As a Westerner visiting India for the first time, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Of course, you have read guidebooks and watched TV travel shows to prepare for the trip. You know the basic facts—that India is the second most populous country in the world, diverse in topography, ethnicity, language, religion, culture and cuisine. Nevertheless, after you have pushed your way past the hotel and taxi touts at the airport, shooed away the gaggle of barefoot young boys fighting to carry your bags, and settled into the air-conditioned comfort of the official car or the hotel shuttle, India still assails your senses.
There’s no travel show that can prepare you for the crush of people, cars, auto-rickshaws, hand carts, bicycles and people on the city streets. Your driver is nonchalant about the traffic snarls. “Much worse in monsoon season,” he says matter-of-factly. Street vendors, hawking snacks, newspapers, cheap toys, sunglasses, pens, pencils, balloons, coconut slices, and mobile phone car chargers, move among the stalled or slow-moving vehicles.
When I’m stuck in traffic in Delhi or Mumbai, it’s easy to think that the city’s jams are the worst I’ve ever experienced. On reflection I realize that the traffic is just as bad in most other south and southeast Asian cities. The difference is that in India stalled traffic offers a front-seat view of urban poverty. Beggars with long straggly greying hair, sad-eyed children and women with babies bundled on their backs knock on the car windows, holding open their hands. At one intersection, children perform tumbling tricks on the road. “Look away and don’t open the window,” your driver instructs, hitting the automatic door lock. You feel a little guilty about ignoring suffering, but at the same time you check your billfold or purse to make sure nothing is missing after the jostling at the airport. The guidebook warned you about pickpockets.
Your car passes rows of dilapidated concrete apartment blocks, their courtyards strewn with trash. Along the roadside and the railroad tracks are rough, single-room shanties, bamboo poles framing rusting sheets of metal, cardboard, tarpaulin and plastic; outside, literally on the street, women are cooking on stoves or open fires and bathing children.
In parks, alleys and under bridges, those who do not have a shanty claim a few feet of grass or dirt for a sleeping space, laying out a blanket and a few possessions. Yet, a few hundred yards further on is a residential compound of smart, high-rent apartments, with an electronic security gate, a guard post and security cameras. Your car passes modern office towers, ornate wedding palaces, brightly colored Hindu temples and plain mosques, and a moving window display of commercial signage, some in comic English. The malls are packed with shoppers; at the food court, they go for traditional north or south Indian fare or sample KFC and Subway, before shopping or heading to the multiplex for the latest Bollywood blockbuster.
You arrive at your hotel, surrounded by high brick walls topped with barbed wire and spikes. At the security checkpoint, one guard opens the trunk to inspect the luggage; another slowly circles the vehicle holding a pole with a mirror, checking the underside for suspicious attachments. At the entrance, one hotel staff member opens the car door and two more carry your bags to the metal detector. The doorman looks as if he just stepped out of the military parade ground or a TV period drama. Six feet tall and well built, with a dark beard, he is resplendent in his yellow turban and tailored white suit with a red sash and ornamental sword. He salutes smartly.
Standing nearby, two less well tailored security guards armed with semi-automatic rifles and perspiring in their flak jackets acknowledge your arrival, although their salutes are more perfunctory. There’s more saluting and door-opening as you enter the lobby and approach the reception desk, where a waiter offers you a welcome drink of watermelon juice. For an instant, you imagine you’re back in the time of the Raj, that you’re a British colonial officer with a small army of staff at your bidding. Then reality returns. You’re in a modern hotel with air conditioning, wi-fi, and room service. BBC World is on the TV monitor, the sound muted. The low-level muzak sounds familiar, but somehow out of place. Then you catch the tune. “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow …” Surreal. The dark-suited desk clerk smiles and gives you your key. “Welcome to the Taj, sir. I hope you have a pleasant stay.”
Statistically, the wealth gap in urban India may be no greater than it is in other countries. To me, the poverty of Delhi or Mumbai seems more apparent, more emotionally draining. The wealth gap in urban India, perhaps more than in any other country I’ve visited, is striking and ever-present, sometimes within the same field of view. In some countries, most poor people are geographically segregated, confined to the outer limits of cities in shanty towns or informal settlements. In urban India, outside the oases of hotels and offices, the poor are with you all the time, often right in your face or following you down the street. Do you hand over that 20 rupee note (about 30 cents) with its image of that champion of the poor, Mahatma Gandhi, to make the woman with her baby go away? How do you know that she’s not part of an organized begging ring? In India, moral dilemmas await you around almost every corner.
Faced with crowds, poverty, pollution, trash, traffic congestion, and crime, some people find India too much to bear. There’s always a danger of getting sick—from tap water at a budget hotel or restaurant, or from street food. Except in the foothills of the Himalayas, it’s usually hot—in some months, almost unbearably so. If you’re prepared to take India for what it is—often messy and disorganized, occasionally dangerous and always unpredictable—and put up with unanticipated inconveniences and hardships, you will be well rewarded, and relish its smells, sounds, sights, culture and people.
You may also feel humble, as I do when Indian friends and colleagues start talking about history, religion and culture. India is an epic of epics, spanning thousands of years—of war and conquest, of the rise and fall of great civilizations, of architecture, literature and art, of migration and settlement, of commerce with Asia, Europe and Africa. I know some of this, but have much more to learn.
Most visitors to India long ago accepted that any generalizations are at best tentative, at worst misleading. There is not one but many Indias. India is not only, as its tourism slogan goes, “incredible.” It’s inexplicable.