Why do so many Westerners come to India? It used to be that people who came here did so in search of some kind of spiritual enlightenment, especially in the days when India was very much a dark continent of limited phone coverage and even rarer locations that even understood what a tourist was. And as much as Western folks like to describe their friends' pilgrimages to this nation as 'doing an Eat Pray Love', the foreigners-to-India phenomenon predates Elizabeth Gilbert's me me me memoir.
So what is it about India that appeals? The spiritual path remains a big attraction for many, but it's my suspicion that there is a greater reason, one which encompasses the appeal of spirituality.
It seems that in developed countries, there is an ongoing trend towards non-interaction. Wherever possible, modern technological facilities ensure you can perform most of your daily tasks without actually having to talk to anyone. As the general population grows accustomed to automated services, they're coming to want and expect to be able to order a pizza online, or send an SMS to find their nearest electrician, or use match.com to find a suitable mate.
Still, everyone in Western countries can relate to the sense of doom one feels when faced with a recorded voice at the other end of a telephone line. Inevitably, a series of ever more ludicrous prompts will be offered, none of which will be the option you actually want – and with no obvious way to just talk to someone.
India's quite different, obviously. The online systems are there, and so are the terrible robotic telephone voices, but even they redirect you at the earliest opportunity to an actual person. 'You are not allowed to use the online system between 3:43 and 3:57. Please call our service centre...' etc. (Whether the actual person will be able to help you is another story, however.) India offers a culture of near-constant interaction and having to talk to other people, one way or another, as many times as you have to, until you get what you need.
For some, that constant Indian interaction is too much to handle, but those who accept and try to embrace it tend to be the ones who fall in love with India and keep returning over and over again. And it's not simply speaking and being spoken to; you can still call upon your priest or rabbi or the Good Samaritans for that. It's the nature of that interaction – direct and to the point, and a complete reflection of how you interact with the people around you. Every single day.
To put it another way, India gives you constant feedback on your performance as a human being. Had too much to eat over the holidays? First Monday back at work, a colleague is guaranteed to inform you that you are suddenly so fat. Didn't bother to disinfect that cut while chopping the vegetables? India will ensure it gets infected. Jumping to conclusions about people's character? Sooner or later, India will show you where you get it wrong.
There are other, more subtle forms of feedback too, like when you're getting onto a bus or train. You can jostle with everyone else, or you can sit back calmly and wait for the rush to clear. It might not seem like it, but it's an opportunity to consider how you just handled that little moment of your life. Maybe you're happy to be stood in a crowded, dirty carriage for 45 minutes because you didn't stoop to pushing and shoving; maybe you'll chide yourself for not being as competitive as your commuting adversaries, and resolve to throw your weight around next time.
Another one: if someone stares at you and won't stop, what do you do? Smile back? Scowl at them? Ignore completely? Your response generally dictates theirs. Each minor interaction can be its own self-contained feedback event, while the major ones potentially offer an unforeseen epiphany.
I may just be romanticising the whole country. Still, the environment in India is teeming as opposed to the sterile West, and if you walk down the street you can't help but be given a little or a lot of updates on how you're doing emotionally, spiritually and physically, and I feel like it's harder to become stagnant with so much feedback coming in. And if there's one thing I love about India – however infuriating it may sometimes be – that feedback is it.