The Real India

“You said you wanted to see ‘Real India’, Mister David. Here it is.”

“Well, here’s a bit of the ‘Real America’ too, son (hands Jamal a $100 note).”

Much has been made of Slumdog Millionaire and its international success. Everybody has something to say about the Oscar-winning Best Picture. But this short scene has quietly generated plenty of discussion for its not-so-subtle message on poverty voyeurism and slightly more subtle allusion to foreign “aid”.  

Poverty voyeurism is prevalent all over the world, and often the avid traveller walks a fine line every day. He or she will not likely realise it until they are on the wrong side of that line. They are tired of the McDonald’s Happy Meal version offered by their hotel’s organised bus tour. They want to see “real India”. And fair enough to them. Tourism, rather than flourishing and exhibiting one’s own culture, often ends up cheapening it by packaging it into a box which Westerners can understand and tolerate. In short, they know what we generally go for. But then there are the dissenters. They start to realise that what they are seeing seems a little too All-American. They feel like they’re being lied to. They want to see real India. But what is “real India”? Does it exist in Mumbai, India’s Bollywoodland, where dreams come true?

Is it in Chennai, where India’s tech industry propels the exponentially growing middle class? Or is it in the slums of New Delhi, visible upon entry for every train-riding visitor to see in all its “glory”? This fine line is easily found on the old tracks of India’s railways, where personal introspection meets Real India.  

Before he was a Mahatma (title meaning “Great Soul” in Hindi), Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi rode these infamous rails in order to see the Real India he had left so long before for his studies and career as a barrister, in England and South Africa, respectively. By this time, he had received a certain renown for his work for the rights of indentured ex-patriot Indian workers in South Africa. Despite his status, however, MK Ghandi was adamant about riding in the third class cars, in order to get a real appreciation of the troubles of the people. Today, the third class cars are no longer available, and the lowest and cheapest seat available is a seat on the sleeper class cars. But the name change is simply that, and one cannot really imagine that there has been much change, if any, to this proverbial “chariot of the people”. Seats are tiered, wooden benches, which hang down from the wall by chains so rusty one can’t help but feel concern for their fellow passengers on the lower level. Each bench has a long blue cushion, which look like they were just pulled off a 1979 Dodge Caravan that had been sitting in the Rhajastani desert for the past 30 years. These benches, though supposed to seat three, will often seat five to six at a time, as train jumpers make their way to the sleeper cars, where they are less likely to be hassled for tickets. The bathrooms can be accurately described as a hole in the floor, although there are usually 2 wooden planks to keep your feet dry.

In his auto-biography, Ghandi himself wrote about the woes of third class passengers and that he “had experiences of third class travelling which, if I wrote them all down, would easily fill a volume”. However, he later proclaimed his “profound regret that physical incapacity should have compelled me to give up third class travelling”, leading one to believe that despite all its negatives, Ghandi had seen some merit in travelling via this woeful medium.

Ghandi was most certainly not a poverty voyeur, and he certainly was a man of means, even without his stature. So what was it that made him declare such remorse? Well, in today’s sleeper class cars, the less-than-opulent nature of its accommodation is something that the average westerner might have trouble ignoring. However, one of the many merits of such confined travel is found in the very people you might find yourself intimately seated next to. Though it is true that, in sleeper class, you are much less likely to find fellow commuters who speak English, don’t think that you need to ride cushy, air-conditioned first class cars to find stimulating conversation. English is still truly a status language of the elite in India, but with an estimated 100-350 million English speakers in the country, you are bound to come upon a few people to converse with, and you won’t find a more random cross-section of people than on a trans-India tour on the rails.

Another merit of riding sleeper class are the sumptuous eatables that one can only find out on the street stalls. At just about every stop, the train cars are bombarded with entrepreneurs of all sorts. The mere sight of these greasy cardboard boxes were the bell to my Pavlovian dog. Samosas and Sambusas of all types of filling and chutney, curries with even more curious meats, and a plethora of nuts, fruits and vegetables filled the cars with so much scintillating flavour, it was enough to wake me from the deepest of slumbers on the overnight trains.
Having never ridden the plush accommodations of the first class, one could say that I have some bias to my own experience. This can’t be argued. But that doesn’t take away from the many reasons for riding in the lowest class. Sure, you may find palatably prepared meals in the upper class, but not to the same degree of multifariousness that jumps on board at leisure at every stop across India. If a group of young food runners carrying their delicacies came through the assigned seats of first class, they would undoubtedly find themselves jettisoned back out to their stalls at the station before the passengers would even have a chance to smell their tantalizing aromas.

Many bring up the relative safety of the first class cabins, and again, there really is no argument there. But the sleeper class cars are not exactly crime-filled slums either. The patrons of sleeper class may be of lesser means, but that does not make them criminals. Regarding demographics, many of the travellers are part of the enormous, ever-growing middle class of India, and are often doing the same thing you are, which is touring the vast lands of India, usually with their families. There are tons of people packed into these cars, and no one is stupid enough to do anything serious in front of such a large group. Your fellow passengers would more than likely jump to your aid, rather than join in on the act. So if you are worried about having your wallet or purse stolen, be smart about it. Don’t break out a wad of all your cash every time you need to pay for a 50 cent curry. If it doesn’t make sense to do it at home, it probably doesn’t make sense to do it there either.

My own sojourn was, at first, one of circumstance. I did not come to follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned Mahatma, to discover and subsequently attempt to resolve  all of India’s problems. I did not come because I was tired of the life of the upper class and wanted to see what “the other side lived like”. Far from it; my former place of residence was in a leprosy hospital, situated between two slums. Simply put, I was, and still am, a poor student. I, like many, live off the mercy of a bank’s fluctuating interest rates. The discrepancy between first class and sleeper class tickets differs from city to city, village to village, but it is often exponential, rather than summative.

Travelling in this manner allowed me to taste more of India, see more of India, and best of all, speak with more of India. I rode nearly 80 hours on the rails, in a matter of weeks, and in that time, was able to play impromptu cricket in Bangalore, meditate in the empty side chambers of the sacred Sree Meenakshi Temple, howl to a blue moon in the baron desert of Rajasthan, relish the flavours of New Delhi, and even marvel at the imposing tourist trap that is the Taj Mahal.

The experience of sitting with your legs hanging out the doors, watching the beautiful landscape transform before your eyes, is enough of a draw for most. But what travelling Sleeper Class affords the typical cash-strapped student is the chance to see as much of “real India” as one can in a short amount of time, because, for the impoverished vagabond, the flight usually empties the bank. Claims of authenticity are always tricky, especially when throwing around terms like “real India”. Living first class (and not just in trains) can show you an India that many Indians haven’t even seen. Travelling through a country with substantial poverty can lead one to believe that the only legitimate experience one can have in it is to be exposed to the same poverty. Is that what “real India” is? A simplified beacon for destitution?
To assume so is to marginalise. So when you decide to jump ship from the Range Rover culture of tourism today, remember to think about your motivations. You just might be the newest proponent of poverty voyeurism.