A popular Indian folk tale tells the story of blind men trying to describe an elephant by feeling a different part of the elephant. The story has many variations, components, and interpretations, but the main thrust is that each blind man’s experience of a different part of the elephant shapes his perception of it. Our trip across India (which included two elephant rides) was very much like that. Rajasthan is like the elephant’s tusk: smooth as the marble of its palaces. Mumbai is like the elephant’s trunk: in constant motion and flexible to the touch. Kerala is like the elephant’s ear: a leaf-like fan that gives gentle breezes. Add these perceptions together, and you still do not have a complete picture of India. For you cannot say, “We have been to Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Kerala; therefore, we have seen India.” As diverse as these locations are, as representative of India as they are, they do not begin to touch the diversity of the home to 1 billion people, more than 3 major religions, and 22 officially recognized languages.
American tourists traveling to India for the first time and taking the Golden Triangle tour would probably land in Mumbai for a brief stop (never leaving the airport) and then travel to Delhi to complete the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur circuit. They would marvel at the cleanliness of Delhi; the harrowing nature of the drive to Agra; the magnificence of the Taj Mahal; the pinkness of Jaipur; the starkness of the countryside; the friendliness of the people. They would experience an India where people speak Hindi, English, and Marwari. They would see indescribable beauty. For the beauty of Rajasthan’s palaces cannot be denied. Even though thieves and time have robbed them of their most magnificent treasures, the palaces still hold sway over the imagination. The kings who built the palaces found a way to marry Hindu and Moghul cultures to produce a fantastic symphony for the eyes. The women who lived behind screened walls still lived a life of luxury, even if “packed in the harem like sardines.” (Our Jaipur guide’s words, not mine.) The tourists would probably take an elephant ride to Amer (Amber) fort and feel like maharajas and maharanis of the Rajput past. They might taste the local cuisine, but, let’s face it, most of them won’t. They will go to India and never taste Indian food for fear of the dreaded Delhi belly. OK, maybe, they will have some naan, but that’s it, and that is a shame.
Americans who visit Mumbai already have that opening image from Slumdog Millionaire in their heads when they arrive, and that image is difficult to dislodge. If they arrive during Diwali, they will think that Mumbai is a war zone as fireworks blast from every corner of the city. Although there are no official Diwali celebrations, families certainly create their own festival of lights. This year marked the quietest Diwali in five years with a reading of 100 decibels. That is like listening to a power drill for a prolonged period and more than enough for hearing loss. Mumbai is a city in constant motion. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Mumbai is the city that never stands still, except during a bandh, of course. While in Kerala, I met a woman who was headed to Mumbai to shop. She will most likely spend too much money on items sold near the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, but, to her, they will seem like bargains.
Few Americans visit the beautiful backwaters of Kerala. A popular holiday destination for Indians, it is lush, and green, and tranquil. It has the lowest infant mortality and highest life expectancy of any state in India. After the majestic palaces of Rajasthan and the noise of Mumbai’s Diwali festivities, Kerala is a breath of fresh air. A place to relax and unwind as we sail along in a houseboat. It is like walking into another world. A world written in Malayalam and English, but not Hindi. Kerala is my first excursion into an area that does not speak Hindi. It is a surreal experience to be in India and yet not see any signs in Hindi. India is a country with two official languages but no common tongue. That was apparent in Kerala, but that is part of its beauty. The Malayalam script is much like the Kerala backwaters and mountains it is used to describe: a rolling, flowing, romantic language that resembles bird song.
While in Kerala, I was reading Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich. In the book, she describes this feeling of being another person while speaking Hindi and discusses the great linguistics debate about the relationship between language and thought. It is the sort of chicken-egg debate that academics have and that often results in vitriolic rhetoric and metaphorical bloodbaths. Somehow, the story of the blind men and the elephant seemed apropos of my experience traveling India. Do I even have the words in English to describe the things that I have seen? Do my attempts to translate the experience for someone outside the borders make sense? The thing is that as we boarded the plane to Mumbai, and the flight attendant started making the announcements in Hindi, I felt relief that I could understand a little of what was said. That I was going home.