Daniel Zvereff is a freelance designer, illustrator and photographer. He travels to the far corners of the world documenting his journeys through images and journals.
One year ago I was sitting in a train station somewhere in-between Varanasi and New Delhi, India, en route to meet some friends. I unfastened a staple from a semi-opened plastic bag of peanuts, poured them into my mouth and bit directly into a rock. I spit it out, extremely disappointed because I hadn’t eaten in hours. Everything had been a mess and I was in a rut — I just couldn’t catch a break. I turned around to see a book-seller who had a few books in English, and placed in front for every tourist to see what was Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”. I gave the man a few rupees and hopped on the train, book in hand. I lied down on the stiff bed for the 12-hour train ride and began to read the book that I remembered as a Disney movie from my childhood.
One year later, as I am sitting here and reading headlines that India is once again celebrating its Holi Festival, memories come flooding back. The month I spent there was an extraordinary experience. Traveling long hours and resting only short periods of time, my friends and I jammed as many possible destinations as we could into that month. For most of that time we were extremely uncomfortable: I caught a virus of some sort, which lasted almost the entire first month I was there, and lost a lot of weight. I simply could not function, nor focus, as my senses were completely overwhelmed. In my fevered state, my impressions of India were that of a country that had gone completely mad. As I got better, I began to look for ways to focus on small moments, and I started to isolate and hone in on the beautiful little things occurring everywhere around me amidst the chaos. India is incredible: it is unique, and the contrasts — stark.
In the western hemisphere we are raised with organization. Our homes are built as perfect boxes that all look exactly the same in neighborhoods with roads on a grid. We have stores which have bins where everything is neatly placed. When we buy tickets, food, or almost anything for that matter, we form a queue. We have a mutual understanding to remain calm and stand in line. Even if there are no posted rules, we automatically apply them in an orderly fashion. In India this kind of order is simply not part of the culture, and though it is incredibly frustrating at first, when embraced, it can be liberating. Chaos can work — it finds a way, just like our universe.
When I arrived in Delhi, I left “The Jungle Book” behind, but it stayed with me, especially the part about the Monkey People (Bandar-Log). I kept thinking of how they seemed so wild, and how Mowgli was hungry and exhausted while they danced, scatterbrained, around the destroyed human city they occupied. It was his discomfort and regret for coming to the lost city that mirrored my own feelings at the start of the journey. I realized that to really understand this place, at first I had to get over the physical discomfort and accept the chaos. Reading that book on that train ride gave me a sense of perspective on my own adventure. Experiences can only be as high as they have been low, and India certainly blessed me with both of those. In India, when the highs came, they were vastly more powerful than could be imagined. Daily life is lived in the moment: it is freedom at its essence, chaotic and unplanned. Every breath taken is a gift; every sunrise is beautiful. India presents a conscience reality that is fragile and exposed to the core. Although India has already been heavily documented by much better and more prominent photographers than I, I have no qualms being one of the many. My experiences there are now a cherished memory: colorful, filthy, sickly, and joyous. I present the first part of “Bandar-Log,” a three-part series on India.
Mumbai is a city whose heart beats on the outside. Entire families live on the street. They wake up early in the morning, and in a very organized manner fold up their blankets and bedding, shower, and brush their teeth, all on the little patch of cement they call their home. Enduring such misfortune, in my eyes, is unimaginable, but the people of Mumbai make more than the best of it. Day in and day out, with honor and dignity, they carry out their work. Some set up their outdoor shaving business or a tea shop right in front of where they sleep; others will, with a long needle and loose cotton, clean people’s ears at a bus stop. They work tirelessly throughout the day, greeting me with a huge grin when I pass, posing proudly to be photographed. I am at once floored by the humility of the people and filled with admiration for them. It is, by western standards, a filthy place — yet, I can’t help but enjoy wandering endlessly through its constantly surprising and vibrant streets, at times exhausted, and sometimes panicked as if drowning in this chaotic swirl of humanity
CHENNAI – ANDAMAN ISLANDS – KOLKATA – ROAD TO DARJEELING
Under a dim blue light, a Sheeva statue glued to the dashboard of a taxi stares back at me as fast-paced Hindi music blares from a speaker. Hopefully, the statue is actually protecting our taxi as the driver confidently and calmly pushes the pedal to the floor zooming along congested roads, narrowly avoiding three accidents. But I do arrive safely in Chennai to meet up friends. The next day we fly to the Andaman Islands — a unique and special place. I will leave it at that, for my hope is that it will remain so.
Five days later we arrive in Kolkata. We walk by endless street shaves and cane juice stands. Tuk-tuk horns chirp like an endless sea of birds, drowning out all of my thoughts. The next morning we catch an eight-hour day train to New Jaipur, arriving in the evening. A man offers to take us in a Jeep up to the base of the Himalayas — a ride which takes four hours. The roads are dark and marked as military zones, but the driver ignores all warning signs and barrels forward, almost killing two dogs along the way. We pass two taxi drivers on the ground in the street who are tearing at each other’s throats. Our driver laughs at this and continues speeding along through sharp mountain curves and cliff drops without guard rails as if without a care in the world. The ride is treacherous and harrowing.