I have thought about this almost every time I visit India, how death is so close to the surface here, and yet India is so full of life. In the West I feel that we gloss over so many things that are difficult to deal with; from where we get our meat, to illness, and death. We want to package things up neatly and we don’t want to discuss our true feelings. But India is not neatly packaged. Perhaps this is a stretch, but I think this can be compared to our sense of smell. These are the tropics, and with heat and humidity everything smells more pungent.
I began writing this two days ago, but as I sit on the porch of a tree house at Tranquil, a coffee plantation resort, I am continuing to think about it. How do I put this into words without insulting anyone? I don’t think it’s very polite to discuss the way someone’s home or country smells, yet I want to be honest and record my impressions.
It’s monsoon season and I am listening to a rushing stream down below as I sit on our deck in the tree canopy. It continues to rain this morning but I am enjoying the storm. I woke up to a rhesus monkey peering in our window and everything smells lush and green. How much better does it get? This is life and I feel lucky to be able to experience it. But underneath the freshness of life is danger, decay and death. My son fears snakes, but it’s the leeches we have to look out for as we walk the trails. India is messy. We actually took a walk today. Ashwin and I both got leeches but Vinuta Auntie was prepared with salt and they came off easily. See? Not so bad after all. They are also just trying to survive.
Thinking back to Bangalore, when we landed in the early morning in the dark and quiet, there was the telltale smell of damp and spice. Gopal, at 84, is there to meet us as usual. We drive through the streets which are already busy at 3 a.m. and smell early morning fires and exhaust from vehicles. The streets already have a fair amount of traffic. Upon entering the ground floor I’m faced with the smell of dog, Bubble has become old and smelly. We walk up the stairs to the Cloudhouse for a nap and as we walk by the door to the apartment on the first floor I smell cats. While eating breakfast there is the smell of death on the breeze. There it is – death, never far away. An animal is decaying somewhere on the property next door. We know that Saras Auntie died in the room off the living room. That room also had a pungent smell when she was alive, and Ashwin is still nervous to enter. Then there is the smell of compost. It’s all vegetable matter breaking down, but it smells like the manure that’s spread in the fields of Indiana when Gopal turns it over. It wafts through the living room. Then suddenly, a strong smell of ripe mango as the breeze blows across the fruit basket on the window sill, or jasmine growing outside the kitchen window. The strong smell of incense is suddenly on par with everything else, not overpowering as it is at home. Does any of this make sense? I’m not sure. They are just my thoughts and this little corner of the India I know.