Returning home, by foot, through a close neighborhood of joint family homes at dusk, I was, as usual, a point of intense interest by those around me.
As I passed one such home, a man leaning over the banister of the balcony he stood on, his face shadowed by the light behind him, called out to me, “Hare Krishna!” It was neither shouted nor muttered, but was clear and genuine — the way a priest might address his congregation.
India, to Americans, often connotes spirituality and enlightenment, and is thought of as an ancient bastion of mysticism that thrived long before it was recognized by American pop culture in the 1960s. Going to India then was usually a journey -— rarely a vacation. Of course, as distance can distort perception, America’s new image of India was and still is a little different from the way things work here. Nonetheless, with storybooks, films, and growing up with parents who came from “those days,” my early idea of India was attractive, then, in a very different way than it is now.
With the light of day comes the realization of reality. The shadows of sanctity melt away to reveal the dirty street, soon crowding with the people on their way to work, pray, or beg. Life, always taking a similar form in every region of the world, is striking to observe in its pushing and shoving, its tears and laughter, its truth laid bare. It is striking, now, to think of how I had perceived it beforehand, and how much like any average city and country it really is. Recalling my friends’ predictions during and expectations after my time in India (chiefly based in the American impression I mentioned earlier) is still entertaining, but not to be taken without a grain of salt.
With the darkness of night returns the unseen and the imagined. Again I am reminded that the bright temple I pass on the road stands for just one of the four religions born in India; that the cow that bows its head to eat from a bowl of greens left out for her is the embodiment of the marriage of Hinduism and Indian lifestyle; that most greeting and parting phrases invoke the name of a deity, though just whose name it is depends on the specific religion.
And now I wonder whether it is not all imagined, but just masked behind the coexistence of the ancient and the modern in everyday life here. The deep-set roots of this spiritualism do quietly pervade many aspects of life, I am certain. The difficulty, now, is to be able to see beyond what is apparent, and truly discover these underlying currents that have made India as we know it to be.
I replied, “Hare Krishna!” in a voice stronger and more fervent than I would have thought myself capable of a minute earlier. I was much obliged to man, for his spontaneous salutation immediately brightened my mood. I rounded the corner, and walked down the darkening lane to my home.
Sam Aldridge is a Rotary Exchange student from Milford. To read more from him, visit thebarodasagas.wordpress.com.