Gap Yahs or Family Weddings: How Do You Learn About India?

I backpacked around India when I was 18, and I had a very different experience to my cousins when they visited.  Intuitively you might think that the children of migrants from the sub-continent might have a thorough insight into the land of their parents, but for many British Indian kids, their knowledge of India comes through the filter of their parents’ (or grandparents’) experiences; experiences that are often nearly 50 years old.  So whilst India has moved on 50 years since her first migrants set foot on these shores, in the minds of those migrants, the culture, lifestyle and behaviour of India today is as it was 50 years ago.  Much of their knowledge of India comes from Bollywood, which consciously makes stories as escapist and separated from reality as possible.

And when British Indian kids do go to India, it is often as part of a family holiday (or wedding), with little chance to explore India for themselves.  So it’s very hard for them to see much of India, or what life in India is like beyond their family homes.  And as a result of common pressures to go straight to university from school, very few Indian descendants have the time to explore India independently.

So are they interested in India?  What does it represent to them?  Is it a place of boredom, or an excitement that was always just out of reach?  Does it represent freedom and opportunity, or proscription and control?  What do they think India is like; what would they like to know about it?  Do they care, or is it a place that is in their parents’ past and should stay there?

My visit was more akin to that of a classic Gap Year backpacking trip.  I’d only been to India once before, and that was a beach holiday to Goa.  I was largely raised by my (English) mother so had very little pre-conceived notions of India handed down to be my parents and I’d (tragically) never seen a Bollywood film in my life.  Whilst I spent a few weeks staying at family homes’, for most of my trip I followed the Hippy Trail and Lonely Planet, staying in hostels, visiting ashrams and trying meditation.  I saw temples and took a boat trip on the Ganges; I drank bhang lassi in Pushkar and had prasaad at Hare Krishna centres; I hiked in the Himalayas and took rickshaws around Calcutta.  Everywhere I went I was nervous and excited; everything was new to me and every corner showed me something new, fascinating and beyond my experience up to that point.  And, interestingly, being half Indian gave me no particular insight into much of what I saw: much of it was as foreign and new to me as it was to the other backpackers I met.

For those that backpack around India, it is a place of excitement and adventure: a land of mystical spirituality; the kama sutra, yoga and wisdom.  They are open to alternative ideas about India, without the years of commentary, advice and, even, prejudice that Indian parents’ might have put on them.  And it will probably to be unlike anywhere they have visited before, ensuring true culture shock and comparable reward.

Why are they interested in India?  What is it that draws them to the place?  What are they looking to find there: voyeuristic images of poverty and medieval tradition or rich cultural differences and a dynamic, changing country; answers to questions of the soul or somewhere to get stoned for months on end in temperate sunshine?

For me, India had always been fascinating.  I would visit my family homes for Diwali and always wish I knew more; my uncle would speak to my cousins in Hindi and I wished I could understand.  On television, India looked like an epic land ripe for adventure and discovery, of bright colour and rich smells; a place to get lost and be overwhelmed.  And so it was when I went there on my Gap Yah.  Now, ten years older I plan to return there with my father’s ashes.  India’s changed a lot in the last ten years and I’ve spent time talking to my family and reading everything I could get my hands on by William Dalrymple, Mark Tully, Sukhetu Mehta.  I’m going with a different agenda and in a different context.  And as such, this visit will be different to the first.

So what will this trip be like for me?  Will I be the Indian descendant or the wide-eyed European?  A combination of the views, ideas and questions above, or something else?  I’d certainly like to answer some of those questions, but most of all I’d like to explore India with a playful curiosity and see what presents itself.  That’s what worked best and brought about the most unexpected discoveries the last time.  And I’d like to try it again.

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About Ash Bhardwaj

A storyteller, travel writer, journalist and film-maker. I am a regular contributor to Huffington Post, The Telegraph and the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. I spent much of 2013 working on Walking The Nile, Levison Wood's attempt to walk the world's longest river. I founded Digital Dandy, a video storytelling company, in 2012 to produce content for brands and businesses.
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