Seeking authenticity has long been a preoccupation for travelers. Those that consider themselves travelers (rather than tourists), want to capture what is ‘real’ even though a foreign culture can never truly be understood by an outsider. An authentic experience then might be one in which a culture remains opaque and incoherent. In this case, my recent two-week jaunt across India was a very authentic experience.
Before arriving in India my cultural context conjured colonial rule, a scantily clad Gandhi, exotic spices, cows and self-seeking journeys of discovery. I knew of the caste system that arbitrarily divided human beings into upper and lower levels of class. I predicted the overwhelming combination of heat, humidity, people and activity. And yet still I was unprepared for the onslaught of complicated and complex realities of a nation of almost 1.4 billion people.
We spent the first week in Chennai staying with generous friends in a new build apartment block that exists to house consigned business men and their families. Residents have their own drivers who wait in the carpark below. It can take an hour to drive 25–30 kilometers across the city of Chennai. The traffic is slow, chaotic and congested without being angry or frenzied. There is a level of acceptance rather than resistance.
We took a cooking class with a friendly and very well-educated woman who spoke perfect English. She talked about tempering spices, how to make paneer and the long tradition of cooking that is continued by women in the home. Until about forty years ago there was not much of a tradition of dining out in India. It is generally assumed the best food is available at home, thus there is no incentive to eat out.
Towards the end of the class we asked, “how can you tell if someone is upper or lower caste?”
“Ah, you can just tell,” she replied, “their dress, the way they talk. You just know.”
We spent the weekend in a quaint little coastal town called Pondicherry, about two hours from Chennai, that was once occupied by the French. It is popular with the expat crowd and wealthy Indians for its western boutique shops selling local wares and its cafes and restaurants selling cheaper alcohol than Chennai. Alcohol is not readily available in India and if you wish to purchase it you must attend a local government run outlet where men sit and drink warm beer. It is relatively expensive and inconvenient, and every person has a quota of two bottles of wine. On our last night in Chennai we drunk Indian Chandon and fell asleep in air-conditioning that was too cold.
We arrived in Jaipur in the afternoon to a very enthusiastic guide called Mishi. Mishi was a local designer, an historian, had just completed a law degree, spent some time living in Nottingham and had an obviously European disposition which he proudly declared within the first moments of meeting him by saying, “I’m so sorry for the [car] horns, it’s so noisy, I’m not used to them after spending so much time in Europe!”
Mishi spent the next two days guiding us to his mate’s jewellery shop, spice shop and blanket shop interspersed with a few short stops at some historical sites. On the end of the second day, once Mishi had departed, our driver Santosh explained that our guide didn’t really know much at all and was only interested in our commission. We laughed and Santosh took this as his cue to launch into the history of India according to himself. I fell asleep in the back of the car.
We stayed in an elaborate hotel in Agra with a bathroom the size of my bedroom at home. We first glimpsed the Taj Mahal as a backdrop to a bunch of school kids playing cricket. Santosh explained that we were in a part of town where untouchables lived. He explained that these people eat pig. As I discovered later, being vegetarian is largely associated with upper caste Hindi practice.
Although such iconic sites are often rubbished for being too touristic, I was overawed by the majesty of the Taj Mahal. It is every bit as lavish and beautifully crafted as expected and I understand why millions of people make their way there to bask in its beauty. Later that day, in the car as we hurtled towards Delhi, we asked Santosh about the caste system.
“It’s complicated,” he said, casually dodging oncoming traffic, cattle and motorcyclists in what was supposedly a one-way highway. And that is true, but only part of the truth.
We spent our last few days in one of India’s most holy and revered cities, Varanasi (also known by the more mystical name, Benares). This city typifies the kind of Indian background Westerners imagine when they come to India to find themselves. Here, Hindus have been coming since the 11th century B.C to perform burial rights on the banks of the Ganges and bathe in its holy waters.
Our tour guide in Benares was a deeply intelligent man who implicitly understood the experiences we were after and complimented his scathing political commentary with culinary tidbits at various street food stalls he directed us too. A highlight included rich and silky fresh lassi served in a single use ceramic cup. The use of these cups is another way in which the caste system endures, the upper caste do not wish to use the same cup as other castes have used.
On the plane back to Chennai I picked up a couple of books in the airport, keen to develop my knowledge about India as a nation. One was written by a Dalit (“lower class”) woman who explains how the shadow of the caste system continues to affect individuals’ prospects today. She hid her status as a lower caste woman until later in her career when she revealed her ‘true’ status. The other book was a more general exploration of colonial rule and its influence on modern day India. I read both quickly in a couple of days, grateful for the factual scaffolding they could lend to my experiences and impressions.
India is steeped in contradiction and calamity and ruled by seeming chaos, especially to the eyes of an outsider. Yet not once did I experience anger or witness confrontation. There is a certain cheekiness I noted, accompanied by a glimmer in the eye and a side to side nod of the head. There is a deal to be struck, something you must see, ma’am, and you can be sure, they know something that you do not. The price is never fixed, and neither are the rules and once the travelling outsider accepts this, the strangeness of such a vast and wondrous country makes inexplicable perfect sense.
For the traveler, foreign cities and places and people are not codes to be cracked but rather impressions and mysteries to be experienced as they are.