By Saanya Gulati:
A friend recalls her visit to a remote village in Northern India, where a pregnant woman was about to give birth on the floor of a hospital that lacked adequate space for its high volume of patients. ‘This is the Real India,’ she concludes. A conversation between two tourists in Rajasthan, in which they lament the loss of India’s spirituality and innocence; the ‘Real India’ that they hoped to discover, is sadly changing.
‘Real India’ is a phrase people often use to depict desolate circumstances or the romantic notions that, for them, comprise India – the rural hinterlands that are made of mud huts, and hopes and dreams, or the exotic spirituality that thrives in temples and yoga. Cattle traipse the road, and the caste system persists. The images are unending, and often disturbing.
My real problem with this phrase is that it fails to recognise that what may be a part of reality, is not the reality. The contexts in which I hear it used seem to imply that the healthcare of India will remain in a state of despair, or that its people will remain locked in their profound religious beliefs. The images that comprise ‘Real India’ overly romanticize that which is removed from the reality that we know. The rural and the spiritual become ‘exotic,’ or the objective of a quest. How many times have you heard people say, ‘I want to discover the real India’? Using the word ‘real’ as an equivalent for ‘unexplored’ and the ‘unknown,’ overlooks the reality that India itself is changing.
Shopping malls, multiplex cinema halls, and the explosion of the English language are a part of ‘Real India’ today, as are luxury cars and imported brands. Mobile phones are more ubiquitous than landlines, and the lack of roads no longer means the lack of Internet connectivity. I have heard people comment while in extravagant hotels, or after returning from fancy holiday destinations that ‘it didn’t feel like India.’ Is the underlying assumption that India is rustic, and backward? Why do the confines of an expansive resort or untouched natural beauty do not feature in our pre-conceived notion of India? It is because these elements represent the insular world that we believe only a small segment of India occupies. ‘You obviously don’t understand the Real India!’
We need to realise that the so-called Real India comprises the microcosmic realities that we encounter on a daily basis, be it the images, sounds, or smells. Given its sheer diversity and vast terrain, there is a part of India that everyone is waiting to discover. But nothing makes the part we haven’t seen more ‘real’ than the part we already have. The moment we stop recognizing that the reality is nuanced is when we start to typecast the macrocosm. We fall into the trap of ‘India is this, and India is that.’
Few countries that are free from blanket labels and stereotypes about their culture— the quintessential perception of America is synonymous with junk food, obesity, and gigantic interstate highways! But using the prefix ‘real’ only accentuates our ignorance to the reality. What’s more, Indians and non-Indians alike use this term. Let’s stop self-stereotyping, and more importantly, stop using the term ‘Real India’. Making statistical generalisations in a nation of one billion people who speak over 700 languages, and come from 28 states is not only to grossly oversimplify, but to overlook reality itself.