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Amanda: Preparing for a Passage to India

January 11, 2011
As I started reading about India, I discovered one reoccurring fact from almost every writer: India smells. I discovered other things too—marriage practices, conflict between Hindus and Muslims, India’s quickly growing middle class—things that never seemed as important or relevant, though, as India’s overwhelming smell. I suppose you can’t really describe India without including its smell, and, interestingly enough, you can’t really understand India without smelling it either. As I began sharing my intentions to travel to India for a semester, I received various reactions from my family and friends. 

My parents first viewed my infatuation with the country as a phase, something that like the silly bands on my wrists would fade into the depths of bygone trends. Much to their discomfort, dismay, and displeasure, my interest in India didn’t gently wax and wane into the eerie world of forgotten dreams (and silly bands, for the record, are still popular, though I gave up wearing them). My great-uncle Wallace, one of the only people I know who’s been to Jaipur, the city I’ll be living in for 3 months, relayed to me that after his time in WWII he wouldn’t return there if someone paid him.

Between scraping plaque from my teeth and attempting to dislodge molars from my gum with floss, my dental hygienist wisely professed something along the lines of “India? That’s different. Just make sure you don’t bathe in a river full of cow shit.”  Even the director of International Programs at my school (Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC) questioned my desires to live in this land of spices, elephants, and henna. “You know,” he said, “you could read a different book about India and become disillusioned with the country as quickly as you fell in love with it.”

Others were more encouraging.  My academic advisor patiently listened to my many dreams and barriers of studying in India as if they comprised the plot of a Shakespeare tragedy she taught to upper-level English students. Many of my friends, accustomed to my constant references to India, forwarded me pictures or experiences they encountered from the country in history class or, alternatively, jokingly screamed “India” to me across the quad.

I remember sitting in a booth in Steamers, a favorite restaurant for many in my small college town, and talking about India to my discipleship leader, Emily. Dining beside girls in my sorority, local bank tellers, and my own professors in a restaurant that served hamburgers, chicken salad, and turkey dippers left my taste buds longing to enjoy curry beside exotic friends who existed in my imagination, Indians as passionate about their own culture as I was. Emily, too, reminded me then, and later, when I faced my first nightmare about India, when I applied for a visa during hell week, and when I called a travel agent in Minnesota to purchase an airline ticket, that God uses the unconventional to transform us.

I cried the other day thinking about the country: dalits in the slums, a cow in the middle of a crowded street, exploitation and triumph resonating together in that land I, already, love. Here is what I know about India: it smells. India smells in a way I can’t mask with Febreeze from my suitcase or extra showers or a stuffy nose. I haven’t breathed in India’s scent yet, but I’m guessing India smells in a way that isn’t good or bad, just different. A beautiful kind of different. India smells, I know that for sure.  The rest, for now, I only dream about.

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