"If one more person pushes and squeezes me in the aarti again I'm going to scream!" The tears in her eyes are testimony to the very real pain this young British woman is experiencing. To an Indian, this pain is unfathomable. Pushing and squeezing are part and parcel of Indian life. Overcrowding is not, in many cases, the reason. Rather, the reason touches upon something much deeper about India, and explains one of the reasons that visits are so emotionally difficult for people from other countries.
Absence Of "Social Space" In India
"Are you married? Why aren't you married? How come your parents let you come to India? How much money do you make?"
After living here for nearly 15 years I have realised that there is no concept of social space the way we understand it in the West. In the West, there is a universally understood "buffer zone" around each of us, physically and emotionally, which can be trespassed upon only by intimate friends and relations. If two people start to get too physically close to each other (unless there is romance brewing), an invisible yet almost tangible magnet will pull them backwards until the comfortable social distance is re-established. In India this is not the case. If two people are sitting next to each other, with a socially comfortable 5 or 6 inches of space between them, an Indian could easily come and squeeze into that spot with no sense of having committed a social faux-pas. I cannot say the number of times someone has come and sat down basically on my lap in a function. "But how in the world did a voluptuous woman think there was room to sit down?" I used to wonder. "Didn't she realise she'd be sitting on my legs?" Of course she realised. But, to her there's nothing wrong with that. My legs, my lap, my personal space are absolutely viable options for places to sit. Of course, there is no accompanying sense of embarrassment or apology, for if there is no such thing as social space, then it can't be violated.
The same is true emotionally. "Are you married? Why aren't you married? How come your parents let you come to India? How much money do you make? " The questions flow out in a fast stream, like a waterfall upon an unsuspecting bather who went into a pond for a relaxing dip, not realising what was about to rain down upon his head. The look of bewilderment and embarrassment on the face of the questionee doesn't deter the questions either. Again, there is no personal/social space they have invaded.
India Shows Us India From The Inside
"To try to hold India at an arm's distance is about as effective as holding up a stop-sign at an approaching tsunami."
India is not a country which can be seen at an arm's distance. It is not a country which can be seen from behind the lens of a camera. It is a country which can ONLY be seen when it has entered and affected every single cell of our being. To try to hold India at an arm's distance is about as effective as holding up a stop-sign at an approaching tsunami. And that's the beauty of India. India does not show us India from the outside. India shows us India not in bricks, cement, mud or thatch. India shows us India only from the inside. Once it has entered our being, held up the mirror of ourselves to ourselves, once it has brought out the very worst and also the very best in us (sometimes alternating almost comically in a period of merely minutes or hours), once it has turned us upside down and inside out, only then has India showed us India.
The West can be held at a distance. One can visit Europe and "see" Europe by visiting cities and country-sides, cathedrals and ancient ruins, by sipping coffee in cafes and eating baguettes and brie on park benches.
India As Healer
But India wants to get inside. And it will, for our own benefit. If medicine were unable to penetrate the cell wall, to get deep within our cells and spill its contents there, it would be unable to help us. Merely floating around in our bloodstream, helpless in the face of an impermeable cell wall, medicine would be futile. In the same way, India is meant to heal us. But only from the inside. Only if it can penetrate the walls. Only if we let it in.
Violated Or Adopted: The Choice Is Ours
When I first came to India I almost immediately decided to wear sarees, and I wore them poorly at first. So poorly in fact that every time I wandered outside of the ashram, random women would come up to me, stick their hands into my saree, grab the place where the pleats tuck into the petticoat, and -- with a sharp tug -- pull my saree into its proper place. The first time it happened, I was aghast. I remember thinking, "Oh my God. That woman just stuck her hands into my underwear." Then I stopped, and I realised that rather than thinking that an unknown woman had just violated my personal space in a very significant way, I could also think, "Wow. That woman just did for me exactly what she would have done for her own daughter. That woman just adopted me." Suddenly, rather than being violated, I had been adopted. Day after day, by woman after woman, until I finally learned to tie my sarees correctly, I was adopted in this way by uncountable Indian women.
India is a country where everyone is a family relation. Uncle, Aunty, Bhai and Behen are ubiquitous suffixes. The concept of Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam (the World is One Family) is not merely a trite platitude. It is truly the way that India operates. If she's my aunty then of course there's nothing wrong with her sitting half-way into my lap. If she is Mataji and thus I am her daughter, then of course she can put her hands in my underwear to fix my saree.
"Pushing and squeezing are part and parcel of Indian life. Overcrowding is not, in many cases, the reason."
When someone sits down on our legs because he/she has decided that the 5 inches of space next to us is enough to squeeze into, or when someone asks us questions more personal than we'd comfortably tell our own therapist, let us pause for a moment and realise we have a choice. We have either been violated or adopted. The choice is up to us, and the outcome of our trip to India -- whether it is divinely heart opening and beautifully transformative, or frustrating, infuriating and nerve-wracking -- bears direct correlation to which choice we make. Violated or adopted? What other country offers such a choice?
The author is the director of the International Yoga Festival at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh. The festival runs from 1-7 March.