As soon as the feet step off the plane, India calls the senses to alert. Heat immediately wraps around exposed skin, seeping through day-old travel clothes. A warm, musky odor confirms that the sterile plane environment has been left behind, as a child returning home inhales deeply and sighs with content, “Ah, it smells like Mumbai.” To the unfamiliar nose, it’s a smell that can’t be placed, for which the brain has as of yet no mental map. It is deep and inescapable, somehow both sweet – as if fruit has been left in the sun too long – and sour; not in a crisp, tart way, but with an edgeless humidity, as if after strenuous physical activity when all olfaction is filtered through the smell of body heat.
Stepping outside of the airport, the ears are inundated with families and drivers shouting names of loved ones and travelers, each competing to see if his voice can rise above the dull roar. There is a small space between the the newcomer and the sea of people, creating a stage on which the deer-in-headlights act can be perfected. The traveler stands, exposed, searching the crowd for signs that her own name, now foreign when spoken with a different tongue, is part of this cacophony. There is something pivotal about this moment: a clear division between the foreigner and the uncertain terrain of the new world she has elected to temporarily join. For many, it is both the last time on the journey that separation will be so physically demarcated and the first of many times that the feeling of separation will permeate interactions, as someone who is both watching and being watched. In many ways it is a choice point, like standing on the edge of the tracks as a train rushes past and having exactly one breath to decide whether to freeze and miss the train or speed up to jump aboard.
Leaving the airport – traveling through Mumbai, over the long, windy mountain roads, and into rural Maharashtra – the senses continue to be bombarded. The nose quickly habituates to the pungent smell, which begins to make more sense when navigating streets filled with trash, defecation from cows and goats, wild boars rummaging through sewage, street dogs scratching patchy skin, stagnant water, and fumes from motorbikes and cars and buses that leave a trail of brown exhaust in their wake. Lining the littered, dirt roads are women, wrapped in colorful saris, sitting on the ground with piles of mangoes or bananas in front of them. Male vendors stand lazily behind lopsided carts selling snacks and candies. There are people everywhere. To new eyes, the shop fronts and living spaces crowding the edges of the streets are dilapidated; the brown stains from the streets continuing up the perimeter, with roofs of unsteady tin providing only a suggestion of security from the external elements. Horns fire at constant rates, singing messages that outsiders can’t or may not even try to interpret, as they hold their breath during the seemingly endless game of chicken that drivers play, weaving in and out of traffic amidst a circus of pedestrians, bikes, animals, and vehicle.
Away from district or city centers, the villages convey a more subdued energy. Adolescents walk to and from school along dirt paths, passing farmland hopeful for rain and vegetation. Out in the fields, the eyes catch sight of the occasional makeshift home, assembled from pieces of stray wood and hay. Ditches along the village streets catch trash and polluted water, while children play in the dirt nearby, occasionally removing their pants to squat and relieve themselves. Goats are scattered and tethered outside of the houses, while livestock wander in packs throughout the village, eventually gathering to reside within or nearby the small home of their owner. The proximity of animals to humans is striking, an observation that outsiders would quickly label as unsanitary and unsafe. Homes, many without electricity, are dark and sweltering in this season, filled with a number of inhabitants who often share one small room, a kitchen, and, sometimes, a specific area designated as the bathroom. The walls, chipped and cracked, expose their inner structures. In slums, walls and rooms are often not present at all, a tarp simply providing a thin lining under which to sleep and live. Here, nutritious food and clean water are a luxury. Rain and sewage seeps through to clothes and blankets, leaving damp conditions that draw mosquitos and infections. Smoke fills the houses and lungs while women, crouched on the floor with sweat dripping down their foreheads, prepare rice and dal for hungry families.
But opening your heart, a larger story emerges. The eyes begin to see signs of community, kinship, and kindness. Men walk, hand in hand, freely expressing the affection of friendship without second thought. Babies stare, wide-eyed at foreign features, and children excitedly wave, exhausting their grasp of the English language as they exclaim a string of Hi!s Wow!s and Hello!s. Women put their hands together in front of their faces, bowing slightly with Namaste, a greeting – loosely translated as I recognize the divine, or good, in you – that in itself conveys a world of information about the values of this culture. Houses are small and money is scarce, but guests are pulled off the streets and into people’s homes to have tea; a gesture of generosity, respect, and welcoming. Multiple generations live nestled in each home, the sight of child and great-grandmother illustrating the foundational value placed on family. Above the water-starved land, colors rise from the vibrant dance of brightly painted cattle horns, head scarves, bangles, bindis, decorative paint, and flags marking gathering spots, all bringing the scene dynamically to life. In many villages, green and orange mark Muslim and Hindu places of worship that rest side by side, with individuals of both faiths participating in the song and dance of each group’s celebrations. Groups of men, and groups women, gather on walls and in front of buildings, sharing time, space, and stories.
There is an openness in rural India, the land and people existing as part of the same continuous spectrum rather than being closed off, compartmentalized. The briefest, sincere conversation – with or without spoken words – quickly reveals the remarkable humanity of people who are both very different and in some ways not so different from yourself. Another choice point emerges, over and over again: to remain distant; or to move in, risking vulnerability, to find connection. Like the walls, cracked and exposing their inner workings, so too people expose their anguish and joy, the depth of their hearts, if granted the opportunity to interact with openness, dignity, genuine curiosity, and kindness.
This is India, through the senses – through my senses. There is pain and there is hardship. There are harsh realities, and there is enormous need for social, health, and economic development. There are heartbreaking experiences of marginalization and inequity that need to be addressed. There is also color and vibrancy, spirituality and groundedness, reverence for community and kinship, and beautiful people who – like all people around the world – have beating hearts, breathing lungs, loss and laughter, hopes and heartache, and powerful stories to share.