They say getting here is half the fun… if you’re a masochist, perhaps. I arrived on Friday morning and only now, awaking on Tuesday morning, do I really feel like I’m rested and energized after sleep. Part of the reason for my unusually longer acclimation was the exacerbation of jetlag from my torturous itinerary, which took me to Mumbai from Chicago via both Abu Dhabi and Chennai (Madras), the latter my point of entry to India requiring re-checking my bags and changing terminals. This wasn’t that big a deal for a single traveler with minimal luggage, but 30-odd hours in transit is pretty wearying even with the most optimal connection.
The other reason for my exhaustion was the grueling schedule of an Ashara itself. The nominal schedule isn’t that complicated – wake at 6am, eat by 8am, arrive at masjid by 10am, listen to bayaan (sermon) for 4 hrs, eat around 3pm. After that there various other options ranging from going to your hotel to sticking around at the masjid for the evening majlis. But the combination of heat, throng, and dirt conspire against you. And yet, though the physical exhaustion can be daunting, the spiritual nourishment transcends these petty complaints. Still, you need to prepare.
I think I am pretty well acclimated now and am already making more of my day – being here in Mumbai is an opportunity for me to connect with not only my own culture’s isocenter, but also with family and friends for whom their dominant memory of me is a bored little kid playing with GI Joes. I am only here for one day (half-day really) after Ashura so i won’t have that much time to travel beyond Mumbai, but I will make the most of what time I have while I’m here.
Though I used to come here about every three to four years while growing up, it’s been nearly 15 years since my last visit to India. In that time I’ve been many other places, including Africa and the Middle East. But India has always been the juggernaut on the horizon, a place of childhood memories and near-mythical reputation. On my last trip, I visited palaces and monuments in Agra and Jaipur, watched Zee TV in posh bungalows, and dined like a king. This time around, I am much closer to the substance of Indian life, despite staying at a five-star hotel – the pampering ends when I walk out the door at 8am. From then on, India is in my face and the rickshaw drivers don’t need my fare. I walk a lot.
The reality of India is that only a small fraction of its people live in a capitalist, democratic, economic society. The rest are in a separate universe, layered over the fancy one like double vision. The parade of incongruities is endless; gleaming skyscrapers in front of slums, beggars asking for alms outside Domino’s Pizza, and of course the careening traffic, with cattle and rickshaws fighting for space alongside luxury cars and dilapidated buses, all weaving in utterly incomprehensible chaos. Even in Marol, which has 5 star hotels at every corner and the busiest international airport in Asia (or top 5, at least), you have open sewers and stray dogs and kids playing cricket in garbage-strewn fields. I feel a combined sense of despair and optimism, for the way in which so many of the people here survive and even thrive with so little (in the face of so much of plenty), which is both tragic and inspiring at the same time.
India starts out by overwhelming you. Then you start to tune out everything beyond your sphere of interest, bit by it, until you stop seeing all of it. I dont want to stop seeing, but neither can I let the crazy, immensity of all of it interfere with my purpose in coming here.