Several years ago, a UK based tour operator asked me to accompany a group on an eleven-day tour of India. It was a surprise, as I had never been to India before and had only a basic understanding of Indian culture. Nevertheless, I leapt at the chance. We met at Heathrow airport on a rainy Saturday afternoon in October. My fellow travellers were excited & a little anxious. If I’m honest, I was feeling the same way but tried not to let it show.
The 9-hour flight to Delhi was as comfortable as we could have hoped. We landed early at Indira Gandhi International Airport and made our way through immigration and customs. The arrivals hall was loud and chaotically busy and the heat was almost overwhelming, even at 10.00 am. Outside, car horns blasted continuously and stray dogs wandered freely, sometimes coming inside the terminal which nobody seemed to mind. Young men wearing T-shirts, faded jeans and dusty sandals loitered, hoping to provide “private” taxi services to unwary tourists.
To my relief, a smart, suited young man was standing behind the barrier, holding a sign with our group’s name. Next to him was a striking middle-aged lady in a beautiful red and gold sari. Both were smiling and waving – they seemed genuinely excited to see us. The lady introduced herself as Parul and explained that she would be our guide for the rest of the tour. Her colleague was Ajay – a representative from our agent in India. We were presented with traditional marigold garlands before being led outside to our coach. I realised that my job had just become a lot easier and I sighed a sigh of relief.
First Impressions of India
The drive from the airport was an exhilarating introduction to our new environment. A sea of yellow and green tuk-tuks snaked their way deftly through the traffic and several mopeds passed us carrying more passengers than you could count. One had at least five people on board – none of them wearing helmets. A woman sat precariously at the back, facing outwards and cradling a baby in her right arm. With her left hand, she held her white tunic tightly across her face.
The roads were dusty and flanked by open-fronted shops. The buildings were shabby and in a poor state of repair. In contrast, they had strings of coloured sweets hanging in the doorways and vibrant baskets of fruit outside. Shopkeepers sat on the pavement, talking and drinking tea. I wondered how they could hear each other above the cacophony of horns.
We saw poverty, particularly near the city centre. Whole families were living on road islands and under bridges. Men sat cross-legged in the dust, watching the world pass them by. The women kept busy, aimlessly brushing dust from one spot to another. They wore remarkably clean and vibrantly colourful saris. By the side of the road, a small boy was playing with an old tyre and stick. He was no more than five or six years old and totally naked. Jet black, scruffy hair stuck to his forehead. He had wide, imploring eyes that stared at us as we drove by.
Reconciling poverty was something we all had to do, and some of the group struggled with this. We were staying in five-star luxury hotels, eating superb food and touring in an air-conditioned coach. Some consider it to be voyeuristic. Others, like me, took the view that as tourists we brought money into the economy and created jobs.
Cowabouts and Camel Carts
The following day wet set off for a full-day guided tour of Delhi. The coach arrived promptly at 9.00 am, and Parul was on board to welcome us. She introduced Harpeet, who would be our driver for the next eleven days. Sporting a vibrant, turquoise turban, he was a thick-set Sikh with a permanent cheerful smile.
With him was his ‘bus-boy’, a young man in his early twenties called Babu. It would be Babu’s job to ensure we were comfortable and had plentiful supplies of bottled water. It turned out his role was much more than this – he was also responsible for helping to navigate safely around cows in the road. Cowabouts were common obstacles – along with camel carts and the occasional elephant in Jaipur. Traffic lights and road signs were no more than suggestions at best, so Babu’s keen eye was essential for our safe passage. These were important lessons in our understanding of Indian culture!
Hawkers – Hawkers everywhere!
Our first stop was Jama Masjid – a magnificent mosque raised above the chaotic streets of Old Delhi. Beyond the walls, we could glimpse striking towers and minarets made from red sandstone inset with white marble.
As we left the coach, a crowd of excited hawkers quickly surrounded us. They were selling postcards, calendars, highly decorated pens, wooden toys, bejewelled trinket boxes and bangles in a kaleidoscope of colours. As Tour Manager I was their ‘prime target’, and they thrust their wares towards me. Desperate to be heard they shouted “Cha Cha” (the Indian for leader) “You show my goods to group”. “You see me after Cha Cha – I give you best price…” The ruckus and their dogged persistence were overwhelming.
Everything just 100 Rupees!
The forty-five minutes we spent inside the mosque were a welcome escape from the noise of the streets and attention of the hawkers. Inevitably the same men were waiting by the coach when we returned, so I did my best to create a human barrier to let the group on board.
Having closed the doors, I was surprised when Babu opened the window, and Parul started to take items from the hawkers. “Would anybody like to buy this book of 12 postcards – just 100 rupees?” she asked. “Anybody for these lovely bangles, just 100 rupees for all 5?”. “Would anybody like this umbrella for 100 rupees? It is guaranteed to last for years as long as it doesn’t get wet”. This impromptu showcase went on for a good five minutes and bizarrely, everything cost 100 rupees. This was equivalent to about £1 at the time. There was no hard sell and very few takers. I think we all found it a slightly uncomfortable experience.
Proud men trying to make an honest living.
Eventually, Bubu closed the window and the coach pulled away. Parul started to explain a little about the men and their lives to us. “These people we will see everywhere.” she said “They are not beggars – if you offer them charity they will be most offended. They are proud men, trying to make an honest living. All that they want is a chance to sell something. As long as they have a chance, then they have hope that their lives may improve. In our culture, it is normal to give people hope whenever you can. If I did not try to help these men, they would not understand why. Of course, if they sell something, they will be delighted. If they don’t sell, then they are grateful for the hope they have been given”.
Her monologue, which was emotional and touching, certainly helped our understanding of Indian Culture. Parul was right – there were hawkers at every stop we made. From then on, however, we were much more receptive. We often bought various souvenirs & trinkets – after all, what was 100 rupees to us?
A few days later, we visited the Red Fort in Agra – ancient home to emperors of the Mughal Dynasty. It was a magnificent structure with high, red sandstone walls. From the courtyard, we had our first glimpse across the Yamuna river to the Taj Mahal.
Returning to the coach, the usual crowd of hawkers surrounded us. Onboard, Parul performed her customary showcase of colourful paraphernalia costing one hundred rupees. As the coach started to pull away, Babu opened the door, and a young man in his twenties jumped inside. He smiled cheerfully at us as he bowed and wished us ‘Namastay’. In one hand he held a canvas bag full of postcards & souvenir books of the Red Fort. His other arm was missing – his shirt sleeve hung limply, tucked into the waistband of his faded, torn jeans.
Our unexpected guest passed through the coach, bowing politely at every passenger. Many of the group bought something from him – another souvenir to add to their growing collection. By the time he had finished, we were several kilometres away from the fort. Harpeet pulled over, and the man jumped out, smiling and waving us goodbye from the road. He must have walked back to the fort.
What would Lord Vishnu say ?
Parul explained that she had first met this man nearly twenty years ago. At that time he was a young boy of 7 or 8 years old, and all of his limbs were intact. The boy had approached her at the Red Fort, begging for money. “What is your name?” she asked him. He replied “Harish” – which is a name shared by Lord Vishnu. “Aren’t you ashamed?” Parul said to him “To share the name of a Hindu God, yet you are here begging for money?”
“Then what should I do?” the boy asked.
“Look around you and do what these other men do. Find something to sell and earn an honest living”.
The next time Parul was at the Red Fort, she saw Harish again. He was clutching a bag full of postcards. “Look – I have done as you said. I am earning honest money. I did what you said – now it is your turn to help me. Please let me onto your coach to sell my things”.
Ever since that day, Parul has let Harish onto her coach to sell his souvenirs. She has no idea how he lost his arm, and she doesn’t like to ask.
Thanks to our wonderful guide our understanding of Indian culture changed significantly over the eleven days we spent together. We all had a new perspective on poverty and the poor. Rather than just dismissing them as beggars, we were tolerant of the hawkers and understood their real motivation.
Planning a Trip to India?
If you are planning a trip to India for the first time, taking an organised group tour is a great way to start understanding Indian culture. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to know more about companies running group tours. If group travel is not for you, consider working with a personal travel planner to help you. You can read my article on why you might want to do this here. You can also check out the services I offer on this page.