Defending India

By Connie Bancroft

Whilst sprawled out lazily on a yellow sand lain beach, spooning rich passion fruit into my mouth and taking delight in this strikingly hot afternoon in Vietnam, I find myself reminiscing about my time spent in India. After leaving just under a month ago I have come to realise just how much this truly one-of-a-kind country means to me. It is undeniably true that it turned out very different to what I had expected and this is part of the reason I have been driven to write this article.

Before my departure my work colleagues found much enjoyment in warning me on what I was getting myself into:

‘People will steal your shoes and you’ll have to walk around barefoot in sewage’.

‘You do know people don’t use toilet paper there right? And they just relieve themselves in the middle of the street!’.

‘The dogs will bite you and they all have rabies’.

At the time I laughed along with them, finding the remarks funny and not thinking too much of it. Although a couple these are plausible, and I agree that this country isn’t for everyone, I have an urge to defend India and explain why I fell in love with it almost straight away.

Firstly, I think I need to say that no, not all the dogs have rabies. The average street dog isn’t vicious and all they want and deserve is just a little love and affection – this can sometimes be in the form of a biscuit. After one day of trying to refrain I gave up and made friends with at least one dog a day. Cuddling puppies turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable activity with no negative side effects.

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I was also warned that I would probably be spending half of my time in India on the toilet. I have a ridiculous amount of pills in my backpack which reflect my anxiety on the subject; most of these have gone unused.

To continue on the subject of India’s bad reputation, I would now like to tell you about my encounter with a Dutch fellow my friend and I met in Nha Trang, Vietnam. I sadly can’t remember his name so let’s call him Hank. After meeting Hank at our hostel we decide to go out for a couple of beers. Conversation quickly turns to travel stories, which quickly turns to India. Like everyone else who hears of our trip to India he asks, ‘What was it like?’ Although this time it is clear that the question is only asked out of politeness; it soon becomes apparent he has already made up his mind.

Hank is surprised by our enthusiasm for the country, abruptly stating that he would never step foot there. We calmly ask him why and this is when the atmosphere starts to get a little awkward. He shrugs and says, ‘I’ve heard it’s really dirty’. Well this is sort of a given, it’s India and out of all the negative reviews it gets, this is one that stands true. If experiencing bad hygiene and seeing rubbish on the street makes you so unhappy that it would ruin your trip then I would maybe say don’t go to certain parts of India.

Hank’s next point: ‘Apparently Indian people just want to make money out of you and I know loads of people who have been scammed’. This one is interesting because we were there for three months and not one of us got scammed. There are a couple of reasons I can think of as to why this was so. Firstly, we travelled in a group a majority of the time and I am aware that solo travellers have less support and are more easily targeted. Secondly, and most importantly, we did our research.

Online and in the guide books it tells you what to look out for and we were prepared to stand our ground. I knew before I left that Delhi is a hot-ground for scammers and avoiding them is as difficult as avoiding traffic whilst crossing the Indian roads. We were only in Delhi for thirty minutes for a bus transfer when we had an argument with a tuk-tuk driver trying to charge us double than what we’d agreed to. It is common for scammers to hang around at the train station and target foreign travellers getting off the trains. Tuk-tuk drivers tell you that your hotel is fully booked, has burnt down, has been washed away by a tidal wave etc etc, just to get you to travel further with them to get to their mates guesthouse. We once met a guy who was told the whole of Delhi was on lockdown after arriving at the airport. He bought it and ended up spending hundreds of dollars to be driven out of the city for somewhere to stay.

I am aware you can’t be prepared for everything but I do think a lot of these scams can be avoided if you have a decent amount of awareness. You are also more likely to come across problems if you stick to the big cities and this plays a huge factor in India’s bad reputation. We encountered a couple of people who were pretty much just doing a city tour of India: Mumbai-Jaipur-Delhi-Agra. If you do this, obviously your experience of India will be very different and I would argue that you haven’t experienced the real India at all. Cities can be stressful and the people there are more persistent and eager to make money from you.

 

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Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

 

“I met a Swedish girl who arrived in Goa and got her drink spiked on her first night’.

Hank’s last point is, for myself, the most frustrating. I have to take a long, deep breath, count to ten, and remind myself to stay calm because I definitely don’t want anyone to think I am being insensitive. Having your drink spiked is horrendous and it is obviously never someone’s own fault when it happens to them. I have friends who have been violated in this way during nights out in England. Unfortunately this happens all over the UK and, being the party capital of India, it also happens all over Goa. The state of Goa is the least conservative place in India; it doesn’t uphold the same values as the rest of the country. Because of this, and the expanding drink and drug culture that often causes problems there, I would feel unsafe walking by myself on the beach at night. Would I use this as a reason not to visit the whole of India? No, I wouldn’t. Hank has a distaste for our opinions that nearly matches his distaste for India. This results in an awkwardly abrupt exit after one beer. Goodbye Hank.

I don’t have the space to list all the reasons I love India, however there is one little phrase which may help explain my deep affection for this country. If you visit you will hear the phrase, ‘Shanti Shanti’ time and time again. In Sanskrit, Shanti means ‘Peace’. Following Hindu traditions, Yogis often chant it three times after meditation to represent peace in body, speech and mind. Locals also say it twice, often to express their nations state of being. Peace seems to manifest itself in many ways. It is there when you choose not to let dissatisfaction possess you, present when you discover twenty minutes means at least an hour in India time, and shines through when a local exclaims with overwhelming optimism , “Why not? Everything’s possible!”.

You will have noticed I have a biased opinion about India due to my trip having been such a success. I did not get scammed or spiked, I only got ill once, and dealing with the dirt became second nature to me. However, my love for India goes far beyond its ability to defy people’s negative expectations. My love stems from its people, their relaxed temperaments and the attitude they have towards life and it’s trials and tribulations. From the gentle hearted Swamiji I practiced meditation with, to the smiley chai vendors we visited in the streets, to the wonderful family who took me under their wing. India is full of inspirational people who will remind you to be thankful and accepting of your life everyday.

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Deceptions of a coconut

By Connor Newson

A few weeks back I fell in love… Yes, this is a love story. However it is not a story between two people, it is a story of a man and his discovery of the marvellous coconut. But like so many love stories there are moments when not everything is as sweet it seems. And for me that sourness came unexpectedly within a matters of days after first being exposed to the greatness of an Indian coconut.

At this point you might be why I’m writing about loving the coconut, or maybe why it has taken a person so long to even try a coconut. After all the world is not so big when they’re readily available in supermarkets all over the world. Nevertheless, love is subjective and these drupes of healthy goodness are usually packaged or served with a delicious and unhealthy layer of chocolate around the outside – yes, I’m referring to the Bounty bar. So of course I’ve tasted the artificial essence of coconut before, but somehow I can’t ever recall eating an actual coconut – especially when its fresh from the tree itself.

The romance began on a warm evening in a small ancient town called Maheshwar hidden within the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Myself and two friends, Ellie and Connie, are taking a gentle stroll down the bank of the Narmada River, admiring the sun as it bounces off the water onto the Ahilyabai Temple that towers above the boats below. As is quite frequent in India, we stop at a street vendor for some tasty chai.

The fire is stoked, a pan is set, and a concoction of cardamom, black tea, ginger, masala, milk, and other spices are thrown inside. As the chai guy works his magic, Connie spots a horde of fury brown coconuts sat on a vendor’s table opposite ours. Already enlightened to the taste of coconuts, she wastes no time in approaching the vendor. Now I’ve only ever seen coconuts being smashed open by desperate shipwreck victims who are stranded on an isolated Island in the middle of the ocean… Hollywood. So I follow Connie, curious as to how she is going to take on this challenge.

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Fortunately for her, the trader kindly begins to tear out the thick outer hair to reveal the significantly smaller shell underneath. Moving away from his station and placing a small glass on the ground where he is now crouched, he grabs the nut firmly in one hand and hurtles it at the concrete below. With one fell swoop a large crack appears which allows the liquid centre to spill into the glass. Then, wielding a 500g scale weight, he begins tapping at the shell to break off the pieces one by one, revealing the brilliant white sphere inside.

Immediately I am captivated by the raw method of fending for one’s self. I am caught in the crosshairs of curiosity, eager to taste the pure fruit that has just been revealed to me. But first, a sip of some coconut milk. With the heat of the Indian sun bearing down on me, the water runs down my throat fresher than the streams of Mount Everest. And now for the coconut itself. I take some from Connie and dig my teeth into the crunchy yet soft white chunk. I am hooked, and the initial attraction is obsessive.

We spend the next twenty minutes drinking chai and munching on coconutty goodness whilst watching the sun burst into shades of pink, red, orange, and yellow as it sets over the river ahead. The next morning we return, this time to open the shell ourselves to experience the arduous method first hand (simultaneously attracting a crowd of locals who were probably judging our inefficiency). The taste is as heavenly as the night before. I return once more before leaving for our next destination in India, uncertain on whether Omkareshwar would be as kind in fixing my new addiction. It was… But only temporarily.

Omkareshwar is 65km up the river with a huge temple built into the bank of its river. On our first evening we venture out to have dinner, treating ourselves (daily) to fresh and oily curry. Despite most places street stalls being closed this late in the evening, I manage to spot a friendly bunch of coconuts sitting in a basket outside a store on the way back to our hostel – one for me, and one for Connie. We cradle the precious things back to our rooms and devour them whilst reading our books.

The next day we leave the hostel and go for a walk, little did I know that my walk would soon turn sour. We arrive at what seems to be a market square with about fifteen wooden structures pitched up in a long row. To my surprise, every single one of them has a basket of coconuts waiting to be plucked. I waste no time in my choosing, other than to shake a couple of nuts next to my ear to decide which one sounds bigger – the hairy exterior can be misleading. I make my choice and we continue walking until we find ourselves perched on the edge of an elevated rock by the river, away from any noisy crowds and with a beautiful wide view of the river running for miles into the distance.

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As Ellie and Connie begin reading their books, I pull the coconut out from inside my bag and begin tearing out the straw like hair that covers the shell. My eagerness to taste the crunchy interior seems stronger with each one I consume. With the fury coating abandoned, I grip the nut tightly and force it down on to the rock at my feet. However nothing happens. I try once more, yet not even a hairline crack surfaces. I begin hammering down the nut hard against the ground until soon I notice my hand is slightly wet.

Finally there is a crack, but not where I have been hitting it against the rock. Upon closer inspection I notice a small hole at the top of the nut, and two other darkened circles that seem to have an unusual shade of mossy green. However, I continue to bring down the coconut with repetitive and heavy thuds against the rock until eventually it splits. All of a sudden my throat is wrenching at the stench unleashed. Thick white liquid leaks from the crevices as the shell falls apart, exposing a curdled creamy ball of mush that spills into my palm. Full of disgust and gagging at the repulsive smell emitting from my mouldy snack, I open my palm to let pseudo-coconut fall to the depths of the water like Jack from Titanic.

Feeling confused and rejected, I try to speculate on the cause for my mysteriously viscous coconut. Why would a coconut be so bad that its entire interior had managed to curdle? After a while we wander home, on the way passing the wooden shacks where just earlier I excitedly purchased the disappointing fruit. I avert my eyes and continue walking until I arrive at the store where I had bought a nut the evening before. I decide to confront my fears and buy one more coconut and take it back to the hostel, hoping the last was just a one-off.

Back at the hostel I ask for a hammer to assist the dissection. I place it on the floor firmly whilst simultaneously covering my nose with a sleeve. I raise the hammer above my head and prepare to slam it down onto the shell. Suddenly I hear a voice from behind.

“Are you going to eat that?!”, a German girl laughs.

“…Yes” I reply. “Shouldn’t I?”.

She senses my confusion and begins to explain her concern.

“Every day people buy these coconuts, and flowers, to lay in the river as gifts to the source of life that runs through the valley. After the coconut is gifted, locals climb into their boats and fish the coconuts back out of the water in order to sell again. In fact, once a year three-thousand coconuts are released into the river as gifts, and every single one of them is collected and put back into the system. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is a sour coconut”.

So there it is. The answer to my coconut’s deception. I had unwittingly purchased a coconut that had probably been circulating in and out of the river for months. Still, I have faith – or rather hope – that the one I hold in my hand right now is an exception like the one from last night. Before I can talk myself out of it I bring down the weight of the hammer onto the shell. Miraculously, the shell splits almost perfectly allowing the shell to be broken off with ease to reveal the pure white sphere underneath. Tonight I will once again enjoy the tasty snack. And so my love for a coconut persists. At least for tonight anyhow.