Sunday, July 20, 2008
The United States has replaced the United Kingdom as the country sending the largest number of tourists to India, according to India’s tourism ministry. Some 799,000 Americans — around 15% of India’s five million inflow in 2007 — visited hamara bharat mahaan, edging ahead of 796,000 British guests. According to US Commerce Department, more Americans came to India last year than went to Ireland or Thailand. Let’s hope a couple of them check into the visitor’s gallery of the Lok Sabha on Tuesday to see the ‘nucular’ fireworks in our Parliament. Among several reasons more Americans are trooping in to India is the weak dollar, which is taking a pounding against most currencies but hanging tough against the rupee. New non-stop flights to India help. While many parts of the world are considered unsafe for Americans, India is kosher, notwithstanding the danger of getting run over by our Formula None maniacs on what passes for roads. Delhi Belly, too, is better than lead in the belly. Then there is the fringe benefit of having the mind and body fixed at one of our ashrams, spas, hospitals etc for a fraction of what it costs in the broken US healthcare system. American tourists are typically caricatured as loud, brash, and culturally insensitive — wearing a florid Hawaii-an shirt, oversized shorts, sunglasses and straw hat, if one extends the hyperbole. My experience doesn’t match that picture. Most Americans i know are simple, decent, generous, uncomplicated folk — like Adam, a friend who decided to visit India after watching the movie Taal. Efforts to convince him that Indian villages were not teeming with Aishwarya Rai lookalikes didn’t dissuade him. Off he went backpacking into the boonies. La Rai eluded him, but he returned with other lifelong attachments that have made him a repeat visitor. East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, said Kipling. But Twain, Mark Twain that is, did meet East. The great American writer visited the region centuries after legendary explorers, itinerants, and travelers like Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta, Hsien Tsang, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and others. Like many, Twain gushed about India, but his perspective is American, and more recent. Here are some excerpts from Twain’s travelogue, ‘Following the Equator’ — ‘‘This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence...the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition... the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined...Its marvels are its own; the patents cannot be infringed; imitations are not possible.’’ Rather overwrought, huh? Americans aren’t as verbose or eloquent (your call) now. A US general, who was asked to surrender by an Axis commander, is said to have responded with one word — ‘‘Nuts.’’ Asked about their India experience, Americans encapsulate Twain’s sentiment with a single word — ‘‘Wow.’’ Follow up and ask them ‘‘Wow good or wow bad?’’ and they’ll say, ‘‘Wow good and wow crazy.’’ Welcome to India, folks; may your tribe increase, even if the nuclear deal goes into deep freeze.