From my earliest days in Bali, whenever I heard a new friend or yoga instructor speak of their travels and sojourns in India, I’d catch an unmistakable spark in their eyes. Their words gave me a glimpse and glimmer into the enchanting qualities of a country that, despite its poverty, filth and masses, captures the minds and spirits of millions of travelers, expats and pilgrims from around the world. It took a while for me to come around, but soon I felt a growing pulse: deep inside I knew that India awaited me too. But when and for what purpose, I was yet unsure. Until I was.
India called me not only because of my name. Unbeknownst to my parents, who gave me a Hebrew name, Amit is also of Sanskrit / Hindu origin; a fact I stumbled upon during my travels in Nepal over a decade ago; locals shook their heads in disbelief when I spoke my name. From the moment that I learned of its meaning in Indian culture – eternity in Sanskrit (and I already knew, colleague or friend in Hebrew) – I felt greater kinship with my name. For someone who harbours an affinity with Eastern cultures and spirituality, this was auspicious news. It was only a matter of time…
A confluence of reasons prompted me to book a ticket to India in the latter half of 2019: Where else to immerse myself into a yoga teacher training course, after a decade of intense practice, than its place of origin and locus; of course I would train in India! Slowly, my plans took shape: I would spend the month of December training in the southern state of Kerala, followed by one more month of slow travel northwards to Rajasthan, spending the last week in Jaipur for the annual world-renowned literary festival.
When I reached the seaside village of Kovalam, I felt like I’d landed in a cocoon of warmth, delicious Ayurvedic foods (and treatments) and grace. Despite the influx of tourists (local, mixed with foreigners), the charm lay in its small size. A boardwalk lined with restaurants and souvenir shops, bracketed by a lighthouse at one end, and a flock of fishermen going out to sea at the other. Vendors dotted the boardwalk, hawking sarongs; selling Christmas lights and tchotchkes; chopping fruit into smoothies or arranged on plates – sold for a few rupees. Aside from an impromptu sortie to a wedding in the city of Trivandrum (Kerala’s capital), there were few distractions outside of class and study: beach, eating, a massage, a walk through town uphill, talking with the locals, picking up supplies – or sleep.
By the end of December, many flew home; to the UK, Germany, Russia, Canada, and elsewhere. Leaving Kerala, I bought a one-way ticket to Varkala – where I spent New Year’s Eve, met travelers from around the world, and prepared for the next stage of my travels. I was loathe to leave the sweet lushness and slow pace of Kerala – continuous groves of palms lined roads everywhere, cows and goats wandered about with certainty that drivers would swerve to avoid them, and locals could be seen lolling about, lingering at roadsides doing… nothing much at all.
From Varkala, I joined another newly-minted yoga teacher (an Alaskan!) for a weekend stay at Amma’s ashram. If you do not know who Amma is, nor the mythic and uber-human qualities that followers around the world have vested in her, then this just skims the surface: She has helped impoverished individuals and communities in India and elsewhere; she has built facilities for education and housing; she’s been awarded numerous awards for her humanitarian work; she also built ashram headquarters in Kerala, which can house up to 5,000 pilgrims at a time (it was nearly at full capacity during our stay); but mostly, her renown arises from her hug.
Yes, she has hugged millions of bodies across the globe; bodies and souls that are quickly smitten. (Not I: Although I too lined up to receive a so-called ‘hug’ from Amma, I rose in seconds, feeling completely underwhelmed and, frankly, had). The upside: the ashram is located on a strip of land between the sea and backwaters, centering it in one of the most picturesque locations I’d seen in all of Kerala.
Fort Cochin (Kochi) was next. But not quite: I’d landed in the main city of Ernakulam, on the eve of an All India Strike. The streets became deserted, cars and taxis forbidden; shops and supermarkets were shuttered – but fortunately the Iyengar studio had stayed open, so I took class for 2 days. The staff of the hotel where I stayed was as uncertain as I about whether and how I could reach Kochi. With a smidgen of trust, I followed directions to get on the still-functioning above-ground subway, from which I disembarked, and by sheer luck and perfect timing, emerged from the station to find a tuk-tuk keen to drive me to Kochi.
The history, landscapes, and architecture of Kochi mesmerized. Days were spent walking in all directions – seeing the Chinese fishing nets and nearby islands, early morning joggers, bookstores, funky cafes, a meditation center run by an Indian-French couple and a newly-opened vegan restaurant launched by a young Australian entrepreneur. Further afield, I found hidden courtyards behind dilapidated buildings, where labourers prepared garlic or fish for sale.
An impromptu afternoon tour in Jew Town brought me to a grave of a mystic, tucked away on a lane of nondescript homes, painted brightly and engraved with kabbalistic phrases. The following evening, I stumbled upon a concert venue where a trio of men, seated on a minuscule stage, chanted while strumming on a variety of string instruments. Surprises awaited every day, behind every door, around every corner. Note to self: must return to Kochi.
The seaside kept me in its grip. I moved northward still, to Cherai, where I was housed in a sweet little home overlooking a lake, and beyond it, the sea. Far from the madding crowds of tourists. Mingling with uni-lingual locals. Counting cows. Within walking distance: another Iyengar studio. An Ayurvedic clinic. A motley group of musicians and singers in rehearsal, inviting me to pull up a chair. Dinner at a restaurant, where I was introduced to a range of typical local dishes. All of it: Pretty close to heaven. An intersection with stores and stalls and thick but friendly masses; I alone, white-skinned.
As much as I regretted leaving the pastoral havens of Kerala, Rajasthan – and a two-day train odyssey that would sweep me through thousands of kilometers – including Mumbai – beckoned. There is nothing like traveling by train in India: the scents and sights (indoors and out) keep you in an endless thrall. The food that passengers bring onboard or that vendors hawk as they snake down corridors during brief stops at remote stations.
The ways they can cram in, lean and sway together as the carriage tilts and then rights itself. The endless swaths of brilliantly hued sarongs and scarves, that trail behind women carrying babies, suitcases, tiffin boxes with steaming rice and vegetables. Men in suits, with traditional caps, with pointy shoes. Toilet stalls that require the seasoned stamina (and fortitude) of a surgeon or prison inmate. But this is certain: in this country, drop-dead beauty swiftly follows on the heels of abject ugliness and filth.
From the south to the north, there are subtle shifts: The colour of skin changes. The gastronomy changes. The tenor of voice changes. The clothes change. The faces change.
By the time I exited Udaipur’s train station, I felt as if I’d entered another dimension of Indian existence. There was a hustling and bustling I’d not experienced until then; or perhaps, one that reflected more of an urban dimension. Once I settled into the hostel, I climbed to the topmost floor, from where I saw a million other rooftops splayed across the city – with chunks of people’s lives playing out. Kites. Laundry lines. Mothers and babies. Toddlers and infants on a tricycle. Communications towers. Groups of men gathered, a glass in each hand. Birds and sunsets.
The palace, a labyrinthine wonder of tile and mirror. From its open windows and arches, expansive views spreading out to the horizon. More rooftops. In every direction, at varying heights.
Climbing up to an artist friend’s studio, foraging for fabric at a store (owned by her friends) and tooting around the warren of Old City streets on the back of her bike, her shock absorbers no match for the endless potholes and gravely bumps at every turn. A meal of vegan Mewar delights, soup and samosas and so much more. At dusk and night, the lake is the center of attraction; a luxurious hotel anchored in its midst, as if an island rising from below, the reflection of its exterior shimmering on the water’s surface.
Heading eastward still, crouched half-supine inside the partitioned unit of a two-tiered inter-city bus, I watched the dusty parts of Rajasthan, and its people, swirl and pass by. Goatherds. Piles of boxes awaiting shipment to a far-off destination, perhaps a new home. A man pouring chai from on high. Rusted jalopies, parked, in various stages of dilapidation. Groups of labourers, saddled with a small backpack, seeking greener pastures beyond. Unpaved roads leading to distant villages in the dunes and hills.
Bypassing the last of the hills and wide-open spaces, we near Jaipur – seat of the annual Jaipur Literary Festival. A pilgrimage long in the making and dreaming. A literary luminary in India (and elsewhere), it is here that William Dalrymple holds court. And he, together with other Indian and foreign lit-stars (Elizabeth Gilbert among them) step onto the many stages, to speak of many worlds and stories and remembrances. Morning begins with meditation, kirtan chants and a hot cup of chai to ward off the insistent, late-January chill. The JLF chai-wallahs are experts in the art of pouring, so their mere costumed presence is an attraction itself. The bookstore spills over with an outrageous abundance of new, newly-awarded and outrageously cheap new releases; far cheaper than anywhere else (including discounted online sellers), because as stated on the back cover of each (more or less): “This book is for sale on the Indian subcontinent only.” After purchasing a few books in Kochi, I make room enough for one more.
At Diggi Palace, home of the JLF: Bookworms trading stories and secrets about authors, manuscripts, tales of adventure. Tasting of dishes at the outdoor food court. Snacking on spicy samosas. Surveying tables of souvenirs: textiles, writing journals, saris, pillow covers, tablecloths, sandals, jams and condiments. Smiles of teenagers who have assembled at the site, a permissible space for meeting others of the opposite sex. Non-stop traffic circling the entrance to the site, rickshaw drivers hoping to take a bite out of Uber as they continue to flood the market. An Italian writer I know telling me of her plans; Florence next, then New York, then maybe back to Bali, and on and on…
I try hard to remember: what was in the air that last week of January? Frolic. Excitement. Awakenings. Heightened conversations about India’s strikes, political machinations and challenges. Plans for future festivals. Travel. Where to next? Moving about Jaipur’s fetid, stench-filled narrow lanes and busy roads. Trying to avoid cow-fece. The hordes on the streets. A parade, all pomp and circumstance. An hour’s worth of gazing at the exterior of its extraordinary palace, wondering why such detailed handiwork is a thing of patience, of the past. Turmeric. Turmeric was in the air. Birds. Kites. A blue sky, with a light dusting of clouds. Nothing. Nothing was in the air that last day in Jaipur that could have alerted me to what was to come…
I started to clue in on the airplane. The night of January 30, 2020. Heading to Singapore – where life was merely a few hard-to-decipher degrees off normal. February 5. Back to Bali. Yellow papers. Masks. Hand sanitizer. Still, we did not quite know what awaited us. And here, nearly one year later, we are.
India, I came to you… just in the nick of time.