Our country and its many hues

Our country and its many hues

Foreigners often come to India thinking they are in the land of snake charmers, but once here, they get charmed by the secular fabric, the work culture, and the warmth exuded by people, writes M GAUTHAM MACHAIAH


For long, India was known to the outside world as the land of snakes, snake charmers, tigers, elephants and beggars. Some still hold this view, but with increased international travels and exposure to the Indian diaspora abroad, the perception is slowly changing. Across the world, people are now speaking about the work ethics of Indians, the culture and diversity of the country, not to mention Bollywood and biryani.

Julie West, a writer, digital media producer and a keen wildlife conservationist based out of northern Colorado, is fascinated with India’s pluralism. Julie first came to India in 2014-15 as a Fulbright scholar to study tiger conservation that took her to remote parts of the country meeting a cross-section of the people. “Prior to visiting India, my impression of the country was limited. I had read about and watched films on the legacy of Gandhi, knew of classical literary texts such as the Upanishads but had no introduction to them, listened to and greatly liked Indian classical music, practised yoga and knew that it originated in India, loved Indian food, and had read about or watched news regarding overcrowded cites and widespread poverty.”

An eye-opener

Though she was introduced to the “concept” of India by her friends two years before her visit, her travel to the country opened a completely new window. “I was struck by the legacy of Indian philosophy. The teachings of classical texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali'sYoga Sutras provide the much-needed values and answers to the complexities and stressors of every day living in these modern times. Though these texts may be intrinsically ‘Hindu’, the relevance of content is applicable to all — Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh. These texts hold the key to personal happiness that translates to global well-being.”

As a girl who grew up in the Christian faith, which taught that the worship of multiple idols was not the path to God, Julie explains, “We were told these were ‘false’ idols — the Hindu pantheon of deities being an example. As an adult, I realise now that this perception misses the point. Hindus see divinity in all beings. There is room at the table for all… If one wants to worship Christ, or Krishna, or a tree, or a tiger, or Shiva... it is all part of God.”

Mohammad Bahlol, a Yemanese passport holder residing in Saudi Arabia who is currently pursuing his BA final semester in a Bengaluru college, says he knew nothing about India except Bollywood. Now, having lived here for four years, he is mesmerised by the country. “The initial days were a bit difficult to adapt, but my Indian friends made me feel at home. Today, I feel India is my country.”

Secular fabric

What appeals to him the most is the secular fabric of the country. “Temples, churches and mosques exist alongside and people are free to practice the religion of their choice. The country does not discriminate between people on the basis of their religion and all citizens have equal opportunities.”

Of course, he loves the Indian people, the culture, and tourist spots, but he is most partial towards the cuisine, especially biryani. Mohammad’s biggest regret is that he will soon be leaving India, though he will be carrying with him rich experiences and memories of the time spent with friends.

His college mate, Monnapa Setthasuk, from Hat Yai in Southern Thailand, was warned by her friends when she decided to travel to India for higher education - “I was told I would never be able to survive in the country because it was not a safe place for girls. I was also cautioned about the large number of beggars here.”

Red tape

Now, after nearly two years, she holds a different view, “There are many cultural similarities between the two countries, especially with regard to Buddhism. What I love the most about India is its people. They are always willing to help.” She, however, frets about the chaotic traffic here and red tape surrounding the issue of VISA and residential permit for foreigners.

Gert Heijkoop had never been to India before he was posted in Bengaluru as the Consul General of the Netherlands in July last to set up the new Dutch consulate in the city. This is his 11th posting as a diplomat, having earlier served in Asia, the Middle East, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe. Gert, whose introduction to India was only through the news media, says he watched Bollywood movies extensively to familiarise himself with the country before assuming office.

“From my experience, every country has its pros and cons. Bengaluru is a cosmopolitan and safe city with friendly people, salubrious weather and low cost of living. On the flip side, the traffic is unmanageable — I have not seen anything like this, not even in Cairo where traffic is more disciplined — unbelievably bad roads, air pollution, though not as bad as Delhi, and waste lining the streets. I was, however, struck by how much cleaner Mysuru is.”

Mad, mad traffic

The pain points for Daigo Matsue from Japan, who at present is a client service director at a public relations and advertising firm in Bengaluru, are the maddening traffic, auto-rickshaw drivers and “getting one’s work done at government offices”. He first visited India in 2005 and then in 2011. “The Japanese believe that a visit to India will completely transform your life. There are a lot of differences between the two countries when it comes to religion, culture, food and lifestyle, but the common factor is that people in both Japan and India cherish their families. Indians are open-minded, positive and friendly.”

London-based Alyia Phelps-Gardiner-Krumbiegel, great-granddaughter of Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel, the German botanist best known for his work at Lalbagh in Bengaluru and the design of Brindavan Gardens at Krishnaraja Sagar dam in Mysuru adds, “I love India because my heritage is so intrinsically intertwined with the country. India is so different and unique that it is almost impossible to compare it with any other European country. The class difference in the Indian society is wide… one moment you might walk by a huge mansion and in the next come across homeless people without shelter, but the common factor between them is that both will welcome you with love and warmth.” Alyia, however, regrets that wildlife in India is being exploited for tourism.

Warm & hospitable

Damian Miller, CEO of a leading solar company headquartered in Bengaluru, who has lived in the city for 12 years with his Indian wife, Aparna, notes, “I am often asked why I would leave the United States and live in India. What I love the most about India is its people and the hospitality, openness and warmth with which they receive us. I doubt if Indians will be extended the same courtesies when they travel abroad.”

Rebecca Schnell, a content and corporate brand strategy professional from Germany who was in Delhi for an internship in 2010 was shocked to see families living in self-made tents on roadsides, but that was not the most enduring experience she had of the country. “I found Delhi to be an inspiring and energising city. Though I stood out as a blond woman, I never felt harassed and enjoyed walking around on my own, visiting markets or using public transport.”

While people admit that their perception drastically changed after travelling to India, what about those have never visited the country? Ask Pavol Harustiak of Slovakia what comes to mind when he thinks of India and he says, “Big elephants having a bath in the midst of nature.”

Pavol, who is now working with the Ministry of Education in developing a dual school system in his country, is also a long-time entrepreneur in renewable energy and is happy that India has taken major strides in this sector to save the environment. A fan of the “spicy curry” and Shah Rukh Khan, he is an avid watcher of Bollywood movies. On the negative side, he mentions about the large number of road accidents in India that was covered in a television show.

Big stars

Like Pavol, Aknabet Movlamova of Turkmenistan is also a big fan of Shah Rukh Khan. A teacher of economics, she believes India is a very colourful country with a high level of education and professional medical service.

Andrea Fernanda Bruzos Bouchet, Vice-Minister of Education for the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina speaks highly of different cultures coexisting in India. “It is one of the most diverse countries where language and culture are concerned.” This mother of six who is a social psychologist skilled in the education of vulnerable people feels the biggest problems of India are overpopulation and poverty.

Pauline Beere, who currently works in an investment bank in the United Kingdom, came in contact with a large number of Indians during her two-decade stay in the UAE. “I still remember with affection their love and kindness. To me, the community is exceptionally strong. The regional differences, languages and their food are diverse. The skills of Indian people are among the highest from all over the world, particularly in medicine, technology, engineering, and sciences. It is a tribute to their high standards and hard work,” she surmises.

Strong work ethics

“Indians are best known for their work ethic,” agrees May Rajab, a scientist working at a clinical diagnostic lab in Manchester, UK, having lived for long in the UAE. “I was told by my colleagues that as India has a large population, working hard is the most effective way of career progression.”

What she likes the best about the country is the cuisine. “When I eat out, Indian food is my first choice. I would one day like to visit the country and taste authentic Indian food and compare it to the westernised version.”

Magical attractions

For Medhat Houalla, a Canadian, India always represented a land of magical touristic attractions, rich in culture and history. “For long, India was seen as an emerging market, but is now an economically global hub that has multinational corporations investing with capital and buyouts. India falls in the same category as China, a country driven by scale. Cheap labour is considered the main driver.”

Medhat is all praise for Indians for being strong nationalists, while usually in other parts of the world such variance in ethnicity, religion, and language can be a recipe for political disruption and disorder.

Aumit Noor who works in the advertising industry in Bangladesh chips in, “Opinions and judgments are based on our predetermined notions resulting from first impressions. These perceptions are often based on own assumptions and opinions about someone or something that may or may not be true. Perceptions about Indians in Bangladesh largely vary across, age, region, income level, occupation, and religion mainly due to their individual experiences.”

Bangladeshis have been exposed to Indian movies and television shows for decades, besides the news media. Yet, many perceive India as a country of Hindus who are mainly vegetarian. Most are unaware that India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world. 

Indians hold senior positions in the private sector in Bangladesh and are admired for their discipline and work culture. However, a common view is that Indians are frugal in their spending and are not very good hosts. The older generation, he says, nurses some animosity towards India for adopting a “big brother” attitude towards its neighbour which the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi liberated from Pakistan in 1971. Bangladeshis love Indian food, closely follow fashion, and voraciously watch Bollywood movies, he adds.

India is such a large and diverse country that its essence cannot be captured in a single definition. To each eye, it presents a different kaleidoscope. It is, on the one hand, a country of mystics, and on the other, a behemoth of information technology. The contradictions are glaring, but they all get dissolved in a large melting pot called India. As Muhammad Ali Jinnah had once remarked, “India is not a nation, not a country. It is a subcontinent of nationalities.”