I thought I’d read enough about India and seen enough of it on screen to have a sense of the beauty, chaos, and diversity I could expect to encounter once I arrived here. But some things need to be experienced to be understood, and India is one of those things. At first, it’s a place that requires all five of your senses to be on full alert. It’s intense, it’s vibrant, it’s confusing, and it’s in your face. But after a bit of time in the fire, you learn to navigate the chaos.
After being in India for a couple of hours, a small group of us decided to leave our hotel in Pondicherry and go for a stroll to get our bearings. I stepped outside, and an intense concoction of noise, light, movement, and smells hit me. I took a couple more steps and almost fell through a hole in the ground.
*I’m interrupting this blog to say that the bus I’m on from Coimbatore to Mysore just drove past an elephant crossing the road.*
Ok, back to it. I almost fell into a hole in the middle of the street. I reacted in time to miss it but found myself just inches from oncoming traffic – lights flashing, horns honking, people yelling. I stepped back on a piece of makeshift footpath, and the smell from the liquids sitting at the bottom of the hole hit me for a second time – it smelled horrendous.
*Second interruption, just drove past a small herd of elephants. Yup, this is nuts.*
So, I kept strolling, this time keeping my eyes on the ground in front of me so I could focus on not falling into a hole. After about a minute or so, the smells became fresher, more fragrant, and more floral. I looked up to see a line of stalls, some selling fresh fruits, others selling homemade soaps, and another selling some sort of Indian floral toran on the other side of the road.
I looked left and right to cross, but there didn’t seem to be any obvious openings. I couldn’t see a set of traffic lights or a pedestrian crossing, and I couldn’t remember if I’d passed one before. It looked like crossing the road might not be an option. But then, all of a sudden, a couple of us noticed a local just ambling across, unfazed by the chaotic traffic he’d just stood in front of. At first, it seems as though there is no order to the roads – bikes and cars often head straight into oncoming traffic, there are no markings to distinguish one lane from another, and people cross irrespective of whether there is an opening or not. But all isn’t as it seems. Instead, the roads operate as some sort of organic, anarchic, ordered chaos, and it manages just fine. I took this stranger’s lead and stepped into the street – the traffic parted and moved around us, each of us crossing through this opening that had emerged out of thin air. As the group crossed, bikes screamed past us; their lights made it hard to gauge distance, their horns made it hard to hear each other, and shopkeepers on both sides heckled for our attention – all of our senses on high alert. But I became more comfortable with each step I took. I started to grasp the unspoken rules of the road.
India keeps you on your toes, but as I said, you learn to navigate the chaos.