India: The hidden giant of the world

I can describe my relationship with India the way I describe Indian food: flavorful, bittersweet, and full of spicy surprises. I didn’t have to be in India to have the country surprise me. Right on the plane, I found myself amongst a horde of Indians, a scene that, although quite inevitable, seemed very odd to me. However, the strangest thing of these men was the overwhelming scent (or dare I say, odor). To this day, I am still unable to identify why and where that smell comes from. To me, it will always be known as the “Indian Smell.”

India proudly champions as the most festive nation in the world

It has been a year since I landed in India. Many friends and relatives still struggle to understand my decision to study in India.Indeed, I agree India is not for everyone. But if you are like me, wanting to get lost on the streets, eat as you feel fit and takes pictures of anything that looks cool, then India is the right place for you. There are things I miss about Vietnam, certainly, but India has been wonderful for me.

India is the land of festivals. There are festivals almost every day. You would hear people singing and dancing on the streets on a daily basis. For example, in mid-October there is a festival called Navratri, where the Indian people dance for 9 nights to celebrate their gods. Festivals are so numerous that one or two would pop up out of nowhere without any notice. However, the local population seem to never get sick of festivals. They dance, sing, dress up in colorful garments and throw color powders while marching on the streets. Some even go as far as to riot elephants, camels, and horses with chariots on them in the streets! The scene is something straight out of a movie.

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A traditional Garba dance crowd during Navrati. Photo credit: United Way Baroda

Another hidden jewel of India is the rickshaw. A treasure that is often overlooked, the vehicle is native to India. It is similar to that of a Tuk-Tuk in Thailand or the “Xe lam” of old in Vietnam. It is a marriage between cars and motorbikes, bringing the best of both worlds. These rickshaws are EVERYWHERE: they take up half of the vehicle population in India. The great thing about it? It’s not as suspicious as a “xe ôm”, nor is it as fancy and expensive as a taxi. Quite frankly, rickshaws speak “convenience” in itself.

Rickshaws are very symbolic to a contemporary India. Photo credit: Brett Cole Photography

India has seen a rise in popularity, especially amongst aspiring high school graduates who seek adventure and exploration. With increasing trends also comes skeptics. I would like to break down several stereotypes that Vietnamese people have about India and discuss them. Something to keep in mind is that stereotypes carry some truth, because they are derived from a series of experience and drawing patterns, yet it is nothing but an exaggerated fact.

“India is very dirty”

India, compared to Vietnam, does seem rather dirty. The cities are laced with dust, and many cities claim the “honor” of receiving the highest scores on the Air Quality Index (an indication bad air). Streets are often piled up with garbage because there is no garbage collection system. Animals, especially cows, roam freely on the streets without any provision (due to the cow’s sacred status in Hinduism), so it is necessary to look down to see where you put your feet. However, they are not as horrible as perceived by many Vietnamese people. The dirtiness we associate with India comes from photos taken in the slums, which take up a small amount of the city. The places where most would, and need to, go to are similar to a regular Saigon street, if a little less clean.

“India has a lot of homeless people”

This is true. Due to the detailed history of the Indian caste system (something that would be discussed in a future post), many people are left penniless and live on the streets. It is not uncommon to see beggars loitering around the traffic lights. This is one reality that I find, surprisingly, close to the rumors heard. Do not, however, let this be the reason why you skip a visit to India. The Indian government has established the National Urban Livelihood Mission program, amongst countless other NGOs that help settle the homeless communities in India.

About 6% of the Indian population is homeless, making it one of India’s biggest social issues. Photo credit: Vasant Prabhu

“Indian food is all curry and very spicy”

Curry, for Indian people, is essentially a cooking technique, and they make up only a portion of Indian cuisine amongst other dishes. Many dishes are spicy, due to the use of masala and chili powder. However, it depends on where the dish is from. Different states in India uses different spices and the results are wonderful dishes that will not burn your tastebuds. For example, Punjab cuisine heavily features butter, making dishes very creamy. Dishes in Gujarat can be sweet, savory and spicy, all within one dish. What we see as curries are often Americanized versions created by Indian immigrants to adapt to foreign tastes. If you have a chance to come to India and try its cuisine, it is a completely different world to what we know.

The food in India is, unfortunately, a thorough minus for me (This really depend on the different tastes, I do not discourage trying Indian dishes.) A large proportion of India does not eat meat. After interacting with my school friends, I came to know that there is a phenomenon of voluntary vegetarianism, as supposed to religious or medical vegetarianism. This makes it very hard for me to find a good restaurant or even a market that sells meat. After a 3-month beef ‘hiatus’ (again, due to the religious status of cows), I had my first piece of beef in Goa, one of the very few cities that serves beef in India. It was one of the best pieces of beef I have had in my life.

Apart from festivals, India also has a world-renowned cuisine. Photo credit: Dharshini Yeap

Another peculiar aspect that I find upon arriving in India was the existence of Indian “Chinese” food. They have created their own version of Chinese food. At first glance, one would be happy to see so many food stalls labeled “Chinese” here in India. However, the Indian version of Chinese food is a completely different realm compared to what we eat in Vietnam and China. Describing on its own surely isn’t enough; one must get hyped, try and feel this “atrocity” of a cuisine to get the full experience.

I wasted no time in deciding to leave for India, and often such decisions lead to lots of regrets. It is true that from time to time, I miss Vietnam. However, if I could choose again, I would do the same thing. This opportunity has opened a gate of new knowledge and experience for me. I feel proud to tell everyone that “I have lived in India (and survived).” It is the biggest jewel of the globe, waiting to be displayed to the world.

Forget what you know about India. Come to India with an open mind and you will witness a Neverland of your life.