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5 Misconceptions About India

5 Misconceptions About India

June 10, 2011

Coming to India for the first time, there's only one thing you can really expect: the unexpected.

In the final weeks before I immigrated, I had a lot of misconceptions about India and what life here would be like. Needless to say, India has squashed the majority of those misconceptions and shown me that a country so vast cannot possibly be pigeonholed into neat categories. Here are five misconceptions about India, and my real experience with each.

1. It’s so hot I won’t be able to adjust

This was the first thing on anyone’s lips when I told them I was moving to India, not to mention the first thing I personally thought of: “Isn’t it really hot?” Well, yeah, it is. Coming here in August was not a great idea, as the monsoon rains were just giving way to thick heat and humidity of the type you almost have to physically fight through. I dripped with sweat in Delhi, had a few days’ respite in Bangalore, and then was back to three shirts a day in Varkala. But don’t let that put you off. You may never stop sweating in a tropical climate like coastal Kerala’s – I certainly haven’t – but like so many other things, you get used to it. Sweat becomes your friend. You realise its health benefits. Even I, with my ultra-pale skin, have managed to adjust. And if it does get to be too much, a cooler climate is never too far away, be it atop nearby mountains or in the north of the country.

2. It’s dirty

After heat, filth was always the next thing friends and acquaintances would mention. To the onlooker, all of India really is dirty. Whenever a cliff restaurant in Varkala has to dispose of waste, they just pitch it over the side, making for an off-white vista of discarded plastic when viewed from the beach. The streets tend to be the stained in the same way. Set foot inside a family home, however, and you’ll almost always find carefully swept floors and pristine gardens. Folks might not have much civic sense, but the land up to their compound wall is kept with pride in the highest standards of cleanliness – in poor homes as well as rich. One hopes this pride will extend to the streets some day.

3. It’s the land of spirituality

India has a great pedigree in spirituality, that’s for sure. It may be over 40 years since The Beatles introduced much of the West to India’s spiritual charms, but the reputation persists. There remain an infinite number of temples, ashrams and wandering holy men, so if you’re looking for a guru or a path to follow, pretty much every variety is available and accepted. Still, my time spent reading Autobiography of a Yogi did little to prepare me for everyday life in India. Less represented communities, such as Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, are generally more devout, but Hindus (who at ~80% make up the majority of India’s population) tend to be religious only on a ceremony-by-ceremony basis. That’s to say, on their marriage day or their grandfather’s death anniversary they’ll accede completely to their particular Hindu tradition; everyday life, however, is consumed by work, family and friends. Save for a morning glance at Ganesh’s portrait, spirituality barely intrudes.

4. It’s dangerous

Having grown up in New Zealand, one of the safest countries on Earth, I had a strong fear of the unknown - particularly countries hit by internal violence and terror, not to mention those with a proliferation of creepy crawly poisonous things. To be blunt, India freaked me out. I worried first about being pickpocketed or having my luggage stolen, then about catching a deadly malaria strain, and ultimately about being caught in a terrorist bomb attack. None of these things ever happened. I’m a big advocate of taking as little risk as possible when you’re living or travelling in a foreign country - and that means exercising a little paranoia alongside your common sense - but in close to three years in India, I have only felt remotely in danger on one solitary occasion. And that was with another foreigner, not an Indian. It isn’t that the danger I expected is completely absent; it’s that if you remain a little cautious, you’ll more than likely evade any dangerous situations.

5. The environment will be completely foreign

Coming to India, I truly expected that the culture I was used to would be mostly or completely missing. It was this vast, far-off land, much of it without electricity - let alone coffee shops - and over each horizon I would find new and indescribable things. Barely three days after my arrival I found myself sitting in a coffee shop in Bangalore, sipping a latte and waiting to meet an advertising executive. While I did find orange-clad swamis and trinket-rattling hijras mixing with the crowd, I also found teenagers glued to mobile phones, billboards for popular Hollywood movies, idolisation of football stars... and pretty much anything you’d care to name. The one abiding characteristic that I would apply to India is that alongside its own deep cultural traditions, it has a little of everything from the rest of the world contained within its borders.


Those were the five major misconceptions that I had to alter after coming here. What misconceptions of India have you had, or come across in others? 


  • Harshita
    25.07.13 06:09 PM
    the second point about India being dirty is true. So is the explanation about the houses being exceptionally clean. But Indians have to realize that dumping waste in the nearby public garden, or just in front of the neighbors house won't beautify their houses. The mentality of selfishly beautifying their own little space and not has to be changed.
  • Raj Agarwal
    Raj Agarwal
    16.01.12 11:39 PM
    India is dirty and hot. These are not misconceptions. These are facts. Here is another one, 55% of Indians can't even bother to use a toilet, that's 630 million people who defecate in public. It's so bad that Indian Railways has to replace the rails every couple of years because or corrosion. Frankly, it doesn't matter how clean their homes are if the sewage isn't treated, the COMMON food and water tainted.
  • Chinmoy Biswas
    Chinmoy Biswas
    12.08.11 11:25 AM
    I am an Indian, living in Bangalore in India. Probably I can make some comments on Mr. Barnaby's 5 misconceptions about India. He is right about what he said. All these problems and many other problems in India pain me, and I think something should be done about them. Probably educating Indians about these should be where we have to start with. I thank Mr. Barnaby for what he has written.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    16.06.11 09:59 AM
    @Juzer Ali - very good point, 5 Most Exaggerated Things is a much more appropriate title. Still, I think they're also misconceptions because the reality doesn't correspond well with people's expectations.
  • Shreya
    15.06.11 12:57 AM
    Very nice post!! Good to hear you are enjoying your stay here. Hope you do experience a lot more goodness of this country!
  • Sid
    14.06.11 11:59 PM
    Welcome to India bro ;)
  • Juzer Ali
    Juzer Ali
    14.06.11 09:29 PM
    Friend, there is a paradox in this piece of yours. All the things that you have mentioned as misconceptions, you have said that they do exist. Then how come you are calling them as misconception?

    You could have titled this as "5 Most Exaggerated things about India"
  • Rituparna
    14.06.11 04:49 PM
    Indians have a very open heart. That is the reason why all the misconceptions have been now answered. N even if we all seem busy with office, life and family all of us come forward when a person needs help or support.
  • Alia
    14.06.11 04:34 PM
    Way to go Barnaby! India is the BEST!
    14.06.11 04:01 PM
    Great read :) India and Indians in particular will always be grateful for such a lovely article. :)
    14.06.11 02:58 PM
    I always wondered what foreigners thought about my country, and the blog cleared that question :) or pretty much confirmed my doubts. Once i saw an foreigner glancing through travelers guide in a railway station and was wondering where to go. I thought of helping him, he was hesitant at first. But when i was not forceful he agreed to listen. when i explained everything to him the last question he asked baffled me. Are you really from India??? was the question. :)
  • hakuna matata
    hakuna matata
    14.06.11 02:06 PM
    hey, nice article..glad that u choose to see the positive things abt india ( unlike many forgnrs)
  • Shivam Tiwari
    Shivam Tiwari
    14.06.11 07:33 AM
    That was so apt :).
    A few more more misconceptions to add (specially applicable to U.S)-

    1) Indians are doctors.
    2) Indians are blacks.
    3) Indians can't speak English.
    4) Indians speak with an accent.
    5) Indians are geeks.
    6) Indians don't have an internet connection :D

    (A guy from U.S asked me how could I use facebook when I belonged to India. He assumed we don't generate electricity here :D :D)
    This ROFLs me till today :D

    - Shivam Tiwari
  • Interesting
    13.06.11 09:56 PM
    Why does the flag in the picture have to be dirty? Surely, that simply propounds another misconception?
  • ALIVE aLwaYs
    ALIVE aLwaYs
    13.06.11 06:00 PM
    It was quite an article and glad you got rid of your misconceptions, but for me it has always been our art of adjustment. You live anywhere, and everywhere, after certain time, you adapt and learn, that's just the way it is, if you can't you go back, and if you can you stick around, glad you did!
    13.06.11 05:59 PM
    you got them right! they're not just the misconceptions of the people who would be visiting India for the first time... even those who grew and were educated here and migrated to some other country for a period have the same thoughts :p
    nice post!
  • kofykat
    13.06.11 10:12 AM
    I'd have to disagree with the hindu's spirituality rule. sorry to sound castist but that caries from caste to caste. I follow my rules everyday to the highest extent that my society will allow without seeming intolerant of other religions.
    Of course if i don't follow them I'll get kicked out of my home.
    But the others. so true. I was actually planning on doing a similar article myself - tips for tourists who are travelling to india.
    (caught this article on indi blogger)
  • Ronald Morais
    Ronald Morais
    12.06.11 06:03 PM
    Good one Barns.
  • JJ
    12.06.11 01:41 PM
    Couldn't have said it any better myself, "The one abiding characteristic that I would apply to India is that alongside its own deep cultural traditions, it has a little of everything from the rest of the world contained within its borders."

    It's not perfect or greatest, but I love it just the way it is.
    Loved the post
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    11.06.11 03:04 PM
    Keri, very good question! I moved to India for a lot of reasons, chief among them a desire to broaden my horizons and extend the limits of my comfort zone. All these misconceptions or fears that I had were just the sort of things I wanted to face, especially after the sterile, machine-like nature of living in Japan. To be honest, though, I almost certainly wouldn't have made the jump if I hadn't had someone I trusted, and who had prior experience of India, to guide me there.

    Prasanna, an article related to those public landfills is coming soon, so do come back and check it out.

    Dhakkanz, to be honest I had a lot more than five misconceptions! These were just the ones that I thought would be most common.

    Slag, definitely similar to Christianity in NZ, but the rituals are probably more widely followed. And yeah, I'm always reading about murders in the hometown... was always aware of gangs and all when I was there, but never actually felt like I was in danger. As for the 'non-white' thing, that's definitely a big and all-too-common misconception; it was very interesting to feel the reverse in Japan, where foreigners of any kind are widely assumed to be more criminal than locals.
  • Slag
    11.06.11 02:10 PM
    1. The "Hindus are only spiritual for specific ceremonies" thing sounds quite a lot like Christianity in NZ.
    2. Interested to hear your answer to the first post!
    3. You may have grown up in "one of the safest countries on earth", but it was in one of its (perceivedly) more dangerous towns. In both cases, "dangerous" often just means "foreign", or, even more blatantly, "non-white".
  • Dhakkanz
    11.06.11 02:14 AM
    @Prasanna Raghavan:

    Sir, sorry to interrupt. It is neither YOUR country nor mine! It is our country. :-)

    @Barnaby: You are right. I have a lot of American movies and I can see from there that India is mostly misrepresentated by showing ONLY saffron-clad sadhus, Elephant riding farmers, and sch things. I would suggest every that person who has not seen India to please come down personally, spend some good number of days and see for yourself the rich culture that we people have.

    Other than our own rich culture, you will find that we will adopt your culture (or maybe, we might have already adopted it) as you can see from Barnaby's post already.

    Barnaby may have only 5 misconceptions that got busted, but there may be many more, which I am sure India will surely prove incorrect! :-)
  • Prasanna Raghavan
    Prasanna Raghavan
    11.06.11 12:55 AM

    It is nice to hear what a foreigner think about my state or my country from his point of view. Ya your observation about Hindu spirituality is very true. Let me correct it soon that by Hindu spirituality I do not mean Hinduthwa.

    I wish you a nice stay in my country.

    But as an Indian who wants to take pride in many things there, I am very much unhappy about how dirty its public places are.
  • Keri
    10.06.11 10:13 PM
    Interesting article. I'm curious (and I'm sure you've answered this question before, but I haven't seen the answer):

    If you had all of these negative thoughts prior to moving there, what was your motivation for moving there? I can understand when people move to New York for economic reasons and they have all of these misconceptions but do it anyway b/c the pros outweigh the cons but I can't imagine you moved to India for any economic benefits (as compared to New Zealand), so what was it? Thank you.

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