objects too,” I thought, the latent consumer in me springing hastily to life, “So, what is there to buy here anyway…?”
That’s how I ended up two days later, soaked to the skin in a pounding monsoon, huddled under a parapet, waiting for the heaviest rain in 100 years in Delhi to let up, cradling a plastic-wrapped tube of vintage Bollywood posters. In a little, dusty underground shop, hours of combing through knee-high piles yielded a dozen prized pieces—colorful, exaggerated and exotic. In the days that followed, more treasure-hunting unearthed colorful, +100 year-old hand-colored prints of Hindu deities and yellowed old maps from British colonial days. I found a funky, patterned batik shirt perfect for casual Fridays. At a music store I picked up some addictingly saccharine Bollywood music that now drives my girlfriend crazy. In a bad way. I didn’t stop until my suitcase was full....
Post trip, the Robertson Question keeps coming back: Experiences or objects...? With my bags long emptied, that trove of prints, maps and posters semi-forgotten, it’s definitely not the stuff that stands out from my trip to India, but rather the experiences. By a mile. Wrestling with the extremes of gleaming wealth and grinding squalor, inspired by schoolteachers lifting rural villages out of illiteracy, seeing the splendor of sacred temples, the slick, polished opulence of the wealthy, and experiencing the intense, fragrant kaleidoscope of life in a teeming, developing nation—a chaotic maelstrom of people, cars, trucks, tractors, camels, elephants, cows, limping dogs, scooters, busses, monkeys, and vehicles of all kinds hauling everything imaginable: lumber, toilets, bamboo, bricks, animals, giant pieces of equipment and machinery....
But there is so much more to India—if you are open to it—beyond this rich, experiential array. Listen and India will teach: Life lessons, rooted in spirituality, derived of pragmatism. I asked a native, a successful businessman from the North, now living in Delhi: What can someone like me learn from a place like India? He quickly answered. Two things: Let go. Transact less.
Let go. This, he said, is about productively inhabiting a world that is neither good nor bad, but just is. India—where things somehow work, despite the teeming frenetic disorder—requires seeing human existence as a complex system of interrelated, striving parts. Adaptability is about being able to focus on what you can influence, not on what you can’t.
Transact less. This, he challenged, means shedding a relentless, reflexive need to compensate and control generosity. Westerners living in India distinguish themselves—and not in a good way—by expecting and giving in return. There is another path. It means abandoning a deeply conditioned quest for equivalence. Always you give, only sometimes you get; freeing yourself comes from not keeping track.
Good lessons. Everyday wisdom that has become a new mantra. Confronting life’s indignities large and small, dealing with conflict, encountering inevitable petty dealings and machinations, trying to be generous while expecting nothing: “India,” I say, sometimes out loud, sometimes to myself, “Let go. Transact less. Be more.”
Originally published 11/24/11