expected."
Which is not to say that Indians aren't ambitious - even though not many of the shamefully affluent people I've met here could really give me a satisfactory answer when I asked what it was they did - they are, just perhaps less urgently so. They don't seem too bothered about how their life is really going to work out. And this is true across many socioeconomic strata - the slum kid trying to sell you umbrellas in the smoggy but certainly rainless season in Bombay won't be any less talkative or friendly after he figures out you won't buy one, or for that matter take your money without giving you the umbrella in return. Being two hours late to anything besides the airport is not only tolerated but expected. Men get older and - shock, horror - women do, too. People admit to having stupid children. Nothing about life in India has the cutthroat pace of the western hemisphere where if you don't meet, or better, surpass, your neighbours living standard you might as well go live in a squat, you bane of your mother's existence, you.
"India, to me, is a place to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable."
This Indian ease of living is one of the reasons (or at least one of the ones I can actually pinpoint) why I fell in love with the place. And it was one of those easy, balmy Indian nights when, watching the sun come up over the mess that is Bombay, my last drink of the night turning into the first one of the day, I noticed myself thinking that I didn't want to leave. India, to me, is a place to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. Which is why, almost two years later, I still only leave it when I absolutely have to.
Being back in Europe after having experienced India is incredibly surreal. Walking the streets of Berlin with Bombay dirt on my shoes, seeing German people scattered here and there and suddenly being really aware of them like never before, so familiar but maybe because of it, so strange... The absence of all those intense smells and noises, the absence of almost everything but order... Leaving India feels like the time you host the most amazing house party, and then morning comes and the people go, leaving behind this big, loud silence that, like water, finds every corner and drenches it in emptiness.
Once, exiting a pastry shop specialized in donuts (you have to ask them not to warm them up in the microwave, just imagine.) I saw a naked child of about four sleeping on the pavement and decided to give him my donuts. The moment I did so, another child no more than two years older and very obviously related to the one in possession of the donuts appeared out of nowhere and clubbed him over the head with a stick, snatching the bag of pastries from him. I, in a moment of bravery, and wagering that a six-year-old would probably be intimidated by my meagre but nonetheless adult presence, decided to intervene - which is the story of how I got the lashing of a lifetime.
I have a friend who likes Oreos very much. So one time I went to meet him I bought him a large packet of specially flavoured ones from India. When he opened it, he noticed that the filling was missing from every single one of them. But not only that - the cookies didn't look like the filling had simply been forgotten - but smudged traces of cream here and there made it seem as though somebody in the Oreo factory had intercepted them between the confectioning and the sealing of the packet and had neatly licked the cream off of each one. Now, this was obviously (probably? hopefully?) not so, but try as I might I couldn't explain that to my friend, so I've decided to refrain from bringing him edible gifts in the future, not just because he asked me to.
I had been out and about in India with two girlfriends for the first few months of my stay here, which meant that we mostly traveled in a rickshaw in a trio. Being the most complacent one, I always got stuck riding in the middle. So weeks before the festival of color, Holi, I started buttering up one of them to ride in the middle, so I could have the good seat for once. And surprisingly, after a while, she conceded. So there we are on the morning of the festival, piling into a rickshaw, me taking my place on the side for the first time. We start moving, I can feel the air brushing my face, see the buildings pass us by, and it is all very exciting when, after barely twenty seconds, I get a giant balloon of tinted water slammed straight into my face.
Bangalore, on a Friday. The three of us are in a cab on our way to the airport when we realize that my friend left something behind at the hotel. We were cutting it a little close, sure, but were by no means going to miss the flight if we went to get it. So we tell the cab driver to turn back. Stopped at a red light, we notice a stranger walking towards the cab. He's wearing boxer shorts and a wifebeater that must have been white before being sent to war, covering only half of his - truly impressive - gut. We figure he must be the cabbie's friend, because at this point it's clear that he is approaching our car - when he taps at the back window on Alexandra's side (I had by this time gone back to the riding on the cheap seat, of course). She rolls down her window and I swear this is what the disheveled complete stranger goes on to say: "Sandra, go to the airport, you going miss flight, no". The freak occurrence left such an impact that we decided to take his advice and had to discover that we would indeed have missed the flight had we not listened to mystery man.