For a foreigner, India is an assault on the senses. A land of every extreme you can imagine, every data point you can parse, and every anecdote you can hazard is found in this heterogenous homeland. An opulent ancient structure makes way for decrepit shantytowns which morph into a 21st-century skyscraper. Blaring horns that find a home on every road transform into the blowing of a conch and eternal songs. Pollution stings your nose and strangles your throat until you find refuge in the appetizing aroma of an eatery. Every flavor is expressed in a single bite of a chaat, akin to instruments combining in an orchestra of taste. An omnipresent dust travels across your skin as you hold the hands of a loved one not seen in ages. At this point, I feel a bit like Rupi Kaur narrating a diaspora novella about a visit to the homeland, but I’m guessing you get the point.
India naturally evokes so many emotions. Growing up, visits back to India were infrequent. Beyond visits in my toddler days and just at the cusp of grade school, where anywhere you visit is a treat, my first fully fleshed-out memories of India were a visit in middle school. Poverty screamed during that visit as I went with my parents temple hopping and hi-hellos to relatives I would seldom see again. From Delhi to Uttar Pradesh to Rajasthan to Gujarat, almost all the temples were surrounded by such enormous filth that it invoked a profound shame in me. Like a sullen lotus in a sweltering swamp, the acceptance of such defilement of the divine was difficult to comprehend in a religion that placed such an onus on purity. Only a few temples, mostly in Gujarat, had I finally seen the pristine temples that were described as abodes of peace and bliss in the tales I had heard of a great Hindu past. Where was the respect for one’s religion and one’s self? I had still yet not learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that explains these terrible sights.
It would be many years before returning for a short trip in 2012 trapped in my uncle’s new flat for a wedding in Gujarat. Not much seemed to change from the prior trip. Gujarat was decent but boredom abounded being with older family. India still remained hopeless for me and something not to waste one’s mind on. A few years later, as I entered the workforce and learned about the vital process of finishing work quickly but still pretending to be doing it so I don’t get assigned more, I sparked an interest in Indian politics by browsing Reddit. Things seemed to be changing there for the better. A man who my parents and relatives back in Gujarat sang praises of had stormed into Delhi with a promise to profoundly transform the country. As I delved into his politics, I noticed a strange defiance of the left and right I knew in America. And slowly, I began to hope. While I initially had given up on India due to my prior visits and horror stories that would punctuate news, I still wore my Hinduness on my sleeve. And as a practicing Hindu, I would naturally want my spiritual homeland to thrive. Perhaps this is why I began to hope in the first place.
Most of my fellow Indian-American diaspora are completely ignorant of India; even more so in the mid to later 2010s than now. Mainstream media, South Asian influencers, and Instagram gave WhatsApp uncles a run for their money predicting a holocaust combined with an apocalypse in India driven by a Hindu Hitler. But I was reading different things. I read about infrastructure, welfare, entrepreneurship, digitization, and the heralding of indigenous culture. The differences would come to a head as I would play the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae in group chats and hangouts with my Indian-American friends defending the current dispensation of India. A few tongue-in-cheek kind words about Mr. Modi amongst stereotypical Manhattanites at a party in New York resulted in a screaming match that left a thought ringing in my head the next day during the ride back home – “How the fuck are my fellow Indian-Americans so dumb?” During a raucous Euro trip earlier in the year, my close friends told me to start writing about my knowledge and interests related to India. My only prior experience of writing was wasting hours arguing with people on Reddit. I tried then but gave up quickly after getting little traction. Months would pass by. After the Battle of the Big Apple, I felt a fire in my belly, and it was not from the extra lines of red sauce from my Halal Guys falafel platter at 4 AM the night before. I was going to write.
Long story short, I’ve written much about India since then. Now it was time to finally visit, and I have been greeted by a much, much different India. And luckily this time instead of my parents, I was accompanied by my girlfriend, who I would be lost without in so many ways.
Breathe is the metronome of human existence. As my plane descended onto Indira Gandhi International, a miasma covered the runaway and surrounding city. Fresh rain had humidified the air as Delhi’s infamous pollution thickened. An initial walkout reminded me of my trip over a decade back as my eyes began to sting and my lungs began to want to skip a few breaths. This deathly air was a constant across the lively NCR region.
Yet now there was a difference. Roads were actually roads rather than dirt alleys. Trash that had inundated the streets had dissipated. Slums were replaced by large buildings that would be just at home in an American suburb. The groundwork of Delhi had indeed changed despite its still hellish air. As the days went on, the sky remained a periwinkle grey even as the sun blazed scattering clouds from the stratosphere. As omnipresent as the periwinkle were posters of politicians plastered across the city. As I ventured into Haryana and Noida, this theme would continue so much so that I began to be annoyed by the sight of them (many of whom I admire). Something I did admire though that also was common were Indian flags across all strata of society. The tricolor was just as home on a swanky South Delhi society house as it was protruding from the uneven brick latticework of a favela. Patriotism reigned.
But what does patriotism really amount to? One incident, in particular, made me think about this concept. In a park near Connaught Place, I sat listening to a duo singing Bollywood songs with a large crowd around them. Upon their final song, they ended with chants of “Vande Mataram” and “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” enthusiastically joined in by the crowd. Yet at the same time, a very old sadhu walked around begging for money, ignored by all. Draped in saffron, the frail man’s ragged feet showed a journey of ages. This ancient practice, the great sadhu begging for alms, would be disregarded amongst chants hailing the motherland. Luckily I was able to give him something, but the whole incident felt eerily jarring – the contrast of near-religious patriotism yet total ignorance towards the religion that was the bedrock of that patriotism. For what is India without honoring these great emissaries of Dharma, those who had indeed helped birth the concept of the nation itself? But then again, I am a foreigner. Who am I to judge?
One day brought me in the shadow of the Qutub Minar to a friend’s fashion studio and now expanding garment production facility. The spirit of not just entrepreneurship but specifically *Indian* entrepreneurship was rife in an unassuming building off a quiet Delhi alleyway. My friend and founder of his brand told me about his journeys across villages and bazaars sourcing uniquely Indian textiles to establish a luxury fashion brand. For inspiration, he explored the “Indo” in the extravagant Indo-Islamic artistry of Mughal India as offbeat animals and plants sprawled across his niche-sourced fabrics that have caught the eyes of India’s ever-expanding fashion industry as well as an ever-expanding clientele list. He explained how he wanted to make clothes not just for Indian aesthetics but also for the Indian climate. After all, Western clothes make uncomfortable bedfellows for the sultry Indian heat as I experienced myself. But above it all, what enthralled me most was seeing that authentically Indian entrepreneurship story as business met Bharat resulting in products you would not see anywhere else.
Dichotomies defined India, especially Delhi. I cannot tell you enough how unacceptably toxic the Delhi air was (seriously Delhites vote for whoever improves it and pay no heed to your “annadattas” to the west guilt tripping you and poisoning your lungs). Yet Delhi may also be the greenest city I’ve ever seen. The greenery is spread across the city adding a charm that is seldom seen in the grey concrete jungles of America. But perhaps the most surprising thing about India would be when one ventured out of the capital into the National Capital Region. It is there where I saw something special – India was beginning a transformation.
There’s a moment in Sid Meier’s Civilization games when you’ve accumulated enough resources, your borders are secure, and you’ve invested enough into technology that you just begin to build. Across your empire, construction abounds into an exciting potential in your quest for victory. India’s NCR seems to be in that phase today.
I’ve never seen more cranes in my life. Places like Gurugram, Noida, Faridabad, and almost everywhere in between was filled with construction at a scale that had previously escaped my eyes. The glitzy silver skyscraper-laden Gurugram especially was striking as I had never imagined such a city being possible in India during my prior visits. The infrastructure boom heralded on the internet is truly visible on ground. Construction workers scour across buildings loudly labeled with their builder’s names (a bit tackily I’d say) as something special brews at the borderlands of India’s Iron Throne.
One particular area that astounded me was a visit to Omaxe World Street in Faridabad, Haryana. Buildings combining Indian and Classical European styles, albeit slightly crudely, were brimming with shops. Almost every functioning building had its lots filled with shops and every shop servicing customers, a sight that is very alien in newly built suburban plots in America. It is here where I gained such hope not just for Indian real estate or business but a burgeoning Indian middle class. Young, old, and families alike enjoyed the multitude of restaurants, shops, and even some very cool new VR stores. Next to the VR store, an inflatable slide was filled up with air and young children, one of whom yelled “Jai Shri Ram!” on his way down (I swear to God I am not joking with you haha), an encapsulation of combining an economic rise with a cultural rise as well. It’s hard to pin the feeling and why I felt it, but seeing this place as well as so many others, seeing ordinary Indians have stability and a springboard to ensure a better tomorrow for their kids, it was simply an awesome feeling. Perhaps it reminded me of my youth where I and so many other diaspora families saw wealth building and economic ascendency in real time over the years.
By the end, my trip felt too short. While I’ve focused on the positive changes, there were familiar sites of poverty and pollution across my trip. Many roads were abysmal, even at places as swanky as Omaxe, and in general the third world still loomed large. But things were getting better, much better I’d say. Better than I’d ever thought they would ever be thinking back at my earlier trips.
We took a short detour to Goa in the middle, which was an absolute treat. An eclectic mix of Portuguese colonialism, Maratha monuments, Russian tourism, amazingly aesthetic and tasty restaurants, as well as a place to clear one’s mind and escape into the trance of the waves. On the plane to Goa, I met an elderly Punjabi doctor, Inderpaul, on the plane. Born in Lahore 2 years before India was ripped in apart, the man has experienced the Republic since its inception. Inderpaul confirmed many of my initial feelings of progress, remarking that he had never thought India would get so far even in basic things like roads and sanitation let alone the penetration of high technology and rise of business behemoths. Inderpaul believed that special times were ahead as India had finally been led by a Special One, which he made me very aware of as a co-ethnic of the man he was referencing. And truth be told, I am inclined to agree.
3 thoughts on “A Sojourn to Swades”
Every time I visit India I feel likewise but I console myself thinking that India is thriving despite at its lowest in its civilisational history.
There is certainly a massive gap between Life in Delhi and NY but the gap is not as wide as everyone in the West wants you to believe. Places in the First World impress you on your first visit but as you live longer you start to realise of its shortcomings whereas Cities in India are quite the opposite. You have to live in Delhi or Mumbai for a while to appreciate its offering otherwise the sight of piles of trash and smell of sewers leave a lasting impression on your flight back to US of A.
India is moving, I should say thriving despite ‘everything that can go wrong has gone wrong’ with it in last millennium. But as they say there is a limit to how far down you can go. And after my trip last month to India, I consoled myself thinking even the gods have forgiven us. The blessing of Indra made April feel so pleasant walking outside on the streets of Delhi, it put a smile on my flight back.
But why not have all that AND get rid of the trash?
Yeah the future looks bright for India. You don’t need to reach anywhere close to US or Norway levels of wealth to feel like a developed country. Countries like Malaysia or Turkey are quite clean and orderly.
Random city center in Malaysia
Random city center in Turkey
There’s a certain ugliness to Indian landscape. But who says a medium sized city in Andhra Pradesh or Gujarat can’t look like this in 25 years? Maybe even sooner.