Following Katrell Christie to India was an experience of full immersion — like diving into a swimming pool and being surrounded by water instead of air.
The journalist Robert Kaplan wrote that India, like Turkey, Egypt and Iran, “sucks you in with the immense depth of its civilization and issues.”
At first, it’s a sensory experience.
We flew into Mumbai in the middle of the night and walked out of the airport into the warm, humid night. We drove past the shadowy figures of people sleeping in the streets. Our hotel was on the grounds of a Hindu temple. At four a.m. we were awakened by the sound of chants, bells and drums. At dawn, we could hear loud bird calls mixed with the sound of cars gunning their engines and honking their horns.
The smell of Mumbai has been described before. To me, it was a mixture of diesel fumes, incense and rotting vegetation, with a hint of the sewers.
On the streets during the day, a steady stream of people flowed. Against the backdrop of dull buildings and dusty roadsides, were women in colorful saris and kurtas. The cut of their clothing was similar, but the fabric was printed in innumerable colors and designs.
I began to see India’s influence on the 1960s aesthetic in the United States — the flowing paisleys and bright psychedelics.
Everywhere were people and heat and dirt and beautiful colors and skinny, mangy dogs and often skinny, wandering cows. It took time to get places and we often retreated from the heat into India’s version of Starbucks, Cafe Coffee Day, which serves up a sensational frozen coffee drink called an “Eskimo.”
A great mingling
India is a mix of many groups of people. There are the religious differences — Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jainist and many more — but also various castes of people, which, as foreigners, we didn’t quite recognize. But we could easily see the huge gulf between rich and poor.
Lean rickshaw drivers panting as they pulled a seated passenger. A tea seller waking up from his pallet on the asphalt to open up for business in the morning. A community of families living under a bridge.
In the hotels, a huge attentive staff ready at any moment to assist the pampered guest. The young and affluent Indians sitting in bars and coffee shops.
At the Kalighat neighborhood in Kolkata sits both the Kali Temple and Mother Teresa’s hospice for the destitute and dying. The city is named for the goddess Kali, and a temple was established there in the 1500s.
I joined the line of people to enter the temple to see the face of this ferocious mother goddess, often pictured with a garland of skulls around her neck and a belt of severed arms around her waist.
A man was lying inside the wire cage that surrounded the statue of the goddess. What was he doing there? A woman knelt in supplication. What was her relation to Kali?
As the line filed up to the inner sanctum, I finally reached the front. A bare-chested young priest grabbed me and thumped an orange smudge on my forehead. I offered my garland of flowers to the goddess and was jostled out the door by the crowd.
Into the mountains
We flew to Bogdogra in West Bengal, and then bounced over a pot-holed road up to Darjeeling, where the first group of Learning Tea scholars lives. The town is perched on steep mountain slopes, and four-wheel drive vehicles labor up one curving main street through the city. Each house seems to look down on its neighbor’s roof.
In this part of the world, there is an attentiveness and civility in the way people address each other — which I associate with Buddhism. But underneath, there is a careless exploitation of people’s labor, a caste system that traps people into poverty and rampant sex trafficking.
Its an area of great natural beauty: the lush green tea plantations and the astounding Himalayas.
However, it’s not an easy place to for young girls to grow up if they are without family or money. Which is why the Learning Tea operates there, providing education and prospects to the scholars in the program — who look at their surroundings with a careful eye and work toward a future in which they can make a difference.
Stell Simonton, freelance journalist