I once scolded friends at the Delhi Press Club for ignoring my tale of an Indian acquaintance's entire family having inexplicably been murdered by their pampered favorite child.
"Don't you know," someone patiently explained, "those kinds of things happen all the time here."
He was reminding me that to be in India is to join a mad, vast, chaotic carnival multiplying and magnifying ordinary life. In India disasters are monumental, crowds overpowering, and gods multitudinous (330 million at last count).
At heart this ancient land is really a tyke spinning the fabulous and frightening dreams of childhood and in some sleight-of-hand or alchemy--you never know in India--making them real.
India was already familiar when I traveled there for the first time nineteen years ago. After all, I had known her in spirit as a kid when I still believed in fairies and ogres. Her affirmation that we are all in a magical, shimmering tapestry of life has drawn me to her some 20 times since. India always restores what she has taught me is my birthright, to know the world as wondrous.
In India I encounter life that adulthood in the West has made me fear even to imagine, much less live. Like a kid at the movies, I am mesmerized by her camels and castles and women in saris of psychedlic colors and naked holy men and eunuchs dancing in marriage ceremonies and wild peacocks and polluted rivers cleansing the soul.
In a half-hearted attempt to impose order on her exuberance, she has pulled from her bag of tricks systems that are entertainment (when you are in a good mood) in themselves. She offers a bureaucracy demanding one hundred stamps, one million copies (all hand-written), and infinite time to do nothing; an infrastructure built by spit, string, and the grace of Shiva; and Indian Airlines, unerringly delivering passsengers to frustrations, instead of destinations.
It is no accident that the Guinness Book of World Records is a bestseller in India. With a wry, in-your-face disregard of Western practicality, she pushes reality to its limits. Only here could a man proudly display the longest fingernails in the world (one foot long), or a swami remain standing for l7 years, or the largest crowd ever (20 million) gather, or a human consume five pounds of glass in ten hours.
The wise old sorceress that she is, India is always at the ready to conjure up other acts when the freak shows wear thin. This land in which people spend lifetimes exorcising the demands of the flesh is at heart a sensual one, celebrating her earthiness with stone carved as finely as lace, rich food, rainbows of shining silks, intricately woven carpets, and exuberant dance. She is, after all, the home of our most graphic depiction of sexual passion, the Khajuraho temples, with delicately chiseled sculptures illustrating every sexual position you've ever fantasized about and then some.
But lest I become bored with her beauty, she evokes emaciated cows, wasted-away beggars, exotic germs, and the dirt of 5,000 years of living to bedevil me.
She protects nothing from life's wear and tear, even nature's beauties, which are often used for bathrooms. She is casual about the toileting process, allowing people and animals to eliminate wherever they feel the call.
"How come men are always peeing in every one of the few vacant spots this country has?" I once whined to a friend. "Why not?" he responded.
Indians don't understand our Western preoccupation with sweeping everything dirty and dark under the rug. In their country opposites converge and mingle openly, as fluid as the waters of her sacred rivers, flowing over the Western tendency of tipping the scales in favor of the positive.
Many are terrified of her unabashed display of our shadow sides and run. I have heard tales of people who stepped off the plane, breathed in her tumult, and got on the next flight home.
But she liberates us who stay from the West's insistence on chirpy optimism, which she gently exposes as a lie. India makes you feel in your pores that for every birth there is a death and for every problem solved a new one arises. She is a constant reminder that the ugly is the other side of the beautiful, decay of growth, dirt of cleanliness. In India heaven and hell are not as distant from each other as they can get, one in the skies, the other deep in the earth's bowels, but meet, not as enemies, but as dancers pirouetting in their eternal pas de deux, celebrating the mystery.
When I persist in pigeonholing life into nicely regulated (and invariably clean) little compartments, India casually tosses my expectations right back in my lap.
"I'm losing my serenity," I hissed at a bank clerk after having spent all day trying to untangle currency problems which would have taken ten minutes to solve at home.
"Madam," he answered, "it takes many years to attain serenity. One does not lose it in a day."
When her metaphysical lessons hit too close to home, I turn to her 875 million people to recoup. The Western envelope of individual personal space goes kaput in this land which good-naturedly always squeezes in one more on a train bench and hardly ever allows you to spend a solitary moment in public without beggars, merchants, or the curious competing for attention.
During my first few days in India, my need to be alone screams its temper tantrums, then is cooed into submission with the have-a-cup-of-tea mantra, which has been chanted to me by everyone from her busiest political figures to my nine-year-old street friends Sanjoy and Deepak.
With time enjoying a leisurely amble of many lifetimes, instead of the one existence into which we Westerners cram it, this poor country is rich in moments for human contact, gossip, and uncomfortably personal questions, considered good manners to show the questioner's interest in you.
In their gentle way, Indians have a way of blurring the boundaries of my sharply honed American individualism.
I once walked next to a stooped old woman on a three-day pilgrimage with thousands of others high into the Himalayas. With every painful step, she panted, "Shiva!" Sometimes she lovingly patted my hand, as if to give me, a stranger and her junior by at least thirty years, encouragement.
I remembered my thoughts before the trip. They were a jumble of worries and fears about myself. Could I make it physically? Where would I go to the bathroom? Would my period come, and how would I handle that in the midst of so many people?
With the majestic Himalayas at my feet and the tiny gnarled old woman at my side, I became very small.
I cried nonstop every one of the three days.
I left India that trip too humble to separate myself any longer from the dazzling, deep stream of life around me.
When the distances between self and living again grow great, and my ego starts to flaunt itself, I return to India.
She works her magic every time.