Shashi Tharoor in his book The Great Indian Novel said India is not an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.
An uncontrollable mob of humanity, a gigantic chaos on the move, an enigmatic race, an infinite saga of paradoxes, a stormy ocean of cultural wildness, all of it suits to India. But none illustrates her fully. Unexplainable.
She works like biology than physics.
This is a place on earth where culture, religion, tradition, science, superstition all melt into one, and call it a way of life.
It requires all the five senses to experience India. She is overwhelming. She engulf in the most unforeseen ways.
She is not sure of her path. Nor she is bothered in knowing it. But she moves. She moves confidently with unparalleled human resilience. A county where human spirit found its ultimate triumph. Whichever way she goes, she calls it her path. On her way she takes her people to an unprecedented roller coaster of emotions, never spare them for a second to relax.
People can be convinced - with proof - contradicting things about India. She doesn't show even an iota of inhibition to contradict herself. Contradiction is her masterstroke. That is the smokescreen she uses to hide her secrets.
Is India a poor country with lot of rich people? Or is she a rich country with lot of poor people? No one knows, not even the Indians.
It is a unique, overlapping and entangled landscape one lives within the other. Her one part is stuck in the history. As if time had forgotten to move forward. On the other hand she has already made a firm grip on her future. A nation racing at breakneck speed into the future, without leaving the past.
Her past collide with her present on the middle of the road. Mind-boggling comedies unfold as a daily chore. Contradicting things dance together and fuse into one with unbelievable dexterity, as though they are made for each other. This is how the whole of hysterical chaos can be explained in simple terms. It’s akin to two huge elephants wrestling avidly. Nothing bothers them nor no one can stop it.
A man driving a Mercedes car honking horn at a bullock cart to give way is not a funny scene. It’s a real life picture on the Indian roads. The surprise is that they are not surprised at each other.
At every turn awaits a hitherto unknown revelation. This suspense hounds anyone and every one in India. Everyday sun rises with a new script of melodrama, rivaling the days gone by. People eagerly wait for the next day. The addiction is total and inescapable.
The rude welcome.
That is how she welcomes her guests. The first thing anyone notices in India is the people - lots of them - moving in all imaginable directions. ‘Oh my God !’ is a first question strikes anyone novice to India. The touts, the beggars, the pestering poor children, the pushy taxi drivers....all of it together come down on you like a ton of bricks. Not bad, as the very first India experience!
The worst of India is really raw. The soft underbelly of India is stark. It occupies the prime real estate of the India show. . Her huge outer robe is magnificently decorated with poverty!
Facing this anybody’s impression about India takes a nosedive or at least starts to feel that whatever they've heard about India appears to be true.
The happy news is that this is the worst people has to face in India. And you’ll face it first, at the very first hour of your arrival. If you can stand this, the rest of the India in waiting are all pleasantly surprising ones however sharp and strong it may be.
Once you are through with this, you are practically at the end of the beginning. Now either you are in a plane heading home or started liking the India poison. It is like whiskey, tastes a bit bad in the beginning then slowly feels good. On some India grips strong and quick, the rest manages easily. All your five senses are charged to the limits. Keep your 6th sense handy, that’s what you’ll use to navigate in India.
Someone said once that India is the biggest pajama party on earth. True. It is one gigantic open-air theater with the world’s largest band - the ‘Horn OK please’ orchestra- at its full throttle.
“Sare jahan se achha Hindostan hamaara…. “(Our India is the best in the whole world….), screams the car in its reverse gear. Every car in India has it’s own ‘reverse gear tone’, automobile equivalent of the cell phone ring tones! India has her own symphonies contributing to its social cacophony.
If you have anticipated of a tranquil and spiritual India, you are in for a rude surprise. It is a noisy place, at least her cities.
Imagine a billion people including their pets and cattle screams without any inhibitions....after all the largest democracy on earth has to be a lot noisy and messy.
There is no "India culture"
This is a fact about India. The word India makes you believe that this is a single entity. Not true. You would fail miserably if you are all out to find out the Indian culture. India is not a single cultural block. Rather it’s an anthology of a thousand countries within a large nation. Each tiny country had their own customs, their own dialects, and their own legends. And they all mixed perfectly well to form a cultural salad, still retaining the individual identity. And why didn’t it all melt into one? The simple answer is selfishness. Every one thinks theirs is a superior culture than the neighbors.
More than a dozen languages are spoken widely at various geographical locations. The diversity is visible in cuisine, costume and culture. The way people look and think are different. The way people cook and eat are different. All has different festivals and even different holidays.
For an Indian living in a south Indian town, Varanasi in the northern plane is a mysterious place far away from the visual perceptions and comprehensions. If you travel the length and breadth of this country, every morning you arrive at a new India than the one you've seen yesterday.
The north, the south, the east, the west …all are distinctively different. No cities or towns represent the stereotype of India. All are unique in its own right.
Everything is possible in India. She continues her drama with all the twists and turns. Bizarre or otherwise things happen as a matter of fact. Life goes on next to it as if nothing special is happening. The audiences are made to act and she watches the fun.
India is on a move. No, that is not an oxymoron!
Culturally this country falls somewhere in between the orthodox and the modern. You'll find a lot of sex symbols and signals of modernism almost everywhere in India. Like women in the cities walking around in tight T-shirts and jeans; those huge billboards profiling modern attire. Make no mistakes about it. Deep in their mind it is a conservative culture that respects tradition.
The difference between a sleeveless blouse and the one with elbow long sleeves is HUGE in terms of modernism. It’s technically possible to prove that a traditional Sari is (can be made!) more ‘sexy’ than a T-shirt and jeans. But still the later is accepted with skepticism.
The younger generation is a century away from that of their parent's. The cultural clash truly happens more at the middle class Indian living rooms than the one with a western visitor at a social place.
They are notorious in “Indianizing” everything they like. The numerous “Chinese fast food” joints doted all around the country serves food neither Chinese nor Indian. The vegetarian McDonald and the Indian version of MTV (empty-V, as it is locally pronounced!) are other examples.
But the peculiar thing about this diversity is that you can feel the presence of a strong and widely spaced common cultural net encompassing all the individual Indian cultures. From a mile you can spot it. The blood circulating is common. Indians feel proud in telling this phenomenon as ‘Unity in Diversity’. What does it mean? . Well, there are as many versions as there are Indians.
India presents one of the exciting statistics when it comes to its people. First of all its population. It is the second most populous country in the world. With 17% of world’s humanity lives within its borders, India is all set to beat China to become the largest populated nation on earth. To give a figurative idea, India adds an Australia to its population year on year.
No stats on India is complete with the mention of its poor. Though graph is improving for good, close to 20% of India’s population is deprived. Contrast that against the ‘Happiness’ surveys conducted across the world recently. Indian youths topped the survey in being the happiest lot. Close to70% of its population aged less than 35 years, India is a lot younger in its demographics. Just recently the number of millionaires in India have crossed the million mark. And contrary to the expectation, India’s millionaires are concentrated more in the rural areas rather than in urban centers.
There is nothing like the poor lives in villages and the rich in the cities. The extreme riches and the unimaginably poor live almost side-by-side. Well, the burgeoning population of middle-class lives somewhere in-between.
All share more or less the same public landscape. The cultural co existence of these classes for the lifetime is a miracle unexplainable. Accommodating an alien foreign tourist in this society is not a surprise as compared to her own social contradictions.
The shear sizes of all these classes created a unique economic system to accommodate and cater all of them. As a tourist this plays to your advantage. You can fit into anywhere in the economic spectrum. This is one reason why it is possible for you do an India tour with a lavish or a tight budget.
You'll not miss anything expect the luxury and comfort as the hotel accommodations are available from $3 to $300.Three thousand kilometers you can travel for a cost from $10 to $150 by the same train at different classes. You can have a decent meal from less than $½ to a king like supper for $50.
There is something like the "poor man's Mercedes" available for anything and everything in India. Like anyone in India you need to find out your financial class and just fit into that! ‘When in Rome, do as Romans do’ is a practical piece of advice in this context.
A foreign tourist definitely stick out in a social setup. The difference can be made as an advantage. People taken it for granted that a foreign tourist is well traveled and courageous. It’s up to you to make it to your advantage. Probably this is evolved from the fact that they see countless number of lone foreign travelers roam the nook and corner of the country. An average Indian thinks as if the whole of the western population is of the same monolithic culture. For him the US culture and the UK are the same, leave alone the difference between Scotland and Wales! This has nothing to do with the geography understanding or the lack of it. The reason assigned for this could be simple. Both the learner guest and the host are unaware of each other's culture.
The family factor
Don't get surprised if your Indian friend introduces you to her dad's eldest brother's son-in-law's younger sister to you!
It is a highly networked family structure alien to the west. People are not independent to each other as in the west. Parents play highly influential role in everyone’s life.
A simple example is the marriage. Selection of one's life partner is rarely an individual’s decision. People prefer a wider acceptance in the family circle on matters related to marriage. It’s perceived as a creation of a new network of relations and not as a one to one agreement. This is what the social security net in India. The same hold good for many aspects seemingly individualistic ranging from academics to career decisions. A family is more of a collective consulting body where everyone’s opinion matters. This explains why a large number of people travel as family. This is one reason why the trains and buses are crowded. ‘Family only’ sections are available in most of the restaurants. The family is the elementary building block of the Indian society.
Any layman on the road wants to talk something with you. They love talking. That is talking a lot even with a total stranger on the street. Such communications hardly starts with introducing each other by name. The starting topic is generally a subject of popular interest. They can talk for hours as if they are long time friends. At the end they may depart even without knowing each other’s name!
To a foreigner the first question is invariably about his country. Everyone is licensed to ask anyone on the street the latest cricket score! Probably this explains the high sound levels in public places.
It’s a patient but emotionally sensitive race. Personal attachments and intimacies are valued. They are notorious for asking personal questions. This may not be with any malicious intent. They socialize and ‘come closer’ by sharing personal information. It typically range from where they live, where are they going, what business they do…. and the list is endless. Never get embarrassed if a total stranger standing next to you in a queue ask such blunt questions. The fun is that if you are not asking such questions back you’ll be regarded as impolite or rude. In Indian customs this is a bit of insult to the initiator.
Not looking at your face when answering is not a sign of impoliteness. Eye contact in face-to-face communication is much less compared to the western practice. The funniest fact is that you will attract a lot of stare when you are not talking to them. This is more so in a rural or a small town setup.
English is the de facto communication language for government and business communications. A business traveler faces much less or no trouble at all in speaking in English as compared to the tourist. India has the second largest English speaking population after the US. But majority of this is in the professional, academic or business community. As a regular tourist you may not encounter them in any direct sense.
Your concern is the English knowledge of a taxi driver, a counter clerk or a layman at the bus stop. But you’ll be able to manage in public with English. Almost every Indian language uses a good amount of English vocabulary. What this means is people may not understand the sentence but they can pickup the key words.
Even the English spoken in India has its own style. The accent is distinctively different. Each and every letter in the word is pronounced distinctively. You’ll be addressed ‘Yes Madam’ (d not silent!). They don't bother much about it .
The worst is the structure of the sentences. They try to translate and speak verbatim as spoken in the local language. The infamous “You are from which place madam?” is a perplexing question for a novice listener. Almost everyone at the street (read as taxi drivers and vendors) knows to count in English. Speak to them in English without grammar!
Culturally there is no “NO” in India. An evading answer is equivalent to NO. Never use the word NO if you don't want to harshly deny something. “I just had a tea” is the polished way of saying NO to a tea offer than a polite “No. Thank you”. Never deny an invitation by saying that “I Won't be able to join”. “I’ll try to come” almost means, “don’t wait for me,” told in a polite way.
In written communication also the NO is not usually communicated unless it is very formal. A long silence from the other end can be treated as a negative answer.
The most valuable currency you need to enjoy India in total is patience. She never allows you to run faster than her nor she is bothered about your hurry. The India elephant moves at her own pace. Stops hear and there at her own wish. Enjoys every bit of her journey. Follow her procession in style is the best way to enjoy India.
Your patience will be put to the ultimate test. If you are on the way to another country and want a quick 2-day India tour, you are in for serious trouble. If you are used to the clockwork lifestyle, leave it at your departure terminal to be picked up on your return! Don’t get frustrated if someone tells you that you have to sit on a bench and wait for four hours for the next bus to the town..
She teaches you systematically the new limits of your patience!
The India nostalgia
It’s more of an infection you get after visiting India. If you haven't fallen in the ‘runaway from India’ category, in all probability you are in the India addicted league. There is nothing like a neutral feel about India. Those who are already infected try hard to spread it on to others!
As a novice traveler you'll be satisfied with the most popular tourist spots you visited. The first experience has already induced the courage to go further. In the second time you are less skeptical. But this time you have an advanced set of questions about her. You want to go to the regions you couldn't last time. You comeback from your second tour with the knowledge that how little you seen India.
The itch makes you to go there again. This time you have a better control over the scheme of things and are more adventurous. The advanced India traveler ego drives you to explore the out of the circuit and remote places.
For you this doesn't feel like a movie seen again and again.
If you've reached this stage, well, you can assume that your India addiction has reached a point beyond cure!