September 17, 2015 | By Christopher Dee
My friend posed a tough question: what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of India? In my ten weeks here, I’ve come to realize just how vast and diverse India is. The land flanked by the Himalayas and the Indus, like two sentinels defending a great fortress, is home to such variety in life, in languages, in faces, and in ways of living. I answered as best I could: India elicits heat.
Heat: because the Sun beats down from all angles and seeps its way into your skin. The light licks you in the backseat of an auto. It bathes you during midday walks. It caresses and then singes the flesh each moment the clouds let it. As a Filipino I thought I knew what hot was. Enter the Indian sun, that inescapable reminder of sensation on every inch of your body. That aureolin sheen that misses nothing.
Heat because the Sun illuminates what is already laid bare: from vendors’ wares to puchkas to smiles and frowns, the Sun with its heat gives colour. The heat calls attention to the rakhis on men’s arms, reminders of sisterly love. The heat reflects off of sadhus’ orange cloaks, glowing like echoes of the Transfiguration. The hot colours of saris and skin tones and those uninhibitedly decorated trucks with “PLEASE HONK” signs louder than any car horn all meld together in my conception of India in the sun. The colour means life. The luminous vibrations that make air over a hot road shimmer and distort light, serve as a subtle reminder that each piece of this place is alive.
Heat, because heat is the cause and byproduct of the churning of the masses, throngs swirling in the sweaty streets and subways. The faces that populate the crowd, coloured with every possible concentration of human pigmentation, with features and tongues that put the Tower of Babel to shame, come together in the heat, just as the sauces swimming with hot peppers ignite the tongue like an incandescent wick. Heat is more than just the illumination of the masses: it signifies and allows their mixing, breeding diversity. Besides the Catholic church where I attend Mass on Sundays, there is a Gurdwārā a few steps away. Walk farther and you are in a Hanuman Mandir. Walk further and you’re in capitalist paradise. Name a stereotype that an outsider may have for India and Indians, and this country will sweep it away with a tidal wave of diversity.
Heat because like metals in an alloy the heat takes the staunchest personalities and makes them one with those so different from their own. The diversity of the single nation that is India always baffled me. How on earth can someone from the hills of Darjeeling and another from the cafes of Pondicherry hail from the same nation? How has this been the case for hundreds of years, and in a manner that, for the most part, has been peaceful? The different peoples, at least as colourful and ethnolinguistically, geopolitically, religio-culturally diverse as the nations of Western Europe or Southeast Asia, come together under one flag. Faiths and faces blend together in the fire of this melting pot. My brief time here has shown me that, again, it’s this heat that fosters inclusion. The heat that gives light and life to the colours spares none but in doing so includes all.
And yes, India suffers from the downsides of diversity. Poverty that results from socioeconomic disparities, violence waged on vague religious lines, long, aggressive stares at the foreigner or the hijra. And yet India, for good reason, calls itself one. For an outsider looking in, perhaps an outsider who takes a quick dip, India revels in this diversity. A friend once told me that yoga means “unition“. I see the colours that the Sun so generously shares, in the heat of tastes and sounds, in religion and non-religion both aflame with passion, in the lives that 1.2 billion faces are testament to. Diversity. Inclusion. Heat.
About the author: Christopher volunteers at the Amrit Foundation of India and is a recent graduate in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University. He is interested in negotiating the junction between medicine and global health as a means of bringing care to those marginalized by society. As a Filipino-Canadian, Chris is interning in India to gain insight into solutions to health problems of the developing world.