“I just don't understand this stupid fucking country!”
A tearful voice wails out from inside the Foreigner Regional Registration Office at the Thiruvananthapuram Rural Superintendent of Police building. The office is a tiny metal container, about six metres long by two-and-a-half metres wide, parked haphazardly just in front of the main building. A thin, old, grey curtain hangs across the entrance, and through it one can see masses of paper stacked on rickety old shelves – decades of visa applications and letters to India's Ministry of Home Affairs piled in an unsortable mess.
The voice belongs to a young woman. She speaks English with what sounds to me like a Spanish accent. After ten minutes of alternate pleading and cursing directed at the hapless government officer, she blows out through the curtain, her face red and wet with tears, her frustration no doubt at its zenith. Having escaped the rubbish dump of old documents, she marches across a barren courtyard – under the distracted gaze of three tall, heavy-set, moustachioed policemen on duty – and out to the street, where bikes, cars, autorickshaws, trucks and buses fly past, horns wailing. She attempts to hail a succession of autorickshaws; finally one stops for her. She gets in and is ferried away, the three-wheeler's engine sputtering, its suspension failing, exhaust fumes pouring out from behind.
A lot of people come to India seeking mental and spiritual relaxation. For these pilgrims, there are thousands upon thousands of ashrams, meditation centres, Ayurvedic retreats and travelling gurus. For every ashram, however, there is an equal number of municipal offices; for every wandering sadhu, there are a hundred noisy autorickshaws. In this land of contradictions, the most potentially shocking one to first-time visitors is the fact that India is not, for the most part, the meditative paradise they expected.
Confusing bureaucracy spinning you in circles is one thing. Shattered expectations are quite another. This poor visitor, like so many others, probably came with visions of being alternately: cross-legged on a stack of meditation cushions; twisted in previously impossible yoga asanas; and stretched out on a beach in the sun. In India, you can do all of these things. You can even do a lot of them for free, or at very low cost. What you can't do is only these things.
In-between, the daily machinations of Incredible!ndia will always be there, and they are the exact opposite of meditative bliss – at least in the beginning. It isn't the inherent nature of India that frustrates some visitors is so much; most people are able to understand that different places require different ways of getting things done. The thing that drives people crazy is the calm picture in their head, and how it is so incomparably different from what they actually experience most of the time.
Someone, or something, will always intrude on your peace, especially if you cherish it highly. India has a way of levelling your dearly held comforts, or at least recontextualising them. My homes here have never been quiet; any few minutes of silence will always be broken by those ubiquitous rat-tat-tatting rickshaws, or screaming children, or baying goats, or somebody who has come to the door for a spontaneous visit, like a neighbour or a door-to-door milkman or a friend from out of town.
I've come to feel that this is far better than no interaction at all; the constant liveliness of Indian society seems more in line with our nature as social animals than demanding sanctuary whenever and wherever we feel like it. I've written before about the attraction India holds for foreigners as a place which offers you regular feedback on your performance as a human being. The charm of that feedback may not be immediately apparent in moments where only bureaucracy and pollution meet, but such moments have bred in me a patience and acceptance which I didn't previously have.
In time, you fade into the chaos of the noisy street, or the disorder of a government office and its peculiar demands, until there is little distinction between sanctuary and the madding crowd. They are both India, and both have their place in making India such an extraordinary and beguiling country.