At Mumbai’s Gateway of India this January, a man in his late twenties walked up to my friend Stefan with a request he would hear several times in the coming weeks – “Selfie?” Stefan, who is from Austria, was delighted at having found celebrity within a few hours of his landing in India and was happy to pose for a picture. This got him three more requests. And then a fourth man walked up. He had hired a Polaroid photographer to capture the moment.
Stefan was perplexed – “Why me?” I put the question to the seeker and got a sheepish reply – “Bhai angrez hai na.” He is a foreigner. Stefan looked incredulous. I wanted to tell him this was perfectly normal, that our prime minister does it too, but changed my mind.
“Bhai says he’ll do it if he gets a copy,” I told the man. I had expected him to walk away. Instead, he invited me to join in. I’m an Indian, I cautioned him. His response is the photograph below.
Anecdotes such as these – and I collected plenty in the month I spent travelling across India with Stefan and Lena, a friend from Germany – are rich fodder for Friday night hilarity. Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you how we were stared at, spoken to, fawned over or fleeced by locals from Delhi to Jaipur and from Mumbai to Madurai. Buy me another and I’ll tell you of how, in a crowded bus, people twice our age would get up to offer us a seat but when you looked for an autorickshaw, the drivers quoted three times the fare.
In Jaisalmer, a camel safari owner justified rip-off prices as “industry norm” since we “looked like” we could afford it. “We”, because my friends’ company seemed to turn me exotic too, and my café-latte skin was assumed to be of Latin American or West Asian origin. As if it is inconceivable for an Indian and a European to travel together on equal terms.
All of these stories make for easy laughs but cut the drunken ribaldry short and what you see is a glimpse of how it is to be a white person in a brown country. Of how the classical philosophy of atithi devo bhava (a guest is like a god) that informs the Indian idea of hospitality filters through our curiosity, awe, hesitance and stereotypes about the West in a complex and skewed manner.
I have spent a considerable part of the past five years reporting from the Indian hinterland. My travels introduced me to two kinds of Indian hospitality. In remote villages, there’s often a no-strings-attached warmth. I have had hosts offering me everything from a cup of tea to a spare mattress during an overnight stay. In a metropolis or semi-urban area, interactions are most likely transactional, dependent on the size of your wallet and/or the width of your smile. Call me a romantic but in each of these places, even when I stood out, it felt like we bonded. Like I, in some way, belonged.
Us versus them
Last January, as I travelled with Stefan and Lena – both friends from the British university I had attended in 2015 – I realised that a considerable part of their Indian experience was coloured by their complexion. In a country of over 1,700 languages, 2,000 ethnic groups and over 460 million internet subscribers, my European friends never seemed to fit in.
We had started feeling like outsiders only days into our travels. At hostels, most Indian backpackers would stick together in herds even as they sneaked glances at my two friends. Some spoke to me in hope to speak to them but most preferred to keep their distance. “It [is], like, impossible to chat up girls,” a Swedish backpacker duo we had met moaned. “Like they have a shield around them.”
Blame it on the media or call it a relic of our colonial past, but as Indians, most of us are used to seeing the West as an aspiration and placing its people on a pedestal. Despite all the self-indulgent reports of India’s assertion on the world stage, we seem to resist the prospect of truly being part of the global community. Some try too hard, others simply shy away. This leads to a curious dichotomy – I came across a number of foreigners who had travelled through India for months, seen all the famous towns but had little insight into its life and culture beyond what Lonely Planet had told them.
Before I go any further, I must exorcise my demons, too. I know exactly what it’s like to be hesitant to speak to a white person. My earliest memory is of two white women – dressed in salwar kameez, their hair tied up – standing near a pani-puri stall at a food festival in Nagpur. I was six then and pointed them out to my father. Baba offered to talk to them and asked me to join in. I quivered in anticipation but then dug my heels in – “What if, like all my relatives, they asked me to recite English poetry?” Baba laughed, walked over to them and after a few minutes, returned to report how easy it was to speak to them, and how none of them asked him to recite poetry.
In 2015, when I made my first journey out of India to pursue a master’s degree in the UK, I was still nervous about the prospect of interacting with the Other. But my trepidation was soon dispelled. As we slogged on the same assignments and relaxed over cold beers, I learned to listen past their accents and look beyond their skin tones.
Of course, the story of my rehabilitation is rooted in my economic and educational privilege. But what worked for me abroad was the same as what worked for my father back home: a friendly smile and a few kind words.
Biases and stereotypes
Unfortunately, in our travels, when a local person walked confidently up to us, he most likely wanted to sell us something. Such entrepreneurs seemed omnipresent at bus stops, train stations, temples, forts, graveyards and restaurants. “Hello friend!” they would trill. “Where you from?” Then they insisted you check out their wares, which ranged from food, handicrafts, paintings, jewellery, postcards, pashminas and conch shells to ganja pipes. “Come come,” they said. “Looking no charge”. Asked for the price, they quoted an obscene amount. If I played the Indian card, they threw in a “Hindi discount”.
In spite of India being a hippy haven for decades, we still seem to think of all foreign nationals as moneybags. And lumping them together creates its own set of problems, like the one Lena faced after she turned down a selfie request from a person in Delhi. “Why not?” he demanded. “I have clicked photos with them [other white people] earlier. They didn’t say no.”
“Say I’m your wife,” Lena whispered to me. And I did. “Oh,” said the man, visibly embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to...”
Lena won the argument, patriarchy won the day.
In the aftermath of such encounters, we began to focus on the positives. Like how at a bus stop in Puducherry, a passer-by waited 20 minutes to make sure we found the right bus. Or when, in a remote village in Ooty, a resident hailed a passing truck and convinced the driver to drop us back to our hostel in time. That everyone smiled at us or, if they were staring and we smiled at them, they were happy to reciprocate. And children would follow that up with an enthusiastic “Hello, how are you?”
By the end of the month, as I drove my friends to the airport in Mumbai, both Stefan and Lena assured me it had been one of their best trips. Incidentally, we crossed a tour operator’s office en route. “Atithi devo bhava,” it said on the door. And I wondered if I should translate it for them. The promise had been well kept – everywhere they went, they were treated like demigods. But perhaps, I’ll tell them about it when we reconsider our notions of hospitality, when we treat them not as gods but as one of us.