It’s the land where literate motorists don’t ‘read’ road signs, they stop to ask for directions. It’s where shopkeepers give you lozenge in lieu of change but do not accept the same currency from you. It is where newcomers quickly learn to dodge a speeding BMW while sidestepping cow dung on the roads. It is where the religious-minded worship rats and simultaneously battle humans. It is the hurly-burly of India, with its quirks and foibles, its chaos and charisma, its grimness and grandeur. But for an overseas traveler it becomes easy to overlook the fact that somewhere between the romance of Rajasthani weddings in erstwhile royal properties (and going by the swell in ostentatious destination weddings in the state, it is plentiful), the supposed tranquility of the mystic in the Himalayas, and the squalor of the Mumbai slums lies an India that goes far beyond the horizon of hackneyed clichés.
Cliché No.1: India Is a Certain ‘Type’
The first point of contention a self-respecting Indian has with a foreign tourist is his belief that we are a certain type, read: exotic, rustic, conventional. Make no mistake. We are unapologetically all that, but so much more. The deal with us is that we are chameleon. We can be primitive and modern, reclusive and sociable, tolerant and impulsive, superstitious and scientific, you name it. We say, shed all pre-conceived notions. Remember, since long we have relegated the snake-charmer to esoteric carnivals and meals. And the elephant is not our chosen mode of transport. So there. We might have all but monopolized the BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) industry but not all our youngsters work in call centers with fake accents. Yes, Mumbai makes singathon blockbusters but it also makes serious meaningful cinema. In other words, look for more than what you have heard about. And don’t expect anything but the time of your life while here.
Cliche No.2: India, the Nirvana Land.
India’s fabled association with nirvana is the top draw for the overseas traveler. Salvation, unfortunately, is not a device that works on auto-pilot. Ask the billion inhabiting the huge mass.
Moral of the story: Abandon that search. Don’t go to Varanasi, Mathura or Haridwar solely on an active lookout for soul-cleansing or mystical musings (savor their beauty and cherish the experience, all right). No ash-smeared, chillum-toting Hindu sadhu will be able to decipher the meaning of life for you in three months if a lifelong quest hasn’t. Instead, experience the inner churning in the quiet of a dark resort deep in the jungles of Jim Corbett National Park. Feel a communion with your soul in the Buddhist monasteries of Himachal Pradesh as you soak in the smell of butter lamps or in the bylanes of Shantiniketan where strains of Rabindrasangeet seemingly linger in the air. Find simplicity in the orange flower-garlands adorning the plaits of girls in Chennai or in the voice of the Baul singers of Bengal. Simply put, find a connect with the Everyday Ordinariness of this ancient land lush with heritage and history. You don’t need a saintly yogi on your mission. Besides, the Maha Kumbh is not our sole claim to fame.
Cliche No.3: Indian Food = Delhi Belly
Oh come on, we have traveled light years away from the days of yore when all that India seemingly offered in food was hot and indescribably spicy. Now, apart from the ubiquitous McDonalds’, Pizza Huts, Costa Coffees, we have eateries that provide Indian food the way it’s served at home – simple, oil-free, delicious. Roadside stalls will customize your food to keep it authentic yet chilly-controlled. And most of us in urban India have water purifiers or buy treated water for consumption; either ways the water is germ-free. That leaves you, the traveler, Delhi Belly-free. By the way, we also serve wine (hallelujah!). Red, white, sparkling, hi-end, lowbrow, take your pick. Indulge. It is said a traveler sees what he sees, a tourist sees what he has come to see. In India, be a traveler, please. And while you are at it, pack two things in your kit to enjoy the guaranteed twists and turns. No. 1: turn on your sensory filters; learn to see and yet not see certain things, hear and yet not, smell but also learn to obliterate it. In short, use your abilities selectively. And No.2: refuse to get intimidated by the gigantic beast. Only then can you do any justice to it.
If you are ready, India welcomes you with open arms.