In India, religion is no one-day-a-week affair: it’s a way of life—the force that moves the country. It governs the mind, defines most behavior, sets much of the country’s agenda and calendar. It can even become a personal lullaby or alarm clock, with Hindu chanting at nighttime and the Muslim muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in the morning.
India is also fusion and contrast. Throughout this country, where the earliest remnants of a civilization date from at least 3200 BC, you see the effect of repeated invasions on India’s culture and heritage.
Some claim that India’s ability to adapt is the source of her strength and resilience. British bungalows adorn hill stations and line thoroughfares in major cities. Persian-influenced Islamic tombs add delicacy to urban skylines. Cuisines, adopted mother tongues, dance and music styles, and artwork and handicrafts change from region to region. You won’t find an American-style homogeneity in India. It’s a country of surprises as diverse as its landscape. India is a destination veiled in mysteries, many of which are difficult for a Westerner to understand. I’ve always wondered why, for example, India’s urban cows prefer to chew on newspaper rather than on rotting garbage (in plentiful supply) or random patches of grass in a field. Even Aldous Huxley noticed their strange dietary preference in Jesting Pilot, a record of his journey to India in the early 1900s. “Outside one of the doors of a building stood a row of brimming waste-paper baskets, and from these, as from mangers, two or three sacred bulls were slowly and majestically feeding. When the baskets were empty, officious hands from within replenished them with a fresh supply of torn and scribbled paper. The bulls browsed on; it was a literary feast.”
Explanations for this peculiar behavior and answers to many other questions about this country are often misleading or beyond my Western-oriented grasp. This gives rise to another truth I’ve discovered about India. It’s a destination where opinions formed in the morning are usually thrown out by nightfall. India is an unending paradox.
India can also be exasperating and exhausting—a difficult place for people accustomed to efficiency and a Western work ethos. To enjoy your visit to India, surrender, take it slow, and don’t plan too much in one trip. Prepare to give in to the laissez-faire attitude that seems a natural extension of India’s belief in fatalism. Accept that what happens is meant to be or is the will of some supreme authority (frequent Indian responses). If your plane is canceled, the phone doesn’t work, or the fax won’t go through, don’t go into a rage. When the slow-motion pace of workers in a public-sector bank or post office is about to drive you crazy, remember that this lack of value attached to time will have an appealing effect when you travel into rural areas or villages. There, time’s insignificance induces a dreamlike state. You can sit for hours and watch the simplest routines: village women drawing water from a well or a man tilling the soil with a crude wooden plow. You can lose yourself in all sorts of thoughts as you walk around a deserted ancient city such as Fatehpur Sikri, or as you watch the Hindu devout in Varanasi go through their purification or cremation rituals. During these moments, and they occur frequently in this country, you will at least understand why the art of meditation evolved here. A lack of obsession with time allows other concerns to take precedence. Arrive with the determination to experience India, and don’t make quick assumptions. Otherwise, this country that has a strong love-it-or-hate-it effect on all its visitors could have a negative impact on you.
It helps to be forgiving about elements of India’s inefficiency and overstretched infrastructure. When this country gained independence in 1947, the new democracy chose nonalignment, opted for a large nationalized public sector, and instituted government regulations that kept out most foreign products and virtually led to economic isolationism. The first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, believed these policies would make India self-reliant and would ultimately bring about an improved standard of living, especially for the impoverished.
The policies did move India toward self-reliance; but lack of competition stifled India’s own development. Its captive market had to accept indigenous products that were often substandard or old-fashioned. Until recently, the dominant car on India’s roads was a copy of a British design from the early 1950s, the Ambassador, with its curvaceous yet bulky chassis—a nostalgic gas-guzzler.
Then in 1991, a severe debt crisis and shortage of foreign exchange forced the government to initiate economic reforms that have been nothing short of astonishing to witness and experience. This country, which studiously fended off foreign companies, is suddenly encouraging them to accept investment opportunities. McDonald’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and TGIF now serve their famous food in several major Indian cities.
India’s stirring has profound implications that already affect her once-rigid lifestyle. While many Indian women continue to wear their exquisite saris, some now rush off to their corporate jobs dressed in the latest Western designs (a rare sight just a few years ago). Many men have become label-conscious as well—about the labels on everything from the shirts they wear to the foreign liquor they drink. An increasing number of individuals who work in the private sector complain about a new problem: business-related stress.
Some children dress in clothes from the local Benetton. Teenagers listen to the Billboard top-10 Western hits on recently privatized FM stations. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are staging a war on new turf. Sanyo. Panasonic. Ford. Ray-Bans. Even Barbizon has arrived to teach models how to saunter down the catwalk and executives how to master foreign etiquette so as to seal the deal with a partner who was so recently kept out of this land.
Cable TV is also changing India. British, American, French, Pakistani, and Chinese commentators relay their own view of the news on satellite channels. American cartoons have captured the attention of every Indian child who can watch the Cartoon Network. Teenagers tune into MTV. Reruns of Dynasty and The Bold and the Beautiful show steamy romances to a people whose Bollywood movies made in Mumbai (Bombay) were not even permitted to show a kiss until a few years back.
Yet there are millions of pavement dwellers—”homeless” to you and me—who are not shy about approaching strangers. Unfortunately for the traveler with a pocketful of rupees, it’s hard to resist a plea, especially from a child. Travelers are encouraged to visit a local school or medical clinic and make a contribution through a responsible adult.
If you’ve never been to India before, remember this Westernization is recent; when you’re frustrated, understand that everyone from villagers to wealthy urbanites is equally annoyed by lousy services and impatient for a quality infrastructure that most Americans and other Westerners take for granted. But while frustration exists, so does a sense of concern. Many Indians lament the arrival of the foreign competitor to solve their problems. They worry about the increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots as a result of reforms that have pushed up inflation. They wonder whether the benefits will really trickle down to the masses. Others wonder if India will succumb to an economic form of colonization that will rob them of their identity.
All these questions add a thought-provoking dimension to any trip to India. You are visiting a country in profound transition. Today’s India is now more than its thousands of monuments; more than the home of 400 tribes; more than the land of festivals and fairs; more than the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. India is taking its first steps toward becoming an economic giant.