Though he never came here, Walt Whitman knew India was more than a country: a subcontinent, madhouse of religions, seedbed of civilizations, primordial and immemorial. “Passage to more than India.”

How to cope with this vital mess, this messy multiplicity? These hundreds of millions of people in hundreds of thousands of villages? I have learned from earlier trips to try to avoid the cliches of the tourist, moralist, or missionary. But how can I see it through Indian eyes? How can I break the cake of custom?

Spring in India: tiny purple birds dart between banks of flowers. Bicycles, bells, birdsongs: everything moves, murmurs, explodes. The soil is soul-saturated . . . birth death rebirth merge. Wanton destruction and callous neglect cannot dim the aura and the mystery.

Princess Ezra of Hyderabad—widow of the Nizam said to be the world’s richest man—has a dinner party. The Begum of Oudh sits amidst her Dobermans and Persian carpets in an old ruin given to her as compensation for Lucknow.

A shadow-thin man with a long stick drags himself forward on the dusty road. Both legs are twisted and deformed. He plants the stick in the dirt, wraps a boneless foot around it, and inches forward. Is he going home? Will he ever get there? Despite all the warnings (begging is a highly organized crime syndicate) I offer him money. He does not stop but looks into my eyes and smiles: I have only seen such a smile in the paintings of Fra Angelico.

In this fourth year of drought, look instead at the abandoned cattle: herds of 20,000 roaming the burnt-out areas of Gujurat and Rajasthan. Or the beggars: over 70 percent of all Indians have no assured employment, and earn less than $100 a year.

Few speak of this in New Delhi, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Indian independence. Festivities are climaxed by a giant Run for Freedom. How many runners? Estimates vary from 100,000 to 200,000. At the fore is Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in flashy jogging clothes, surrounded by movie stars and cricket players. Then the joyful atmosphere changes: there is a free-for-all at the National Stadium where angry runners go on a rampage. The finishing line banner is torn to shreds, bottles are hurled, offices smashed, anti-organizer slogans shouted. The police move in with lathis.

There are other ominous signs. Terrorism grips the Punjab; the TNV are on a rampage in Tripura. Gurkhas run amuck in Bengal; the Jharkhand Movement gains momentum in Bihar. Extremists step up the struggle in Nagaland, while rebels bitterly fight the government in Manipur. Indian troops pour into Sri Lanka—will it be their Vietnam? Elsewhere, observers report, separatist movements are taking shape. “Why are we still grappling with the same problems (deficits, poverty, inflation, illiteracy, one-party politics) 40 years after independence?” asks Srinivase Raghaven. “We face a litany of unkept promises.”

India is falling apart. But then, India has always been falling apart. History was still blind when this great rich landmass was overrun. Invaders keep coming (Aryan, Mongol, Muslim, Greek, Tartar, British, CIA) but India remains India. Somehow their warmth and wisdom wrap around them like a blanket.

In native eyes, the shifty look, the built-in insecurity; on every street the system breaking down. Some can push no more: beggars, melted away by leprosy, bodies ending at the waist, trunks without limbs, hulks that crawl and go bump in the night. Yet they neither complain nor despair—they endure. I enter the back country, the preindustrial world, determined to see places sacred to the Lord Buddha, born in northern India 25 centuries ago. What did he conclude? All life is suffering. Nothing is permanent. The ego is an illusion. Escape this suffering by using your mind—prayers and supplications are meaningless. Why should the universe worry about you? Be a lamp unto yourself.

His symbol is the lotus: an incredibly beautiful purple flower coming up out of India’s filth. No wonder Buddha wanted out of the cycle. He achieved nirvana. The art of living transformed into living art . . .

Yet the Indians rejected Buddha—just as the Jews rejected Jesus. But “rejected” isn’t the right word for India. Hinduism smothered Buddhism with its all-encompassing embrace. Everything is possible, nothing is certain. Here art imitates life. After death, rebirth: the two dominant film stars, Vinod Khanna and Dimple Kapadia, suddenly rise from the cinematic scrap heap to born-again stardom. The television craze for the latest Western programs disappears, as the two most popular serials (Buniyad and Ramayana), hark back to ancient epics. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who seemed so popular and secure, begins to bear a regrettable resemblance to his mother. His ideology is increasingly the “I” in the Congress and among a coterie of friends who form the most exclusive country club in the country.

Governments change, but Hinduism remains. To know India, one has to know this. On to Benares (which Indians call Kashi)—Shiva’s birthplace, home of the gods, navel of the world. This is a Holy City: the Hindus’ Mecca and Jerusalem all in one. There is no place like it—a motley ragamuffin veneer, hiding the sacred under the sordid. People and animals crowded into narrow winding streets that were well-worn before Babylon fell. Pali chants, kerosene lamps, smoking cow dung. Pigs, boars, dogs, ducks, goats, cows, oxen, water buffalo . . . a hundred thousand widows, migrating to Kashi to beg from pilgrims who come day and night. In their midst, swarms of Japanese tourists, clicking duty-free cameras.

I, too, carry a camera: icon of the outsider, of one who does not know (like Buddha) that all things are impermanent. Can the camera stop time, catch the moment, or at least the illusion? In a world alive with incredible images, what does one photograph?

Walking towards Mother Ganga (the Ganges River), I suddenly confront a leathery, ageless old woman with the noble face one finds in cave paintings. She is blind. Perhaps if I am very quiet . . . but she hears me. “Who are you? What do you want?” “Only to take your picture.” “Why?” “Because I like your beautiful face.” “Picture cost you money.” “Fine. I’ll pay you.” Less cautious now, I find a good angle, click. She begins to talk. Her husband was killed years ago in the Great War. She went blind. Her children deserted her. Now a neighbor brings her every day to this spot, takes her home at night. Sometimes people give her money—what do blind people do in my country? We talk. I stammer. I hurt for her. “I must go,” holding out the money.

“No money,” she says sternly.

“Please, I have plenty, and I promised . . . ” She is firm. “No money. You are my son.”

Passage to more than India.