In this excerpt from the first chapter of his book, Choose Your Metaphor, author (and IAYB sponsor) Daniel Goldsmith receives some wisdom and advice from a new friend on a train journey after recently arriving in India. He encounters his own presumptions about travel, India and himself.
The morning light streamed in through the window’s prison-like bars. A new countryside whizzed by. The horizon was obscured with thick haze, and the smell of burning plastic lingered despite the constant flow of air. I cradled my backpack like a baby in my arms. How long had I been dreaming? That… medicine… I reached in my bag and threw the Larinate out the window, unconsciously knowing that Indian rail lines doubled as trashcans.
I looked across the compartment at my savior. Except for the color of his hair, Peter looked eerily like Edgar Winter, even down to the rectangular tinted
“My friend! You’re looking better this morning. Almost lost it last night, did you? And the culprit… ah ha! I never had you pegged for the drug type. Your face looks a bit too innocent for that. You thought you needed malaria medication? What, are you going to a farm or something?! Stay in the cities or above 2,000 meters and you’re fine. And take some more chai and tomato soup.”
“Thanks man, for keeping an eye on me last night. How long till we get to Bhopal?”
His reaction was immediate, stern, and unequivocal: he wouldn’t let me get off the train there. When the conductor came, I received my first lesson in the delicate art of bribery. With his smooth, emotionless voice, Peter told me the Hindi word I needed to persuade him- baksheesh. For the mere price of 254 rupees, the conductor waved his pen, and my ticket was extended by an additional ten hours to a town that sounded magical to my ears: Agra.
The interminable hours ahead were nothing compared to the thought of the next two months. I recoiled, and felt constrained: my journey now felt like an obligation, not a desire. The weight of the future hung like a burden on my neck, stiff from the angular position it found itself in when sleep overtook my delusional and half conscious body.
I looked in the mirror and saw that my collared shirt, which had started the journey a rather bright shade of white, was now a uniform light grey, with darker patches around the neck. My constant sweat was a magnet for the tremendous amount of dust in the air. I scratched my face, and the underside of my fingernails turned black. Why was I doing this to myself? What was I lacking that made me to want to come here?
“What is going on in this place? Is this for real?” I asked Peter.
“I remember my first day in this country well,” he replied. “No one ever forgets it. Whatever happened to you – and it looked pretty rough last night – don’t worry. In time you will adapt. And above all, don’t feel bad about any of it. You didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, it is impossible for you to make a mistake.” As he said this, I glanced at the faded Mickey Mouse tattoo on his shoulder.
“I just don’t get how this… exists. I mean, it feels like I’m on a different planet.”
“You must learn to live in it, Danny, rather than just observing it. You can’t treat it as though you’re just traveling through. You and the world are one, and cannot be separated. The world is itself a subject and you yourself are an object and vice versa. You’re not just some passer by. And you probably don’t know it yet, but there’s a reason why you’re here. No one comes to India by accident. But the only way you’ll ever survive is to open yourself and let it take you where you don’t even know you need to be taken.”
The interior was hot and muggy, despite the constant circulation from the fans and the motion. Owing to a lack of attention, funds, or both, little effort had been made to improve the compartment’s appearance. Everything seemed to have been requisitioned from prisons or animal shelters. The metal bars covering the windows were untempered and raw, the chains supporting the benches rusted, and the toilet nothing more than a metal hole dropping down onto the rails. Through my soaked and soiled shirt, my skin stuck like velcro to the sky-blue plastic benches that doubled as seats and beds. These were stacked on top of each other, with the middle folded down to provide a back for the lower, while the upper remained horizontal. Peter’s ticket was for the upper berth, which entitled him to remain seated with me or to retire above for rest, which we took turns doing.
Down below, it was exceedingly crowded, with people and their possessions haphazardly stacked on top of each other. I would soon learn this was typical. Across from us, with scarcely enough room for any leg extension, a family of five squeezed, uncomplaining, into space meant for three. The children looked at us with understandable curiosity, and it seemed like our very presence provided them with adequate entertainment the entire time. In the hours where I felt like complaining about dozens of discomforts, I didn’t hear a peep out of their mouths.
Every day is a mystical experience
After a tag-team napping session, Peter and I sat together again and continued our conversation.
“Danny, why did you come to India?” At the time, I couldn’t have asked a better question myself.
“It’s complicated, but I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that our entry into this life appears to be quite arbitrary. I’ve never understood why I was born where and when I was. I looked at India and realized that nearly one out of every six people living on this earth came out of the world here. So I just wanted to check it out for myself. That and the fact that my girlfriend happened to mention to me a few months ago that it was possible to hike to the base of Mt. Everest in Nepal. I started looking at the Lonely Planet and Nepal seems awesome.”
“It is. The Nepalese are so different than Indians. Poorer, but with more dignity. Granted, their numbers are far fewer, so I suppose there’s a little less competition for survival. I went there twenty years ago and married one of them?”
Peter was en route to Delhi to meet his wife. He explained the intricacies of how his life worked. Between the Indian and Nepali visa regulations, he could live on the subcontinent for nine months out of the year. When he was forced to return to Europe, he filled his entire baggage allowance with incense, which, when sold for ten times the price, was enough to pay for his flight there and back with a little left over on the side. The means to the road for me had always gone through working hard at some shit job, saving every penny, and eventually being forced to return home when the stash ran out. Looking at Peter in his sky blue muscle shirt and khaki pants, a man who refused to compromise his desires, I began to realize just how many unorthodox ways there are of existing in this world.
He had just come from a Vipassana meditation retreat in Goa, the state known for its drug induced beach parties. When he told me what Vipassana entailed – eleven hours a day of meditation for ten days in total silence – I thought he was even crazier than the people who went there just to party. I didn’t understand how anyone could do it, much less love it, as he proclaimed. But I understood that maybe that was the secret behind his calm, composed demeanor.
“Why would anyone willingly put themselves through this meditation?” I had to ask.
“You’d be surprised, Danny, what can happen when you’re with yourself and there are no distractions. You get to be intimately familiar with your mind, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I’ll tell you that it can make you realize that waking up every day is itself a mystical experience.”
“What do you think happens when we don’t wake up? Or before we opened our eyes for the first time?”
“Even if the television is off, the signals are still coming in.”
These philosophical reflections were suddenly interrupted when I realized I was starving after eating nothing since my lunch the previous day. I hailed a passing samosa vendor, eager to experience the delights of Indian cuisine in the form of this stuffed triangular pastry. Before I could reach for my money, Peter forcefully grabbed my hand and reprimanded my callousness, explaining that I must, at all costs, avoid fried food like this.
“You never know what kind of oil was used. It could have been months since they changed it.”
I learned in that moment that what constitutes common sense is culturally specific. I had not yet developed the necessary habit of asking myself, ‘Is this really a good idea?’ – an essential reflection before doing anything in India.
Unsolicited advice & a parade of characters
Peter imparted to me a wealth of useful information, most of it coming in the form of negative injunctions. I received the essential commandments for living in India: I shalt not eat salad, nor ice cream, nor any other tempting sweet treats that may have been sitting out for days or mixed with chalk to replace sugar. Adhering to this covenant prevented illness for the rest of my journey, an extraordinary accomplishment, really, considering the ubiquity of disease-producing agents. Looking back, it was like surviving trench warfare, where I could have been taken out by dozens of hostile forces that invariably claimed nearly everyone else around me.
I also learned that my intended itinerary would have, a) required travel through Bihar, India’s poorest state, and b) through a stretch of Maoist-controlled, monsoon damaged Nepali roads. Peter advised me against the former as he recounted his experience a few months previous when bandits assailed a train he had been riding on. Fortunately for him, armed guards materialized in his compartment, and after a shootout that left several men dead, the train continued on. He vowed never again to travel in a state he described with a single word: lawless. He advised me against the latter on account of a three-day delay he experienced after Maoists declared a strike and barricaded the road with large trees. And apparently, at the time, my passport might have gotten me into more trouble, since Nepal’s monarch was yet another repressive and undemocratic leader that the USA supplied with weapons.
My gratitude for having been (randomly?) assigned a seat next to this man increased as the journey continued. An endless parade of musicians, beggars, and salesmen punctuated our conversation. Every five minutes, I watched salesmen who had mastered the art of surfing on a rocking train with a kettle of scalding chai between their legs. They held tall stacks of plastic cups, destined to slowly decompose on the side of the rails, snugly against their forearms. Like a taped public service message, they all called out chai!, extending the last syllable out to make it sound like ch-eye-eeee! The balancing act was circus-quality: they never spilled a drop, and according to Peter, all made a living despite the enormous competition.
And then came the varieties of those looking for a few extra rupees. Floundering on the floor, like a suffocating fish with a broom in his hand, bowed legs scraping against the metallic edges of the open compartments, a young boy cleaned the discarded peanut shells and packets of chewing tobacco from the dusty floor. Next came a young mother and her two boys, who had a polished, portable thirty-second performance. One of the boys had perfected the art of creating a whanging resonance against a drum membrane, while his brother rolled himself through metal hoops to accompany the oscillating melody.
My favorite characters, however, were the transvestites who hid their masculinity underneath layers of embroidered fabric and dozens of jeweled jingling bangles. They resolutely stood before each person in the compartment, wiggled their hips, and with a staunch and penetrating look in their eyes, insisted on money in exchange for not cursing you with the flash of their expanding hands. This was one matter in which Peter advised me to comply with the custom.
Living in a world of balance
My initial reaction to this scene recalled the parade of impoverished children I saw in Mumbai. At first, I was shocked and overwhelmed by what seemed to me the sheer cruelty of existence. When I had heard Buddha’s first noble truth that “all life is suffering,” I imagined that this was what he had in mind. They had been thrown into the world here, and I somehow assumed that they naturally wanted out. But despite my inebriated haze, I had looked closely at the kids in the streets, and they seemed… I don’t know how to put it another way – they looked happy. They were filthy and penniless, but played happily with sticks and tires, or simple wooden toys and musical instruments.
“And you said to yourself ‘That can’t be.’ Well, why not? Why can’t it be?” Peter interjected. “Where is it written that you need stuff to make you happy? Indians have lived like this for a thousand years, and probably will for another thousand. It sounds bad to say this but…”
“They don’t know what they’re missing?” I suggested.
“Yes. And if you show them what they’re missing… well, you’re just inviting them to inherit a different set of problems. Once you fix the house problem, there’ll be a clothes problem, and once a man has boots, he’ll want pants. And when they all get houses and designer clothes and traffic jams and become just like us, then they’ll have all the mental problems that we have. We live in a world of balance. Bringing another way of life here would simply bring a different set of problems.”
I understood but couldn’t fully accept what he was saying. No amount of intellectual rigor could dispel the lingering emotional reaction his words provoked. The knot in my stomach seemed the physical manifestation of my suspicion that what he was saying wasn’t only arrogant, it wasn’t right.
He continued. “The international development game is bunk. I’ve seen how it’s been played here in India for two decades, and it is simply an industry in which the West can channel its well-intentioned sympathy and guilt. But like everything in this world, noble desires get corrupted. Foreign aid has turned into a system that breeds inefficiency. Our attempt at compassion is laudable, but our idealism often blinds us to the arrogance that makes us think they need our “civilizing mission,” and that everyone must be miserable if they don’t live like we do. So many aid workers I’ve met are simply over here so that they can feel better about themselves.
“Think about it: when you give money to someone on the street at home, are you doing it for their sake or yours? To help them out or to make yourself feel better? If it’s the second one- which in the vast majority of cases it is- then you are acting out of pity, not compassion. You cannot force yourself to be compassionate, just as you cannot force yourself to fall in love. It comes naturally.”
“But isn’t it better that these agencies exist? I mean, what would happen without them? And isn’t it unfair to generalize like that? How can ‘we’ speak about what ‘they’ want or don’t want?”
“That’s precisely the point. It’s precisely this dichotomy, this idea that one side knows what’s better for the other, that’s the root of the problem. We sometimes make things worse by trying to make them better. Indians have a remarkable acceptance of the world as it is– certainly rooted in their religion– but it wouldn’t be such a rich land if it adopted our notions of progress. That’s what it really comes down to.”
Given what I had experienced of India so far, there seemed to be something noble, but entirely misplaced about complacently accepting things. After all, Peter and I had more money in our pockets than many Indians would see in a lifetime. We had the incredible luxury of advocating passivity and acceptance; I wondered if the millions of people in Mumbai’s slum would agree. I recalled Aldous Huxley’s observation that “one is all for religion until one visits a religious country.”
“I’m not out to convert you to my way of thinking” Peter said. “It is based on my experience, of course, and my experience has shown that the only thing you can really work on is yourself. It’s a question of opening yourself up to differing viewpoints on an issue that may seem obvious. One of India’s great lessons is ambiguity. And learning to be honest with yourself and your own delusions. India is definitely fucked up, but so is America. Don’t go around thinking they want you to impose your misery on them.”
Excerpted with permission from Choose Your Metaphor by Daniel Goldsmith.
All photos by Daniel Goldsmith.