Posters of ‘Incredible India’ are no longer restricted to the brightly painted walls of Indian restaurants across Europe. Tune in to FM radio early in the morning and chances are you’d hear a mellifluous voice reinforcing the incredibility of India, courtesy the ministry of tourism, Government of India. And India is incredible — rarely does one find the prosperous and the impoverished, the corrupt and honest, the brightest and dumbest coexisting peacefully.
That perhaps made the task of playing Raju — a la RK Narayan’s The Guide — to a group of Italians on a visit to India all the more challenging. I fielded the first set of questions — ‘Do we have to brush our teeth with mineral water? What are the best tropical insect and clothes repellents? Do we have to use repellents 24x7?’ — quite sportingly.
I had worked out all the details meticulously with the travel agencies, leaving nothing to chance. And to my surprise, everything worked out as per plan. The professionalism was heartening — no extra nod or Colgate smile for white skin.
What, however, threw me out of gear was the inexplicable nature and scale of Indian poverty. At Amritsar’s Golden Temple, potholed roads, enmeshed wires dangling from dilapidated houses, blaring horns and simultaneous movement of man and vehicle was compounded by little beggar children pulling at the skirts and trousers of the Italian group I was leading.
The scene — one I had witnessed several times but without any ‘outsider’ for company — had barely prepared me to rant against India’s population or poverty. I felt reluctant to explain or apologise for these ‘incredible’ circumstances — not so much out of a sense of shame but because it would be incomprehensible to a group for whom beggars meant mere down-at-heel creatures.
It was hard to explain that poverty in India translates to having nothing, literally — no home, no clothes, no food. It translates to a sense of stoicism, to uncomplaining acceptance of one’s fate. In an epiphanic moment, I realised incredible as an adjective is perhaps best suited for India, not so much Italy or Ireland. This country isn’t one you can fall in love with at first sight, it is to be experienced not perceived. Its incredibility lies in that it grows on you, and triggers a rare sensitivity and compassion that is alien to the western world.
Looking at my country for the first time through the eyes of the ‘Other’, I sensed it is this ‘incredibility’ that binds me to it, that makes me its harshest critic but angers me when the ‘Other’ criticises it. India is like this only and so are we Indians. Take it or leave it.
Vishnupriya Sengupta is a Kolkata-based academic and freelance writer The views expressed by the author are personal