“God has not given the foreigners the capacity to comprehend the magnanimity of the joke he has played with them by not giving them the goods to appreciate how Indians live in the present setup.” Reading the foreigner’s account of my nation gives me the global perspective of how we are seen as living entities. The piece of writing I am sharing over here is something which connects with every Indian Individual persisting to make a mark in order to live in an atmosphere undesirable or perfect I know not. Go forward and have a read.
Visiting India defied any tidy, one-sentence quip I could think of. It left me a mix of enchanted, bemused and horrified – often at the same time.
The first thing you notice is the people. Not as individuals, but as an overwhelming force of numbers, spilling over the streets like a river. This is a place where the population increases by 200 million every ten years.
Such growth in numbers seems to be pushing society to limits a visitor can struggle to comprehend. I’ve travelled around tribal huts in Africa and slums in South America, but this was something else.
Poverty I expected, but it’s the side-by-side contrast of rich and poor that made my eyes melt. Lamborghini’s drive nonchalantly alongside cattle. Ancient monuments stand in the midst of collapsing shanty towns. Pristine colonial palaces overlooked children walking through the garbage.
In some places, I saw hoards of immaculately suited Indian teenagers, with perfect hair, tapping on their iPhones. They would look overdressed in Italy. Across the street a man with two withered legs would carry himself on his palms across the sand. Later, our jeep would overtake an elephant.
In the cities, virtually every hotel, tourist attraction and many restaurants all had metal detectors outside. The funny thing was, everyone set off the alarms, and guards would just bow and usher you through. At the Red Fort in Delhi, hundreds flowed through the detectors every minute with no-one even present to check them. Somewhere, there’s a very rich Indian selling metal detectors.
The city of Agra is home to the Taj Mahal and a wealth of other attractions that probably feel like their pretty sister gets all the attention. The foreigner admission fee for the Taj plus two other monuments is just 750 rupees ($14). That’s 40 times more expensive than the domestic price (20 rupees) but it’s still cripplingly low. Flanked by barbaric poverty on every side I want to scream: for the love of God, raise your prices.
Indeed, the western entrepreneur in me desperately wanted to run the place for a day. The best photos I’ve seen of the Taj are from the river behind it, yet there’s no way to get there? Build a bridge, and charge me to cross it. Offer overpriced boat tours. Collect donations from tourists. Build a proper museum, adorned with the finest of Indian culture. There were countless people hard-selling art we didn’t want to buy – I would happily pay just to walk round and look at it. And somebody, open a damn gift shop. 2 million people come here a year. Earn some more money.Please.
Whilst the Taj was predictably spectacular, for me it took a backseat to Delhi’s Akshardham Hindu temple (above). I’m about as non-spiritual a person as you’ll ever find, but strolling through this ageless gem, lit by the setting sun, I was sincerely moved. Their musical fountain would shame the Bellagio. It’s a work of staggering, unique beauty and a ringing endorsement of what India can achieve; the 86,000 sq ft complex was built by 11,000 workers in under 5 years.
Yet it seems wherever you go in India, garbage surrounds you. It gathers like fatty residue in the arteries, clogging the edges of roads and buildings. Sometimes it spills high into waste mountains that people scavenge, set fire to, or stroll over like a parkland.
Imagine if all of the waste tips and bins in Europe were emptied into the streets. Then multiple your population density by 10. Even with pictures, it’s incomprehensible.
India is possibly the most resplendently colourful place I’ve ever seen. It seems baked into their cultural DNA – from glorious clothing, to painted vehicles to technicolour buildings – and the strong sun make those shades even more striking. The only thing that ever tones down the hues is a haze of dust and morning fog.
Everywhere new buildings are rising, and it looks like they’re struggling to keep up with demand. In a hotel in Jaipur, the softly illuminated glass and wooden interior would be impressive in London, were it not for one detail: none of the light switches lined up. In one glorious, ancient palace the chandeliers dangled precariously from half unscrewed fittings.
People here sell like nothing I’ve ever known. I was given a pitch to buy a $6 shirt that would shame any America car dealership. No problem sir. Everything looks great on you. We can have it tailored for a dollar. Their eagerness to move heaven and earth to sell is truly impressive, if a touch disconcerting. One shopkeeper sent his 10 year old daughter to follow a tourist back to their hotel, because they didn’t have money on them to pay for a dress.
It can be frustrating as well. One shopkeeper tried to sell us earrings for 4,500 rupees ($83) that we saw earlier on the street for 300 ($5). The price is determined more by what you look like, than by what you’re buying. On numerous occasions, a tour guide would lead us conveniently into the depths of a rug or jewellery store. Once seated and offered tea, his ‘friend’ would deliver a finely honed presentation to a captive audience. I might have walked off in disgust, if only they hadn’t been so damn good at it. My girlfriend remarked “I didn’t want to buy a thing, but now they’ve spoken, I do”.
I wish that talent was better placed though. When that same passion gets put into something bigger than selling rugs, the world had better watch out. There’s a tidal wave of new Indian entrepreneurs building here, and it’s only just starting to reach our shores.
What can I say about the people? They’re impossibly diverse. 1.2 billion people with 22 official languages – they have nearly double the population of Europe and speak nearly as many different tongues. I met delightful and horrible people. Many were proud of their nation, others bitter. All generalisations seemed worthless.
That said, travelling with my girlfriend we did perceive a fair whiff of sexism. Sometimes in a queue, with her in front of me, a man peered around to address me first, and then other men. Served at a dining table, I would be asked what the lady would like. With the exception of a few western hotels and the airport, we never saw any women working outside of the home or fields.
With the relentless hawkers, beggars and sellers, you soon develop a shield, and for me this was one of the most unpleasant things about my trip: how it changed me. Near the end of my journey, as a group of us clamoured into a jeep, a young woman approached. Showing us the twisted stumps where her arms should be, on cue, she began to cry. Everyone in the jeep looked at each other, paralysed. My mind was racing – I knew this was contrived, but surely I should give her something? We’d turn down countless beggars before, but this woman has no arms. A couple of seconds later our tour guide slipped 10 rupees (about 20 cents) into her pocket and we drove off.
I felt many things as we drove away. Self loathing that I couldn’t overcome my wretched beggar-shield to give this woman – what – two paltry dollars? That could buy her 10 meals. Anger that I’d been hardened into someone who could do such a thing within just a week. Fury that a country with 20 nuclear reactors and a billion dollar space program can allow any of their people to exist like this.
I think a holiday can tell you as much about yourself as the place you visit. India made me very grateful for many things that are too easily forgotten. As a holiday it was an unforgettable experience and one I intend to build upon – I know I only had time to experience a tiny speck of this vast land.
For all the frustrations and the horrors, I came away greatly impressed by India. It’s easy to feel despair at the scale of the problems they face, and to feel like any amount of time or money would never fix them, but that’s not my impression. The land buzzes with potential, mostly untapped, and it’s growing up fast.
At a train station I saw people building up piles of sand with shovels to extend the platform. It might seem like a small thing, but it made me smile. One day, that platform will help carry millions to work, to build businesses across the globe, to travel to their airports where some will probably fly to visit quaint ol’ England, long past its prime. The future belongs to these people, and it’s incredible to see it coming together, one shovel of sand at a time.