Why I Feel Like a Tourist in My Own Country


Why I Feel Like a Tourist in My Own Country

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Acouple of friends and I recently found ourselves in a Himachal Pradesh village. While walking through the village, we discovered a rare breed of foreign traveller. The male of this species – known simply as the “hard-core”, for its ability to run up mountains flawlessly in broken chappals – was attempting to perform some very advanced yoga on a shaky, downward-facing rock. One of his legs was placed in a manner that indicated he was attempting suicide, and the other pointed to the sky in the most awkward tribute to the sun since the days of human sacrifice.

Undeterred by two shocked locals who had gathered to “dekh pagal ko”, the hard-core attempted to tie its hair into a bun mid-asana with one hand and reach for his sunglasses with the other. Soon enough, this act of extreme fitness got the attention of a few female hard-cores, who announced their arrival with a hundred namastes each. The group began talking very loudly and we were able to hear snippets of the conversation, mostly monologues about their respective journeys to India from Israel, and how easy life is when you’re on a diet of eight cups of chai a day. All members seemed to agree on a few basic things: Indians do yoga, a man named Sunil teaches good yoga, and India is where one goes to find oneself.

Twenty metres away, I sat like a lump, not attempting any ancient fitness routine on the mountain or worshipping Kali or making a jot of effort to balance my chakras. Instead, I contemplated my own Indianness. I’ve spent 27 years in the country and not once have I felt the need to put on a fresh pair of harem pants, or go looking for anything in the ghats of Varanasi. Now, seated between a guy juggling three hacky sacks and a girl attempting to twirl a staff, for the first time in my own country, I was the odd one out.

More than a few small villages in Himachal Pradesh are transforming overnight into such purely tourist towns. The locals, who are dependent entirely on the tourist economy, are willing to teach idle travellers anything from beginner bansuri to how to correctly identify the mountain rock that will give you inner peace. In the process, the tourists have formed their own bastardised version of Indian culture that involves learning how to strum a sitar while wearing a shirt tied together with string. In between drags of Malana’s finest and musings about once-held jobs, they talk slowly about how doing absolutely nothing in a foreign country for months on end has helped them appreciate their lives. Meanwhile, the man who has actually lived there all his life, is serving them mint tea.

As she swayed behind our backs, a South American man decided it was time to sing a song about meditation into the mic.

Unfortunately, it seems like once most of these travellers discover the real India, they also discover how little they like having Indians around. A few years ago, an Israeli cafe in Kasol was in the news for refusing to give an Indian woman a menu, and the rest of the mountains are full of tourists bad-mouthing the locals in languages they think Indians are too backward to understand.

Parts of Goa, or what the Russians call “Really West Siberia”, is littered with cafes that don’t even bother putting out menus or signs in English. Down in Pondicherry, a French kid with an unfortunate lisp and a weird belief that naan-bread and baguette are actually the same word, once explained in detail the Indian school system to me. In these enclaves, it’s the same story: Tourists who come to India for the first time suddenly know how to Indian way better than you.

I can’t help but feel awkward when I hear a tourist talking about how turmeric milk is magic in a cup, or when they pray to their bowl of daal. At points, when I see how Indian tourists are treated in these situations, I find myself sharing the xenophobic thoughts of the right-wing. These tourists are actually ruining India with their over-the-top dhoop and healing oil addictions. Thousands of years of history are being reduced to a circle of hippies wearing the old carpet from my grandmother’s house as pants.

Back at a cafe in Himachal, a woman sealed this point with fire, when she decided she really needed to light an agarbatti that happened to be on a table inches from my face. Once it was lit, she picked it up, did a little jig, and fell into an immediate trance that lasted a whole six minutes. As she swayed behind our backs, a South American man decided it was time to sing a song about meditation into the mic. I turn around to face an American woman attempting to make conversation with anyone on the table who’ll listen – “I should probably find out what’s in those pills my baba has been giving me for three weeks now.”

Firstly, yes, she probably should. Second, how did she end up missing the two hundred Osho documentaries screening on the internet right now? Sometimes it seems tourists want to see real India so bad, they end up making up one of their own.