Shortlisted in the 2021 PureTravel Travel Writing competition, Kinga Litvnska describes experiences of India.
Sticky air hangs over the city like an iron curtain. Immersed in their daily juggle amidst the world of bedlam and racket, in a silent rush, passers-by push through packed backstreets shrouded in clouds of exhaust gases that buses, cars and tuk-tuks mercilessly breathe. Their lungs are short of breath, mouths are full of dust, and nostrils instantly absorb all-encompassing aromas, fragrances, notes of incense and intrusive stench. The stench of an Indian toilet or an Indian river. The smell of the main bazaar or everything else at once. A rich country of poor people, in which bluntness and magic intertwine, ordinary becomes fascinating, and your attention is heightened by the infinity of diffused impressions.
The bewildering, untamed nature of this bizarre country needs to be soaked up with all your senses.
– How would you best describe India? – asked Kasia Zagorska, a journalist from the broadcast station Around the World.
– Too much – I replied.
– Too much of what?
– Too much of everything. Too many homeless people, beggars and cripples. Tuk-tuks, fumes, dust and noise. Too much rubbish, dirt, bacteria and information. Too many brothers, friends, touts and talking heads. Colors, smells, cows, goats, dogs, rats and inevitably – too many flies.
I was surrounded by wild masses. My attention was drawn to the live-in-the-box homeless, rickshaw drivers, grimy children and their begging mothers as well as street vendors selling fruits, chips and peanuts, whose heaped mounds filled rusted, metal carts. An old man with a foot covered in blood crossed my way, and dogs stealthily scurried away, lost amidst the human commotion. A stench reached my nostrils. A peculiar mixture of urine, the essence of incense and spices for the extraordinary bouquet of smells present on Indian streets makes a composition from a bewitched garden.
I squinted my eyes and noticed heavy, silver tools spilling out of some joint, and right next to them – in a kind of unique, Indian disarray – black, rubber tubes were piled up. Across the street, precious valuables, essential oils and perfumes filled the boutique, while in the adjacent artisan shop, a craftsman dabbled in making wood-hewn sculptures. I turned my head and spotted a small corner studio with marble figures of Hindu deities of various sizes as well as a stack of flowers which were soon to embellish the interior of many a temple. Next door – a bike rental and a bakery.
– Watches! Stickers! Cotton candy! – I heard from the left side of the Main Bazaar.
– Glasses! Stamps! Chestnuts! – came calls from the right.
The street cacophony unnerved me. My head was spinning – the result of either fatigue or the inflow of the local exoticism. Maneuvering between the porters, beggars and dogs, I scrambled through the whole mess. I was trying to overtake a man in rubber flip-flops waddling sluggishly through the narrow alley. On his shoulder, he was balancing an enormous, wicker basket brimful of vegetables and other greens.
My eyes were tracing the poor man’s footsteps, and I wondered what he would lose first – his cabbage or his shoes – when all of a sudden, from the opposite direction, with the speed of a race car, a black and yellow tuk-tuk came right at me. At the last moment, with my heart in my mouth, I managed to hide behind the basket. Phew!
And where was that noise coming from? The sound of a whirring engine and long, thick stalks meant only one thing – sugar cane juice! After a thirteen-hour flight and a good dose of Indianness, I was exhausted. I sat down on a little, metal bench next to the juice vendor, and in one gulp, I guzzled my ice-chilled, deep-green cocktail. Finally, a moment of respite. Really?
– Rupee! Chocolate! Pen! – a small, skinny, barefoot girl popped up out of nowhere, pulling my T-shirt.
She was grimy, disheveled and – just like me – covered in dust and sweat. She had a mop of messy hair and a dress full of holes. The child’s request for a pen seemed to me quite strange, but no more than anything else around. I had neither a chocolate nor a pen, so I gave her a coin.
And what is that? An enormous camel with a cart full of beets strapped around its long, giraffe-like neck, strode proudly through the city hub. Unbelievable! And just for the very reason that one Indian square meter contains a thousand western ones, mesmerizing unpredictability of what awaits you in the next moment, makes traveling through India an electrifying experience – after all, if it is not a camel, it is a disabled person. The man had no legs, and only a wooden plank with four little wheels attached to it served him as a wheelchair. Lying on his stomach, with his hands slid into rubber flip-flops, he pushed himself off the ground…
Time for a riddle. Should a man’s intrusion into the ladies’ room in India be shunned with indignation or welcomed with gratitude? If you reckon that the question is absurd and the answer unequivocal, come with me…
I entered some food joint. An attentive waiter showed me the way to the back room. which looked no better than the bazaar. Fine. I tried to close the door, but the lock was broken. So be it. It was too late when I realized that in the cabin there was no… toilet paper. How could I have forgotten! Oh, silly me! In a mad panic, I started searching my hand luggage which I still kept on my back – the floor was in the most appalling state that my eyes had ever seen. In fact, the room was boiling hot, cramped, stinky and smeared with a smorgasbord of unknown “delights.” Covered in sweat, I dived inside my little bag when suddenly the door opened. Through the gap, the waiter’s hand slipped in and along with it, a bundle of something white.
– Here you are, madame. Toilet paper for you.
– Thanks a lot! – I replied with great relief.
Welcome to India! Not-so-odd-any-more land – where with every cloud, there is a silver… toilet paper.