There are at least three stories I can tell you of India. One is of magic and warmth, colors and sunlight. Of a land that was once called the jewel in the crown of the British Empire in reference to its beauty and bounty. One is of chaos. Of a massive population and a flawed infrastructure that has collapsed under the weight. And one is of hardship. Of a hard and sometimes cruel world.
I am lucky I am arriving from Bangkok, I think as my driver drifts deliberately into oncoming traffic to pass a tuk tuk he’s decided is moving too slowly. Otherwise my arrival in Delhi might have shocked me senseless from the onslaught. Traffic rules seem to exist only to add color to the background. In the Delhi morning the streets fill with vendors selling clothing and other items. The sellers stand amidst their wares on the tables while shoppers surround them at least 6 deep on all sides. I’ve never seen so many people on a street. But this is a typical Saturday.
Cars mix with buses, tuk tuks, bicycles, push carts and motorbikes. I see people walking on the expressway interchanges under the city. Bicycles pull onto the highway. Busses slow but do not entirely stop for people to jump on in the middle of a busy roundabout.
As my group travels overland to the Silk Road town of Mandawa, I repeatedly am slammed forward and upward on broken roads. It’s a very physical journey despite the fact that we have a plush tourist bus. The average car horn is apparently insufficient for us to communicate with other drivers. So we have also a musical five-note melody that blasts at least three times louder at the driver’s discretion. Unfortunately, we are not the only vehicle with this privilege and at times the cacophony is deafening.
In one town, a group of at least 50 cluster around an intersection where I glimpse blood on the road and pieces of a motorcycle. Our guide confirms someone has likely died in a road accident not long before. The blood is so red I have a hard time processing that it is real. Across India, the roads are the first and loudest sign that the infrastructure has failed and millions of people are making do on their own.
One day I descend from the bus to the palace in Jaipur and search for a bin to toss my banana peel and empty water bottle. A woman appears and takes the bottle from me. I’m not sure if her job is to keep the area clean, or she’s looking to recycle the plastic for another use. Maybe for a reimbursement. I use gestures to ask about the banana peel and she mimes throwing it on the ground. Perhaps her job isn’t sanitation then. When I hesitate, she takes the peel from me and throws it down herself. In Mandawa, we feed our banana peels directly to one of the nearby cows instead. Cows are everywhere.
In Jodhpur I watch a boy doing chores as he takes out the household trash. And dumps it in the middle of the street. Even in Mandawa, a much smaller town, I am startled as a man squats down not three feet from me. He faces the wall and quietly urinates.
There are cows everywhere. And dogs. And their leavings. Wild pigs root in trash heaps, and you must watch your step at all times. Monkeys run across the roofs and scamper down some streets. Young puppies sleep curled together on a pile of trash in the street.
And yet as soon as I step inside a home, into a courtyard, or into a building of all except the poorest of families the filth stops. The chaos stops. Even small homes are swept clean, the shelves and belongings are arranged in an orderly fashion, and shoes are neatly lined by the door. Not ten feet into the courtyard of our hotels the noise fades and instead I am greeted by cool interiors, bubbling fountains that at one time used to contain perfumed water, and beautiful design. On the rooftops are neat lines of washing, or prettily mosaiced patios swept clean of any dirt.
The stark contrast makes it clear that the chaos and filth is a symptom of a broken and collapsed infrastructure. It is not a sign of a messy culture. Nor of preference. This is a land that values beauty and peace and warm inviting design. But the population explosion has crushed an already flawed infrastructure. It pushes the peace and beauty back behind walls and into private dwellings, and leaves the public spaces clogged with the waste of life.