This is not a "quick fix" India travel guide, or a "sure shot" India travel plan for the India candidate. Nor is it an attempt to suggest the optimum India travel itinerary. Where to go and what to see is not discussed here. Also this is not an attempt to scare you away or discourage you with the "real facts" of India.
Those planning an India trip are in a special league of tourists, with a taste for a mini-adventure and a quest to see a new way of life. This is not an easy or lazy experience. At the same time, you do not have to be a brutally brave macho to visit India. Put it this way, it’s neither a cakewalk nor a mission impossible.
But, a better understanding of the scheme of things goes a very long way towards a memorable India trip.
The India confusion
India in one word: Unexplainable. It’s more biology than physics. Your India travel plan invariably starts with the classic confusion - India or Not. The experiences narrated by the ones who have already visited India only adds fuel to fire, and anyone can convince you either way, with proof and contradicting facts about India.
The stories I have personally heard range from tales of people flying out of India on the next possible flight within hours after landing, to tales of travelers dreaming about their next India trip while at the very beginning of their first India tour. I have heard tales of people facing a real cultural shock on returning home. And, I’ve been convinced beyond reasonable doubt about reasons for all their points.
The excitement a traveler seeking from the "ancient spiritual India" is comparable with that of the Microsoft executive visiting India for business. Both are enthusiastically scratching the India itch but at the opposite ends of a century!
It is a unique, overlapping, and entangled landscape - one living within the other. India is one part stuck in history. You, as a tourist, are going there to experience this living past. The other part is the modern India that facilitates you as a traveler.
India’s past collides with her present in the middle of the road. You witness this never-ending and mind-boggling fusion of contradictions. This is the simplest explanation of hysterical chaos that is India. It’s akin to two huge elephants wrestling ferociusly - nothing bothers them, nor can anyone can stop them.
A man driving a Mercedes honking his horn at a bullock cart to persuade it loudly to give way is not just a funny sight. It’s a real life picture you experience on the Indian roads.
At every turn awaits you a hither to unknown surprise. This suspense hounds you all the way from the "India or Not" decision, through the India adventure, to your departure, and finally fades into a feeing that becomes India nostalgia.
The rude welcome
Your welcome to India is not a friendly one. The first thing you notice is the people. I mean lots of people. People moving in all directions. You have to deal with the worst of India head-on, and it’s really raw. Be it the beggars, the touts, the poor children, or the local taxi drivers, you have to deal with all of them minutes after your arrival.
Whatever tricks and tips you have prepared yourself with are forgotten in a matter of minutes after facing this rude welcome. It’s like learning to swim by reading a book, and them jumping right into the pool. India teaches you new lessons only after you have failed the test.
And it is powerful enough to change the way you view life. The shock treatment strikes you at the very core of your being. No amount of homework can prepare you to handle this. Nevertheless, you won’t be caught totally off the guard if you have done some research.
A regular foreign tourist in all probability won’t interact much with their equivalent Indian social classes during their tour. The shock is more due to this reason as well.
Even for an Indian visiting an unfamiliar Indian city, the environment is as eventful as a foreigner doing visiting. The India poison works quickly on you. You need to give it some time before you get a handle on the scheme of things.
It’s bizarre but this is how India welcomes you. This shock is also very much part of experiencing an India trip.
There is no India culture!
This is a fact about India. And you fail miserably if you are on a mission to find "real" Indian culture. India is not a monolithic cultural block. It’s an anthology of a thousand countries within a country.
More than a dozen languages are spoken principally within various geographic regions. This diversity is visible not just in language, but in food, costume, traditions, and local customs. The way people look and think are different all over India. The ways people cook and eat are different all over India. Each place has different festivals and customs. Even the religious holidays are varied in different regions.
For an Indian living in a southern town, Varanasi at the north is a mysterious place far away from his visual range and comprehension. If you are traveling the length and breadth of India, you arrive everyday at a new India, different from the one you saw yesterday. The north, south, east and the west are all distinctively different. No cities or towns are stereotypical representations of India. All are unique in their own way. It’s a never-ending roll-of-the-dice, and a menu for you to pick places that suit your taste.
Culturally this country falls somewhere in between orthodox and modern. You find a lot of sex ual symbols and signs of modernism almost everywhere in India, like women in the cities walking around in tight T-shirts and jeans, and huge billboards advertizing modern attire. Make no mistakes about it - deep down India has a conservative culture that respects tradition.
The difference between sleeveless blouses and ones with elbow-long sleeves is huge in terms of modernism. It’s technically possible to make traditional Sari sexier than a tight T-shirt and jeans, but the latter is still accepted grudgingly.
The younger generation is a century away from that of their parents. The cultural clash is most experienced in the middle-class Indian living rooms, than in any social setting a western tourist may experience. Indians are notorious in “Indianizing” everything they like. The numerous “Chinese fast food” joints dotted all over the country serve food that is neither Chinese nor Indian. The vegetarian McDonald and the Indian version of MTV, "Empty-V" as it’s pronounced, are other examples.
But the peculiar thing about this diversity is that you feel the presence of a strong, and widely-spaced, common cultural net that encompasses all the individual Indian cultures. The blood circulating between them is common.
The Social structure
There is nothing like the contrast between the poor in villages and the rich in the cities. The extreme rich and the unimaginably poor live almost side-by-side in any Indian city. The burgeoning middle-class lives somewhere in-between.
All share, more or less, the same public landscape. The cultural co-existence of these classes is an unexplainable miracle. Accommodating a foreign tourist in this society is not a surprise when compared to their own social contradictions.
The sheer size of all these classes creates a unique economic system that accommodates and caters to all of them. As a tourist this plays to your advantage. You can fit into any slot 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.
Your choices are limitless, as the luxury and comfort of hotel accommodations are available whether you pay $3 a day or $300 d day. You can cover three thousand kilometers for a cost ranging from $10 to $150 on the same train in different classes. You can have a decent meal for less than $0.50 to a meal fit for a king for $50.
A "poor man’s Mercedes" is available for anything and everything in India. Like anyone in India, you need to find your correct financial class and just fit into that. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is a very practical piece of advice in this context.
A foreign tourist definitely sticks out in a social scene. People take it for granted that a foreign tourist is well traveled and courageous, and it’s up to you to put this perception to your advantage. This perception has probably evolved from the fact that Indians see a countless number of lone foreign travelers roaming every nook and cranny of the country.
An average Indian thinks that all western culture is the same. For him US culture and UK culture are the same, leave alone the difference between Scotland and Wales! This has nothing to do with geographic understanding or the lack thereof, and the reason for this is simple - both the guest and the host are unaware of each others culture.
The family factor
A simple example is an average Indian 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 is like. The same holds for many aspects that would normally be individualistic, ranging from academics to career decisions. A family is more of a collective consulting body where everyones opinion matters.
This explains why a large number of people travel as a family, which is why the trains and buses are crowded. "Family only" sections are available in most restaurants.
The family is the elementary building block of the Indian society.
Any layman on the road wants to say something to you. Indian love to talk, and do so even with a total stranger on the street. Such communication hardly starts with introductions by name. The starting topic is generally a subject of popular interest. They talk for hours as if they are long time friends, and may depart without knowing each other’s names.
When directed at 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. Indians are notorious for asking personal questions, and is usually asked with no malicious intent. They socialize and bond by sharing personal information. It typically ranges from where they live, where are they going, what business they do, etc. The list is endless.
Never get embarrassed if a total stranger standing next to you in a queue ask such blunt questions. The interesting thing is that if you do not ask such questions back you’ll be regarded as impolite, aloof, or rude. In Indian customs, this is a bit of insult to the initiator.
Not looking at your face when answering questions is not a sign of impoliteness. Eye contact in face-to-face communication is much less than in western practices. The funniest fact is that you will attract a lot of stares 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 standard for government and business communications. A business traveler faces very little trouble at all in speaking English as compared to the tourist. India has the second largest English speaking population after the US. But majority of English speakers are in the professional, academic, or business community. As a regular tourist you may not encounter this population 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 keywords.
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 on the street (read as taxi drivers and vendors) knows how to count in English. Speak to them in English without grammar. That’s the best way to communicate.
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 word NO is not usually mentioned unless it is a very formal situation. 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, stopping here and there at it’s own wish, enjoying every bit of it’s journey. Follow it’s procession in style... it 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 a clockwork life style, leave your watch at your arrival terminal and pick it 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 town.
India 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 addicted to India league. There is nothing like a neutral feel about India. You either love it or hate it, and those who are infected spread it to others.
As a novice traveler you’ll be satisfied with the most popular tourist spots you visit, but the first experience has already induced the courage to go further. On your second trip you are less skeptical. But this time you have an advanced set of questions for India. You want to go to the regions you couldn’t visit last time. You come back from your second tour with the knowledge that you have seen very little of India.
The itch makes you want to go there again. Every time you do, you have a better control over the scheme of things and are more adventurous. The advanced India traveler ego drives you to explore the off the beaten path and remote places. For you this doesn’t feel like a movie seen over and over again.
If you’ve reached this stage, well, you can assume that your India addiction has reached a point beyond cure!
Latest comments for The India Confusion
- Join Date:
- Nov 2009
a good analysis
Amazing article on Incredible India
I am an Indian living in northern part of India. I must say that it is one of the most interesting articles I have ever read about India. I just realized how varied our country is! Incredible India!
The way you have summed up about diversity of India across its length & breadth etc. is commendable. Your article will come as handy reference for anyone visiting India for the first time.
Hats off to you! Salute!
As a thumb rule,if a Western tourist visits India for a week or so, he would harldly get a chance to even understand what India is all about! By the time he barely adjusts to initial shocks, it would be all over!
To be able to understand the beauty of India and Indians, one does need to spend some time....perhaps a month as bare minimum! Thats when you realise an unexpected query is not necessarily an aggressive intrusion but actually a sweet, hesitant probe to politely let you know 'you are so nice!"
And as everywhere, smaller the town / village, truer and simpler the people!
The exercise in patience