The subcontinent of India is so vast and so complex, we know that we will never finish exploring this ancient, astonishing part of the world. India, of course, leaves the visitor with a chaos of impressions, but perhaps the strongest lingering one is of the kaleidoscope of colors everywhere.
From the beginning of our first trip, to northern India several years ago, we were both fascinated and alarmed by the color and the contradictions crashing together everywhere we went. Navigating the narrow, crowded streets of Old Delhi, we soon were swept up in the preparations for the annual Festival of Lights, as people were buying candles, fireworks, and gifts to honor the Lakshmi, goddess of beauty, wealth, and good fortune.
The great holiday of Davali found us in Agra, where the streets were lined with sellers of marigolds, countless mounds of gold and orange, soon to be decorations and offerings in homes and temples across the city. Many buildings were draped with lights. Friends invited us to their home, where they gave us the traditional homemade sweets and shared their marigold-draped household shrines with us.
The days we spent in the sacred city of Varanasi (Benares) opened up to us a different world that revealed an ever-colorful, yet pragmatic, view of the unending cycle of life and death. Gold and orange marigolds and other offerings tumbled from shops and carts, all soon to be part of the devotions as the dead were cremated on pyres at the edge of the sacred Ganges. At night, we drifted in a small boat among thousands of miniature paper vessels, each carrying a tiny flame as an offering to Mother Ganga.
Everywhere we traveled, we were dazzled by the vivid hues of the saris and other garments of the women, whether they were shopping, working in stores, tending crops in fields, sweeping out their small houses, or caring for children. Many of the sculptures that covered the temples were painted in rainbows of continually renewed color. And in the great city of Udaipur for the annual celebration in honor of Lord Brahma, held on the night of the full moon in November, we again were astonished by the garlands of small lights decorating trees and shrubs and the elaborate patterns made of flowers floating in ponds and on the lake. Color and light: an integral part of Indian life, even in the midst of hardship and poverty.
Another year, as we explored southern India, we visited several remote villages in the hills outside Tanjore, joining in with the celebrations for the Pongal Festival. In a couple of the villages, we were the first foreign visitors. Children danced around us, young men and young women played drums, and village women created lavish floral designs with colored powders in the dirt in front of their houses. Hour after hour, the celebration went on, a joyous break from the hardship of everyday life.
India is changing rapidly, becoming a major industrial power and a center of the high-tech business. Millions of people are benefiting from these developments, but millions of others have yet to be affected by the apparent prosperity now visible in parts of the cities. India remains primarily an agricultural society with a culture rooted in a long, complex past. Some of the traditions are nurturing, but others are based in rules that benefit some groups by sacrificing others. The caste system may be outlawed, but in many areas its repercussions endure. As the benefits of economic growth and education reach more people, perhaps the society will treat everyone more equally, whatever the person’s sex or caste. Perhaps.
Even good changes can come at a cost, however, as the best of old traditions and values are sacrificed to commercialism and materialistic ways. This trip to Eastern India that begins today will take us from the labyrinthine city of Calcutta (Kolkota) into more rarely visited areas, where some of original tribal populations of the subcontinent still live in their traditional villages, following their ancient customs. What will we find there? Have some of the modern, Westernized ways that are transforming much of India started to creep in there? And, if they have, will it be for good or bad?
India remains a vast, complex, ever-astonishing place. We may well explore it for the rest of our lives and never feel that we understand it. Certainly, it is never going to stop changing.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and by order from your local bookstore.