—————————————————————————————————————————————————————-Living in Europe has opened up a window of opportunity for travel for me and my husband. In the past one year, we have been to long cherished places, places which redefined history for me, places which were straight out of fairy tales of Grimm brothers (I live in Germany you see) and places which were straight out of modern fairy tales ala Yashraj Films 🙂 I am actually a genetically blessed ‘traveller’. My parents loved to roam around and it was almost mandatory that every summer vacation or a short break between school and office routines would mean a holiday. The destinations were not always known or something very touristy, but yes, they were all handpicked and the memories always added an extra bit of glitter and shine to our treasure trove. Thankfully, the man I chose to marry is also someone who shares a similar philosophy in life. He loves his gadgets and hates to be photographed in travel photos, but yes, his love for history is infectious. If not for him, I would not have had the privilege of walking across the ancient Roman Necropolis beneath the Vatican. Actually, if widening your horizons ever got a dictionary spin, I think the closest word would be travelling. It is not only about check boxes and ‘to do things’, but the entire experience. The experience which amazed me while standing in Pahalgam in Kahsmir in 1999 (just before Kargil war) and meeting someone who could give Bollywood heroes a run for their money with his looks, or crossing the almost hanging bridge (Lakshman Jhoola) in Rishikesh, the almost divine Ganga Arati in Varanasi, the mind numbing beauty of Mahabalipuram, the easy charm of Goa or the ‘beyond literary words’ feeling while standing in front of the magnanimous Taj Mahal at Agra. The fellow I met in Kashmiri did not speak the language I was most comfortable in, nor did the Sadhus in Varanasi, or the fellow traveller on Doon Express, the random Rajdhani or the ‘boishnob’ in Vrindavan. But somewhere beneath, I knew that all of us were Indians. There was this one common invisible thread which binds all of us together. Of course! we all had stereotypes in mind. Otherwise, we would not be taking turns to go the loo after eating the heavy on ghee Punjabi food in Amritsar or craving for Bengali ‘aloo bhaja and bhaat’ in Delhi/Bombay/ Madras and the far fetched lanes of Haridwar, but then again, our identity as an Indian bound us and stood apart from all other differences that we had. But this time it was different. Europeans take a lot of pride in their own culture and language and being from a multicultural and multilingual country, I could appreciate all of their differences. I always felt that added responsibility of representing India, every time I told anyone anywhere that I come from the country known for its diversity. Both me and my husband have faced extreme amazement and surprise when we have told anybody that “We are from India”. The sheer vastness of area amazes them and so does the culture, the language and the colours. And by them I mean people of Italian, Spanish, German, Swiss, Greek, American or Turkish descent. I attend language school here so I have many friends who speak completely different languages and they are surprised to know that I already speak three languages. India for them is the “queen of all civilisations”, the “oldest of them all” and I steal these words from our extremely friendly tour guide in Italy who showed us around Pompeii and later drove us till Amalfi. Needless to say, the pride that I feel every time anyone say, “I must visit India…it is a dream” is unparalleled. But I will be wrong if I say that all that interest about India is only about the “Incredible India” campaign advertisement. India is not a thing of past or history for these people I interacted with. They know about Bollywood and Shahrukh Khan. My neighbourhood cinema runs housefull shows of the latest SRK movie and it might sound surprising that 80% of the viewers are non-Indian or of non South Asian descent. Just to give you an example of the popularity of Bollywood in popular culture in Europe, one of my Spanish friends from language school wanted me to teach her “Bollywood dance”. She also had self learnt a few “matka and jhatkas” by then. I once wore a “jhumka” to class and oh! boy, I was the centre of attraction. All these makes you happy even if you know the Indian food they love to gorge on is a much more tailor-made variety to suit the spice level of their taste buds. Another growing perception about India is that every one is a Computer genius and very good at studies. I do not blame anybody since most of the researchers and doctoral students in Universities, or the people handling cutting edge technology jobs in multinational corporations are nowadays Indians. And I am not talking about one single face, the reach is far more. And that gives way to the newly emerging perception among many people, at least in Europe, that India is turning out to be one country full of rich people. Now if you go by the fact that Pramod Mittal recently chose one of Barcelona’s national monuments as his daughter’s wedding venue and some other rich person chose Interlaken’s famous luxury and extremely expensive Victoria Jungfrau hotel as a venue for a family wedding, these perceptions are bound to arise. We got to know about the second wedding from our receptionist at our Interlaken hotel in Switzerland. She asked us if Indians were indeed so rich as everybody in that very small picturesque town was wondering what was happening for 5 days there and apparently when everything for almost 250+ guests were paid by the host. She was till now familiar with movie shoots and found them extremely funny and entertaining and knew that a certain Yash Chopra needs to be thanked that her hotel business ran so well. We tried to explain in very lay man’s terms about how India has a rich class and a poor class, but somewhere in between there was the emerging and ever growing middle class Indian who could not afford Victoria Jungfrau but could afford a holiday in Switzerland while staying at her very nice and cosy hotel located in the heart of the city. I further told her how India is an extremely lovable country and a very young nation at heart. Like always, I asked her to visit India which would be an experience of a lifetime. I thought like every time, the conversation will end in a very high and satisfactory note for me and for her. But it was then when she decided to ask me – “But India is a dangerous place right? very unsafe for woman…only yesterday I was reading about two young girls being raped and hanged from trees. Is it in the city? Is it very common?” For the first time in my life, I did not have any words to defend something I held very close to my heart. Something which I cannot defend and I ‘should not’ defend. I could have told her it was a village in a state called Uttar Pradesh, but then again I though about my city, Calcutta and her neighbourhood or about my country’s capital city- Delhi, often termed as the Rape Capital of the country or the city of dreams – Bombay. I did not answer her back but I could hear that she was telling “Apparently the Government also is making extremely sad comments, they are not taking any action..how could they do so?” I had no answer yet again. This was just 2-3 days after the Badaun rape incident and thanks to the extremely communicative world that we live in the bad news travels as fast as the good.
She went on. Her surprise was palpable. Here she was seeing tourists from a country who spent as much and lived as luxuriously as their American counterparts, who were previously considered to be the richest of the touristy lot, while on the other hand she had read in the newspaper that the two girls who were raped and hanged from trees had no proper access to toilets. As basic as toilets. Yes! the country which boasts of billionaires and designer weddings at picturesque destinations could not provide access to toilets for two young girls. Sorry, not only to two young girls but to millions who can shape the country. They were young, one thing about our human resources that we are extremely proud and hopeful about. In fact in the recently concluded Loksabha elections, youth was the centre of our votemongers’ attention. It’s a different story that a 43 year old idiot was trying to pass himself off as a member of the youth. But yes, the election results did show that the youth had a huge role to play in deciding who gets on to the hot seat. And this is what they got in return. We returned to our room while feeling ashamed and guilty at the same time. Guilt that it is the same society that we live in and vote for the people who make comments like “boys will be boys, should we hang them for raping someone” and “surprise surprise!” he finds people to defend him also. Democracy gives us a choice, but it never tells you what to do when you have to choose between the bad and the worse. The NOTA, you will say is an option, but is it? Yesterday morning, a day after returning from Switzerland, I went back to my language school and everyone was asking me about how was my holiday. I had told my friends about some of the Indian films shot there and how I intended visit those places. Some of them had also seen the iconic SRK film called “DDLJ”, so they were almost as excited as I was. Somewhere in between the conversation, one friend of mine mentioned to me – “Paushali, have you heard what has happened in India? Two young girls were hanged after being raped. It is so scary. I do not know if its safe for travelling alone..is it?” I still did not have an answer.