India - how exciting! What was it like? What are the people like there?
India, © 15.Apr.2004 kN
Photos of India
Introduction to India
India - how exciting! What was it like? What are the people like there?
Breaking Point
The Indian Railway Crossing
A Perfect Day
A Hippo in India
I wish I could simply say to you "Great!"

I wish I could reiterate other travellers who enthusiastically report "I loved it! I saw A, B, C, and did D, E, F. I definitely want to go back for G, H, I. India was my favourite country to visit. The people were fabulous."

Instead, I can reservedly tell you that being in India feels as intensely complicated after 2 days or 3 weeks or our 4 months.

By "you", I mean that I have in front of me a wide circle of specific faces in Bangalore, Bikaner, Chennai, Edmonton, Kalka, Ottawa, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, and a long line of countless faces on trains, buses, streets - everywhere everyday - in India.

I am acutely aware of the problematics that depend on at least
a) who you are (nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, age, sex, socio-economic class, dis/ability, family, personality, etc.); and
b) your past (where you have been, what you have done, what has happened to you, etc.).
Your reception of what I will tell you will span from nodding to violently shaking your head "no".
  What I will say may or may not be exclusive to India or be true based on who you are and your past, but for who I am and my past, it is.

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal (left / right) / © gM
Mehrangarh and Kanyakumari / © gM
Shimla and Varkala / © gM

"Incredible India". - This is the tourism motto in India found on beautiful posters of Indian iconic landmarks and landscapes. "Incredible India" means for me the harmonious exquisiteness of the Taj Mahal (Agra), the sheer immensity and high organization of Mehrangarh (Jodhpur), the romanticism of the idea of the meeting of the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal at the southern tip of India (Kanyakumari), the unquestionable and resounding import of Mahatma Gandhi represented by Gandhi Museums/Memorials (Madurai, Kanyakumari, Mumbai), playing in the huge and powerfully crashing waves of Varkala, the Himalayan-foothills landcape and comfortable spring climate of the hill station Shimla, and meaningful interactions with individual Indians in Bangalore, Chennai, and Kalka. These are my purest highlights.

Everyday-ness. - For me, the everyday realities of India are defined by its people, and the most extreme filth and poverty of all countries to which I have been.


At Agra train station
At Agra train station
At Agra train station (left / right) / © gM
At the market in Madurai
At the market in Shimla
At the markets in Madurai and in Shimla / © gM
A roofless toilet of female urinals at a bus station, where in front of each trough-like urinal spot and regularly spaced in front of the opposing wall, sit large piles of shit. I valiantly attempt to walk in and take advantage of this rare find of an actual toilet, but the stench of urine and shit in the +30°C heat plus the masses of flies buzzing on the shit piles - the masses which then swarm up to me - push me back to the entrance. I pull down my pants, squat, and pee at the entrance step, in full view of passersby.

India's poverty is numbing in part because of the sheer absolute numbers of people (total population of over 1 billion), therefore numbing because of the sheer absolute numbers of people who are poor. The poverty slams you so hard you cannot breathe because you do not need to imagine A+B=C: you see that if this deformed, disabled, bony, dirty man does not receive from begging, he will die. The poverty diminishes your feeling of powerfulness or agency as an individual because even if you could hand out rupees or food/water to every single girl, boy, woman, woman with baby, and man who asked you, you would not change the whole thing. Yes, you affect an individual's life and that is why you act in whatever way you choose to help: this is of the utmost of importance. But, you cannot overturn what is happening. Nor can you make it go away by turning off the TV.


Everyday-ness continued. - For the first time ever, I can see how a "people" in one place can be different to a "people" in another. I had always disregarded this question, thinking "How can one generalize to an entire people?" Now however, the answer to this question explodes into fireworks of complexities.

For me so far, India has the most extreme class structure that I myself have experienced anywhere. Multiplied by the sheer absolute number of people, the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots feels more apparent here than anywhere else that I have been. You can palpably see how different life - everything - is for a) poor poor people and beggars, many of them deformed, disabled, and/or sick; b) more middle-class looking Indians (observe cleanliness, clothing, state of washed and combed hair); c) more upper-class looking Indians (observe same indicators as middle-class, plus feet (toe rings, nail polish, nice shoes), sunglasses, English-speaking with peers, kinds of restaurants frequented); d) white people .... When we walk into an incredibly busy post office with a lineup that does not immediately make sense, a clerk calls over to serve gM who is not even in line yet because we have not yet figured out how everything is organized. We are in and out in no time because gM is white, whereas the long line of Indian people has not moved. I begin to wonder what gM's white face will open for us. How you are treated is directly dependent on who you are and who is around you.

We regularly see "fend-only-for-yourself-and-your-family-to-the-disregard-of-others" behaviours. For example, lineups rarely exist. People bud in, push in front/side of others in line, and interrupt the person behind the counter with their own (i.e. important, need "immediate" attention) business even when that person is obviously busy. Culturally/societally in Canada, children are taught that everyone will have their turn if each person waits for their turn. This behaviour does not function here in India; it is not the social norm. It is the norm for everyone to push everyone else out of the way - physically and otherwise. This is how you function here, and I can understand why. It is partially because there are so many people with too few resources in an extremely poor infrastructure - everyone seems to have to fight for everything because there simply is not "enough". You will not get what you need, you will lose, if you do not act in this Indian socially acceptable way. For me, India is a place where simply being a human being is not enough, where all people are not equal, where might is right (might can be physical, or in numbers, or in money, or by socio-economic class, or by age, or by gender) regardless of what is actually right, where who you are in comparison to who is around you plus who you know will get you places.

Throughout my thoughts to you, I hear different voices at different times arguing with me. Answering the question "What are the people like there?", I hear howls of protestations. At some point, generalizing for you necessarily means overriding surging and abundant contradictions and qualifications; at some point, generalizing for you necessarily means squashing out-of-control complexities and each and every example into manageable bite-sized pieces.

Sometimes it feels like the "wait-your-turn" behaviours/social structures are not the norm because the infrastructures are not present or strong enough to make them viable. If the majority of everyone's basic needs were met (place to live, food, clean drinking water, sewage system, garbage system, etc.), then perhaps social structures like waiting-your-turn would work? Along other lines, we see an example of mob behaviour: on a train from Mysore to Bangalore and then on a train platform, a group of men harass with verbal and physical violence a sole lower-class looking man in view of a growing circle of observing men and a train official. Putting together wisps of here and there from before, during, and after India, I feel that this mob violence is not an isolated event, but almost a general low-level ripple or undercurrent of potential.

Regardless that there are cultural/historical and understandable reasons/explanations for the survival-of-the-fittest behaviours and the feeling of almost lawlessness/out-of-control/chaos always simmering just under Indian society's surface on the verge to break at any friable moment, I lean towards partly defining the "Indian people" by all this.

I had only wanted to tell you these things if I could explain them well enough so that I could not hear your voices tell me that I am not culturally sensitive enough or that I am too ethnocentric or that simply, I offend you. I wanted to be just to India as a country and to its people, to be true to myself, and to find the "getting it" words for both people who have never been here and for people who have been here but experienced it differently.
  However, it is not possible. I can hear you protest "It's not like that!" or "You don't know how it really is!" or "What gives you the right to say those things when they happen in your own country?!". Or, I can hear the polite, but thick and unconvinced silence.
  It would be easier to say "Yes, India is very nice. I like it very much in India. The Indian people are very nice." However, I cannot.
  Furthermore, as per the timeless irony of a generalization of a collective vs the particularities of its individuals, there is a disjoint because many of the Indian individuals that we meet do not fit the persistently ongoing feeling I have of the "Indian people". It is perplexing that the sum total of the individual puzzle pieces do not fit together to form the puzzle picture on the box, despite there still being the puzzle picture on the box.

At this moment in time, I cannot say that I like the social structures/mindsets/behaviours of the people of India as a whole. Right up until the end of our time in India, I do not see behaviours/infrastructures/mentalities which would make me have confidence in my "fellow human being in India". I feel that it is the easiest here of all the countries that we have been for people to die, suffer, etc.

kN=Indian; gM=white. - In non-India and in non-First World parts of the world, usually the first assumption is that I am Indian. In India, we are introduced to the NRI, "Non-Resident Indian". In order to qualify, I would have to not look as if I am with gM, and not speak.

In Tiruchirappalli, the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple does not allow non-Hindus past a certain point. I prefer the exclusion of everyone who does not have a membership (i.e. exclusion on the basis of religion) to the exclusion of women or women when menstruating (i.e. exclusion on the basis of gender). For me, this is more just because the arena of exclusion is religion itself. However once again, I am told to fake "being Indian" in order to get in. Do I like or not like this? I do not like it.

I am questioned here, but the assumptions underlying the question are different than outside India. It is different to be asked "Are you from India?" or to be told "You are from India." when outside India, versus being asked "Are you Indian?" when inside India. In the first case, the assumption is "yes", and in the second case, the assumption is "I don't know." Perhaps when the colour of the majority changes, the assumptions made and language used change too. It is an interesting experience to tangibly sense this as opposed to abstractly knowing the same.

For the first time ever, I feel that gM and I are viewed as veritably different to each other, i.e. he is white and I am Indian, he is special (superior?) and I am one of the masses (insignificant, ordinary, indistinguishable?). I feel that I am treated differently (better) because I am with gM who is white. For example, on the busy Padmanabhapuram Palace tour, I think that I would be repeatedly told to "move on" with all the masses of Indian visitors if I would not obviously be with white gM who is given extra attention because he represents the possibility of a big foreign tip.

It is an interesting eye-opener to experience the power of skin colour. It is not because gM is gM that people time and time again excitedly call out "hello" to him. It is because his skin is white. I am only "helloed" when I am physically beside gM.

gM goes out alone to run errands. He returns and says that he is not made to give up the backpack like everyone else (including me) when entering stores. I ask him if he thinks it is because he is white. He says, "Yes." I later realize that for months, I have been thinking two-streamed in India: did something happen because I look Indian or because gM is white? I am surprised to learn that gM is also bumped and walked into on the streets - I thought it was because I look Indian, and that it did not happen to gM.

The ongoing question for me over 4 months: is it worth it? Is "Incredible India" worth the everyday-ness?


Yes, because India is not boring.

Shimla (left / right) / © gM
Jodhpur and Madurai / © gM
Bangalore and Mandawa / © gM
Agra and Nawalgarh / © gM
Of all the countries that we have visited, for me India is the one with the greatest spectrum of difference between positive and negative. At times, it feels great to be here, and more times than not, it does not.

"Incredible India" is a skewed/partial/selective representation of India ... for how we travel. For how we travel, the proportion of "everyday-ness" to the proportion of "Incredible India" is high versus low. It is the first country where I have consciously realized that the amount of money you choose to spend will maximize or minimize how sheltered you are from the "everyday-ness". It is the first country in which I have consciously realized that the overall country impression depends on what one chooses to focus, on what one chooses to ignore, on where one's general level of tolerance is for all sorts of individual things, and on where one's level of tolerance is for all those individual things on a particular day. I realize this especially when other travellers who have been to India not only do not agree with me and do not say so, but listen in complete silence until I have concluded my thoughts.

Shimla and Bijapur / © gM
Bangalore (left / right) / © gM
Bangalore / © gM
It is a hard country to, first, justly explain to others who have not been here because my focus is in contrast to the exotic/ideal conceptions of "Incredible India" commonly held outside India, and to, second, responsibly portray on behalf of Indians with whom we have had personal contact and who are rightfully proud of their country. India is unquestionably a country of substantial richness in terms of architecture, cultures, foods, histories, landscapes, languages, people, potentials, religions, traditions - this extensive list is non-exhaustive.

You will always hear about this highlighted level of travel, and rightfully so. I aim, however, to tip the balance towards the "bathroom" level of travel because the everyday-ness is the context in which you will find "Incredible India". "Incredible India" does not exist in a vacuum, and I feel that most times, it is portrayed as such.

Do I like India? Bottom-line, I do not know. It is the first country where I cannot answer "Yes, I liked India!", but instead can say "I liked X, Y, Z about India." Would I return? Bottom-line, maybe. It feels like there are so many kaleidoscopic variations on encounters here and on how to feel. Plus, our travels of India feel incomplete because there is so much of the country that we did not see. However, I cannot (yet) embrace the whole package, i.e. the everyday-ness (the frustration, anger, sadness, and fed-up-ness) which goes along with the respect for and wonder, appreciation, and beauty of India. For me, it is too soon. At the end of our Delhi-Singapore flight at the moment of landing in Singapore on April 15 2004, I do not miss India. I am overwhelmed to realize that I feel pity for it, that I feel a great sadness for it.

In all other countries that we have travelled, I have felt more "observing", hence more distant or separate. Interestingly in India, I feel less in the "observatory" role but more "in there", but not "in there" enough that I would consider myself to have been "immersed" or "to have experienced the real India". Even though I grew up "Canadian" as opposed to "Indian", even though I feel 100% comfortable in Canada and feel very out of place in India, there is a tenebrous sense of familiarity with India unlike with any other country. The ambiguous familiarity is more like complex overtones than a fundamental pitch; it is more like the rubbings with pastels crayons than a drawing with sharpened pencil crayons. It is a surprise: it is one which makes India feel different for me, and one which permits me to tell you so.

Introduction to India  /  India - how exciting! What was it like? What are the people like there?  /  Breaking Point  /  The Indian Railway Crossing  /  A Perfect Day  /  A Hippo in India