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Owning Up: What I Missed In India

Owning Up: What I Missed In India

May 12, 2012

It's amazing how is easy it is to ignore the splendour at your fingertips when you're working a nine-to-five job.

For almost all of my three years in India, I worked barely two kilometres from Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). VSSC is a premier rocket and space vehicle development facility and the major hub for in India's accelerating space programme. A partcipant in a school visit to VSSC described it as “really a wonderful experience”.

On my regular commute from Technopark back to Varkala, I twice met employees of VSSC and excitedly questioned them about their life and work. I turned into one of those social remoras that are nearly impossible for good people to shake off, and my questioning would only end when we reached my destination. As is the case for most of us, the wonders of space exploration hold me in some thrall.

But did I ever seek to visit VSSC? No, I did not. I can tell you exactly what the bland Food Corporation of India buildings at Kazhakuttam look like because my train stopped beside them every day, but the high-tech, cutting-edge facilities of India’s aeronautical efforts? Never got close enough to even see them from the outside.

About 200 kilometres up the Malabar coast, Kochi is, by all reports, a fascinating urban mix of colonial architecture, two-thousand-year-old sites of religious significance, the art of Chinese net fishing, and modern consumer conveniences – and a lot more besides. One of my colleagues recommended I take the four-hour train journey just to taste karimeen pollichathu at the Grand Hotel. Another friend, who was brought up in Fort Kochi, insisted I take a weekend to wander around the old-world sights of his hometown.

I never did. (The best unnu in Varkala is at Hotel Suprabhatham, though. You can trust me on that much.)

The list goes on and on. It's amazing how is easy it is to take for granted the splendour at your fingertips when you're working a nine-to-five job. Here's a selection of other places in India I always wanted to visit but never got round to, along with what I've learned about them from others. There are only five here, but they were culled from a list of hundreds.


Two friends from Seattle, with whom I lived for a month in Varkala, went there for a week. They came back relaxed and effusive, with a laptop full of magnificent hill station photography. Living as I did in a coastal climate limited to the sticky tropical range of temperatures, crisp high-altitude air in Kerala summer sounded like magic. For now, that dream of climbing out of thick humidity remains an unknown.


On the flipside of that weather equation, I met a woman named Zopa in Varkala. She lived in Dharamsala for most of the year but spent the winter months soaking up the Kerala sun. Zopa was a pale-skinned Englishwoman in her 60s (or so), clad in maroon and yellow robes and without a single hair on her head. Her manner was mostly calm, and she was comfortable sharing the details of her life and how she had ended up a monk in the Himalayas. If I were to visit Dharamsala, I would be less eager to glimpse the Dalai Lama than I would to see Zopa again.


Harmandir Sahib. Just look at it. A Canadian Punjabi I know on Twitter said her experience visiting Amritsar was confusing and rather less holy than her expectations, but for me, the sight of a temple covered in gold would be a fair reward for just about any challenges posed by aggressive tourism industry professionals. Kinkakuji in Kyoto holds a similar appeal (but did I visit it when I lived in Japan? Did I f---).


A Bengali friend tells me he used to wander around the streets of this famous quarter, joining in with 'gentlemen' for an adda over tea and cigarettes. I don't smoke any more, and I might take tea a little different from the standard Kolkata blend, but to sit with a group of Bengalis and enjoy their impassioned global policy discourse would be a treat.


Three years in India and I never visited this universally adored wonder of the world. Plenty of people come away from Agra unimpressed, however: the last friend who visited described her tour through it as “honestly one of the worst experiences of my entire life”. Still, “the Taj Mahal in particular transcended cliche. It was heart-stopping, serene, and almost spiritual.” Amen. * To each of the above paragraphs, you can add 'I will go there someday.' Someday. Now it’s your turn to own up: where have you always wanted to go but never gotten around to visiting?

Photo credit: Mani Babbar 


  • Smaran
    16.05.12 11:43 PM
    True that. Being and Indian (and having lived there for 23 years), I feel ashamed when my American friends here ask me if I've been to the Taj Mahal and if it really is a truly beautiful sight. I've never visited the Taj Mahal, and I regret that today, more so after having moved half way across the world.
    India has so much to offer but like the author said, we tend to ignore all that in favor of working that extra shift, to earn that extra moolah.
  • anil rana
    anil rana
    13.05.12 07:15 PM
    i love my india miss you india very much....
  • aativas
    12.05.12 09:32 PM
    I am an Indian, but I do miss many such places. India is too vast to be visited in one lifetime I guess!!
  • Anisha
    12.05.12 06:31 AM
    Amen to this article! I think a lot of people can relate to the coulda-shoulda-woulda feeling. Funny how quickly we can adapt to new surroundings, let them become a part of our everyday routine, and go from "wide-eyed visitor" to "jaded resident." But like you say here, "someday!" This gives you all the more reason to go back to India, Barnaby! :)

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