When someone mentions the word “India”, your mind probably jumps to spicy food, hot summer days, tandoori naan, butter chicken, the Himalayas, computer engineers, Mahatma Gandhi, Bollywood and probably even traffic jams, rickshaws and call centers.
It is safe to say that most people in the educated western world have heard of India. It is the seventh largest in physical size, and second in population in the world. But how much do you really know about it.
Did you know that 1 out of every 7 people in the world is an Indian? Bursting with culture, traditions, religions and languages, it is a land like no other. Each state is uniquely different, with its own language, ethnic heritage, dress and cuisine.
India has had an enchanting past, filled with kings, wars, invasions, conquests and colonization. Yet, present day India is simultaneously stuck in its glorified history, while also moving jet speed ahead in the modern world.
I moved to the United States 20 years ago. Every couple of years, I make my way back to my birth country. Each passing year, I see things differently, not only in India, but also in the US. Immediately after my trip, the US seems bland, almost devoid of meaning, depth and purpose. But India also seems intrusive, devoid of personal space, with its rigid rules, extravagance and over-indulgence.
When I say that India is a land of stark contradictions, I mean your mind goes into hyper-drive, what with all the crazy information that hits you all at once, when you’re there.
All four corners of India are astonishingly different from one another. (Not like in the US, where pretty much all cities have the same feel and look.) Delhi is the capital of India and you can find some of the wealthiest people here, with castle-like homes, grandiose gardens, living a secure lavish life inside their intimidating gates. The people living inside these homes will size you up just as you put one foot through the door. They will have assessed your bank balance, education, social status and corporate success and will treat you accordingly. Their smiles will be calculated precisely with the level of warmth you deserve based on their judgment of you.
However, just outside these gates, you get to see a completely different world… with people practically living on the streets. The contrast is something that will blow your mind.
As soon as you travel from Delhi to another part of the country, especially a smaller city, you will see a much simpler life, people humbly living in small cozy houses. Despite the poverty, and the lack of basic amenities like indoor plumbing and running water, they will look surprisingly happy and content, flashing the most genuine smiles you will ever see. Even with their meager accommodations, the doors to their hearts and homes will be open and inviting.
You will see statues of Durga, the fierce warrior Goddess being idolized and revered with flowers and fire ceremonies. But ordinary living breathing women are still second-class citizens, with their lives plagued with dowries, drama and abuse.
You will see middle-class gentry haggling vehemently with impoverished street hawkers for a couple of cents. Yet those very people will have no trouble slipping through hundreds on rupees into temple donation boxes.
The insides of Indian homes are generally extremely clean. Shoes are not allowed inside homes as they might bring dirt along with them, and pets are strictly kept outside. Yet, the same rules of cleanliness do not apply to roads and streets, with cows and farm animals freely wandering and defecating on roads.
The silver lining here is that over the years, I have seen a shift. With education, the internet and a smartphone in every hand, mindsets are changing, and women are empowering themselves. Community needs have made space for individual privacy. As modern ideologies slowly penetrate India, these contradictions are giving way to logic, common sense and respect.
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