by Jerry Randall
It puzzles me why India isn’t flooded with more travellers from afar. Despite the country being the birth-place of four major religions, home to a smorgasbord of cultures and a vast spread of geographic landscapes Mr. Google tells me that, remarkably, it only receives as many international tourists as Bulgaria and sees nine times fewer visitors than its neighbour China. I find this unfathomable because to me India is unsurpassable as a travel destination, by those two countries or any other I’ve explored.
If given the opportunity I will willingly eulogise for hours about the virtues of India as a traveller’s dream. Often, though, people want something a little more pithy so my stock answer is that it’s India’s energy, its charm and the abundant colour that makes it such a first class travel destination.
For starters India’s cities sweep you along with their infectious energy. The buzz of streets that are always filled with people pottering along, enlivening the atmosphere the same way a crowd enlivens a restaurant. City playgrounds humming with the calls of “ball, ball!” from a dozen different cricket games that intertwine like colliding galaxies. The two-stroke chattering of auto-rickshaws at a junction before the flick of a traffic warden’s wrist sets them swarming on mass down to the next intersection. At any time on any street in any Indian city there is always something to watch, something to consider and something to keep you interested.
Yet if you leave the cities you are soon absorbed into the very different world of India’s rural hinterland where quiet charm is in ready abundance. A setting sun over the tranquil backwaters of Kerala. A working elephant plodding down the road, trunk wrapped around a palm log. The lapping of the Arabian Sea against a coconut-strewn beach. A pair of oxen pulling a rickety timber wagon.
Nowhere sums up the charms of India for me better than when exploring coffee plantations in the lush hills of the Western Ghats. The plantation owner bends low and plucks something from the undergrowth – a fresh cardamom pod. An oral explosion of sense associations follows, a taste saturated with history that’s so exotic and yet so familiar. Suddenly the temptation is to stuff rucksacks full of the stuff, smuggle it home to share the experience. In an instance you forget that civilisations were built on the scale of the spice trade that has existed for centuries to combat the limited carrying capacity of a lone traveller’s pockets. It doesn’t matter, this stuff’s too good not to take.
India’s colour is similarly unmissable. From a flowing sari to an advert for cement on the side of a building no opportunity is missed for a splash of hue. And nowhere is the penchant for vibrancy more on show than at Bangalore’s flower market where jasmine, champaka, lilies, chrysanthemum, roses and hibiscus compete for attention with improbably-piled mounds of kumkum – turmeric died into the colours of the rainbow. Or in Hampi where blue skies, green palms and rich red soils backdrop the ancient golden temples.
But it’s not just the literal colour that’s beautiful, it’s the colour to the culture. India is a land of a thousand languages and a myriad of religions and communities each with their own customs and idiosyncrasies. Every day when I walk through my neighbourhood I see something I don’t understand. Where are those two chaps off to dressed in saffron robes and tripunda – three lines of ash daubed across their brows? Why are they queuing out the door of the Munishswaran temple this morning? When I’m with a local I’ll ask and often I’ll get an answer that spirals into an ever-deepening circle of stories involving powerful gods and fearsome demons. But equally often when I ask I also just get a shrug. “Not sure.” A tradition that belongs to an unfamiliar community or a festival of unknown origin. It’s impossible to know everything about every culture in this country.
But having said all this actually an abundance of energy, charm and colour doesn’t fully explain the joy of India for me. There are other countries that have these things. No, India has something extra, something that no other country I’ve ever set foot in has. It’s what sets India apart but it’s also something quite intangible. It’s what I can only describe as a sense of magic. A feeling of fairytale.
I’ve given much thought concerning the source of this magic and have concocted a number of theories over my time here, the majority of which now lie crumpled at the bottom of my bin. But I reckon I’ve finally stumbled upon a hypothesis which might actually explain it.
My conclusion is that what makes India so special is actually the normality of it all. The normality, that is, not for the audience watching on but for the players in the show. I’ve come to the realisation that nothing here that makes me smile, that sparks my interest, stirs my senses, that endears me to the place is extraordinary. They are ordinary things, which happen to come across to the outside observer as extraordinary.
Take that elephant on the highway. To me the magic of India is not the fact that there’s an elephant plodding down the NH4 to Pune it’s the fact that it doesn’t cause the locals in the roadside dabba restaurant to look up from their pav bhaji. The magic is not that you can find a bright red pile kumkum at the flower market, it’s that the Auntie negotiating for some applies it to her forehead without a second thought every morning. The magic is not that those young men in saffron robes exist, it’s that they’re existing at the bus stop waiting for the 13b to Shivajinagar.
I never get the sense that India is putting on a show for me, it’s just going about its daily business and it just happens that to my eyes it’s a roaring spectacle. The result is a feeling that you’re walking through a different world, not constructed for tourists, but a far-away fairytale land in which you are immersed. It achieves the holy grail of travel: authenticity.
This, at least, is my theory as to the magic of India. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have a new theory, but for now all I can recommend is that you come for a visit, find out for yourself and we can discuss your thoughts over a steaming cup of chai.