The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.
This isn’t the India I’d imagined.
I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.
My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.
This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.
Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.
I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.
I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.
A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.
I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.
Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.
“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”
He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.
My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.
I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.
When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.
I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.
This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?
Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.
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