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An American in India

Adam Fivenson - October 13th, 2008
So there I was, taking a shortcut back home through an alleyway, drenched in sweat after another hour-long ride home from work in one of the sardine cans that passes for a New Delhi city bus, when bursting out of the evening shadows came a cow, apparently angered by my unintended trespassing on her turf and intent on putting her horns to use by bobbing for lungs in my chest if my next step wasn’t right back in the direction from which I’d come.
Had I found myself in the same situation months later, at a more advanced stage of my cultural assimilation, the only surprise might have been her aggressive demeanor (which I later understood to be in defense of her newborn calf), as street cows are generally about as active as your living room couch. But at this juncture, less than a month after my arrival in India, I had yet to grow accustomed to the company of the city’s thriving bovine population. How surprised was I? Well, if it’s any indication, I immediately imagined myself fumbling to re-pack various lobes of gray matter when my skull popped open in surprise.
Reasoning against spending the coming weeks learning to breathe through a tube, I bravely turned tail and fled, taking the long way home. It was somewhere between the neighborhood temple and the colony gate that I realized I wasn’t in Michigan anymore.

Back in early 2007, as it dawned on me that my imminent graduation did actually mean I’d have to leave university, and as my friends proudly jabbered on about the first of their offer letters from the big firms in Chicago, LA and New York, I pondered what to do with myself.
The few jobs I applied for hadn’t come through; responding with such a resounding chorus of refusals that I thought I might have accidentally emailed a letter soliciting their financial assistance in releasing millions of dollars stuck in a Nigerian bank account instead of my resume and cover letter. In truth, I was headed to New York City for journalism school, but not entirely sure if that was a direction I was ready to pursue.
It was under these circumstances that I came across a student organization whose mission is to connect students and recent graduates with internships abroad. Before long, I secured such a position of my own – a year-long posting at a company in New Delhi, a city that an estimated 17 million Indians call home and all 1.1 billion know as the seat of their national government.
On June 21, 2007, two months after graduation, I stepped off the plane not knowing quite what to expect, but with independent travel credentials on five continents bolstering a deep-seeded confidence that I’d adjust quickly. Little did I know how wrong I was.

Culture shock is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not a state of shock in the traditional sense. It’s not as if you stumble around, dazed and bewildered, eyes wide and oblivious to your surroundings, bumping into trees and elephants. No, it’s more of a reactionary attitude toward your environment that grows more and more staunch as unfamiliar sights and situations force you to question the basis of your experiential knowledge, both about other people and about the world.
In India, acrid statements like, “Haven’t they ever heard of hygiene?” or “Why is everyone always trying to rip me off?” or “There’s a monkey in the kitchen?” tend to be pretty good indicators that one is suffering from culture shock, and I found myself uttering them all (or some profanity-laced equivalent) during my early days in India.
Six weeks in, my state of shock, combined with the constant and inescapable exposure to poverty, scalding hot temperatures that dipped only slightly with the setting of the sun, a repaved intestinal tract now faster than the German Autobahn on account of the spicy food, a social life limited to awkward penetrating stares from strangers on the bus, and a dissatisfying internship that required riding those buses six days a week, had me questioning my dedication to the commitment I’d made put me in a contemplative funk.
Surely, I had come to explore a new culture. I had come with the expectation of confrontation with a world unlike anything I had experienced; a world that necessitated a new view of human agency and interaction, and one that challenged me to rear myself from the social level of ignorant neophyte to that of savvy adult – in short, to survive, assimilate, and eventually succeed in an utterly alien world. But up to that point, I found myself in the deep end and barely able to tread water, much less swim. Was my only salvation to hop the next plane home, figurative tail between my legs and with a plan to curl up in the comfort of my own bed to see how long I could hold the fetal position? For a while, I thought as much.

But, before I booked the ticket, I decided to give India one last shot. A pair of roommates were headed up to the low Himalayas, and kindly offered me an invitation to accompany them. I accepted, on the premise that it might be nice, before I shipped off, to see something other than New Delhi, whose omnipresent rotten stench I had found only slightly less enchanting than its inescapable contingent of scoundrels and swindlers.
It was in Haridwar, 130 miles to the north and one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities, where I was gifted with a new perspective.
Outwardly, the city is your typical cluttered Indian metropolis, replete with tangled streets, chattering car horns, animals on the loose and plenty of kind souls willing to separate tourists from the gobs of extra cash that burn deep holes in their pockets. It is also bisected by the sacred river Ganges, where thousands of Haridwar’s Hindu pious gather for the nightly Aarti ceremony.
As the sun retired from its daily duties high in the sky, my friends and I slogged our way through the muddied streets of the local market and down to the riverside mandir (temple or shrine) for the ritual, doing our best to melt into the crowd. No such luck was to be had, and within two minutes we were swarmed by local children, all demanding that we purchase their blanket-sized sheets of uncut snack wrappers for use as ground covers to sit upon instead of the stiff ground. We made it known that our interest was minimal, but that only served to incite them.
Wading our way through the crowd, excoriating the hawkers from our flanks and in search of a clear view of the opposing riverbank, where the poojah (prayer ceremony) would be centered, it was our luck to be spotted by an official of some sort who offered an invitation up to a cordoned-off set of stairs with a clear view. Graciously, we accepted, ridding ourselves of our unwelcome entourage.

So we waited on that staircase, an Austrian, a Dutch woman, and an American, eyes focused 20 yards across the river, wondering what spectacles might yet beset our eyes and ears that night.
As the last rays of sun slipped past nearby rooftops, dozens of bells began to chime and the crowd joined together in a low chant. The chant turned to song as prayer leaders lit pint-sized torches, while hundreds set prayers afloat in small leaf boats crewed by candles and loose orange, white, and pink flower petals–an armada of little green galleons sweeping down the river illuminated by the light of their own golden flames and those in the hands of the men on the riverbank.
Meanwhile, the collective verse swelled to a fervor and our thousand companions threw their hands up in one simultaneous motion, supplicating the blessing of some deity unknown to us. Making effort to draw some meaning from the proceedings, we focused on the prayer leaders, now waving frenzied bouquets of fire through the air. Mothers held their babies tight and swayed like tree branches in a light wind as sadhus (holy wanderers) bobbed their powdered foreheads, bodies draped in loose orange cloaks and feet bare as they undulated in time with the collective song.
I sat in awe, a state of total sensual immersion gripping my consciousness, and even if I couldn’t grasp the Aarti’s significance, I did understand one thing. For the first time, I was in India. Not the “India” in which I lived and worked every day – that India is a world of contradiction; a place wherein ultra-modern office buildings, ostensibly plucked from some futuristic post-apocalyptic gun-metal world (see: Blade Runner, The Matrix) lorded over shanty towns where corrugated tin-metal and blue plastic tarps are the crude building blocks of necessity. Where shopping malls filled with the hottest gadgets, designer clothes and all the trappings of self-indulgent “modern society” sit mashed right up against impoverished dust-streaked shack villages which coincidentally, house most of those who labor to build those towering modern monstrosities where ironically, they’ll never set foot. No longer was my view of the country constricted by the glaring inequality that so distracted me in the city.

As I rested beside the river that night in Haridwar, swaying with the music, watching the holy waters of the Ganges race past, mesmerized by the furtive flicker and dance of a thousand candles’ reflection in the river, it occurred to me that everything fit. This was the real India. It was spiritual, color-splashed, congested and all unabashedly so as it has been for thousands of years. That night down by the Ganges, the scene offered scant reminder that the Western world even existed; It was India in its purest form, and the pleasure of our introduction was all mine.
Of course I decided to stay, in the hope that my experience with the Aarti would not be a singular one. It wasn’t. The subsequent weeks and months brought extensive travel through jungles, deserts and mountains, a new job in sales at a multi-national real estate firm, new friends from every corner of the globe and a vastly deeper understanding of the culture and the people who comprise it. By the end of the year, I found myself bargaining and arguing in Hindi, navigating New Delhi’s labyrinthine expanse with verve, of iron stomach and no longer subject to the hygienic hijinks that plagued my first months, accustomed to the exotic odors and sights that once irked me to no end, and maybe most importantly, became friendly with the neighborhood cows.
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