Journalist and photographer Mandy Sham was instantly enamoured by the sights and sounds of India. Finding it impossible to carry enough of it back, she returned two years later—as a flâneuse in the vibrant streets of Udaipur. By Mandy Sham
Udaipur, on a hazy November morning, is a mirage of fronds and white marble. The daily puja at Jagdish Temple is in full swing, both figuratively and literally—awash in oceanic ripples of saris, blooming in every last colour. Water droplets are cast from the altar, landing into the frenzy of the crowd; their mellifluous chants reverberate through the temple sanctum like little miracles.
Here I am, standing along the edges of that crowd—a spectator entirely overwhelmed by this distillation of pure joy, of indulgent humanity. I watch as the individuals gathered here melt congruously into one entity, and it fascinates me in a way only India can: the unabashed wonder at life’s idiosyncrasies and the preservation of centuries-old history so tactile it bears resemblance to taste. I am floored by this celebration of life. It brings me to tears, suddenly and exuberantly—starting the day with jubilation and marigolds and a bindi on my third eye.
The morning thereafter, light, with the spontaneity of a new day, weaves through markets of powdered spices in burlap sacks, shopfronts filled to the brim with copper and houseware, and the aromatic plumes of incense and sautéed onions escaping from second-storey windows. In our quest to escape the midday torpor, my friend Aditi and I stop for rosewater lassi and samosas placed over old newspapers. The remnants of a recent bout of dengue fever subside in the face of heat and sugar and the cacophony of traffic; in India’s haze, there is nothing but clarity.
Later, as we wander through a local market propped up on simmering asphalt—watching the calloused,
storied hands of women sort string beans and loose rupees—I stop and purchase a bag of green and pink
guavas, softly bruised and perfectly ripened. Aditi and I snack on a few, strolling along with no particular
thought as to where we should head next. Udaipur’s streets pulse with the sounds of passers-by and lingering smells of frying oil. It dawns on me, hungering for something piquantly spiced and the sensation of simply being among people, that the experience of India cannot be divorced from the present. It is alive, and in some strange sense I am it, and it is me.
Two years before I found my way to this bejewelled pocket of Rajasthan—sitting in an art gallery as a large silver plate bearing cups of masala chai was slowly lowered down from a rope, or dining indulgently on laal maans by candlelight in the company of new friends—India was no less extraordinary or sensuous, no less otherworldly in its capacity for sheer difference and wonderment. Although I’d explored my fair share of countries before arriving on its shores, the veneer of India to any traveller—no matter how seasoned—was truly unlike anything else in the world.
What I’d noticed first was the medley of sensations: lacerating heat, sounds of honking and music, and the ephemeral conversations of passers-by. The way sweating onions and rusted metal and sandalwood
can feel so disjointed and yet inseparable. I came to see the fabric of India as almost palpable—the kind
of living organism that can’t be extricated from itself. Something that changes irrevocably before it can begin to be understood. I loved, almost immediately, how life was abruptly removed from its expertly compartmentalised boxes: released to roam free.
It is this permeability that I cherish most about India—reminding us of the intricate humanness that
joins us together. I find myself in some way unified to the vivid colours on the street, or to the indescribably complex history etched onto palaces and cinemas and convenience shopfronts. I am forever the outsider, watching beauty and sincerity converge in the form of a sun deity festival in Varanasi or the glory of a potato paratha. And yet, incomprehensible though some of it might be to that outsider’s eye, something about India speaks to the soul.
The porousness of life, melodious as it is by the Arabian Sea or in the Himalayas, has its downside. To leave India is to leave. In no other country did I feel this absence—how fraught and impossible it is to take a small part of it with you, whether in memory or in the form of a physical souvenir. So, it stands to reason that, two years following my first trip, I returned—hoping to spend more time experiencing the country for what it was. And what it was, that languorous, magical day eating guavas and dancing at the morning puja in Udaipur, was something of a miracle.