How in the world do you describe India to a Westerner?

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How do I explain what India is like to a Western person? Often people who visit the country for a short period come back with negative descriptions. “But that is not India,” I want to tell them, and yet their descriptions are not wrong either. They come back loving the Taj and loving the hospitality of friends and yet horrified by the poverty and filth. But for us who grew up in that great land, India is so much more, which is so difficult to put into words.

I chanced upon a blog by Eric Rowell, a young man who wanted to find out more about India and actually lived in India for two years and wrote about it. In a post called ‘Answering a Hard Question – “How was India?”’, he writes:

The hardest part of this for me might be that nothing happens linearly. I want to map it out and be able to say “I saw this and this and this,” or “these changes happened on this date.” It’s just not like that though. My time here is best described as a hodgepodge of stories with an overarching theme or two. Even still, I’m not yet sure what those themes are except to say that God is faithful through it all.
In a land of sensory overload I’ve seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled more than I thought possible.
I’ve seen poverty and wealth intermingled in a way I couldn’t imagine. I hiked through the Himalayas and stood on top of the glacier that the Ganges River flows from. I can communicate in a language that seemed like jibberish not too long ago. I watched the sunrise over the mountains and spread its light into the most beautiful valley I’ve ever seen. I climbed through waterfalls and watched 10,000 lanterns released into the Thai night sky. I saw a wild elephant from the back of a jeep. I visited Nepal twice, and both trips were about as long as it will take me to write this blog post. And yes, I saw the Taj Mahal – not once, not twice, but three times.

India sits on layers upon layers of history, with each layer contributing to the present in some strange way, adding to our rich culture and spirit of tolerance. It would be the one part of the world where the descendents of Shem, Ham, and Japheth have come together from the ends of the earth over time and intermingled. This is a land where many of the great religions of the world were born. It is the land where foreign influences of the past, Persian, Greek, Chinese, etc were welcomed and assimilated. In theory, India is “secular,” but in many ways she is a Hindu land, with her  three million deities. But it is the land where, for the better part Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, and Jains can live in absolute freedom. All religions are free by law to preach and propagate their beliefs. India has more Muslims than any other country, save for Indonesia and Pakistan. It is one of the few countries where the Jews lived in peace during their exile.

It is a land of every possible form of contrast—a clash of colour and a cacophony of sound. She is wealthy. She is poor. She is highly educated. She is illiterate. She is cultured. She is wretched. She is finicky about cleanliness and rules. She is utterly filthy. India is extremely corrupt and bogged down by bureaucracy, chaotic and crowded.  The way this great giant of a country rouses herself every morning and functions amidst all this chaos belies explanation. When so much of money is siphoned off due to corruption, from government projects, why do our bridges stay strong and why do our buildings not collapse? Why, with our chaotic roads, do we not have an accident rate that is higher than in other countries. I think God Himself must love India very much.

Speaking of how difficult it is to do justice to India when describing her to someone who is not Indian, I’ll close with an old documentary, one that made a similar attempt nearly a century ago .

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3 responses »

  1. What do you think of Vishal Mangalwadi? I’ve learnt a lot from him about India’s history. Do you agree with his take on things?

    • I have read only one book written by him (Burnt Alive: The Staines and the God They Loved). I do not know what his take is about India, but from what I know of him, he would know much more than me about these things. My post is subjective whereas his writings are bound to be objective and informed.

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