Last week at the Clinton Fellowship’s greatly anticipated midpoint retreat I was fortunate to hear about the experiences of the other Clinton Fellows serving around India. Through presentations, we were able to discuss our projects, stories, and views of the numerous aspects of the fellowship we have experienced in the last four months. One presentation particularly stood out to me, in which there was a photo taken outside of an evidently popular nightclub in Mumbai. The presenter made the point of contrast, questioning what “the real India” even means.
I have little doubt that you are already aware of the land of extremes that India is portrayed as. Popular books like Planet India and hit films, including Slumdog Millionaire, have certainly intrigued the west. They have given a small glimpse of what many see on a daily basis in India; next to an apartment complex, each flat selling for crores, can be a slum where they average family pays 500 rupees ($10) per month. Recently, during one late evening in Pune, due to a disagreement with my loving future mother-in-law, I was forced into a position where I had no place to stay for the night. I contemplated sleeping outside. After all, it wasn’t terribly cold and I had nothing with me worth taking. However, the wild pack of street dogs inching towards me convinced me it was time to pay the watchman of the apartment complex I was forbidden from entering to take me to the nearest hotel. As we made our way further to the hotel, another wild pack of street dogs began chasing after us. He reduced the speed of the cycle and demanded 200 rupees more than the 200 I had already given him. As we pulled into the hotel, he laughed and said after seeing me rest on the street, sit on a dingy cycle, and almost be eaten alive by dogs, he was happy that I had experienced the real India.
Of course, the hotel I was taken to had no rooms available, so my only option was a 5 star hotel nearby. A luxury sedan was sent to pick me up, which strangely enough was the exact same price of the cycle ride over. Anyway, I questioned on the way to the hotel what the watchman meant by the real India. Did he mean simply surviving on the streets? After all, the majority of Indians live in the rural areas of the country. Was he implying that most Indians live a difficult lifestyle? Far different from the experiences I have had as an exchange student in India, I live with eight other guys in a three bedroom house and cold water flows through the taps daily. However, they don’t seem to have an issue with it. In fact, other expats would justify their lavish lifestyles by saying that they experience the real India every day at the workplace.
Aside from income status, I have found it interesting during the different times I have spent in this country how people have attempted to define what the real India is. When I lived in Jaipur, I remember the controversy of Aamir Khan’s Delhi Belly and how there were those who claimed the film went against “Indian culture.” Aside from running down the streets of Old Delhi in Burkas, the film seemed to portray the India I have experienced on several occasions. In fact, the first time I visited India I went to what seemed to be the Epcot of Jaipur, Chokhi Dhani, where I saw numerous traditional dances, camel rides, and more food than I could handle. I remember one person there asking me, “do you really think you are experiencing the real India by paying so much to come here?” This person, who was clearly having a great time, had a point. Yet, two years later, after comparing the photos to the best of my ability, I swear I saw the same dancers at a parade in Jaipur, performing beautiful dances. These dances demonstrated Indian culture just as they were at Chokhi Dhani two years prior, and whether they arrived to the parade or Chokhi Dhani on a rickety cycle or a luxury vehicle, they, just as any one of us living here, have experienced India, whether it is one that skeptics consider to be real or not.