On the third night of Diwali, the most celebratory eve of the 4-day Hindu holiday, I sat cross-legged on cushions high above the Rajasthani city of Udaipur at the Soul Meet Cafe, taking in the silky black waters of Lake Pichola, and watching as festivities unfolded below and above my perch.
A steady stream of women draped in saris every color of the Crayola box and bejeweled with a king’s ransom of sparkling sequins and stones strolled perpetually past on the street. They were headed to Lakshmi’s temple, to give offerings to this goddess of good fortune and wealth. I watched as a gaggle of kids – little hellions, by my curmudgeonly estimate – scrambled around the lake’s edge setting off endless rounds of fireworks – a spectacle of deafening, fizzling, booming, shooting mayhem. From my right and left, above my head, in unseen rooftops covering the town’s every nook and cranny, and I swear to god, from a tree at one point – flew a barrage of fireworks.
I sat enthralled by the sparkling beauty of a city decked out in its finest, draped in lights and glittering candles, while at the same time I cowered every few minutes as a new barrage of Grade F (my grading system) fireworks exploded and whizzed past my head. I wondered if the cries I heard were the happy kind or of the “Oh shit, I just lost a finger!” variety and made a mental map of routes back to my hotel where I’d face the least risk of maiming by explosive.
I walked more carefully that night, darting around the usual chaos of autorickshaws, motorbikes, and now this new hazard: dodgy fireworks set off by children. I exchanged happy and heartfelt “Namaste’s” and “Happy Diwali!”‘s with strangers – a general sense of heady goodwill floating through the winding streets.
The previous night we had made our way to the town’s Diwali festival, a carnival of sorts with rides, fortune tellers, chotzkes for sale and ubiquitous fried food. The pathway leading into the fair was flanked on one side by a toddler, no more than 3 or 4 years old, dressed in a shabby costume, being made to walk a tightrope on a dark patch of lawn with no net below before a rapt crowd of onlookers. A cow slept on the grass nearby. In the center of the path writhed a legless man in filthy rags, crying out for rupees. Meanwhile, a steady influx of brightly dressed families strolled blithely past, sidestepping the occasional smooshed load of cow poop, happily heading deeper into the fairgrounds.
“This is the perfect India moment,” said Ayaz. And there it was: India in a nutshell.
The rampant joy and celebration, familial love, human atrocities, an exploited child, the errant cow, a city magically illuminated by dubiously-made fireworks.
India has not for one second stopped challenging me, which truly is why it’s the country I have most looked forward to exploring on this journey. I assumed it would test me. And that is why I’m here. As I experience the cacophony of colors, sounds, smells and flavors, and witness things beautiful and horrid and hopeful and hopeless I am challenged. I try to process it all through the lens I’ve always worn, but that lens doesn’t work so well here, if at all, I’ve come to realize.
Before I arrived on the subcontinent, one of my best friends sent me a quote from the Irish philosopher and poet, John O’Donohue.
“It’s a startling truth that how you see and what you see determine how and who you will be.”
I think about those words constantly as I try on new perspectives for size. I know I will leave India in 2 weeks different, my experience larger. And I will miss the daily challenge to all I take as certain and good in the world. At least this much I can still say will remain as truth: For as long as I exist, and however and whoever I will be, I will never stop thinking about these 5 weeks in India. Not ever.