Last weekend after a film premiere I found myself at a reception at one of Bangalore’s many swanky hotels. “This is not India,” I overheard a Frenchman remark, referring to the trendy bar we were in. Yes, this is India, I thought to myself. This is one facet of India. One of India’s many faces.
I think there are few foreign tourists who come Bangalore. There are expats, yes, but they are a different breed because they have come to India for professional reasons (and usually don’t like it). Travellers come to India (often every year) because they like it. That’s India. You love it or you hate it: passionately in either case.
Tourists and travellers are also different breeds. Tourists visit Rajasthan, the Taj Mahal and Kerala and stay in each place for a few days. Travellers go to places like Rishikesh, Manali, Varanasi, Goa, Tiruvannamalai and Hampi and stay for a few weeks, months or years. These places all have something of the ‘Incredible India’ about them, but they have also become travellers’ haunts overrun with Internet cafés, German bakeries, Israeli restaurants and banana pancakes. And annoying touts asking you if you want to buy hashish.
Travellers tend to avoid Indian cities. They are too big, too crowded, too polluted, too noisy. They are also too ‘modern’ and therefore not the ‘real India’. They don’t want to see things that remind them of home, like shopping malls, automatic teller machines or rapid transit systems. They want the elephants and snake charmers. They want the authentic experience. The real India. Cities are of course very much a part of Indian life and if you scratch the surface and emerge out of the usual tourist haunts, real India inevitably stares you in the face from every doorway and street corner.
What is India?
India is temples, pilgrimages and festivals.
India is shopping malls, mobile phones, and tech parks.
India is vada pav, masala dosa and aloo gobi.
India is Domino’s Pizza, Baskin Robbins and caffe lattes.
India is overpaid executives, underpaid domestic workers and overworked taxi drivers.
India is stylish bars, trendy nightclubs and 5-star hotels.
India is darshinis, dabhas and chai stalls.
India is doctors, engineers and IT professionals.
India is rag pickers, office peons and rickshaw wallahs.
India is Bollywood, Tollywood and Kollywood.
India is arranged marriages, dowry deaths and child labour.
India is high-end real estate and overcrowded slums.
India is many things. They are all real.