A place of contrasts

Light filtering through afternoon rush hour traffic haze.

Depending on which sources you choose to look at, there are about 150,000 people in Alexandria City and anywhere from 4.5 – 6.5 million people in Chennai. Do you know what the population of Virginia is? About 8.5 million people. I’m in the midst of it all here, and in the last 24 hours I’ve seen a lot of dualities. Calm in the midst of confusion, beauty in the midst of ugliness, happiness in the midst of sadness. You see a lot of opposing sides everywhere you look. It’s like one big yin yang symbol right in front of your face every time you take a step.

What? A yin yang? What does that even have to do with India? Well, think about it like this: The yin yang is a circle that is divided by an s-shaped curved. Half of it is white and the other half of it is black. Each side also contains a little bit of it’s opposing color, a small white circle in a sea of black, and a small black circle in the sea of white. What does this all mean and how in the world could a very well known Chinese symbol explain what I’m talking about in India?

I’ve come to know this symbol through Chinese philosophies, science, and not to mention physical exercises and ancient traditions. The yin yang is considered to represent opposite forces that are connected. If you think about dualities, or opposites, you can imagine that to know, think, or feel anything relies on something else to be present some of the time. How else would you know if you felt sad or happy? You have to have both. What are some dualities you can think of? Here are a few: Light/Dark, Black/White, and Water/Fire.

I had a series of these kinds of contrasts on my walkabout in the chaotic streets of Chennai. The first one was separate vs. unity. I wasn’t actually alone in being alone, because almost everywhere I walked there were other people mostly walking alone, by themselves, heading somewhere else. Just like me. The duality of this example exists because there are so many people, in this relatively small area, moving alongside each other individually making one great motion. You begin to notice and witness these maneuvers in almost every action. One place I especially noticed this was traffic patterns. The cars and trucks are driven by individuals who somehow drive in concert with everyone else! It all seems to create some kind of dance or collective movement. Like one big wave. It’s so strange and revealing. Yes there’s honking, but there’s always merging, passing, stopping, and some how room for it all to happen at once.

Sounds are another contrast. Sounds is often a layered experience and has a particular pitch (or sometimes several), volume, tone, even a texture. India is not short on texture in any way. I’m pretty sure everyone who visits India will experience this duality. You can’t ignore it. At one point during my walk it was almost as if John Cage was performing (look him up).  So many sounds at once! Some of the sounds were beautiful and some of them mundane and ugly. Yet, at times, became beautiful together.

I think it may be a goal of mine to collect as many sounds and videos as possible while I’m here. I know this is nothing new. Many people who have come before me have collected the interesting cacophony of sounds that is India and have experienced the contrast between the beauty and ugliness of what they’ve heard. In just one moment, you’ll hear loud barking or howling by a street dog, and then the next moment while you’re walking along side someone you’ll hear them singing to themselves. One cannot ignore all the vehicle sounds either. The horns, the breaks, motors, the revving of the engines. Then add the voice: people chattering, kids giggling, people calling out items they are selling, the calls to prayer, arguments, and the music that plays out of tuktuks. You have a whole orchestra that seems to sing at just the right unpredictable moment.

Then there’s the reality of India. It hits you like a ton of bricks. On just one street you see everything, high end to low end. But within that reality you see ingenuity. I think that is what is really striking about this place, so far. I walked around my current neighborhood for about 5 or 6 miles today (should have worn my fitbit). Every space is being used for something: street cafes, fixing cars or scooters, selling flowers, selling fruits, weaving baskets, home goods stores, and napping (don’t we all need to get our nap on whenever we want?). There really is no distinction between what a space can be used for, yet there is still some kind of order to it. It’s mind-blowing .

India also displays a grittier side on every street. One of the most obvious contrasts: poverty and wealth. One of the most striking examples I witnessed was when I walked passed people waiting out in front of their street to get water in their assigned plastic containers. The truck was parked right next to a storefront that displayed a large variety of bottled waters, sodas, and juices.

As I begin to unravel the mystery of these contrasts or dualities, and learn to witness them, I have to keep the symbol of the yin yang in my mind. For the yin yang to be thought of as complementary, they have to interact. The sum of the two parts are greater than the parts separately. Through individuality comes togetherness, ugliness and beauty coexist, and reality always converges with ingenuity. Each day, when I walk or ride though the streets of Chennai (or anywhere else), I will remind myself that the contrasts exist to teach me something, and the less we resist that, we will grow more, understand more, and feel more.

Peeling posters on the wall, dead leaves.


Flower ready to bloom.

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