‘Seeing’ India for the first time!

Relocating to another country is always an emotional business and this also includes a scenario where you are returning to your own native country after a sojourn overseas. Little thought is given to the theory of ‘reverse culture shock’ by immigrants till it’s time to pack their bags and head back to the familiar environment they belong to.

When my husband and I were to return to India last year, we went through the same thing. We were excited to be heading home but there was no denying that we shall also terribly miss the zestful British culture we had fallen in love with while living in London. Thus, mentally we felt somewhat stuck in limbo. As the plane soured higher and higher, we waved goodbye to the UK with an array of emotions and most of the eight-hour long flight was spent wondering how settling back in our home country will be like after this colorful sabbatical of almost three years.

The first thing that hits you as you step out of the airport in India is the sound. It’s literally as if someone has turned up the volume on life. You will be accompanied by your fellow travelers, mostly NRIs sporting Louis Vuitton handbags and Ray-ban sunglasses, all of them looking like they have stepped straight out of a salon. With their impeccably styled hair and nails, they are a stark contrast from people like me who always resemble the cast of ‘walking dead’ after a long flight. At the arrivals gate, these visitors will be greeted by their extended families of 5-10 members each, with bellowing joyful shrieks and often with marigold garlands. It’s a festive commotion. Then there are those numerous ‘Autowalas’ and ‘Taxiwalas’, who inspite of their limited knowledge of the English language, immediately make a beeline for the international tourists and approach them with weird remarks like- “Come madam, I will make you happy”. The loud din of horns and engines from across the street already forming a constant background melody, cheerful hustle-bustle of the busy airport terminal teamed with blasting Mumbai/Delhi heat makes for an explosive welcome for all the new arrivals. Welcome to India- it shocks, it amuses, it excites.

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As our taxi (bursting at the seams with our luggage) pulled onto the street of my mum’s house in Indore, in addition to our own excited family members, we were greeted by several other people. Loving neighborhood aunties with warm hugs and beaming smiles, our ancient ‘chaukidaar baba’ (the watchman) who brought his shy grandchildren to say ‘Namaste’ to us and not to forget the cheerful waves from nearby shopkeepers and vegetable vendors who have been present at the corner of the street for as long as I can remember. At home, the middle-aged lady who cooks for my mum sat cross-legged on the floor in the same room as us shelling peas, providing insights about the weather and latest ongoing in the country (or the locality). Honestly, we had forgotten how it felt being surrounded by so many people.

The once irritating calling of fruit sellers, trash collectors, countless vendors, the maids darting in and out of the house, the distant sound of temple bells or in my case- sound of ‘Namaaz’ from the nearby masjid, even the rhythmic whirling of a ceiling fan….all these sounds of life you once thought was noise seem like music to your ears. From the taste of food to sunny skies, everything around you seems different, yet exactly the same. The feeling is surreal.

Having been away from India had given me this unique opportunity to view it through new eyes.

This country defines diversity so perfectly! People are distanced by nothing- not caste, not creed, not nationality. The uniqueness and astonishing variation in the culture, customs, cuisine, clothing, history and landscape from north to south is something extremely incredible. 

There is a lot more to India than the prodigious Taj Mahal or the sensual art at Khajurao temples. From the foothills of Himalayas to azure backwaters of Kerela, from the ashrams of Haridwar to the busy ghats of Varanasi, from majestic forts of Rajasthan to the sun-kissed tropical beaches of Goa, from the national parks in Assam to the Buddhist ‘stupas’ in Sanchi, there is an abundance of natural, spiritual, historical and cultural wealth that Gods have bestowed this land with. Home to world’s oldest civilization, several UNESCO heritage sites, intricately carved monuments/temples seeping with rich history, sacred pilgrimage destinations as well as stunning natural beauty that takes one’s breath away, India spells magnetic pull to travelers all over the world. One can tick of most of the boxes in their bucket-list with just one visit to this mystical sub-continent. Whether you are trekking the snow-capped mountains in Leh- Ladakh, attempting to spot tigers and elephants in the wild or merely navigating through the busy streets and teeming bazaars of Delhi, being in India is one big adventure in itself. Each day is unique, every experience different.

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There is no sugar-coating the reality that visiting India for the first time can be a daunting experience. The streets are not as clean as the west, the power is not continuous, the water is not always flowing, and the local services not as reliable. Not to forget the stray animals, the poverty and the chaos. Nothing to deny there. So, I think it wise to suggest- adjust your expectations, do your homework, choose the destinations and travel modes according to your convenience (plenty of choices), gain knowledge about how Indian culture is different than your own country and finally, visit India only when you feel ready for it. The beauty of an Indian holiday lies in the spontaneous, uncensored experiences and as long as you are game to embracing the culture shock, you are in for trip of a lifetime.

Also, travelling in fear is a miserable feeling. Unfortunately some recent heart-breaking incidents have also stereotyped our country as being the most dangerous place filled with perverts. That is not true. Indeed, international tourists tend to face unwanted attention and they also, most certainly, have to take extra precautions but the extreme terror I sense in many travelers seems definitely unwarranted. Of course you have to be cautious, have to use your common sense and realize you are travelling in a conservative culture. Be positive, confident & alert: you will indeed come across some amazing things.

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Coming back to me, what do I love about us as a society? Just the little things…..

How we call our country as our mother. Buzzing markets and spectacular lighting during Diwali. The flamboyant colors of Holi and lively songs sung at Lohri. The searing nature of love within large and small families. Shimmering sarees and a hundred different ways of wearing them. How mum makes a vermillion ‘swastika’ (no connection with the similar Nazi symbol) before decorating a spot for an auspicious pooja. How women believe in the strength of marital symbols like ‘sindoor’ and ‘mangalsutra’, worn as a sacred veil of protection for their marriage. How we believe that God is omnipresent whether it’s in a tree, a cow, a stone or a little shrine in the middle of nowhere.Craving mangoes all year long and binging on them like crazy during the summer ‘aam’ season. Option of wandering around in cheap auto-rickshaws while enjoying the vehicle race in a violently zig-zag motion to artfully skim through the heavy traffic. The spiritual fervor that is such an integral part of our nation’s character. Exuberant weddings with a hundred lovely little ritiuals along with awesome food.

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On a lighter note, I also love…

-Essential Role that ‘Chai’ (Indian tea) plays in almost every Indian household.

-How ‘jugaadu’ we are! For instance, the bicycle riders managing to disperse the crowds effectively with most interesting sounds effects varying from whistling to clapping to merrily singing on the top of their voices.

-How dramatic we are! We simply can’t stop crying whether we are happy, sad, excited or agitated. (I honestly believe that my mum and grandma, like most Indian women, literally gear themselves up before watching their children’s wedding videos as if its mandatory to heavily sob at the end)

-How thoughtful we are to others! During the family functions, a few aunties have sweetly come to me with a ‘bindi’ from their emergency bindi stash they always seem to have in their handbag, assuming that I have forgotten to wear mine.

-The sense of good management where one can have everything fixed from luggage handles to leather belts instead of buying new things. Not to forget the importance of haggling in the markets and cracking a great deal.

Most of all I love, appreciate and have come to immensely respect, people’s determination to survive and also thrive despite the many adversities of their country.

An uncensored collage of stirring sights, India is neither predictable nor ordered. It is desperate yet passionate. It over-stimulates the senses and disturbs sensibilities. At the same time, it seduces and enchants you with unexpected moments of sublime beauty, cultural vibrancy, hypnotizing spiritual practices and most gracious hospitality. Even though it is far from being as exemplary as we would like it to be, during this latest stay, I saw the things that are still consistent in this country of inconsistencies – our aspirations, traditions, relationships, unity, humanity, amicable spirit and above all- hope. 

Being away from India eventually (and ironically) helped me embrace the fullness of its inexhaustible treasures and just like that, under the glaring light of Indian summer sun, my relationship with my country mended.

4 thoughts on “‘Seeing’ India for the first time!

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