MAJNU KA TILLA, India—It’s all so familiar. The images of poverty, the feelings of apartness, the sense of complete isolation within despite the mass of humanity without. The smells, the sounds, the narrow alleys, the vignettes of unspeakable human misery, the unexpectedly unforgettable conversations with a stranger. The annoyances, the moments of bliss, the loneliness, the freedom and euphoria of an endless horizon. That is India, as I remember it and as it truly is.
It isn’t beautiful or pleasurable, but it is satisfying and true. It is humanity laid bare, unvarnished, with no veneer of order and beauty where it doesn’t naturally exist. You lose, bit by bit, your sense of pride in a place like this, where all that you bring means nothing to the ocean of humanity within which you are nothing but a drop.
There is freedom, however, within the crowd. As before, I find myself not in love with this place, not pleasured or calmed by it, but challenged, wiped clean, forced to stare into the light of truth. And so, truly happy.
Majnu Ka Tilla is your typical Indian slum. It feels like a slum, of course, because I compare it to the standards with which I am familiar. But compared with some of the truly awful places in India and other countries I have visited, it isn’t that bad. There are Tibetan restaurants and guesthouses on every corner throughout the haphazardly winding labyrinth of alleys. The steps of storefronts are covered with vendors selling their crafts, beggars, food merchants, and people simply idling away their time. Images of the Dalai Lama, usually framed by a mass of Khata scarves and prayer flags, adorn practically every shop, restaurant and guest house lobby. The narrow streets are clogged with rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, stray dogs and women carrying impossible loads on their heads.
It is typical Indian chaos. Every direction is an exotic, illustrative scene of life here, which would make for an inspired photograph. As I remember from my previous trip, India is so overwhelming because it is impossible to tune out the humanity. You notice it all and you feel it all. Every beggar, every homeless child; it all sticks. It’s not easy to put on your blinders and pretend like you don’t notice. Because in every direction you look, something catches your eye, startling you, jarring you. You walk on, hardened enough to not pause or stare, but the image stays with you. You can’t shake it. And those tenacious images pile on one another, endlessly, until the defenses with which you thought were equipped to deal with all this prove to be an illusion.
Like in war, you are changed to your core without even knowing it. You realize, finally and truly, that this is life.