It all started so well. India seduced me from the get-go and for the first few weeks I couldn’t understand why so many travelers found the country so difficult to love. Sure, it smelled and was dirty, but not overwhelmingly so. And after 6 months in Southeast Asia, we were immune to the sight of rubbish and less than pristine streets. I loved the food, the colours, the saris, and the south had a nice, chilled-out vibe. Kerala, Goa and Tamil Nadu boasted some beautiful landscapes and sights, and were rich in culture and heritage. Seeing children indulge in endless rounds of cricket, old men chatting around a yummy cup of chai, women sweeping the sidewalks, in a backdrop of palm trees, quaint colonial houses and handwritten adverts was enchanting and exotic.
So where was the turning point? When did my relationship with India start to sour? The heat is certainly partly to blame, as were the dusty, sweltering bus journeys we undertook. The train is a much more civilised experience. Once I started to feel cranky from my journeys, the not-so-pleasant part of India started to grate – the huge lack of sanitation, cow dung everywhere, the omnipresent smell of urine and sewage, continual encroachments on one’s personal space, infuriating bureaucracy, but above all else, the attitude of some of the men. It’s no exaggeration to say that I felt violated by some of the stares. From that moment on, India and I engaged in a love/hate relationship. Love/hate is too strong a word – on/off is more accurate. And so I started to feel slightly bipolar – hugely enjoying the best of the country one minute, and deploring the worst the next.
Overall though, my time in India has been enjoyable and I found beauty in every place I visited. Sometimes I had to look a little deeper for hidden charms, but most often they burst to the fore, in full technicolour mode. And I admit, I was harsh on the country, forgetting the tough life most of its people endure. Corruption is sadly encroaching on a lot of progress that could benefit so many. India’s economy, despite its recent downgrade by S&P, is rising and a new middle-class is emerging. However too few, from what I’ve witnessed, are reaping the rewards.
I read an article yesterday in the Times of India that pretty much sums things up. The state government of Uttar Pradesh (where Varanasi is) implemented a sanitation policy in 2005, with the aim of installing proper toilets in every home by 2014. The state has the highest rate of outdoor toilet habits, mainly because so many homes are not equipped with loos. A recent survey to evaluate progress revealed that very few homes were upgraded with facilities, despite all the money that was pumped into the scheme. Corrupt officials instead siphoned off the funds. This is no one-off. These types of stories happen all the time and are unfortunately leaving millions of Indians behind. This goes some way of explaining the poor hygiene I so often deplored.
Another complaint of mine was being pestered on an hourly basis by vendors, autorickshaw drivers, and more. But when you live on so little, you need to hustle for a living and it’s important not to lose track of that. I’ve been guilty of rudeness and always felt ashamed after, though a few deserved a brusk reply.
Kevin and I often felt that it was hard to scratch beneath the surface of most Indians. People will come up to you continually, to ask you your name, nationality, and whatnot. But beyond those initial enquiries, I failed to connect with a lot of these encounters. What we erroneously mistoke for seriousness and a lack of humour was in fact reserve. Everytime we invested a little time, we were amply rewarded with kindness, hospitality or a warm smile that instantly made me see things differently.
In a sense, I’ve learned to look at India anew these past couple of weeks, and try to see things more through her eyes and where she was coming from. It’s instantly made my stay here more enjoyable again. I still hate the smells, dirt, pollution, pervy men, insane traffic and scary drivers, but I am in thrall of its ancient architecture, streetlife, colours, food, crafts and everyday spectacle. And if I don’t lose sight of that, then the experience becomes one of reward instead of frustration.
In short, we’ve been through the wringer, India and I, but I’ve now come out of it with a keener understanding and a deep respect for the country. It hasn’t been my favourite destination but it’s undoubtedly been the most fascinating and exotic, and I feel all the richer for it.
Delhi awaits, and I’m hoping it’s a showcase for the best the country has to offer. The city is certainly ambitious and wants to sit amongst the top 10 metropolitan destinations of the world by 2020. I’m hoping such plans for future domination are warranted and that we’ll be dazzled by the India of the future. Otherwise I may contradict myself all over again.
Addendum: This post was written during my last epic train journey. I’m now in Delhi and loving it. Phew, no contradiction needed.