“I hated India … some of the time”
“You will love it and you will hate it”
Before arriving in India, I spoke to a few friends who’d ridden there before.
Their responses were worrying: ‘hate’ seemed to be the common word. Okay, ‘love’ sometimes made it in the too, but all those hatreds couldn’t be ignored. Those were strong feelings – what had incited them and how would I cope? As I assembled my bike outside Chennai airport, with a crowd of watchers, a guy who insisted on “helping” and then asked for money (“Yeah f*** off mate”) and a guard who wished me “may God go with you” and wanted to know whether my parents approved of my trip, I was sure of one thing: India would be very … something. In the words of one of my interviewees, “India is full-on”.
Love/hate cyclist encounters aside, pretty much all I knew about India was what I’d got from Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Gandhi’ and Kipling’s ‘Kim,’ – oh, and a lifetime of eating curry house dishes that I could never tell one from another. Face it, do you really know the difference between a Biryani and a Paneer?
Putting Chicken Tikka Masala off the plate though, what about the narrative of ‘Hated racist imperial oppressors ousted by saintly figure in a dhoti, who only wanted people to be nice to each other’? That was the received wisdom about Gandhi, right? More generally, it was the received wisdom about pretty much everything in my tiny, overly-apologetic, postcolonial home nation. As I travelled across the the huge plains of the former jewel in the British Empire’s crown though, and read about the history and talked to people in the present, I realised something: it’s a lot more complicated than that.
By the time the British left India in 1947, they “tried to give away an empire” but “found their every suggestion for doing it frustrated by the intended recipients.” Now, after several decades of fairly good if rather dynastical rule by the Congress party, the Hindu nationalist BJP are in power and partisan sentiments are on the rise. I saw a few Muslims in India, but they seemed mostly to be keeping their heads down. I don’t blame them: their brothers are increasingly being lynched, under the pretext of ‘cow vigilantism’. Yes, you read that right: people are being killed because they are suspected of killing cows. India’s first post-independence prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a convinced secularist and the concept is still espoused by both parties in the central government. How much more this is than lip service though – I put this post to an Indian friend who strongly disagreed with me, but I still wouldn’t like to be an Indian Muslim.
A lot of this mess was probably our fault anyway: if we’d made withdrawal plans a few years earlier, most of the Indian political leaders were in a much better mood with each other and a settled compromise would have been more likely. We were -or rather Winston Churchill was – far too attached to being an imperial power though, and held on until it was too late, despite the fact that British India had been losing money for decades, and that Churchill personally didn’t like the place or the people.
Back in the US and China, I’d experienced something I labelled ‘big country syndrome’: the effect of people not being able to conceive of a world outside their own borders. In America it manifested as ‘well-travelled’ Americans who were scared of going abroad, and on China there were the people who struggled to grasp that I couldn’t read their alphabet. I’d wondered how this would manifest in India – a country that unlike either of the other two, wasn’t an imperial power. I soon found out. In India, a country of a billion people who haven’t been abroad, a foreigner is a novelty, a plaything, and nobody’s taken a moment to consider what the foreigner thinks about playing that role.
The first time someone stopped me for a lengthy chat, it was charming; the second time, a bit less so. The third, fourth and fifth times I had exactly the same conversation … I wasn’t out of the first few minutes yet. And so it continued, with the moto riders being the worst: they’d draw up beside me, ask me the same set of questions, possibly veer me off the road and when they pulled away there’d be another queued up behind, ready to draw alongside and ask me the very same set of questions yet again. Then when I stopped, I might just be sitting by the road in the middle of the countryside but I’d soon gather a circle of staring locals who’d stand there for several minutes doing nothing, just staring, while someone else played uninvited with my bike.
The flat, the heat, the stares, the traffic, the incessant selfies; it was too much. My sunglasses became my most treasured possession, not for keeping out the sun – though it was strong – but for avoiding eye contact. Each day became a battle and in the evenings I would take shelter in a hotel room (toilet seat broken, cockroach scurrying about the floor), desperately texting my woes to a series of very patient friends. They had to be patient – it was a long list.
I tried to remain patient myself and remember that I was in a better position in life; richer, healthier, better educated; because of the vast sums of money Britain had made out of India over hundreds of years. Right now I just wanted to shut it all out.
I crossed a watershed, where I be more able to cope – if not to control my surroundings then at least to go with them. I learned to block people out, to remain isolated from the world around me, from the entire nation of India, which wasn’t nice but was what I had to do to survive. My surroundings were replaced with music through the headphones and with my friends from home – I’d long ago given up trying to get my local SIM card to work, now I sucked it up and paid the extortionate British fees so I could live on social media. Extortionate – but a vital lifeline to have someone to talk to, some form of communication that went beyond people expecting me to stop my day to take a selfie with them.
The incessant nagging, awful driving (don’t get me started on the driving); added to all this was the frustration of how in a country where six people are available to do every job, inefficiency and low expectations are king. There were the hotels where I was refused a room because I was a foreigner and presence would required the following of an extra form. One time I decided to dig in my heels, and was challenged by the receptionist, “In your country, you would not expect every hotel to fill in extra forms to take me.” In my country mate, that would be be breaking the law and I’d be telling the police and the local press.
There was the time my friend Arka and I spent a day trying to extract a parcel from the Indian postal system. There were forms to be filled, officials to be persuaded, two hour waits to be endured, then more forms that suddenly spread into existence and needed filling too. At five to six the parcel was at last in my hands, just in time, and after we’d wasted two person-days obtaining it. Amid the bureaucracy and the obstructive officials though, there were people who had been very helpful, who has genuinely wanted to see this foreigner go happily on his way with a good impression of India. If these people win out, there is hope.
Things had been getting better by the north, or perhaps I was getting better at coping – or probably a bit of both. It has to end early though, as Kashmir – the one part I’d really wanted to see – kicked off into violence and the region became off-limits.
It was a shame, but I couldn’t say I was altogether sorry as my plane’s wheels lifted up and headed for the wide open spaces of Central Asia. In many ways, India is the opposite of America: a nation of countless people jammed together and the heat, somehow muddling through amid the heat, the bustle, the overly-friendly chatter and the constant shrieking of horns – as opposed to the latter, where they make it a national point of pride that anyone who wanted could go off and go crazy on a farmstead somewhere. For all that, India is doing alright for itself, and a lot better than many countries in the region. It’s big enough that it might well be several countries itself, and there are parts that I’d still like to maybe, possibly explore one day.
Just don’t ask me to ride across it again. Sorry India.