Welcome to 'real' India!

Welcome to 'real' India!


To the uninitiated, what does India look like from the outside? What images do foreigners hold in their mind’s eye? Fed on a slow drip diet of Bollywood, bangles and exotica by the media, it’s not surprising that for outsiders there is usually a chasm between the idea of India and the actual reality upon arrival.

For many foreigners, India is the land of the Taj. It’s also the land of slumdog poverty, spicy food and searing heat, of call centres, elephants and temples. It may also even conjure up notions of stray dogs taking a quick 40 winks on a comfy bed in the Commonwealth Games Village or nonchalantly strolling along a Formula 1 racetrack.

Dig a little deeper and people might mention Mumbai millionaires and a burgeoning middle class. On the whole, people’s knowledge of India tends to be rather limited to these media-driven cliches.

Many people ask me, “What’s India like?” I’ve learned to respond with a few glib utterances because, on the rare occasions when a proper answer has been attempted, I have found myself rambling inanely, while the questioner has a glazed over expression that informs me they are trapped somewhere between the nether regions of wrist-slitting boredom and utter confusion.

What would you say if someone asked, “What’s the universe like?” How can you convey in a few short, sharp sentences a perception, an illusion, a vastness and a complex diversity that means different things to different people? India cannot be explained or understood through words alone. Nothing can prepare the first-time visitor for what awaits.

Filled with warped notions of what India is like, the first time visitor will board the plane with a head full of clichés and a bag full of hope to arrive many hours later by hitting the runway with a heavy thump. Welcome to planet India!

Banana pancake hell

For many, arrival usually means entering through Delhi in pitch darkness in the early hours of the morning. Unfortunately, the visitor will probably be filled with a sense of sheer dread because they will be clutching a Lonely Planet-type guidebook that imparts its self-serving ‘wisdom’ at great length about cheating taxi drivers who will supposedly attempt to take the new arrival in the dead of night not to a hotel, but to a Kashmiri travel agent.

According to the book, the said agent will then open his shop at three in the morning and proceed to cheat the jet-lagged newbie out of half their money in return for a non-existent tour. Of course, such things can happen, but only if you are daft enough to let them.  

The guidebook — the sacred scroll of modern travel, containing a plethora of dos and don’ts that many a hapless traveller adheres to at their cost. Heaven forbid they should deviate from the ‘rules’ and actually explore for themselves what a place really has to offer. Alas, shortly upon arrival in India for the first time, ‘the book’ will be opened and may never be closed until leaving the country.
But this is symptomatic of what ‘travel’ has become.

A genuine sense of adventure and exploration has been lost as the travel experience has become commodified — to be consumed in neat packages, with sights to be ticked off some list. It is ‘lowest common denominator travel’, comprising easily digestible itineraries for mass populations in transit. Tours and guidebooks take you to what has already been mapped out and what is already known. And this type of tourism is just as true for foreigners visiting India as it is for anywhere else.

The villages, the mountains, the desert, the forests, the megacities, the back of beyond places. A place of 1.2 billion people. A place of 1.2 billion stories to be heard, secrets to be whispered and visions to behold. What excitement awaits, what adventures to be had, what tales to tell. Go forth and explore! But what do many tourists do in the quest to sample the ‘real’ India?

They pay homage to ‘the word’ as laid down in the guidebook, and end up on a traveller circuit whereby they mainly interact with other travellers, stay in tourist ghettos, munch on banana pancakes and slurp down cappuccinos in traveller cafes or plush AC coffee dens. From the pancake-smeared mouths of babes will come forth tales of an India that has very little in common with the India known to most Indians.

It will be an India of train rides to get from one tourist hot spot to the next. It will be an India of foreigner only hotels, foreigner only cafes and bottles of coke handed to beggars to ease the conscience. The occasional Indian will venture into this insipid Lonely Planet-inspired filmset in the form of a fleeting conversation at a roadside dhaba en route from one place to the next, or aboard a train where the guidebook says the ‘real’ India exists.

With India as the backdrop, the main actors comprise other travellers, and Indians are relegated to being mere extras to be marvelled at. As is the fashion today, this cinematic trip of a lifetime is to be glorified on Facebook, tweeted on Twitter or posted on YouTube to take its place among the millions of other vacation videos there.

Oh, how friends and families will be bored witless on the newbie’s return home by sleep-inducing stories of scamming beggars in Delhi, sun-kissed beaches in Goa and serene Kerala backwaters. But, most of all, there will be in-depth accounts of the dirt, the dust, the poverty — the crazy traffic, the chaos, the crowds — the filthy rich, the filthy poor and everything in between. “Wow man, all that poverty and grime — that was the ‘real’ India.”

And this will be followed by blow by blow reports on the endless sleepless nights spent in sleeper class aboard the many trains taken, with the persistent sound of clickety-clack, wheels on track, acting as the backbeat to the almost constant drone of the chai sellers, fruit sellers, toy sellers and cold drink sellers who shout and bellow their way across the country, courtesy of Indian Railways.

All those near-death bus rides, all those faceless hotel rooms and all those strangers encountered on trains with their constant chit-chat questions about ‘which country’, ‘are you married’, ‘what is your job’, ‘how many brothers and sisters’ and so on. A festival of lights here and a paint throwing one there, and a hundred other festivities to titillate the wide-eyed foreigner along the way.

What was to be the trip of a lifetime seemed to be an entire lifetime crammed into a trip. That’s the intensity of India. And, at the end of the trip, there will be the sense of satisfaction that “I did it! I went to India and lived to tell the tale!”    

The Indian way

But not all foreigners become trapped inside the bitter-sweet honey trap of some fabricated banana pancake circuit. The hippies who ventured here overland from Europe back in the 1960s and early 70s had a genuine sense of exploration. Fuelled with the energy and drive of youth, they belonged to a time before the world became shrunk to a global village by the forces of celebrity, mass media, swift travel, the internet and the constant desire for standardisation. In a way, they were pioneers. And, even today, there are still many foreigners who come to India in the true spirit of those earlier visitors.

But, whatever the motives and wherever they find themselves in this country, India will stamp an indelible impression on visitors to these shores. And that impression goes well beyond the wacky road signs (“after whisky, driving risky”), the misspelled menus (“leeches and cream”) and the million other things that madden or amuse.

Some are attracted here because of the great religions and philosophies. Many such visitors are easily recognisable, dressed head to toe in white linen and with a ‘blissed-out’ expression on their faces after having spent too much time in the ashram. Others are not truth seekers of the spiritual kind and just come to see what India is like and to experience daily life. And they too can learn many things while here, not least patience, which is required in abundance if India is to be survived.

After spending some time here, foreign visitors soon come to realise that there is a right way of doing things, a wrong way and a very agonising Indian way. And no guidebook could ever convey that salutary lesson. It’s a lesson that every foreigner must learn and the learning process is often a painful one that leads to much grinding of teeth and pulling out of hair. The more experienced foreign tourist will often be heard saying to the first timer, “Go with the flow, you can’t change India.” Wise words because you must, and you can’t.

Even simple things become frustrating affairs for many foreigners. Take crossing the road, for instance. Back home, it’s quite a simple task. You approach a crossing, press a button and the walk sign appears. Brace yourself — as amazing as it may seem, the traffic actually stops! Traffic rules are obeyed. A wild concept, I know. In India, the foreign visitor must relearn to cross the road from scratch and develop certain skills — running for dear life being the most important one.

If foreign visitors thought that Formula 1 had only recently arrived in India, they will soon realise that they were severely mistaken. Just get yourself along to what could well be the most hair-raising spectacle of speed and potential carnage ever to be seen in India. Why on earth would spectators want to pay a whopping price to watch Formula 1 when they can see for free the traffic hell they call MI Road in Jaipur?

This must surely be the most dangerous street in India. In Jaipur, as in every Indian city, people must simply run for their lives as all manner of vehicles appear at breakneck speed. No brakes, only horns.

Jaipur is sold in the guidebooks and brochures as being a jewel in the crown, the capital of Rajasthan, the Pink City, Indian exotica epitomised. What won’t be mentioned, however, is Jaipur, the city of MI Road, the place of traffic-choked mayhem, the road with maniacs behind the wheel who will leave you with that little publicised unique taste of Rajasthan — a burning throat, rasping lungs and watery eyes. When they said hot and spicy in the tourist blurb, no one ever thought they were referring to the traffic pollution.  

Keeping it real

However, many foreign visitors find the greatest culture shock of all to be found in their dealings with other foreign visitors. First, there are those who talk endlessly about having seen the ‘real’ India. These are the self-appointed ‘travellers’ (not mere ‘tourists’) who think they are getting a sense of what India is really like by staying in cheap dives, walking around like dishevelled beggars, haggling over every last rupee and getting ill by eating at the cheapest, most unhygienic places.

And NEVER ask them where ‘home’ is because, in order to show how travelled they are, they will reply, “You know, I’m not really sure anymore. I’ve been six months on the road, man.” A whole six months and they have forgotten where they live. Quick, call the embassy! Short term memory loss is endemic among such types.

Despite what they would like you to believe, though, they only ever see the India they claim to be engaging with over the rim of their plastic cup of chai as they hurtle through the countryside by train on their way from one tourist ghetto to the next.

While there are also those who are actually ‘keeping it real (man)’ and who do venture off the beaten track, there are even more who stand out because of their incessant references to ‘karma’, ‘energy’ and ‘enlightenment’.

Over the years, I’ve met bare footed foreigners in loin clothes who have given away their passports and money (and seemingly all of their clothes) in their spiritual quest, and I have met those who thought they were some or other incarnation of god and more than a few who have talked non-stop about ‘living’ and ‘god’ in the belief that they were a living god. I’ve met doom laden prophets who have had revelations about the end of the planet and people who have left their bodies to float from Manali to Delhi — but who then have had to exit India by plane — transcendental ‘floating’ will not allow for cross border travel it seems.

So, what is the ‘real’ India? Who knows and who really cares? No matter how foreigners choose to approach India, whether from within the confines of a huge banana pancake or peering out the window of a cheap and not so cheerful dhaba, many will hanker to return as soon as they get back home (if they can remember where that is, of course). This country can have that effect. Many develop a love-hate relationship with the place, but keep coming back for more. Warning: India can be highly addictive — you won’t see that on any tourist brochure.

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