"Shantaram" by Gregory David Roberts was my read for the travels home from India, and what a great way to round out my India experience. This epic novel is based on true events from Roberts' life; he's an Australian who escaped from prison and fled to Bombay, where most of the story of "Shantaram" takes place.
Roberts beautifully articulates so many of my own thoughts about this incredibly diverse country and its people. Most specifically, I really identified with Roberts' contemplations on crowding and the "me-first" mentality you see in public spaces like train stations, buses, and in queues in India.
"At first, on that first journey out of the city into India, I found such sudden politeness infuriating after the violent scramble to board the train. It seemed hypocritical for them to show such deferential concern over a nudge with a foot when, minutes before, they'd all but pushed one another out of the windows.
"Now, long years and many journeys after that first ride on a crowded rural train, I know that the scrambled fighting and courteous deference were both expressions of the one philosophy: the doctrine of necessity. The amount of force and violence necessary to board the train, for example, was no less and no more than the amount of politeness and consideration necessary to ensure that the cramped journey was as pleasant as possible afterwards. What is necessary! That was the unspoken but implied and unavoidable question everywhere in India. When I understood that, a great many of the characteristically perplexing aspects of public life became comprehensible: from the acceptance of sprawling slums by city authorities, to the freedom that cows had to roam at random in the midst of traffic; from the toleration of beggars on the streets, to the concatenate complexity of the bureaucracies; and from the gorgeous, unashamed escapism of Bollywood movies, to the accommodation of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Tibet, Iran, Afghanistan, Africa, and Bangladesh, in a country that was already too crowded with sorrows and needs of its own.
"The real hypocrisy, I came to realise, was in the eyes and minds and criticisms of those who came from lands of plenty, where no-one had to fight for a seat on a train. Even on that first train ride, I knew in my heart that Didier had been right when he'd compared India and its billion souls to France. I had an intuition, echoing his thought, that if there were a billion Frenchmen or Australians or Americans living in such a small space, the fighting to board the train would be much more, and the courtesy afterwards much less."
I think these paragraphs are such a brilliant meditation not just on India, but on travel and cultural differences everywhere. We talk about "culture shock," and what we usually mean is that it feels weird when we have to confront the fact that litter is everywhere in India, or adjust to the different understanding Indians have of personal space, or adapt to the strangeness of eating with your hands, or the inconvenience of using a "bathroom" that's really just a hole in the ground. (Or, while we're at it, why a restaurant in a train station will have a huge menu detailing 60+ dishes, only to inform you after you try to order lunch that the only thing available until 5 p.m. is chicken biriyani.)
But Roberts is talking about something else. He's talking about the Indian way of life and, in this case, how it informs Indians' behavior and expectations in public spaces. But he is also taking about humanity.
It is easy to become frustrated when we don't understand why people do the things they do, when people act seemingly illogically or unexpectedly. But the truth is, we all survive by doing "what is necessary." This is why people fight ferociously for a take-away container of rice and lentils on a train platform in Mangalore. This is why rickshaw drivers in Cochin hassle us to a point of anger — we are their livelihood. Our fare might have paid for dinner for the driver and his family that night. It also explains why strangers on a long-distance train shared their already-minimal space with us — two clueless Americans with no understanding of the intricacies of sleeper class seating — for eight hours without once giving us a harsh glance or an elbow to the ribs.
When you start to understand that, you start to understand India.
I would like to think I am returning from India a better person — hopefully I've grown more patient, or more sympathetic. In reality, I am probably minimally changed, but the experiences I've had in this country were so charged with truth that I am inspired to seek more of them, all over the world.
Thank you, India.