“India is the cradle of mankind, the birthplace of human language, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great-grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are kept only in India”.
These are words by the American writer Mark Twain, who with two brushstrokes paints a very precise picture of what India represents in the context of world civilisations. Honestly, it is very hard to disagree with him, albeit with some reservations given that India contends the title of ‘cradle of mankind’ with Mesopotamia.
To tell you the truth, I thought I was being original when I borrowed these words, but then I realized that others before me had already quoted them which, if on the one hand it makes me feel rather trivial, on the other, evidently, there must be a foundation of truth. In fact, some texts speak of an evolved and highly refined civilisation, existing along the Indus valley already eight thousand years ago, which has permeated all subsequent cultures of the East and West.
If it’s true that writing a text, whether a blog or something else, in the end and simplifying a lot is nothing more than putting a series of qualifying adjectives in sequence, writing about India, this country of large numbers , means that you have to use practically all of the adjectives, and often you even need to use superlatives. The Indian subcontinent, in fact, is so much of everything. From an estimate by the United Nations dating back to 2005, for example, in 2022 India should get ready to become the most populous country in the world. Yes, perhaps this is thanks to the Chinese one-child policy, and perhaps it is too early to have definitive data, but I am pretty sure it is about to happen.
To stay on the subject of large numbers, India is not only the cradle of civilisations but also of religion: 33 million Hindu deities are adored, venerated in 20 main languages and in over 2000 dialects. And speaking of languages and dialects, the former Shah of Persia Mohammad Reza Pahlavi said that “India […] is an incredible amalgam of races, cultures, religions and languages. There is not even a common national language. In Parliament, to understand each other, the deputies are forced to speak in English”.
On the occasion of the last Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, one of the oldest and most important festivals which is celebrated to symbolise the inner light which protects against spiritual darkness, 600,000 oil lamps were lit in the city of Ayodhya alone, and they shone for 45 minutes, while in July 2016, 50 million trees were planted on the same day in the single state of Uttar Pradesh to try to put a stop to the smog emergency.
Seen in this way, India almost seems to be just a succession of cold and impersonal numbers, a sort of ‘geographical Fibonacci frequency’. Though these numbers merely give us a quantitative image of this country, which should definitely not be overlooked, it is extremely restrictive to identify India only through numbers.
India is much more. It is the variety of landscapes ranging from the mountain peaks that caress the Himalayas in the north, to the beaches of Goa, passing through the deserts of Rajasthan; it is the chaos of its metropolis, it is peace in meditation, it is the Taj Mahal that shines with the colours of the first light of dawn and the last light of sunset; it is the isolation, protected by the Indian government, of the tribe who live on North Sentinal Island, in the Andaman archipelago, and who refuse any form of contact with strangers; it is the smoke of the funeral pyre that rises in Benares, the faithful who bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges and the kitsch joy of Bollywood; it is the Punjab of the Sikhs, people who often paid for their pride with bloodbaths both under the British oppressors and, at the end of colonisation, under the government of Indira Gandhi, who in turn paid for their repressions with her life.
Siddhārtha Gautama ‘the Buddha’, the poet Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi were born in India, soul and heart, the latter, of that mass civil disobedience that led the country to independence. Unfortunately, India is also the division into castes, the poor who have no roof or who live in slums, the horsemen of Calcutta, the thousands of sacred cows that roam undisturbed in the streets, alleys and shops. India is that “feeling of annoyance and rejection that fades as the days go by” (Ruggero Da Ros).
Once India proclaimed its independence in 1947, it began to recover its own identity by discarding that superfluous baggage left by the ancient colonisers. Goodbye then to the jacket, tie and bowler hat, so extraneous to tradition and so unsuitable for the tropical climate, to return to more practical and traditional clothing; away with the street names with their anglicising references, away with everything the British had brought along to make their stay more comfortable. Well, away with ‘almost’ everything British: the Indians have kept cricket and, for those who understand it, they seem to play it pretty well too.
Above all, away the old names that had, at least for us Westerners, that exotic sound, that acrid smell of the Orient, which has always transported the imagination into an atmosphere made of dreams and distant destinations. Goodbye to Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Benares, which just by naming them you thought you could smell the burning kettles. Welcome, somewhat reluctantly, to Mumbai, Chennay, Kolkata and Varanasi.
Then there is my India, the country of my memories, the India of old friend of mine Bruno who, about fifty years ago, traveled to India for extensive periods of the year; of the many stories he told, the one that struck me most was when he said that he always went around with a mongoose on a leash to defend himself from cobras. The India of my grandmother who, after saying her rosary and before falling asleep, she read India‘s poems, highlighting the purity and sweetness of his verses; she fantasised, at the tender age of ninety, of going to India, in southern India, to meet the holy man Sai Baba and listen to his teac
Maybe it’s true: for every trip one prepares to make, a seed was planted beforehand. It sprouts as the departure approaches and it grows day after day as if it wanted to add a further meaning to the motivations that already drive you to go to visit this or that country. And the seed of India is about to become a flower. Nothing happens by coincidence.
I believe that an in-depth discovery of India requires a mature and easily adaptable traveler who knows how to deal, with a certain amount of adaptation, with situations that can also turn out to be rather uncomfortable. A traveler who can nevertheless draw lessons from every situation he will encounter, because India can be a demanding life teacher. Returning without having treasured what this experience can teach you would only reduce the journey to a scrolling of anonymous slides.
Text and Photos by Guglielmo Zanchi (Pluto)