Despite – or perhaps as a result of – successfully avoiding backpacker hangouts for the majority of my time in India, every time I come into contact with foreign tourists I found myself increasingly distanced from the pervading mentality. In Udaipur I was disillusioned by the readiness of Western volunteers to band about the term ‘culture’ with a complete lack of consideration for what the term meant. In Diu, Gujarat, overhearing conversations of itinerate ‘hippies’ about the demeanour of Indians – a totally unqualified and unfounded generalisation for such a diverse nation of people – drove me to distraction. And the competitive regaling of tales about toilets and travel that seek to affirm who has suffered the most horrific experiences never ceases to gall me.
In Amritsar now, conversation led me to consider another aspect of the make-up of the generic back packer – that is, an insatiable capacity to accept, indeed embrace, everything that is thrown their way (invariably after close consultation with the Lonely Planet). I am aware that I may be accused of making the same generalisations as those who talk about Indians and their culture as a homogenous entity; however, when faced with a dormitory of 30 western tourists from all corners of the globe that all exhibit a completely unquestioning open mind, I find it hard to do otherwise.
Asked if I would join a large group to observe the Indo-Pakistan border ceremony at Attari, 30km outside Amritsar, I declined the invitation. I did not desire to be drawn into a discussion about why, yet when prompted I explained that I did not particularly enjoy or agree with overt displays of military prowess, and that I did not think it was particularly constructive for people’s perceptions of the other nation across the border. I had witnessed the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi a few years before and was greatly disturbed by the sight of thousands of people cheering the procession of anti-ballistic missiles. The border ceremony is apparently more pomp and circumstance than nuclear weaponry, yet anything that might heighten nationalist sentiment and further entrench the paranoia and insecurity that plagues the Indo-Pakistan border cannot be worth continuing. Although the border is less volatile than in previous years, still India test-launched its ‘most ambitious nuclear missile’ – the Agni-V – in April this year, provoking retaliation from across the border, with Pakistan trialling an upgraded version of its most powerful weapon, capable of covering almost all of India.
My response was met with widespread indifference, although one girl told me that this standpoint was ‘understandable’. The extent to which she understood was brought into question by her following remarks: that she would attend the ceremony nevertheless because she had seen Hindu and Muslim celebrations and wanted to ‘experience’ a military ‘festival’. How can this military display be placed alongside Divali or Eid ul-Fitr as an integral component of India’s diverse cultural heritage? And why do so many tourists feel that they must see this spectacle?
Grouping together such opposing events reflects a broad lack of understanding – or lack of desire to understand – the myriad of cultural traditions in India. There is no pause to question what they are participating in or whythey want to see a particular spectacle. It is enough that their guidebook informs that they must see it and that everyone else is doing the same. I would argue that this particular example if not a strong tradition, only coming about in the late twentieth century and hardly recognised by the vast majority of the population. Yet tens of thousands of tourists flock to see it because it is ‘different’ and ‘all part of the culture, isn’t it?’ And, perhaps most crucially, because it is endorsed by guide books – the substitute for independent thought. The desire to travel to India and discover and embrace its diversity overrides any coherent explanation.
I do not resent people going to see this particular event; from what I am told it is quite a spectacle for those gora (lit. ‘white man’) sat in VIP seats – all Indian tourists are directed to the back where they struggle to see through the crowds. The Attari ceremony is used to vent my frustration at those who come to India wanting to see and experience everything, without ever thinking critically about what they are witnessing and what it might mean to others. Moreover, if the only thing that is taken from a particular event is that it was colourful, vibrant and loud, it leads to a rather shallow understanding of the country, with ‘Indians’ portrayed as sensational, impetuous and irrational. It is interesting that this representation of ‘Indians’, rooted in colonial perceptions of race, still pervades in the UK – people still want to believe in the idea of a mystical subcontinent.
This is a Journal-Entry style piece by Ben Thurman.
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