A South African in West Bengal, India

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

The quotation mentioned above by Mark Twain is the archetypal and accurate summary of my recent trip to, and experience in India. Even though the modern South African, and global netizen professes not to be bothered by religion, culture, and race, it is a very often a different story in practice. As a result of South Africa’s sordid and embarrassing history, the legacy of Apartheid left generations of law-abiding citizens who are too nervous to interact with other races and religions. We can work together, even socialize on the same level, but at the end of the day, we go home to our own little enclaves.

Therefore, if I am brutally honest with myself, I had some serious fears about the legal and religious ramifications of visiting a country that is not only a different religion, race, and culture to me, but is located on the other side of the Indian Ocean.  I am sure that many of these fears were communicated to my host family, friends, and business partners during the many conversations before I left. However, I was reassured time and time again that everything would work out. And… to be honest, what is life without a little adventure.

Of course, at the outset of this article, it is easy to see my prejudices and lack of understanding of other cultures. Needless to say, by the end of my trip, if I was racist, I am no longer, if I was prejudiced against different cultures and religion, I am no longer. And while, I am grateful to my hosts, and now family, for their kind attention that they paid to my health and wellbeing, I am the most thankful for the opportunity they afforded to me to become part of their family and see life from a different point of view.

India: The country

India, as a whole, is a place of contradictions. Arguably, it must be one of the dirtiest countries in the world. The traffic on the roads seems chaotic and out of control to the uninformed observer. A country where rubbish is just thrown on the sides of the roads, and cattle, goats, and street dogs are everywhere on the road and next to the roads.

Additionally, according to 2016 statistics, India’s air pollution is now higher than China’s and up to 3000 people die from the polluted air per day. Can you imagine the impact of acid rain on the buildings in the cities, villages, and towns? No wonder they look a bit run down and dirty.

India: The people

However, as the English idiom states: “Never judge a book by its cover!”

The West Bengali people are the most amazing, humble, and gracious people I have ever met. In fact, I cannot find the words to describe them. Their homes are simple and humble according to Western standards; however, I believe that the Western world should emulate them rather than chase after possessions. I’m also not advocating giving everything away and living on the street. It’s difficult to describe, but it is more a mindset than anything else. Their priorities are different. They might believe that the Western standard is the desired standard; however, it is the other way around.

They emphasize family and friends over the accumulation of possessions. I was surrounded by friends and relatives all of the time. We played Chess and Business (a strategy game similar to Monopoly) together. The food was simple but delicious.

My hosts and business partners went out of their way to make me feel at home and to look after me. It was the Monsoon season so they did their best to make sure I stayed in an air-conditioned environment as much as possible. They pandered to my vegetarian diet. I didn’t eat street food, only ate in roadside cafés that were clean and hygienic, drank bottled or RO water, and they made the many cups of coffee per day that I drink. I woke up, and someone was there to ask “coffee?” And before I went to bed, the same question “coffee?” was asked. In fact, I did not get the dreaded stomach bug that visitors to India are known to get, and there is no reason other than the care they took to make sure I ate healthy food.

India: The Hari Krishna Temple at Iskon, Mayapur

The one day we went on an epic adventure to visit the largest temple in India (if not the world). The aim of this center is to be the spiritual capital of the world and to promote the Hari Krishna beliefs throughout the world. The physical temple and surrounding compound is beautiful – something that can only be appreciated by visiting. However, my visit there highlighted the most obvious case of racism and prejudice that I have seen for a very long time.

                                          Image by : Leigh at Mayapur

Additionally, because of its proximity to West Bengal’s border countries such as China, Bangladesh, and Nepal, the border police and army are very visible, especially at night. From what I understand (and I don’t really understand the political machinations between India and her neighbors), there is a high-risk of foreigners being captured and held ransom by groups that are opposed to the Indian government.

When my travel companions and I entered the Iskon compound, we were met by security. I was carrying a day pack that was full; therefore, it would have made sense that the bag should have been searched. It wasn’t. I was greeted effusively while my companions were ignored. They were searched, I wasn’t. When we toured the temple and the surrounding grounds, I was greeted all the time, and my companions were ignored. The assumption was that I have oodles of money to donate to the Iskon temple and its cause, while my friends didn’t have anything because they are Indian. If only they knew the truth!

Final words

There is a lot more to say about my visit to West Bengal, and I will write more about it later. However, my heartfelt and grateful thanks go to my new Indian family. Mom, Subha, Lata, little Sri, Goldi, Sumana and everyone else, thank-you for opening your hearts to me, and allowing me to experience your way of life. Thank-you for looking after me and making me feel so welcome. Your home has become my home, and I can’t wait until I see you all again.

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