EM Forster once said, “Nothing in India is identifiable, the mere asking of a question causes it to disappear or merge into something else.” Mark Twain reckoned, “In religion India is the only millionaire – the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.” More recently, Paul Theroux neatly summed up the requirements for visiting the country: “All you need is a strong stomach, a little money and a tolerance for crowds.”
Theroux is pretty much on the money, though it would help if visitors brought along an open mind too. Despite regular, almost inescapable coverage in the western press about India’s rise (and rise and rise), the place remains an assault on the senses and serves as a massive culture-shock for the unprepared.
Even if you’re sure you know what to expect from India, it will still leave you reeling. It’s not just the oppressive heat. Nor is it the wall-to-wall hustlers and hawkers, the deformed beggars and sharp-as-hell streetkids, the mopeds and cars and rickshaws that look as if they’ve been thrown together seconds before they screech past. It isn’t just the mangy dogs and revered cows, the poverty and opulence, the deep hum of spirituality and religion, the crazily friendly people and the on-off hope that hangs in the air. It is all these things, bundled together with a secret unidentifiable ingredient added. Go, and you’ll understand.
The reason for India making so many headlines over the last few years is mainly down to its astonishing emergence as an economic powerhouse. In 1991 economic reforms were introduced that spearheaded growth, and the economy underwent dramatic changes. Free of the previous restrictions under the socialist government, the practices of regulation and protectionism were abandoned and growth was rampant. At the time of writing the economy is the 12th largest in the world, and the fourth largest in terms of purchasing power. A report by Goldman Sachs projected the Indian economy to quadruple by 2020 and the GDP to surpass the America’s by 2050. And well it might, with growth over the last couple of years hovering at just over nine percent.
As one might expect, the traditional industries – textiles, chemicals, machinery, steel and so forth – have played a part in this phenomenal growth, as has agriculture: tea, cotton and wheat, for example, are all grown on a massive scale. But the real boost to the economy has been in services, with the service industry accounting for over half of the GDP. Technology has also been hugely important, and the country boasts some of the finest software developers and engineers in the world – as well as the second highest number of mobile phones on the planet.
But therein lies the rub; a rub all too familiar for 400 million of India’s inhabitants. Around 25 percent of the population live below the poverty line, and it’s a line is practically visible and still growing. The division between rich and poor is getting bigger by the second. One place where this is perhaps as visible as anywhere else is Mumbai. This variously hip and gruelling city perfectly encapsulates everything that is right and wrong about India. It’s the financial and commercial centre, home to India’s colourful film industry, and has swanky new bars opening up by the minute and glitzy skyscrapers erected every hour or two. Or so it seems.
Poverty is an eye (and heart) opener: Mumbai is home to the biggest slum in Asia and at certain times of the day it can seem as though every single one of the city’s 20 million inhabitants (although officially it’s supposed to be 17 million) is out on the streets. Immigrants from across the country have descended on this previously sleepy huddle of fishing villages, attracted by the potential wealth on offer. In the sweltering heat, locals flop on the sides of the road, snooze in bus shelters, crowd around train stations, lurk under bridges, offer street food, offer to part you and your money, offer a haircut, or a drink, or their view of the latest international cricket match. Stick on a pair of shades and gaze up at the skyscrapers that punctuate the sky and one could be forgiven for not noticing all the raucous behaviour underfoot.
For many, such an exhilarating atmosphere can be addictive, and there’s plenty to keep visitors inclined to spend some time here occupied. It’s possible to spend all day inhaling the sights, sounds and myriad hidden delights that the city has to offer. In the evening, the Chowpatty beach is a great venue for swanning around with the locals, enjoying the refreshingly pristine stretch of coastline while getting a head massage and preparing for the night ahead.
From street food to the plushest of restaurants, Mumbai really does have it all, most of which will astonish the taste buds. But be warned: the kitschy, decadent clubs and super-cool bars that have sprung up in Mumbai over the last few years are not for the faint hearted and, it seems at times, neither are they for the not-terribly-well connected. Everyone seems to know everyone and they’re guaranteed to be better dressed than the casual newcomer.
Still, at the end of a slightly awkward night out there are plenty of places to lay one’s head, right? Wrong. For a city that has everything else in abundance, there seems to be a real paucity of decent (and decently priced) hotel rooms. However, I found that there wasn’t a great deal wrong with either Le Royal Meridien Mumbai or the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. Nothing, that is, except the prices, which caused my eyes to water as much as a particularly spicy curry might.
In stark contrast to Mumbai is nearby Goa (I say nearby, and I suppose it is in Indian terms: a mere 350 miles south). The two places couldn’t be more different: Goa is as laid back as Mumbai is frenetic. Hippies have been flocking here since the 1960s, and this previously Portuguese-owned pocket of the western coast is still an ideal place to come to recharge those mental batteries. It’s also an ideal place to burn them out: Goa can be relaxing and stimulating in equal measure.
It’s fair to anticipate some slightly-too-earnest rock chicks here, as well as some consciously blissed-out middle class white kids with dreads. Constant, ubiquitous chill-out music tinkles away in the background of all manner of stores, which sell everything from ice creams to religious effigies to henna tattoos. It’s a place that has long attracted backpackers and partygoers, but Goa has recently fixed its attention on seducing package tourists and a smattering of high-end tourists. Not that it has really diluted the atmosphere at all. Goa remains one of the most impressive places I have chanced upon and although I didn’t exactly find myself there, I certainly had a damned good look. And nowhere, perhaps, is better to look than Morjim-Arobol, a gorgeous 10 mile stretch of idyllic coastline, replete with ferociously talented Indian boys playing intense games of cricket, fishermen looking like incredibly relaxed and spiritual fishermen, and the nerve-soothing sounds of the waves.
Such paradise can come cheap: a room can still be found for around £10 a night. It doesn’t have to, of course; for twenty times that visitors can experience complete laid-back luxury. Casa Candolim is one such example, and is highly recommended.
So there you have it: two very different places, one very magnificent India. And it’s an India that remains relatively untouched by tourism. Okay, Goa remains popular, but this country of over a billion people attracts fewer visitors each year than Hawaii. Expect this to change, like India itself, over the next decade. In the meantime, let me hand you back to Mark Twain. “So far as I am able to judge,” he wrote, “nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked.”
A different kind of tourism
Visitors don’t just travel to India to ‘find themselves.’ Increasingly travellers visit to appreciate the spectacular wildlife, take in a sporting event (elephant polo is spectacular, the atmosphere at cricket grounds more so) or to take advantage of the excellent medical facilities on offer. Medical tourism has significantly increased recently: the costs are a fraction of what they are in the US, Western Europe and Australia, and standards are often just as good, and sometimes better. The most common procedures are heart surgery, knee transplants, cosmetic surgery and dental care.
A portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood, Bollywood is the Indian film industry, the heart of which lies in Mumbai. Cinema is incredibly popular here and over three billion tickets to the flicks are sold each year. The films are colourful, melodramatic, bursting with dance routines, and have plots that would make most soap writers wince. It is a hard task to find a film that doesn’t include at least one kidnapping, betrayal, forbidden love, bizarre coincidence, corrupt official or stereotypically furious parent. Western production houses have tried to muscle in on the act, but all attempts have flopped.
How & when to go
The majority of visitors will arrive by plane, with some of the braver, time-rich (and perhaps more romantic) types arriving by rail or boat. Whatever your method, you’ll need to show evidence of an onward ticket or return journey in order to bag a tourist visa. The weather can often be a crucial factor in how much you enjoy the place: if it’s far too hot or wet it might be far too unbearable. Broadly speaking there are three seasons – hot, cool and wet. The wet season runs more or less from November to February. Also bear in mind which part of the country you are visiting: the northern and southern climates are hugely different.