Three Indian boys recently asked a 27-year-old archaeologist from New Zealand why the tourists in India are so rude to the Indians, and the Indian press seems puzzled by why the tourists aren't coming here. Some light on both matters. For a start, every foreign female here reports having had "hello hello" whispered in her ear, had some part of her body touched or had someone follow her and be obscene. In the daytime. No matter how she's dressed. In English.
Myself and a friend were walking down the side of Mumbai's maidan after lunching at Churchgate and discussing primary education. Five young men came up, surrounded us, and asked if they could be our friends. Did we look like we wanted to make friends with strangers on the street, I asked, and pointed out we were busy talking. We set off again. They came too. Repeating their request. Just exactly, I enquired, what do you mean by "friend"? Oh "Indian friend" was the answer, given with obscene gestures. I shouted at them angrily until they cleared off.
"If I ask 50 girls one will say yes," one young man said when asked why he follows and pesters foreign girls. That is 49 females harassed for sexual favours they were not interested in bestowing. Forty-nine tourists, their friends and families angry, sickened. That Indian girls are pestered too is no consolation.
Even the guys get insults spat at them. A 35-year-old post-graduate in education wanted to take a picture of the Prince of Wales Museum. He was stopped by the security guard, whose job it is. "But I was also subjected to a stream of abuse by some passing upper-crust Indian yelling 'bloody tourists, go home', and other offensive rubbish."
Before we even get here we're supposed to have injections against typhoid, cholera, malaria, hepatitis, even Japanese encephalitis. There's the threat from long-term bugs, infection of wounds that don't heal, rabies, an outbreak of leptospirosis, and any side-effects of anti-malarial tablets we are told to take. The timing of the planes to and from India expose the exhausted to lying taxi-drivers with their extortion, their "breakdowns" and their "don't know the address" tours of strange cities at 3 am. Then there's road, train and plane accident statistics, possible natural disasters and the question of prompt and effective rescue. And on the well-worn tourist tracks you face non-stop clamours and lies of touts and would-be vendors.
Tourists now have to pay $10, circa Rs 470, per historic site. Rs 960 for the Taj Mahal. On top of paying for board and lodging, assorted indirect taxes, buying clean water, having to visit filthy toilets and being hassled. Ah, you might say, we pay $20 for an art gallery in the US. Who goes to such an art gallery? And not three in one day. "It would've been Rs 7,600 for Agra alone. For three sights, in one day," said one furious and disappointed Malaysian, travelling with his wife and two sons. "We cut our trip to staying in a beach resort for two weeks. I could have done that at home. And will the $10 even reach the 'sight'?"
"We do try and do the right thing, in a country which is completely different from ours. We do want to try the food, but to do so we have to brave the ogling, the intense stares of Indian men and dirty looks from their wives. And risk falling ill from the food or the water," says an exasperated Londoner. Then there is the plumbing, filth in the streets and people urinating, excreting in public places.
That's when the distressing unanswerable questions arise: how can people live like this? How many die because of it? How come no one does anything about it? And you can't, in all honesty, blame the British. Not after 50 years.
"Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are crowded, but I don't think I've seen anywhere as filthy as India," says one 26-year-old teacher after 18 months travelling in the Far East, Australia and India. India in reality is a contrast for someone whose best friend 'at home' is Indian, whose boyfriend is Tamil-speaking, whose Indian neighbours have shown her pictures of a beautiful country, or who was raised in a predominantly Asian district of an English city with Asian school-friends.
And after being hassled perpetually for three weeks or five months you find yourself snapping—accidentally, in self-defence—at the Indian who is just simply being helpful. To them, sorry, and thank you. For the shy, friendly smiles we do occasionally raise, the friends we do make and the safe restaurants we do find, more thanks.
Tourists go to a country to see what it's like, or go to a new place on the recommendation of their friends. And Indians wonder why we make cliché reports on India. We have to say something positive. We saved for years to come here. After being treated as walking cash dispensers, walking sex dispensers, and being ripped off at every step, what can we say to people who ask "Ah hi, how was India?"
We would really appreciate some understanding of our position here. We are not all rich, and we do not all like shouting and swearing. But we are all being harassed and insulted, in the street and in the media, at just about every turn, and it is exhausting.
One little story. I used to go to a friend's office every evening and chat to the people working there. One guy talked to me but was noticeably reticent. One day we all went out to the chai stand, had tea, and stood there talking. Later that evening we all had some rum together. 'Reticent Guy' said, "You know, I've always hated the British—my family has always hated the British. I'd never met any, I just hated them. But I realised today, when you had tea with us, that you're just the same as us." Long live enlightenment.
And Indian tea.
(The author is a British academic based in Mumbai.)
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