I was eighteen when I first went abroad. I was to participate in a competition, for which I ended up traveling close to 24-hours almost nonstop, until I ended up at my destination, quite worn out. Arrangements had been made for me to stay with a family, a wonderful lady and her two equally likeable daughters, and all three of them had turned up at the airport to meet me. We exchanged greetings, they bundled me into their car, and we set off towards their home.
Small talk - the drippy weather, the bumpy flight, the dim chance of it clearing up within the day - ensued. And then, all of a sudden, as we stopped at a traffic signal, waiting for the light to turn green, one of the girls said, "Do you have traffic lights in India?"
For a moment I toyed with the idea of saying (totally deadpan, of course), "No. In fact, this is the first time I’ve sat in a car. We usually travel by bullock-cart, you know." But then all the good manners my mum had drilled into me over the years came to the surface, and all I did was to nod demurely and admit that yes, we did have traffic lights in India.
That was my first experience of how totally haywire people’s perceptions of a country can be. And when it comes to perceptions of a country like India- vast, historic and somewhat mysterious- then just too many people let their imaginations run riot. Saffron-robed sadhus, temples, spiritualism, poverty, the rope trick, decadent (and fabulously wealthy) maharajas: all of it, to millions across the world, is what India is all about.
Well, here’s where I do my bit for setting the record straight.
I am an Indian, born and brought up in India. I have spent over three decades breathing the air of this amazing country, and I admit I find it absolutely fascinating. After all, a land that is almost as big as Europe (if you don’t include Russia that is) has plenty of scope for interesting discoveries. Add to that the fact that it has a huge population (the second largest in the world, after China), the fact that these billions of people speak around 1,500 languages, and that there is a cultural heritage, a history of more than five thousand years of civilization. With that sort of background, it’s hardly surprising that India is chockfull of secrets. You could spend a lifetime traveling, and you would probably not be able to see it all.
Yes, there is the flip side to it. India has its own share of problems: poverty, illiteracy, corruption, crime, terrorism, and more. Like in almost any other country in the world, here too the daily newspapers carry headlines that reveal the seamy side of life in the country. Even the rather well-to-do, urban educated Indian bears up bravely against shortages of water and electricity, corruption in government departments, rising prices, and the sad fact that it may be years before he or she is able to visit the beautiful Kashmir Valley, now a strife-torn area.
But despite all that, despite the troubles, the little niggling irritants, the nuisances that may never go away, there are things to look forward to - the big moments and unbelievably beautiful experiences that are so absolutely Indian. The chance to drive up from Delhi into the foothills of the Himalayas, for a week’s trek through alpine meadows, woods of cedar, pine, and oak. The chance to wake up to a bright and sunny morning in Manipur and to see more than a hundred species of orchids blossoming in the garden outside your window. To wander along the shores of a southern beach, looking at ancient rock-cut temples, perfect in every detail. To stand in front of the Taj Mahal and admire its completely symmetrical perfection. To toil up the slope of a hill in the Aravalis and visit the awesome Amer Fort. Or to drive through the high-altitude desert of Ladakh, up to Khardung-la, along the world’s highest road open to civilians (the world’s highest road is in Ladakh too, but it’s only used by the military forces guarding India’s northern frontiers).
The chance, too, to watch a Hindi movie, all high drama, song and dance, produced by the world’s largest film industry. To go shopping for everything from hand-made leather slippers to mirror-worked skirts and tiny packets of spices, fresh from the spice plantations of southern India. To join in the frenzy that grips India whenever the Indian cricket team, the "Men in Blue", as they’ve been affectionately dubbed, play a match. To savour everything from the fragrant biryanis of Hyderabad and the melt-in-the-mouth milk sweets of Kolkata to the buttery Shrewsbury biscuits of Pune.
This journal, and some more to follow, will spotlight some of my favourite destinations and experiences in India. Obviously, I’ve not been everywhere - in fact, I’ve been to very few places in India- but whatever I’ve loved will appear in these journals. Great places to stay, great sights to visit, great moments to cherish. Whatever I write about is what I’ve done or seen for myself. It won’t be comprehensive, but it will be a glimpse of what India is all about.