Indians will forgive travelers almost anything if they can come up with a few lines of Hindi or, even better, the local language. A little bit of effort will go a long way and allow you to communicate also with the uneducated classes.
There are so many travelers of every kind imaginable that for most people their experience in India is characterized by the other backpackers they hang out with. People tend to take at least 6 months to explore India and so they are often interesting characters with long stories to tell. You’ll meet all kinds from meditation nuts to flute students to old freaks who threw their passport in the river back in the 60’s. In many places they form a community of their own amongst the Indian villages. Survival in India takes many forms.
You will never fit in to Indian society. For a start you’re not Hindu and are theoretically an Outcaste which means you’re considered to be very dirty. Indians of higher castes may refuse to eat something you have prepared and might hesitate to allow you into their houses. On the other hand you probably have whiter skin than even the Brahmins and more money than most Indians. Understandably this leaves them rather confused as how to regard you.
You may make Indian friends but most that you meet will only be acquaintances. The culture gap is astronomical. You will always be the strange foreigner, or ferenghi and no amount of studying Hindu theology or meditation will change that. Accept it and just become one of the parts of the jigsaw that doesn’t fit.
Indian cities are pretty much safe to walk around at night and instances of armed robbery are few and far between. There are plenty of thieves who will take advantage whenever they can but it’s almost never violent. An exception are some of the wilder valleys in the Himalayas and North East India in states like Bihar.
Indians will respect you if you take care of your appearance and respond to good manners with the same. In particular be polite to the old.
You can usually depend upon a Sikh. They are upright, generous people and if you’re ever in trouble go to the nearest Sikh temple. Likewise a Sikh will protect you in the street if you find yourself with problems.
The Kashmiris have a hard luck story to beat most. Forced out of their homeland to go and make a living the Kashmiris are nonetheless the sharpest operators and con men in the country. Be very careful dealing with them as they are very charming and often quite duplicitous.
Indians have no way of understanding what a woman is doing alone in India. An Indian woman would never travel by herself for months at a time in search of new experiences and so they have a hard time grasping what female travelers are doing in India. Many assume they must be travelling prostitutes or hopeless floozies and may fancy their chances.
For this reason it’s important to dress correctly by covering arms and legs at all times and, if you want to be left alone, you mght consider wearing a light head scarf in vulnerable situations such as on long train journeys.
However you don’t have to be demure. Indian men’s concept of Western women is almost entirely programmed by cheap movies and hiphop videos and they will most liley try their luck. They may stare for hours at you, let their arm ‘accidentally’ flop on top of you on a bus journey or just outright grope you in the street. If any of these things happens to you you’re best off making a huge fuss about it. If you scream at an Indian man and draw attention to his advances the shame of the community will be invoked and he’ll most likely withdraw in terror.
On the other hand, many Indians will instinctively offer their protection to women they meet travelling alone and will see it as their duty to make sure you get where you’re going safely.
It’s as well to remember that India is a country of extreme repressed sexuality and you should take care if you have plans of wandering off in nature alone. Groups of young guys can follow you like dogs.