I began traveling abroad extensively while in college in California, during the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Travel provided me with a unique perspective on how neoconservative policy in Washington was acting as a sledgehammer to the United States’ international reputation. I quickly learned that identifying myself as an American prompted one of two standard responses from people whom I met in various countries. The first: “George W. Bush is a bad man!” And the second: “No, you do not look like an American. Tell us where you are really from.”

Not surprisingly, I came to welcome the latter response. Mention of my Indian heritage made for far more interesting conversation than my profuse apologies for US foreign policy. And this caused me to stumble upon a happy observation. Individuals with whom I conversed, ranging from taxi drivers in central China to Iraq War protesters in Germany, were eager and excited to talk about India, its history, and its culture. They possessed overwhelmingly positive impressions of the country. Over the years, as I have continued to travel, mention of India has helped me launch a diverse – and occasionally surreal – series of conversations and interactions.

Movies and mysticism

We are, for instance, well aware of the global influence of Bollywood. Yet it is remarkable to witness firsthand how Indian cinema and television have garnered a loyal audience in some of the most unexpected places. I recall being in the small and dusty Egyptian town of Kom Ombo eight summers ago. Here, a portly security guard felt obliged to demonstrate to me what he claimed was one of Amitabh Bachchan’s most famous fight moves (I was at a loss, unfortunately, to recognise the scene in question). This summer, while traveling through the Balkans, my wife and I were peppered with questions about Bidaai, a defunct Hindi television serial that lives on in this part of the world, and has evidently gained a mass following in Montenegro and Albania.

While in Russia, the country that reputedly still has an unhealthy obsession with Mithun Chakraborty’s Disco Dancer, I chanced upon different examples of Indian cultural influence. At the All-Russia Exhibition Centre or VDNKh, a sprawling Stalinist complex in northern Moscow that was originally designed to celebrate the heroic feats of the Soviet farmer, I struck up conversation with an elderly babushka. She was standing under a giant blowup picture of Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi, the founder of the Sahaja Yoga movement, and encouraged me to attend a large gathering that afternoon where her guru would enlighten suburban Muscovites on achieving self-realisation.  A few days later, two Malayali yoga instructors – waiting in line with me at a trendy Arbat Street diner – talked excitedly about how their classes were quickly filling to capacity (they seemed far less enthusiastic about the fast approaching Russian winter).

On a more serious note, I recall conversing with Danya, a mathematics professor at a Moscow university. The post-Soviet implosion of Russian academia had plunged her into desperate poverty. And so she began spending time in Jaipur, supplementing her dwindling income by importing jewellery items into Russia. For Danya, India was a means to win back some measure of economic security. She now ran a stall in the city’s sprawling Izmailovsky Market, next to shops manned by Vietnamese, Uzbeks, and Sikhs.

Global goodwill

But it was in that ill-fated nation of Syria, which I visited in the summer of 2007, where I truly began to appreciate how India’s diversity constitutes the strongest component of its soft power potential – far more significant than Bollywood or globetrotting gurus.

In the now-battered city of Aleppo, I met Armenians eager to know more about their community’s outpost in Kolkata (the Armenian College, just off Park Street, has educated many students from Syria). A man named Jibrail, meanwhile, led me on a tour around Aleppo’s oldest Christian neighbourhoods, proudly introducing me as “Hindi” to his shopkeeper friends, who nodded approvingly.

A week later I was in Maalula, a small town built into a cliff north of Damascus, and one of the last bastions of spoken Aramaic. Here, in an ancient convent, I chatted with a local Greek Catholic woman who was visibly amazed when I told her that Indian Christians were larger in number than the entire population of Syria.

I spent my last day in Syria amid the basalt ruins of Bosra, a lonely desert outpost that was once a thriving Roman city. The only other foreigner I encountered was Farzad, an Iranian college student who was absconding from an organised pilgrimage tour of Shia shrines in Damascus. Farzad, who described the strictures of life in the Islamic Republic with a morbid sense of humour, was more interested in talking about the Parsi community in India. He seemed particularly impressed at how India’s traditions of inclusiveness and toleration had allowed the Parsis to thrive, while the Zoroastrians who remained in Iran suffered from religious bigotry and discrimination. It was quite clear to me that Farzad saw this as a metaphor for India’s current ascendancy and his country’s continued global isolation.

These experiences, among others, have driven home the fact that, in most parts of the world, people have a remarkable sense of goodwill towards India. Aside from examples of its growing economic and cultural influence, we can bear witness to how India has – for citizens from Iran, Tibet, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and elsewhere – stood out as a beacon of pluralism, openness, and political liberty. The idea of India has had a powerful global appeal.

Recent news

I hope that this does not change. A growing climate of intolerance within India – extensively covered by the global media – threatens to fundamentally alter how the country is regarded abroad.

I teach students in South Carolina, a state with its own sordid history of rampant discrimination, intolerance, lynchings and violence. Yet even here, it is difficult for these students to fathom some of the news stories now emanating from India. The recent murder at Dadri leaves a far greater impression than any lecture I may deliver on India’s traditions of religious and cultural accommodation.

Some in the media have bemoaned how incidents such as Dadri have tarnished India’s international image. Others have, quite rightly, pointed out that this is hardly the worst dimension of the crime. Regardless, international goodwill, once lost or diminished, is very difficult to regain.

As an American, I am keenly aware of that fact.