Step 4: Acceding to Chaos

Trying Really Hard To Like India

Step 4: Acceding to Chaos

Trying Really Hard To Like India

Step 4: Acceding to Chaos
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Sept. 30 2004 4:00 PM

Trying Really Hard To Like India

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A street scene in Trivandrum, Kerala
A street scene in Trivandrum, Kerala
Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Our first day out in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), we were approached by a man who—I'm fairly certain of this—planned to kidnap us. He gave us this carefully polished spiel about needing to cast a few extras for a Bollywood movie and how we'd be perfect for this scene he was shooting, so if we would just hop into his car with him … Tempting, but no dice. (It sort of cooled our jets when, in the middle of the pitch, this other Indian guy ran over and shouted, "Be careful with this man! This is a dangerous man!")

I'll admit, this Bollywood scam was brilliant. It played on my vanity and my long-held desire to appear in a Bollywood movie (preferably in a dance scene). I salute you, my would-be abductor.

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But other pitches were not as well-crafted. For instance, there was this guy who smiled weakly and asked us, with a halfhearted shrug, "Monkey dance?" Our eyes followed the leash in his hand, which led to the neck of a monkey. The most jaded, world-weary monkey I've ever seen. The Lou Reed of monkeys. He looked like he was about to sit down, pull out his works, and shoot a big syringe full of heroin into his paw. Needless to say, we declined the monkey dance—which I'm guessing would have been some sort of sad, simian death-jig.

The upshot of all this: Mumbai is not the place to go for a carefree, relaxing vacation. Just stepping out on the streets can be a difficult ordeal. The air smells like twice-baked urine, marinated in more urine. The sidewalks are a slalom of legless beggars and feral dogs. Hundreds of times each day you walk right past something so unfathomably sad, so incomprehensibly surreal, so horribly unfair ...

The only way to cope is to stop resisting. Embrace the chaos. If you see a woman rolling around in the gutter clutching at the massive, bulbous wart on the side of her face and moaning loudly ... well, that's part of the scenery. No one else here (certainly no native Mumbaian) will pay her any attention. So why should you? Just say to yourself: Wow, that's crazy stuff and marvelously edifying. Doo-dee-doo, keep on walking.

That's harsh and simplistic. The truth is, the chaos can be wonderful sometimes, too. There's a goofy sense of freedom that comes with it. A sense of unknowing.

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Back home in the States, it can feel like we've got life figured out, regulated, under control, under wraps. But here in India, nothing seems even close to figured out. Nothing seems remotely under control. You're never quite sure what will happen next, and you're working without a net.

Terrifying? Yes. But also invigorating. On the train ride up from Goa, I perused a women's magazine (sort of an Indian Cosmo) that we'd bought at a newsstand. The cover story was about women who'd lived abroad—mostly in the United States and Britain—but moved back because they liked India better. All these former NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) had gotten homesick ... for the chaos! Yes, the West was clean and orderly. But that was sort of boring. They missed the hubbub, the craziness, the randomness of India.

I see what they're saying. But in honesty, I prefer to see it from several stories up, in the air-conditioned cocktail lounge of the Oberoi Hotel. Ahhhh. Soft music. Lovely view. No legless beggars.

From up here, sure, all that chaos is beautiful. It's amazing to ponder (while calmly sipping a stiff rum and Coke) how 1 billion people manage to coexist in a single, sprawling democracy. It truly is impressive that this country keeps chugging along—massive, bulbous face warts and all.

In fact, I've come not just to like, but to love India—in a way—from afar. It's the underdog. It's dirty, and hectic, and insane ... and I find myself rooting for it.