Searching for the Real India

It’s easy to speak about a country like India in clichés and half-truths. To present someone else’s version of reality, without investigating it for yourself. Long before my visit to India, I had heard the stories.

People said it would be hot.
People said it would be dirty.
People said it would be uncomfortable.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I arrived in Mumbai to find a hyper-modern airport that puts many of the airports in Canada to shame.

Mumbai Airport Interior

From Mumbai, I took a three hour flight south to the port city of Kochi.

Kochi is a much smaller city than Mumbai. It’s more off the beaten path, and I was sure the airport would be less impressive. But this wasn’t the case at all. I was shocked to learn that Kochi’s airport is powered entirely by solar power. It’s the world’s first airport to accomplish this.

These first sights of India were the direct opposite of what I had been led to believe. My whole life, when I thought of India, I pictured an overcrowded train. A train so packed with bodies that every inch of it is full, and new arrivals are forced to sit and stand on the train cars.

But the airports that introduced me to India were not dirty or hot or uncomfortable. They were well-maintained, spacious, and air-conditioned. I didn’t know how to process this at first.

Had I been lied to about India my whole life?

Crowded Indian Train

No, a voice in my mind tells me. Don’t be naive. A country is more than just its airports.

What I’ve seen is an illusion; a small pocket of privilege meant to leave a positive impression on visitors. As soon as I depart from the airport, the curtain will be pulled back. Then I’ll see the real India.

Hot.
Dirty.
Uncomfortable.

 


 

It’s two days later, and I’m floating in a house boat down the backwaters of Kerala. The air is warm and sticky, like the butterscotch toffee I liked when I was a kid. The soft tones of the landscape, the gentle flow of the water… there’s something faintly nostalgic about this place.

The boat moves slowly. Time moves slowly.

Kerala Backwaters boat ride

This third vision of India does not fit with the vision of the airport or that of the crowded train. It is something new entirely.

A gentle breeze tickles the back of my neck, just to remind me that this is real. I sit on the top level of the boat and try to take it all in.

I spot a pelican standing perched on a log by the shore. I reach for my camera, to try and take a picture.

But before I can capture it, it’s gone.

 


 

house boat in kerala's backwaters

I wonder, could these backwaters of Kerala really be India? Is this another illusion, or is this truly what it’s like? The little kids by the riverbank, they don’t look like illusions.

I watch as a young boy does a backflip into the water.

These kids don’t look to be unhappy. In fact, they remind me of some people I know back home in Western Canada. I know many daredevils who like to spend those hot summer days cliff-jumping into lakes.

I’m struck by a thought: I bet not a lot of Indians think of Canada as having hot summer days. But it’s true – we do! In the Okanagan Valley, it’s not unusual to break 40 degrees Celsius.

But that’s not the real Canada, says the voice of a stranger.

 


 

tea pouring in india

I decide to grab a notebook and pen from my bag. I want to write something meaningful about this place. But I don’t know how to begin. Thoughts arrive in my mind and then, like the waves behind our boat, float away into nothing.

I want to share the idea that we must not look for our stories, but that they must look for us. The idea that sometimes there really is a curtain preventing us from seeing a country in its true form. But this curtain exists not at the airport, it exists in our minds — and as soon as we pull it back we can begin to perceive a country as it really is.

I reach for my pen, and hover it over the page in anticipation. I want to write something, anything — A SINGLE SENTENCE, that captures all of the beauty, the complexity, and the flow of life in India.

But before I can capture it, it’s gone.

man standing in india

Thank you to Kerala Tourism for making this incredible trip to India possible.

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