Chandigarh – a Modernist dream
Le Corbusier designed Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab, in the 1950’s and I’d been itching to visit since I first stumbled across it in Lonely Planet. It is a large, clean and organised city, built apparently to demonstrate India’s faith in the future following the trauma of Partition.
To make the most of the city I hired a bike and cycled around its vast grid. No thief would have even broken a sweat wrenching open the lock I was given and I used sceptically as I thought about my Kryptonite D-Lock at home. But it seems like petty crimes are fairly uncommon in India; my rented bicycle was fine and I’ve never felt personally unsafe even though I carry a treasure trove of electronic goods in my rucksack. I don’t know if Indians are a more content and less covetous people but at the very least there seems to be great respect for other people and their possessions.
Indians also seem to be more alert. In Chandigarh people disembark from buses when they stop at traffic lights and then weave their way to the pavement through the queuing traffic… yet no-one seems to get killed? I think there would be carnage at home if we had such impromptu bus stops; have we developed learned helplessness or are we just too risk-averse?
Another Indian quirk is that shopkeepers never have any change and they scowl when you don’t tender the exact fare. Change is often given in one rupee sweets – even the cash drawers of supermarket tills are filled with sweets rather than coins! This situation perplexed me for a month until I found out that all the coins and smaller denomination notes are being replaced to combat a wave of counterfeiting from Pakistan.
Amritsar – Sikhism’s Jerusalem
Amtitsar’s Golden Temple is the nexus of Sikhism, the principal religion in Punjab. It is an absolutely beautiful, serene complex in the heart of the bustling Old City. It is my favourite Indian historical sight so far because rather than gathering dust as a museum, the building is used daily by thousands of people. Accommodation is provided for pilgrims and I stayed in the dormitory set aside for foreign tourists. This room was full of Americans waxing lyrical about how they embrace the local culture while casting aspersions on their unenlightened countrymen back home. As far as I could see though, they never seemed to leave the dorm.
Amritsar is the location of one of the greatest travesties of British Colonialism in India, the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh that triggered Ghandi’s campaign of civil disobedience. I’ve come across a lot of surprisingly sympathetic depictions of the British Raj so I was quite taken aback by the wanton disregard for Indian life displayed in Jallianwala Bagh. This visit really opened my eyes to the racism that was inherent in colonialism. A lot of Indians I’ve met subtly tested my knowledge of Britain’s conduct in India but they were usually satisfied when I acknowledged that it was exploitative and often inhumane.
Next I Couchsurfed with a group of newly qualified doctors. As I spent a really enjoyable evening with these cosmopolitan young adults – and also later when I stayed with a Punjabi family – I realised that I had done India a great disservice by not allowing myself to see past its poverty. That some people live in slums shouldn’t be forgotten, but I’ve also come to see that it doesn’t negate the wealth of India’s culture, the warmth of its people nor all that the country has achieved.
Almost all the young doctors intended to emigrate to America for postgraduate training and I thought it was interesting that they’ve entirely overlooked the UK. I also learned that a brutally accurate way of gauging the standing of one’s country is to observe Indian marriage practices. One British Gujarati now domiciled in India told me that American Gujuratis won’t marry their daughters to young men from his community because of the UK’s inadequate economic prospects. Its romantic eligibility status notwithstanding, I’ve realised that I’m very fortunate to hail from somewhere where emigration isn’t really necessary.
Constantly resisting touts made me very curt towards any Indian who spoke to me on the street. However in Punjab I was reminded that many people genuinely do want to help or are simply interested because I’m foreign. The brusqueness of tourists must seem inexplicably rude because I don’t think the everyday Indian realises how much hassle we receive.
Bakhatgar & Bathinda – Family life…
After Amritsar I took several buses deeper and deeper into the countryside to stay with a family I met on a train. Sikhism is the principle religion of Punjab and I found it satisfyingly exotic that most men wear turbans. Sunglasses seem to be somewhat exotic for them because I attracted pointing and laughing every time I donned my pair. Rather like Armenians, Punjabis have a very strong sense of regional identity. Their culture and scenery are both a bit distinct from elsewhere in India; I saw Muslim influences in the architecture of Sikh villages and the state had a vaguely Central Asian air.
I really enjoyed my night in the countryside, where I was engulfed by a tsunami of hospitality. Daily life is rather different to Annalong but the character and attitudes of the people surprised me in their similarity. Despite America’s supposed cultural hegemony I discovered that Western life is as novel for them as Desi life is for me. The people I met could scarcely believe that white Britons do not have arranged marriages and my village family found my lack of agricultural knowledge quite comical, particularly because I grew up in the countryside.
After having consumed more dairy products than I thought possible, I accompanied my host family back to their urban life. They were very interested in the differences between the UK and India. I said that the circumstances are different but the natures of people are the same, I’ve met very nice and not-so-nice people in each country. When explaining that individuals at home live more autonomously at the expense of the family unit, I realised that I couldn’t frame this in a way that didn’t sound cold-hearted. Before my time in Punjab I had never considered the Western empowerment of the individual in a negative light.
I’ve come to realise that my attitude dictates how I experience India as much as what I actually encounter. The same chickpea breakfast that I bemoaned in an earlier blog post was absolutely delicious when eaten with my host family. I think that travelling in the developing world only becomes problematic because of the psychological barriers we ourselves erect. Discovering that I actually am perfectly capable of washing in cold water has helped me reach a point where I can accept India for what it is and see past things like dodgy plumbing.
All of my Punjabi hosts were unbelievably welcoming and it made me realise that at home we are not only less hospitable but are in fact quite inhospitable! I owe a vast debt of generosity to travellers I encounter in Manchester in the coming years…