So another photobook on India.
It was spring of 2009 when I met the woman who is my wife and the mother of my son today. At the time I had recently obliged myself to do two tours of duty at a NATO regional headquarters in the Balkans. This was a measure to generate money I needed as well as to find time to work on a doctoral thesis and snatch some photographs in between.
Bitter as it was considering my recent personal revelations, I had to leave Vienna in November 2009 after one summer spent with my by then new girlfriend. The dire prospect for the following year was to be able to spend some days in Vienna every two months or so. Time seemingly started to tickle towards winter. My girlfriend decided to break the cold season with a three week journey through India around Christmas. Some time after my return to station after the first visit to Vienna in January 2010, when the first signs of spring started to show, my companion surprised me at one of our daily pillow talks with somewhat startling new prospects.
She would quit her job in the fall and subsequently travel India for around five months before looking for new work. First I suffered a short episode of bafflement during which I thought about joining in on the journey for a month somewhere in the middle of that five month period. Second came a striking notion of an opportunity missed and I quickly acquainted myself with joining in for the full monty, more interested in my travelmate than in India. Things would change profoundly.
Spring became summer and after a share of turbulence and crisis encountered as well as mastered we spent the time in between my return in August 2010 and our departure on the 15th of October of the same year tying up loose ends and planning the operation. My wife masterminded a plan allowing us to circle the subcontinent in a little less than five months, relying solely on the logistics of public and semi-public road, rail and (on two occasions) water transport. Besides for further tightening an already tight schedule, the region of Jammu and Kashmir ruled itself out as communications over the mountain passes into the region were predicted to and proved to be blocked when we had the chance to pass. The Seven Sister States were no option for inclusion because of timing again, the remoteness of and lack of infrastructure in the states north and east of Bangladesh as well as their complicated political situation within the Republic. Finally we ended up with some fixed waypoints along the route and sections with less detailed expectations regarding what to see.
At last we started in Mumbai on December 16th 2010 and went north through Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan. After visiting the union territory of Chandigarh, we went to the former summer residence of the British Raj, majestic Simla in Himachal Pradesh, followed by the state of Uttarakhand and Delhi. After a return to Rajasthan due to second thoughts that we had not seen enough of the land of the kings, we continued through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, first there to the hill station of Darjeeling then to Kolkata. Next we headed down south along the east coast through Orissa and Andrah Pradesh. In Tamil Nadu we made the briefest of visits to the fourth great metropolis, Chennai, in hasting from one bus terminal to another. Down south we visited the very last tip of Indian soil opposite Sri Lanka, the town of Rameswaram on Pamban Island. Here the gods Rahm and Hanoman left shore to rescue Sitar, held hostage on the sacred island.
After leaving Tamil Nadu via ancient Madurai, we entered god`s own country Kerala and worked our way back up the west coast along the deserted palm beaches of Karnataka to Maharashtra where our journey ended where it began nearly five months earlier – the Behemoth of Mumbai. All in all we travelled roughly 13 000 kilometers through India. Two thirds of the distance we relied on the services of Indian Railways, the rest of the distance we covered by bus.
It is hard to depict the ruminant experience of rumbling down south the east coast in an Indian Railways carriage. To sit in an open door and watch the gentle slopes leading to the Bay of Bengal rolling by, while in ones back the Eastern Ghats rise up to the Deccan Plateau. To watch farmers working their land for hours on end while a formidable panorama unfolds gently to the monotone clanking and rattling of a battered railway coach.
It is not easy to describe the thousand different marvels of Indian food, prepared, served and consumed at or right on the streets for a price you may be able to purchase a bun in most of Europe. Ranging from Nepali Momo’s along the Himalayas, over a myriad of different Masalas, served with rice in the south and a variety of freshly baked flatbreads northwards, to uncounted Tiffin dishes and the as vital as omnipresent Chai.
There is little to prepare one for the quarters of the poor dotted all over India. The dusty and unceasing turmoil of cardboard shed colonies under the metropolises flyover highways. The squalor and filth of the settlements of day labourers, outcasts and the undesired or unscheduled, be it vast Dharavi slum in Mumbai or any given of the countless others on the fringes of community and progress. A life is cheap in India, there is no doubt about that.
But there is even less to prepare one for the vibrant energy and sheer mass of humanity in motion when hundreds of thousands of Hindus celebrate Kartik Poornima in the holy city of Haridwar, legions of pilgrims devoted to Durga bathe the eastern city of Vijayawada in an ocean of red cloth, or when Poojas are performed at sunset around blazing funeral pyres on Varanasi’s Ghats to Ganges river.
To characterize this Indian journey in terms of personal experience and gain is an easy task. Besides being a formative experience for my very own life, the realities of extended travel with my wife sure forged the working relationship on which we function well in everyday life today. Most profoundly though, it was a deeply humbling experience and resulted in a permanent shift in my thinking about the difference between to want and to need.
As for the title of this book. One can encounter the phrase “same same, but different” around India as a bottom line in various conversations asking for advice, whether two subject matters would be comparable in any given way. Take two Masalas in a food stall for example or two places of interest at one general location. At the time the reply left us somewhat dissatisfied in terms of questions answered. In retrospect the phrase gathers meaning in several different ways. As a shrewd expression of street-smartness and a frame of mind accustomed to a life and environment, that needs some bending of logic and reason to make ends meet and explanations fit. As a memento to keep the huge mass of humanity in mind, we tend to subsume under a descriptively and explanatory as unsatisfactory term as Indians. And at last as a manifestation of my very own intention, not to produce just another visual essay on India, but to have been able to capture something of the beauty, majesty and tragedy I have discovered in these alluring and unforgiving lands.
Same same indeed, but just a little different …