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?