I have long had a fascination for India. At university, I picked up Hindi, signed up for a class on Indian cinema, and even joined Bollywood dancing. As a Malaysian, I thought I was immune to the sort of romanticised overtures many tend to associate with the subcontinent. We are both fiercely multicultural and corrupt countries, after all. With such academic preparation and an imagined cultural affinity with India, I thought I was ready for a two-month sojourn in Hindustan.
I was wrong.
India defies imagination. Photographs and writings from the region often suggest a politically troubled land filled with raucous colours and scents, a culture of spirituality and kitsch. Most of it is true. But any traveller will tell you that no amount of readings from the Lonely Planet and your South Asian studies classes can prepare you for the full experience.
Andreas and I travelled for a month in the north of India, starting out with a week in Rajasthan. Rajasthan was the stuff of tourism ads, flourishing and colourful, but it was frighteningly dirty. We saw dogs eat cow shit off rubbish-spotted roads, and I fell ill from food-poisoning in Jaisalmer. We felt the sensory crush of heat waves and the traffic and the throngs of people squeezed in around you everywhere and the public pissing and the potholed roads and cow and goat and dog faeces and the homeless rickshaw cyclers and the rubbish sitting in piles reeking openly in sun and rain. As we took it all in, city after city in Rajasthan, we couldn’t imagine what the poorer parts of India (72% of the country’s people still live in rural areas) must look like. The picture we were getting did not sit well with the oft-touted image of India as a rising superpower.
I was happy when we left for the mountains. We spent two weeks travelling from Srinagar to Leh, roving through the Indian Himalayas from one end of India’s northernmost state to the other. As we moved further away from Pakistan towards Tibet, we saw the landscape around us shift gradually from Muslim Kashmir into Tibetan Buddhist Ladakh.
The nerve-wrecking and arduous journey we took through the unpaved mountain roads and high passes was at least 3100m above sea-level, and it was devastatingly beautiful. Munich-born Andreas was not very impressed by Kashmir, which resembled the Alps, but was constantly in awe of Ladakh’s high-altitude desert mountains. I was less calm during the journey. At any moment, I thought we would slip off a cliff and plunge into the abyss below us. In the jeep, we made jokes about dying. It was terrifying, but the adrenalin kept me awake for the breathtaking view.
For the first time in my life, I saw glaciers. I hadn’t come to India expecting that.
Later, when I interned at AFP’s bureau in New Delhi for a month and read the dispatches we put out on the wire, I felt as though the India I had experienced had been distilled completely into ideas. Our stories were about political deadlock, poverty and corruption scandals. The biggest story of the month was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s sudden announcement that India would now be easing in major foreign retailers. In a matter of weeks, I had to go from being a tourist to a journalist. The
timelessness of deserts, mountains and faces was now replaced by up-to-date news.
At every bend, I realised that my initial fascination with India had not waned, but was now imbibed with cynicism. Politicians were caught up in deadlock after deadlock in parliament, over allegations of scandal and strong opposition by the BJP and CPI towards Congress’s push for a more open economy. Some were rallying with strong words about how the small retailers and the agricultural workers would be the first to suffer from such changes in reform. But I couldn’t help but think all these big debates were unlikely to be understood by my grocer, even though he told me vehemently that Walmart was going to destroy his business.
But won’t it be good for India? I wanted to ask him. It will create more jobs. Many of your more rural counterparts won’t have to come to the city to languish homelessly in its streets and pull rickshaws. More money will be spread out. It may improve your supply chains. Haven’t you had enough of your closed and provincial economy?
No use. My grocer was a staunch supporter of opposition party BJP. But even the layman without political affiliations is still strongly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of village life. I wondered if this was the sort of mentality that was hindering India from truly achieving the superpower status everyone was talking about five years ago. With 1.2 billion people, India is the only country that has the scale and potential to reach China’s economic stature. Its pharmaceutical and IT sectors are renowned to be world-class, testament to India’s ability to compete with fully developed countries. But in its streets and its parliament, this power feels smothered. Wherefore India?
I found the disillusionment of going to India both humbling and liberating. The India I experienced was potent, proud, but unhappy. It had not turned out to be the stuff I had prepared myself for, but it had become all the more compelling for it. I look forward to going back.