Liam Pieper is a Melbourne author and winner of several literary awards. His new book, Sweetness and Light (Hamish Hamilton, $32.99) is inspired by his own travels – and troubles – in India. See penguin.com.au
I went to India looking to make mistakes. I was young and at that particular stage of stupid where you believe it's better to regret something you did than something you didn't do. New Delhi provided. Everywhere I went, I ran into trouble. But worse than that was the revelation of how lucky I had it – and that the entrenched hardship all around was the consequence of the same Imperial history by which I'd inherited my privilege. We wealthier societies use the term "developing nation" because it sounds much more palatable than "nation recovering from the long slow wake of colonial exploitation".
Years later, I went back to Delhi to visit a friend. I was awed at how easily he got by; how competently he negotiated the sprawling chaos which had beaten me. Then we went on a trip to a nearby city and suddenly he was helpless; didn't speak the language, got scammed, had a miserable time. I was overjoyed – here was proof that it wasn't just me. The world is wide, it turns tremendously fast, and trying to see the whole of it is a futile task. But it's a wonderful thing to try to do.
Standing at the base of the Taj Mahal - iconic masterpiece of Islamic artistry, eternal monument to love - across the crowds and dusty plains of centuries, I heard an Australian complaining about coffee. Not long after I got home, I was on a Melbourne tram where commuters were complaining bitterly and non-stop that there were no free seats. After having seen buses in India where the wheels literally fell off and everyone just kind of shrugged and started walking, I could begin to understand the unique confluence of privilege and blindness that binds us as a people.
Faced with hardship, Australians are not the egalitarian, hard-knock-life folk we think we are. As a rule, if you mildly inconvenience us we will lose our damn minds.
I grew up an atheist, and had a fairly cynical view of religion. It wasn't until I saw a bit of the world that I understood how much hope and joy that faith gives folk. There's a feeling that's struck me a couple of times – amongst the temples of the Hindu pilgrimage site in Hampi, standing under the Sistine Chapel – that comes close to understanding. People made these things because they believed in something better. Shitting on someone else's faith does not make me a better person. I'm still an atheist, but I'm rarely right about things. So I guess we'll find out in the end. I've made a mistake or two in the past.