India quickly wakes you up with a culture shock.
I remember clearly the panic that hit as I stepped outside Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi for the first time. Although it was night the sultry heat swallowed me at once and banished the memory of the air-conditioned arrivals lounge. But the heat did not arrive alone, India is too social a country for that. It brought a sticky mix of unknown aromas, tangy and sordid that jolted my brain as I struggled to recognize them. Maybe there was cheap spice, burning on a skillet; petrol fumes certainly but far more toxic than anything I knew; something rotting in the gutter and sweet incense like powdered cough sweets.
I was given precious little time to consider these first sensory impressions however. A wave of taxi drivers crashed down around me and I was enveloped in frothing sales pitches.
“Hallo! My friend – where do you want to go? Connaught Place?”
“I find you good hotel – very cheap!”
“Come, I take you to main bazaar. 400 rupees.”
“Don’t listen to him – he is a thief! I take you for 350.”
“Okay, 300 – And i show you good guest house, cheap and best!
The drivers stood around in a motley crew, leaning upon each other’s shoulders and chewing betel nut, it’s red juice staining the ground where they spat – which they did every half minute. Their faces looked hungry, even predatory as they sized me up for exactly what I was. Fresh white meat. Green to the ways of India i had no idea what a rupee was worth.
Confused and jet-lagged, abroad alone for the first time at the age of 18 and standing in front of a gang of sharks like these, I did the only thing that that made any sense to me under the circumstances. I ran back into the airport to hide until the morning.
It’s not for nothing that countries like India are called the Third World. When you arrive there it’s like you’ve just stepped onto another planet. Everything feels completely different though it’s a push to pinpoint exactly what and why. Okay, there are immediate physical differences like the absence of a sidewalk and tidy shop fronts, phone boxes or vending machines. But it’s not the absence of familiar Western landmarks that is shocking but rather what replaces them.
Taking a walk through the streets of an India city you quickly realize that all of the automated services and trade of the West is here undertaken by people. If you want to make a phone call then yo go to see a man in an office who has bought his own telephone line and he’ll connect you to the number you want. If you need a nail clipper and a comb then there’ll be someone selling them from a plastic mat on the floor. Take the time to haggle and the price will drop to half.
The concept of a bar mark is still almost completely unheard of in India. and will probably remain so until the next century. It would take all the fun out of buying and selling things. I remember the light in the eyes of an old India shopkeeper in London when, just for the fun of it, I tried to haggle over the price of a pint of milk.
“So look, this milk is very old. Not fresh. I will give you 35p.”
“No, no, sir! This is best quality milk, cheap and best for 40p.”
“But I am buying a chocolate bar and a newspaper also – make me some discount.”
“But sir! my cost price is 38p – I am making 2p profit only!”
“Okay, so what’s your last price?”
In fact the culture shock of travelling to India is often far more pronounced upon one’s return to the West. I remember looking out the window of the taxi at the streets of my hometown for the first time in 7 months. They seemed gray, empty and deserted as if no one lived there any more.
“Where are all the people?” I asked the driver. “Has something happened?” He looked at me as though I was crazy and just shrugged.
Where were all the little food stalls selling deep-fried snacks over flickering kerosene stoves, the flame darting here and there like an angry jinn? Where were the turbaned fortune tellers and the troops of shoe shine boys who wanted to polish even my sandals? And where were all the people hanging out on the street just for the fun of it, snickering cheeky remarks at those who walked past?
It’s in this sense that the West has broken with tradition. A few hundred years ago the cities of Europe were also filled with street life. Cold as it was, the air was still replete with the cries of street hawkers touting their wares from baskets slung over the shoulder, men pulling carts selling hot potatoes, blowing their horns to announce their arrival.
The age of public health has a lot to answer for. Whilst it dealt with the awful epidemics of cholera and typhoid and established a basic level of hygiene in the towns and cities, much was lost in the process. The vast majority of the street entrepreneurs were squeezed out of business and the public educated to only buy products from large stores wrapped in several layers of plastic.
Granted, the average kerosene stove or gas bottle in Asia is probably not manufactured under the strictest of conditions but it’s hardly the most common cause of death either. And one of the most enjoyable things to do in India is to take a chai on the street with a friend, squat down in the gutter and watch the life go by. ‘Time pass’, as the Indians say.
At what price has the West bought its safety and hygiene?
For me, the return to India is always a return to reality. I spend the first few days with my eyes, ears and nose wide open, sucking in everything once again. Straight from the airport one sees children taking a shit by the side of the road. Or families scratching out a living in their tumbledown shacks. India has an unofficial policy of encouraging the formation of slums around its major airports. The idea seems to be to impress visiting foreign politicians with India’s need for increased aid. A good deal of which supplements the salaries of the politicians.
Going to the Third World is like time travel. The modern obsession with order and sterility evaporates in the teeming crowds of people and the erratic structure of the buildings; in the itinerant merchants who set up shop wherever they sit down. Yet it all feels quite natural. Like walking through a page of our own history.
But as much as I love to return to India it always feels great to leave it again. After some months the non-stop sensory input becomes overwhelming and all i want is the one commodity that’s not for sale – peace and solitude.
And yet when I do go back to the lands where things work and people know how to answer a question directly, I somehow feel like I’ve missed the point. That in all the time I was in India the answers were all around me and I was just too impatient or unobservant to take them in. And there’s nothing to do except wait for the next time I wash up on that great subcontinent and try again.