What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you think of India? Is it curry and the Taj Mahal? Is it elephants, monkeys and snake charmers? Or is it something more sinister, like misogyny and poverty? Throughout my month in India I encountered all of these, but my India – what I believe to be the real India – is so much more.
India to me is a country of over a billion voices combining to create one nation, where diversity is not only accepted, but celebrated. It is industry and economic growth, where innovation and entrepreneurship is found at every corner. It is the flash of a shining crimson sari, the jingle of a woman’s anklet combining with endless joyful music and beautiful spontaneous dancing. It is heat and spice and colour and flavour, an explosion of the mind, an assault on the senses. It is the burning of incense on funeral pyres, rose petals dancing on the breeze, women washing clothes in lakes brimming with lotus flowers. It is the parched plains of Rajasthan, the soaring skyscrapers of Mumbai, the humble monasteries of the Himalayas, the peaceful back waters of Kerala. It is palaces, temples, mosques and fortresses, rainforests and rivers, mountains and monuments. It is a bright smile, an ocean of faces, a flurry of jet black hair. It is infinite, impossible, incredible, and extraordinary.
My journey to India began as a fluke, a random click on one of a hundred adverts we scroll past every day. Within minutes I found myself hurriedly filling out an application the day before the deadline for a programme I was unable to explain. The British Council-funded Cultural Immersion Generation UK Study India Programme (SIP) may not have a particularly succinct title, but it was an opportunity that I couldn’t miss.
Within a few months I found myself in Delhi International Airport after a nine hour flight with no sleep and incredibly awful food, but it didn’t matter. The first day of the programme was much like Freshers’ Week, tentatively walking up to a group and trying to fit into the conversation.
We were welcomed to Delhi in true Indian style
After a couple of hours I’m sure the other 150 students were as sick as I was of answering, “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “What university do you go to?” It quickly became apparent that not only was I one of the youngest participants, most of whom had already graduated, but I seemed to be the only person from York. Upon speaking to my peers, I discovered how lucky I was to have found that advert. For just the cost of a flight and visa I was embarking on this incredible experience.
Those who attended the southern universities, particularly London institutions and Oxbridge, all knew someone who had previously participated or had an ambassador come to their university to give a promotional talk. I was therefore unsurprised that I did not meet another University of York student throughout the entire programme.
We were welcomed to Delhi in true Indian style. Having been divided into our teams, we were presented with colour-coded head-scarves or turbans, bindis and garlands of bright gold chrysanthemums and ushered into the street. Waiting for us were dancers and a full Indian steel band who accompanied us as we too danced down the road to the local Hindu Temple for a Havana ceremony in the style of an Indian wedding. Traffic stopped to let us pass, children ran to join in, and market salesmen stared in astonishment as a parade of 150 British students infiltrated the everyday morning routine in the outer suburbs of Delhi.
Staring is something you quickly learn to live with in India. When visiting world-famous religious sites, for the Indian tourists we were often a more interesting attraction than the monuments themselves. I lost count of the number of photographs that Indian women asked me to be in with their children because I was white and female.
Living in a multicultural society such as Britain it’s easy to forget that some people may never have seen someone white outside of the media, especially in the rural areas which remain untouched by the tourist trail. It was a fascinating insight into cultural difference as we took a rickshaw through the streets of Old Delhi and saw a line of over a hundred men crouching in a queue along the side of the road, waiting to receive a single chapatti.
As we photographed this extraordinary sight, the men themselves were pointing, waving, and taking pictures of us. While being given a talk on the impact of the British Empire on India at Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), several young Muslims also gathered to listen; they were eager to learn, either through what we were discussing or simply by watching us.
I realised that as India accelerates into the modern world, it will always remain grounded
It was in observing these young men that I began to see the new India, bursting to life in the 21st century. In the Sikh Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, we sat inside the prayer hall and observed those who had come to worship, marvelling at the elaborate decoration and enjoying the music. There were many who you would consider traditional Sikhs, with beautiful veils, long white beards and regal turbans, but more fascinating were the young men. They came in groups wearing skinny jeans, fitted shirts, and temporary bandana-style head-scarves in vibrant colours and patterns. Here was the ‘traditional’ India coming together with an India of a different age to pray together. I realised that as India accelerates into the modern world, it will always remain grounded.
We met this new generation during our three days at Gargi College at the University of Delhi. Gargi is a highly academic all-girls college, where students are incredibly driven and ambitious. Every girl I spoke to was studying a science and wanted to go to the UK to complete a Masters and PhD before returning to India to pursue their careers. To them, a bachelor’s degree means relatively little and their undergraduate comprises more of a sixth form experience. In this way Gargi College reminded me of my all-girls secondary school, with hand painted posters on the walls, girls dancing in the corridors, professors called teachers and timetabled lessons before returning to their family homes.
While the girls were similar to us, open and effervescent, their university life was very different. However they were all clearly incredibly proud to be a member of the college; they showcased it fantastically and were magnificent hosts.
I quickly learned that dancing is part and parcel of being in India, and not something to shy away from. From our very first day when we were dancing in the street in 38 degree heat and 80 per cent humidity, we didn’t seem to stop. We were pulled onto the stage at Gargi College, joined in with a dance PE lesson at a school visit, and spontaneous Bollywood moves ensued in competition with the coach next-door.
As ambassadors of the British Council in India we were invited to an event at the Delhi High Commission and traditional Indian dress was not optional. This culminated in some frantic sari shopping, blouse fitting, and draping, particularly for those of us who were chosen to perform our dance before the Council themselves – we had to drape, undrape and re-drape at the venue, which is no mean feat. No one felt uncomfortable or offended by our clothing or accused us of cultural appropriation; it was our symbolic cultural embrace of India.
The British Council event ended the first week of the programme, and with it our time in Delhi. In order to reach our second location, Mumbai, Indogenius organised for us to take the 17-hour sleeper train down to the west coast of India. Despite a two-and-a-half hour delay in the sweltering heat playing Uno, this was one of the most enjoyable and memorable parts of the trip.
In third class you can get from one end of the country to the other for less than a pound
A carriage comprised of about 10 open compartments, each of which slept eight on triple bunk beds. We took up the majority of three carriages but there were a small number of Indians dotted among us. It was fascinating to talk to them and discover how they came to be in Delhi, or their reasons for travelling to Mumbai. Railways make travel within India possible for the masses. In third class you can get from one end of the country to the other for less than a pound. This opens up a multitude of opportunities for the 30 per cent of the 1.2 billion people living in India who are still classed as ‘poor.’
Travel and traffic in Mumbai was something that we experienced first-hand on an early morning bike ride. We aimed to see the city as it awoke, cruising through the deserted streets at 5 am, absorbing the amazing view of India’s commercial capital at dawn. It was a couple of hours later as we entered the markets of Mumbai that the problems began to arise: losing each other in the fish market, dodging rickshaws laden with half a dozen children on a school run, and avoiding cows in the roads.
We were very privileged to be taken on a tour around Dharavi, infamously the largest slum in Asia with one million people living in one square mile. The term ‘slum’ simply means government-owned land; consequently many Dharavi residents are being unfairly evicted in order for the government to develop the profitable real estate.
A city within a city, Dharavi is one unending stretch of narrow, dirty lanes, open sewers and cramped huts. In a city where house rents are among the highest in the world, Dharavi provides a cheap option for those moving to Mumbai to earn their living. Rents here can be as low as 185 rupees (under £2) per month. Even in the smallest of rooms, housing 10 people in a 10m squared area, there is usually a gas stove, electricity, and a working fridge and television.
With 60 per cent of Mumbai’s population living in slums Dharavi is an area with a comparatively thriving economy, comprising of over 20,000 small businesses; between them these produce an annual turn-over of close to one billion US dollars. These businesses employ 80 per cent of the residents, while the majority of others work as hotel workers, taxi drivers and police officers. Everyone has a job to do in order to make the community successful; without this work ethic, it would struggle to survive.
They hope to send 25,000 UK students to India by 2020
Through the SIP I have made friends for life, both from other British universities and the students that I met in Delhi. Had I been on the standard tourist trail I would have experienced just a fraction of what I was able to on the programme, and the British Council is investing millions of pounds into ensuring that you can have the same experience; they hope to send 25,000 UK students to India by 2020. Don’t miss this opportunity of a lifetime; whatever you think of India right now, what it really has to offer is infinite, incredible and extraordinary.