Discover India One Cliché at a Time

Pilgrims and devotees after a dip in the ghats of Varanasi. The city of ghats is said to be among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities.
Pilgrims and devotees after a dip in the ghats of Varanasi. The city of ghats is said to be among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Photo by Mukul Satya Gupta

It’s the land where literate motorists don’t ‘read’ road signs, they stop to ask for directions. It’s where shopkeepers give you lozenges in lieu of change, but do not accept the same currency from you. It is where newcomers quickly learn to dodge a speeding BMW while sidestepping cow dung on the roads. It’s where rats are for worship and humans are (sometimes) for pounding.

Welcome to the hurly-burly of India, with its quirks and foibles, its chaos and charisma, its grimness and grandeur.

For an overseas traveller, it becomes easy to overlook the fact that somewhere between the romance of Rajasthani weddings in erstwhile royal properties, the supposed tranquility of the mystic in the Himalayas, and the squalor of the Mumbai slums lies an India that goes far beyond hackneyed clichés. So, before you rush to make your bookings to land here, know that India may not be what you expect her to be.

Cliché No.1: India Is a Certain ‘Type’

The first point of contention a self-respecting Indian has with a foreign tourist is with the latter’s misonception that we are a certain type, read: exotic, rustic, conventional. Make no mistake. We are unapologetically all that, but we are also so much more. The deal with us is that we are chameleonic.

We can be primitive and modern, reclusive and sociable, tolerant and impulsive, superstitious and scientific, you name it. We are heart-achingly poor, but mind-numbingly rich, too. We are utter prudes and scandalisingly sexy when we want. We are illiterate and even scholarly.

In plainspeak, shed all pre-conceived notions. Snake-charmers have long since been relegated long ago to esoteric carnivals and melas. And the elephant is not our chosen mode of transport. So there. We might have all but monopolised the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, but not all our youngsters work with fake accents in call centres.

Yes, Mumbai makes singathon blockbusters, but it also makes serious meaningful cinema. Deserts don’t necessarily translate into tribal-sightings and all tribals are not semi-clad. In other words, look for more than what you have heard about. Don’t expect anything but the time of your life while here.

Cliche No.2: India, the Nirvana Land

A Buddhist monk lights butter lamps in Sherabling Monastery, Himachal Pradesh. Lighting of butter lamps in Buddhist monasteries is a ritual, performed with divine incantations.
A Buddhist monk lights butter lamps in Sherabling Monastery, Himachal Pradesh. Lighting of butter lamps in Buddhist monasteries is a ritual, performed with divine incantations. Photo by Mukul Satya Gupta

India’s fabled association with nirvana is the top draw for the overseas traveller. Salvation, unfortunately, is not a device that works on auto-pilot. Ask the billion inhabiting the huge mass that is still on the hunt for moksha.

Moral of the story: Abandon that search. Don’t go to Varanasi, Mathura or Haridwar solely on an active lookout for soul-cleansing or mystical musings. No ash-smeared, chillum-toting Hindu sadhu will be able to decipher the meaning of life for you in three months if a lifelong quest hasn’t. Instead, experience the inner churnings in the quiet of a desolate resort deep in the jungles of Corbett or Dudhwa. Feel a communion with your soul in the Buddhist monasteries of Himachal Pradesh as you soak in the smell of butter lamps. Or in the bylanes of Shantiniketan where strains of Rabindrasangeet seemingly linger in the air. Find simplicity in the orange flowers adorning the plaits of girls in Chennai or in the voice of the Baul singers of Bengal.

Simply put, find a connection with the everyday ordinariness of this ancient land lush with heritage and history. You don’t need either a saffron-clad saintly yogi or a yoga guru replicating the pretzel on your mission. What you definitely must bring is curiosity. The Maha Kumbh and hatha yoga are not all we can boast of, you know.

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