Rachel in India

Rachel, a 2006 SMU graduate in History and Indian Studies, is working on her PhD in South Asian History at Boston College. This summer she’s returning to Pune, India, through the American Institute for Indian Studies for the second summer of a language intensive in Marathi.

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Beyond Lonely Planet, beyond first impressions

One thing every faithful tourist carries with them is their guidebook; my personal preference is Lonely Planet. Obviously it doesn’t have everything I need to know, but it always has at least a little blurb about places I’m headed to, with the exception of villages.

R-Maharashtran-countryside-sm.jpgSo as I got ready for my class field trip to Satara and Waii, I pulled out my old faithful Lonely Planet India only to find that the city we were going to explore and its surrounding villages didn’t even make the map. That’s when I knew I had gone beyond Lonely Planet.

R-women-washing-dishes-sm.jpgThere was something enthralling about exploring these places, so far from even the most adventurous tourist track. As we wondered through village temples and walked along the banks of the Krishna River, I thought of the many faces of India, and the many lives that were lived in such dramatically different ways. From the students whom I daily see sporting their Nike sneakers and Levi’s jeans in Pune to the women washing dishes along the ghats of the river in the villages of Maharashtra, I was reminded of the vast diversity of India.

R-ganapati-mandir-in-waii-sm.jpgBut so often this idea of disparity between rich and poor plagues our view as Americans, and Westerners more generally, of India. I’m constantly struck by people’s usual initial reactions to India. They are struck by the huge gap between rich and poor, the pollution, the bright beautiful colors of women’s clothes. Others comment on the sense of spirituality or history that infiltrates so many aspects of life. Most people feel the need to comment on cultural differences such as eating with the right hand or not using toilet paper.

And while sometimes I long to go back to those first few weeks I was in India, if only to be able to see India with such fresh eyes, I’ve realized that there’s a value in being able to see India beyond these first impressions. It means seeing a much more nuanced place. A place where these things do exist, but there’s so much more, and it requires us to get beyond these first impressions.

R-university-of-mumbai-sm.jpgI returned to Mumbai recently to meet with old friends and spend time in the city that I’ve grown to love over the past few years. It’s a city that I know better than Boston, and a place that never ceases to amaze me. There is perhaps nothing that makes me happier than walking around Mumbai by myself. I love taking trains through the city and feeling the ocean breeze in my hair. It’s a city that’s very much alive. It’s a city I never want to leave. Mumbai, perhaps the most diverse city in the subcontinent, reminds me of the many paradoxes of India. Because the truth is any stereotype made about India can quickly be challenged.

r-view-of-mumbai-from-nairman-point-sm.jpgSo, as I write about India, I hope to move beyond first impressions, beyond stereotypes, and understand this place for what it is, and continue to encounter the many faces of this country that has captured both my heart and my mind.

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