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shampoo and profoundity: trying to write about india

We survived our trip to India: nine days, two kids, four people, one hotel room, three long train rides, many ruins, one safari, a smattering of elephants and crocodiles (but no tigers), a snake charmer, and the requisite souvenirs: scarves, bangles, carved Ganeshas (Caleb’s patron saint, we’ve decided), and a small but exquisite rug (which I’m sure I got for a great price because the salesman told me so: “for you, madam, very good price, the best price”).

I understand now why people go to India and never come back.  They’ve been hypnotized by the whiplash of extremes, seduced by the flash of a hot-pink sari sliding through the crowds at a train station.  The scent of Delhi’s polluted air—a combination of wood-smoke and chemicals—wafted out of our suitcase when we got back and today, three days later, when I found the sweatshirt that Liam had been wearing on our last day in India wadded into a ball under his bed, the smell was still there. It clings, gets under your skin, into the cracks.

We didn’t do anything extreme on this trip, which was eight days in the “Golden Triangle:” Delhi, then a side-trip to Ranthambore National Park for a tiger-spotting safari (hide-and-seek with tigers, tigers won), then Jaipur, Agra, and back to Delhi.  There were tour buses rumbling through each city and idling outside every monument (I guess they figure the air is already polluted, so what’s a few more particulates) but even with this clear evidence of an entire culture being packaged into little postcard-sized niblets, I think we gave ourselves a tiny taste of “real” India (train travel contributes mightily to this sense of authenticity, I have to say).  This taste-of-India trip felt like it was “ours,” but it seems impossible to write about any of it without falling into a deep crevasse of ridiculous cliché.

I’m writing this post while my cleaning lady, a lovely woman from Sri Lanka cleans my apartment and with the haze of Delhi still in my head, I can’t help but wonder what F. thinks of the abundance with which we surround ourselves. Lining the edge of my shower, for example, are three kinds of shampoo (one belongs to Husband), a body soap, an almost empty jar of conditioner, a new container of conditioner, a tub of “hair masque,” two razors, face soap, and a tube of exfoliating  stuff that I got for free when I bought my face cream.  The counter is littered with shaving cream, face lotions, body lotions, and assorted other tubes and tubs and vials.  And that’s just my bathroom.  There’s also the kids’ bathroom and all their cleaning products; and don’t even get me started on the tech in our lives, on the clutter of cords and ipads and ipods and laptops and desktops and television-related boxes and cables and plugs.

But even this observation is a cliché: to return from India aghast at the over-abundance of Western lives.  I suppose to completely fulfill the cliché, I should be giving away all but the barest essentials, but I’m not. I loves me my Frederic Fekkai shampoo, dammit, and his conditioner, and given the desalinated water that comes out of the pipes here, the tub of deep conditioner is a necessity, not an option.  So it’s not like I’m going to go all ashram-austerity here, but still. The abundance of my life means that I should never, ever complain about anything, pretty much ever again. (I can hear my husband cracking up at this last line and saying something about “then what the else will you talk about,” but I’m going to ignore that in favor of higher order thinking.)

How do I square all my bottles and unguents against the image of the man giving himself a sponge bath while standing on the raised platform of a traffic light in a busy New Delhi intersection—a platform where, judging from the blankets wadded up next to the stoplight pole, he’d set up a little camp for himself. What is all my tech doing for the little girl who rapped on our car windows in Agra, asking for baksheesh, and then when we refused, smeared the windows with dirt?

The ghost of the British Raj hovered close as I asked “our driver” (the guide company we’d hired for our days in Delhi) to drive us here, drive us there, pick us up at this other place. But the Raj ghost vanished in the face of other realities, like walking through the train station in Agra around 10:30 at night and realizing that the entire lobby floor was planked with the sleeping bodies of people who had nowhere else to go.

We were not epic adventurers on this trip; we didn’t do anything profound. We just followed the instructions of our sacred text, aka the Lonely Planet guide. And we didn’t find enlightenment (although I knew the chance of that were slim from the get-go)—and god knows we’re not the first people ever to bring their kids to India.  But you know? When you’re there, when you’re smelling jasmine through the smoky haze, or watching green parrots bicker on your hotel window sill, or wondering if the wild pigs will get off the train tracks before the train arrives in the station, or standing in awe at immensity of the Amber Fort, when you’re there, it seems impossible for it not to be profound; the very air itself seems saturated in beauty and import.

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to write about India: it swallows up anything you could possibly say in the immensity of what it is.

In the great wheels of the world, my visit was completely inconsequential.  I didn’t go save lives in tiny villages, I didn’t hang with the Prime Minister. Hell, I didn’t even do yoga (you try doing yoga in a hotel room crammed with three other people and suitcases).  People go to India all the time, so I don’t want to be all “look at me I went to India.”  But at the same time, here’s what reverberates in my head HOLY CRAP I WENT TO INDIA.

hills opposite Amber Fort, Jaipur


taj mahal in a hazy sunrise – pollution haze, not morning-mist haze

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11 Responses to shampoo and profoundity: trying to write about india

  1. Ryan November 13, 2011 at 9:28 am #

    Sounds like a very fun adventure! 🙂

  2. Erica M November 13, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    Wow. You’ve been to India! Forever forever memories. What was with dirt-smearing girl? Here in America, we accept our generational, death-hastening poverty with much more grace.

  3. Halala Mama November 13, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    without having been to India, I think I understand what you mean. I am very conscious of our western extremes when I am speaking to my husband’s relatives from Africa. that we ever feel like we go “without” is ludicrous.

  4. Aunt Soo November 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    I’ve heard from people who’ve been everywhere that India is the one place that defies all attempt to describe. I haven’t been, but felt that way about Africa. While climbing around the Sossusvlei dunes in Namibia with Dora, all we could say was, “This is so — AFRICA!” Now I want to go to India. And yes, the amount of gizmos and gadgets and goop in our lives is obscene.

  5. Poor Princess November 13, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    Lucky!!!

  6. Stasha November 14, 2011 at 2:35 am #

    Love this post. So you. I spend much of my twenties traveling there and I am no closer to understanding it.
    I think as long as we all agree that happiness for me is not the same as happiness for you or your Sri Lankan employee-world will turn around much the same, just happier. Same goes for riches…these a beautiful photos you took. They tell a story!

  7. Ado June 12, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    You were too epic adventurers, you did too do things I consider profound. it may only be a hop/skip/jump away from AD but YOU WENT TIGER SPOTTING IN INDIA. You saw Agra. And…INDIA! I have some friends who go only for the “spiritual” experience – whisked off by bus at night to an ashram, never truly seeing the real India – returning gushing about it (to my husband’s disgust because they didn’t experience the poverty). I have friends who adopted from there, are in love with it, go back time and time again. I have friends who are from there and live there half the year. I’ve never been – DYING to go. Maybe when my kids are older. My husband said the driving to Agra part – before the road was improved – was the scariest experience of his life, he was sure he was going to die. Anyway – great post.

    • Deborah Quinn June 13, 2012 at 8:52 am #

      I have the India bug bad. The smell of India – a kind of woodsy acrid smell that comes from pollution and dung and incense – I sort of love it. I have a scarf I bought there (it’s possible that “india” is the sanskrit word for “scarf”) that’s still in its bag b/c I want to preserve the smell. Anyway – the poverty…is unlike any I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Dire and desperate and unreal…and then surrounded by incredible beauty, color, elegance. My 11 year old got totally freaked by the chaos and says he will never, ever go back…but bummer for him, he doesn’t really get a vote. As for the Agra-Delhi drive? Holy crap. I practically had a religious conversion in the car praying to any god I could think of to keep us from dying. You should go. Your kids are old enough to remember it and young enough to fall asleep wherever they need to…

  8. Ado June 13, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    I would *love* to. New Zealand first – then maybe we’ll get to India!

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