You meet a friend and he takes you down a path you’ve never been on before, down to the market in Dharamsala. You are impatient at first, because the path takes the long way around, but soon you start to let go.
The monsoon is here but it’s not raining now. The sun is even trying to come out from behind the persistent layer of cloud that keeps India cool in the summer time. The warm feels good on your shoulders.
This path is no primitive foot trail through the woods. It’s the main artery that the locals use to get around. It’s narrow. A meter and a half across at most. But it’s well made. Concrete steps and paved pathways that tumble and twist down through the mountain forest.
It’s green, wet, lush. Walls of leaves. Wild mango trees, kunish, poplar, willow, rhododendrons and thick grasses engulf simple block homes with rotting wooden doorways and window frames. They are painted soft, pastel pink, blue and green and they look cozy, inviting, unpretentious.
Crooked toothed smiles greet you along the way.
“Namaste!” the commuters coming home from work or shopping say as they pass you by.
There are no cars, no motor bikes, no electric wires strung like spider’s webs through the trees, and the soft hush reminds you there is another India that the guidebooks never mention.
In the quiet, you can hear the whisper of an ancient way of life. The old gods still rule here: spirits of streams, rivers, rocks and trees. You pass their shrines along the way and think: This is the real Himachal Pradesh, the real India, the India that’s remained the same through Alexander, the Moguls, the British Raj. Those great empires nothing but fitful turnings in the great dream of 4,000 years of history.
But now you hear car horns in the distance now. Impatient honking. Almost aggressive. It’s like a fog horn letting you know that you are leaving paradise and there are jagged rocks just ahead.
You come into the market and see that it has its own hideous beauty. The stink of rotting trash in gutters that a 1,000 monsoons will never wash clean. Choked streets so filthy that you’re not sure if they’re even paved. Miserable dogs with nappy coats, torn ears, open wounds and a hundred scars from a brutal existence lay listlessly in doorways. Busses, taxis, motorbikes threaten to run you down with each passing step.
But under the chaos, the frenetic buzz, the kaleidoscopic colors, the olfactory confusion, the thousand shops, there is a sense that no one here is in a rush at all. You notice this paradoxical feeling of ease and take a deep breath of it into your heart and lungs. You realize that in India, this is just another day amongst the countless days of countless universes that are but the dream of Vishnu, the play of the imagination of Brahma.
And so, this is India, you think. A paradox. A riddle that’s better off left without an answer. Better to just see it all, feel it all, drink it all, eat it all, breathe it all in, and try your best not to judge.