It’s hard to write an article about India – I mean, when you’re a white girl who grew up with ballet classes and whole-wheat sandwiches cling-filmed neatly in your lunchbox – without sounding like a dick. It’s not India’s fault.
It’s filthy and impoverished, existing in a state of finely balanced, bewildering chaos. One billion people live there, eating and sleeping and praying in an endless cycle of human life that is raw and rich. They don’t have time for us; they’re hustling each day to survive. And yet white people have had this fascination with that vast subcontinent for centuries. As colonialists, we lived on intricately carved houseboats in Kashmir and hunted tigers in Rajahstan. Now we love nothing more than months shitting our brains out while shuffling around in purple harem pants clutching a copy of Shantaram. And it’s really hard to explain the appeal of this, or why, even after the hippies gave up and fat, beastly Russians invaded Goa, it remains a rite of passage on the traveller triangle through Asia.
I ended up there by mistake. I was working as a nanny in New York. I spent my nights getting trashed at pretentious clubs and my days staring vacant-eyed at two precocious brats that ignored everything I said. I lived in an empty, soulless apartment with no duvet and an open suitcase on the floor that suggested I’d recently arrived (I hadn’t). By December, I was fed up. I called my parents to announce I was moving to Las Vegas with a friend. I figured I’d work as a club hostess, fill my empty suitcase with cash and rent a condo with a pool. Then India intervened.
My first trip didn’t start with the intention of enlightenment. I was bored and restless and a free plane ticket was chucked my way when a British charity decided they wanted someone to report back on their micro-finance projects. But since it’s India and toilet talk seeps into every aspect of conversation, let’s just say this: shit got real. Instead of Vegas’ easy-time sequins and sparkles, I was thrust into a culture where I was an oddity, a freckled freakshow that provoked one glossy-haired girl in Mumbai to ask why I didn’t do something about all those spots on my face. And I was alone. Without the familiar shield of friends, I lived at the mercy of several wonderful Indian families that acted as hosts throughout my six weeks in Meghalaya, a remote north-eastern state sandwiched next to Bangladesh. I slept three in bed (it wasn’t sexy). I gagged as I ate goat curry for breakfast. I spent 72 hours on a train, trying desperately to avoid trips to a fetid, crusty bathroom that looked like the apocalypse had just hit. I’d traded clubs for curry – and survived.
When I returned to London, several things had changed. One – I was skinny. Whenever white people talk about going to India, the conversation inevitably turns to how much weight they’ll lose. Isn’t that fucked up? 40 per cent of the world’s malnourished children live in India – these wretched, gobby, grime-coated kids that run around in feral packs with hands outstretched for money – and yet it’s still hard not to feel smug when family members clasp your emaciated arm and praise you for basically contracting dysentery while you were away. Two – I was judgmental. For a while, I had an internal monologue that thought deeply obnoxious things like, “Listen to my mum complaining about the English train system. It’s a shame she isn’t as worldly and experienced as me… etcetera.” Three – I wanted to go back.
My parents claim that I changed after that first trip. I think what they mean by that is I became a less frightful version of the self-centred, self-destructive whirlwind of animosity that had wreaked destruction during my teenage years.
It’s difficult to feel entitled when you’re confronted with nothing. I mean, it’s not like Indians are perfect. There’s a lot of public pissing and nose-picking and intense, creepy staring going on. Once, a man who looked like Hannibal Lecter proudly cupped my friend’s breast while she was posing for a photo. But even when the lines are long and the bureaucracy is brutal, they just get on with things. You’ve gotta respect that.
I’ve had three trips now: extended trips that involved quitting my job and throwing going-away parties in case I never came back. Each trip was different and difficult in its own way – varying degrees of loneliness, the back-breaking discipline of yoga twice a day, some nasty stomach bugs – which leads me back to the original question: Why the hell do white people love traveling around India? And I’ve realised it’s because we like a bit of adversity. That may sound rich coming from someone who has grown up in the kind of smug communities that spout liberalism from The Guardian while carefully secluding themselves from any kind of ethnic or socio-economic integration, but that’s precisely WHY India appeals. Life in the West can feel like the inside of a hamster wheel, and nothing pops that sanitised bubble of privilege faster than the sub-continent. It’s a sweating, pulsing hum of humanity, exposing poverty and degradation like a punch in the stomach whilst shamelessly seducing with a kaleidoscope of colors and an infinite cacophony of noise that echoes from the po-faced Himalayas. Rudyard Kipling, who immortalised India through classics like The Jungle Book, summed it up best: “Now India is a place beyond all others where one must not take things too seriously – the midday sun always excepted.”