Out of India

Ruth Lawlor looks back on her recent trip to Chennai, India for the World Universities Debating Championship.

There are some moments in your life that resonate, reverberate like sounds or invade like smells, still-frames or snapshots that stay with you. They capture the beauty and the absurdity all at once. I imagine that those moments are the ones that will endure, that will play themselves before me as I die, not as a reflection of my life but of life itself, that strange thing we cling to.

There were lots of moments in India; lots of wonderful, wonderful moments.

There was the first day when we arrived and I felt like I’d stepped back in time about thirty years. Ten paces into the new territory and it could have been another world. India is loud and hot and busy. It’s like Europe enhanced: bolder, brighter, bigger. The people are very welcoming and they laugh when you grin and say nundri for the dinner, and they laugh when you try to put those liquorice-tasting seeds in your milkshake because of course you’re supposed to lick them from the palm of your hand to settle your stomach after the spicy fore-course.

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I wish I could write you, India, but you are not a place made for words to fit you. As a country, India is so diverse: there is no national language, no unifying language – so how can words ever possibly complete it?

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Then there was that trip to the lighthouse that was 10 rupees for everyone and 50 rupees when we came along. That day we went to the temple and children followed us around to wish a Happy New Year and have their photograph taken with the visitors. An old man with face-paint and a loin cloth told us about his life and a wizened religious devotee gave his blessing with a breath of smoking incense in return for a silver coin. Meanwhile our friendly tuk-tuk driver remained loyally besides, translating every now and then, refusing to accept payment for his kindness. We bought saris that day too and asked if we could try them on – the shop assistant said sure thing and looked at us expectantly. Of course we were bewildered so she did it for us; by that stage quite a crowd had gathered and we left both excited and bemused with purchases in hand.

We gate-crashed an Indian wedding, but the Muslim one down the road looked a lot more fun. And I went paragliding and emptied the contents of my stomach when I landed because the food is tough going after a while, and I never really liked rice that much anyway. In Delhi I thought I might have reached Land’s End, the end of the line, because the fog was so heavy and through it weaved the shadows of men and monkeys, the men in strange turbans and the monkeys on chains. And some of the monkeys wore make-up and clothes, and I was sort of thankful for the fog because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what lay beyond.

I wish I could write you, India, but you are not a place made for words to fit you. As a country, India is so diverse: there is no national language, no unifying language – so how can words ever possibly complete it? It is larger than vocabulary; it moves faster than etymology and encompasses all the things you could possibly ever want to say. It is not beyond description but certainly evades it. Perhaps that is because India is more than a photograph or an essay – it is a life, an intimacy and understanding. The food is like perfume; you can feel the flavours mingling on your tongue and smell the delicacy in your mouth. The streets are broken and rubbled in parts, and you try to step over the potholes in your flip flops and at first you avoid eye contact but then you look around and everyone is glancing curiously at you and talking to you and smiling at you, or laughing when you try to cross the road. Because there are no traffic lights, and why should there be? Nothing slows the pace, nothing changes the direction – you have to pick your destination and run for it, and hope they swerve to avoid you. It’s only if you waver that you might get hit.

There were lots of wonderful moments in India. We were travelling by bus one morning; I turned my face towards the breeze. The streets are always busy in Chennai, so many people. One billion people, or so they say, but it’s hard to really imagine it until you go there. Across three lanes of traffic, each filled with cars honking, not out of any sense of indignation but just sort of as an expression of “Hey, I’m here, look out for me”, there was a man lying on the pavement, wrapped in newspaper like swaddling clothes on the dirty street. Above him was a concrete wall, and the wall had a sign on it; there were lots of signs, side by side, red writing on white background. And this one said: The life you live will soon be past, but the things you do for love will last.

And that was the moment.