Central & South Asia

A Young American’s Impressions of India

Steven Elleman provides an in-depth account of traveling through India.
Visit India, India tourism, tourism in India, travel to India, India travel, India, Indian news, India news, travel news, Steven Elleman

© Steven Elleman

October 01, 2020 20:12 EDT

The brief time between UC Berkeley and full-time employment as a software engineer would be the only moment to nourish a sense of moral curiosity that had been bruised and underfed in university. Commitment to a structure and its rules and a dedication from coding illiteracy to a CS degree from UC Berkeley had left me spiritually drained. It was time to rekindle the fire that had been weakly sustained through my anthropology coursework, conversation and daydreams.

Living in Japan and Australia had taught me that travel was one of the most time-effective ways of exploring unknown unknowns. In the process of observing others and gleaning their moral universe, there was a double insight: recognition of new values and recognition of your own values. The new world you find provides a reference point to the world you came from, and the deeper you dig into others the deeper you drill into yourself. That is why I went to India.

Travels Through North India (Photo Essay)


I had initially considered Iran, Israel and Turkey, much to my parents’ dismay. When Fair Observer’s Atul Singh — who was teaching in India — graciously offered me a place to stay in Gujarat, I immediately expressed interest. Anchored to my earlier and more anxiety-inducing proposals, this offer was met by immediate approval and an audible sigh of relief from my parents.

Several months earlier, I had met Atul through a mutual friend, Alexander Coward. Quite quickly it became clear that Atul held and lived values that I admired and wanted to strive for in my own life: discipline, self-reliance and a sense of cultural memory interwoven with a deep appreciation for story. At a gathering of students, he invited us to exercise with him in the evening. I jumped on the offer. Several times a week, we would exercise at twilight and he would teach stretches and exercises, answer my questions and routinely show that a 46-year-old could be in better shape than someone in their 20s.

Stumbling Up the Learning Curve

I skipped graduation to fly to India and, within six hours, was scammed. My initial plan had been to travel from New Delhi to the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IIT) by bus, Ahmedabad by train to stay with a school friend, and a flight back to New Delhi where I would leave the country. I wanted to immediately make my way south. Impatience and total lack of experience proved to be a recipe for disaster.

Taj Mahal © Steven Elleman

I arrived at 2 am by plane and then at the bus station at 4:30 am for the earliest bus to Agra. Little did I know that the New Delhi fog was so bad that all buses had been grounded to minimize the risk of highway pileups. I was dropped off in an urban jungle of creeping power-lines and dumpster fires to search for a bus that wasn’t coming. Within minutes, two men began harassing me and it dawned on me how completely out of depth I was. I flagged the first tuk-tuk driver and asked for the nearest tourist agency — time for plan B and to check personal drivers.

The agent was passed out at his desk. He woke up with a start and instantaneously sized me up. This must have been a scenario that had played out a number of times before me. He offered a personal driver from New Delhi to Jaipur, then via train from Jaipur to Ahmedabad, with accommodations and stops on the way. When he quoted a price, I knew there was a hefty tourist tax but I had no reference point for how much. Without this information, I weakly attempted to bargain down the price, but the agent deftly justified the cost and listed the services that would go along with the package. The power of information asymmetry was in full effect. The idea of a personal driver offered an appealing sense of security. My biggest concern was not the price, but whether I could trust the package or not.

By 5 am, I was leaving New Delhi by car amidst fog so heavy that the surroundings dissolved into gray within a meter. A massive pileup resulting in a high-profile footballer’s death occurred on the same highway an hour after we cleared it. I was less concerned about the fog and more concerned about falling asleep. I was deathly afraid that I could be the target of an elaborate scam — or worse. My fears subsided as time passed and I made small talk with my Nepali driver, Rahul.

In true tourist fashion, our very first stop was the Taj Mahal. That morning and the Taj Mahal were the lowest points of my trip. The Taj Mahal was surreal and dissonant. As a white tourist, I cut in front of massive lines of Indians waiting for what must have been hours. This felt like a little act of neo-colonization by the global tourist. Rather than seeing the stunning architecture in its proper context of memory and story, the space was filled with gabbing tourists snapping an obscene number of photos, committing the sights to digital memory and social media before even seeing it themselves.

Sunset looking onto Amer Fort, Jaipur. © Steven Elleman

There was a second line to cut around the Taj Mahal itself — the white tourists could directly enter the complex while numerous Indians waited in a line that wrapped a full 360 degrees around the ivory structure. Inside, we were shepherded through a metal guard that resembled livestock pens. There was no time or space to appreciate the fine, inlaid stone panels showing tens of varieties of flowers.

Throughout the rest of my trip, I was the first person into tourist destinations and typically one of the first to leave. Thick fog and smoke enclosed the Agra Fort. In total silence, I imagined the princes and courtiers who walked in the very corridors and chambers that I walked. It felt like the location itself encapsulated memory and, for the most fleeting of moments, my imagination resuscitated it. I imagined these little connections to be ghosts that inhabited my mind. Silence and imagination evoked the spirits, and as quickly as they came they disappeared into oblivion again. As the morning fog burned off, we left Agra.

On the road to Jaipur, rural living met 4G service. Looking out the window, I was shocked to see the ubiquitous presence of cellphones and a horizon punctured by cell towers and Airtel advertisements. I was seeing a world that had skipped directly to the computer revolution. I reflected on how they had the same access to Wikipedia, Stack Overflow and the Project Gutenberg that I did. The only remaining barriers to entry to these sources of knowledge were English and an electrical outlet. The veil of geographic isolation was falling.

In Jaipur, there were experiences that offered a glimpse into the past and the future. The miniature art in the artist quarter of the City Palace and its mix of Persian and Indian styles expressed a pocket universe of aesthetics and values. The warm hospitality of pashmina vendors and young chaiwalas offering masala chai was poignant and memorable. One could reach restricted locations via unrestricted routes through the tunnels of Amer Fort. Mothers and aunties in vibrant block-print saris, their daughters in jeans and sons in football jerseys sporting smartphones were a curious combination of tradition and modernity. A mother in a burka with her young daughter in a dress with Disney princess prints and high-heels several sizes too large was another example of the same phenomenon. Being asked to take a photo of a couple, only to realize that, in fact, the man wanted to take a selfie with me and not his girlfriend was strange

The Blue Room in the City Palace of Jaipur. © Steven Elleman

From Rahul’s interactions with restaurant and shop owners, it was clear that India was an economy of goodwill. The restaurant owner won from a white tourist coming to their place in terms of money and the possibility of citations in travel guides and future tourists. Rahul won because the restaurant owners would make doubly sure that the food was good, and he consistently received free food. And, finally, I got excellent, cheap and safe food.

Compared to previous food prices, it seemed as if the tourist tax was significantly lower and the food was always tasty. Not once did I get sick in India. Instead of trust being enforced by the Indian state, it was self-contained in the set of relationships. I made a promise to Rahul that if I ever traveled to India or Nepal again, I would go directly to him. It was a relationship that I wanted to preserve.

It was in Jaipur that I first recognized a very unexpected and pronounced white worship. I must have been asked for 20 selfies by Indian tourists. It was shocking, flattering and quickly sour. Rahul recounted that his 7-year old son in New Delhi had wished that he was lighter-skinned because he had been bullied and excluded by the other children for being of a darker complexion. After describing his son’s situation, with tears in his eyes he told me that he didn’t know what to tell his son. Rahul felt the same way and wished he could be white like me. Here was a devoted father and tender husband feeling lesser because of the color of his skin. I told him that the first woman I had fallen in love with was Nepali, so I personally disagreed with his assessment. Visible shock gave way to a quiet pride. I gently nudged him and asked him to tell his son that.

In Jodhpur, I was on my own again, but my time and conversations with Rahul had helped a great deal. Solitude gave way to reflection and self-awareness. I realized how immersed I was in my senses. In America, things feel alienated from the sensory. So many needs, drives and thoughts exist in the abstract. In public spaces, Americans have an uncanny ability to optimally maximize the distance between each other. If a newcomer moves into an occupied space, their neighbors dynamically adjust themselves in relation to others, scooting over their belongings by a smidge. “Politeness” in the US back-handedly indicates territoriality. Colors conform to a band of pleasant dullness. Music playing too loud, even with headphones, is met by stabbing stares signaling an offense to public propriety. There is cool order and subjugation of space and the senses.

The languid ladies of Hawa Mahal. Originally, the palace had been intended for the ladies of the royal palace. © Steven Elleman

Subjugation of the senses was simply impossible in India. My senses overflowed. I had to use all my sight to track and trace oncoming tuk-tuks, side-coming bicycles and under-coming children, as opposed to total focus on reading, coding and writing. On the first evening I spent in Jodhpur, I snuck around the backstairs of my haveli to find a way onto the roof for the sunset. That’s when the Muslim evening prayers began. I felt the sound. Wave after wave, culminating in a sonic ecstasy. Indian Muslims turned the entire sky into their place of worship. In the US, there was a sense of control, but in India, there was a sense of flow. There was simply too much reality to process — and reality just swept you away.

In this overflowing and frenetic energy, there was a kind of order. This order felt organic in the same sense the body or an ecosystem is ordered: its structures are growing, coalescing and reacting to itself continually. The concept that best labeled this order to me was jugaad, a word combining on-the-fly inventiveness with a faith that things would fall into place. It just felt like everyone in the massive flows of crowds and tuk-tuks was guided by jugaad. This was in direct conflict with the attitudes in the US where there was an attempt to control reality through various forms of definition: money, data, measurement.

From Jodhpur to Gandhinagar, I shared Jodhpur Sweets with a Cambridge computer science PhD whose parents lived in Jodhpur, and we discussed politics and computer science. Arriving well past midnight, the drive from the train station to IIT Gandhinagar turned into two hours of driving around the town, until we finally arrived at the university campus and I collapsed at Atul’s apartment.

A New Contender

When I woke up, the first thing I noticed were two full-growth men, presumably professors, playing cricket in the apartment across the complex. At 2 pm, Atul introduced me to Raj Jaswa in the faculty dining room at IIT, at 2:15 pm, we found that my area of study was directly related to one of his classes, and by 7 pm, I was giving a presentation to his students. Minutes after finishing the presentation, Atul strode into the classroom in his full military attire, pointed to me and signaled for me to follow him and join his world history lecture.

© Steven Elleman

No time was wasted. There, he jumped into the Mughal Empire, interweaving history and humor, bravado and banter, broad strokes and tantalizing minutiae. I was impressed with how Atul enraptured his audience and engaged them in the lecture process. The class concluded at 9:30 pm and the students looked more exhausted than their professor — which was a good thing as Atul switched gears for his political economy lecture that was beginning in minutes.

In the three days I spent at IIT Gandhinagar, an undercurrent of youthful possibility pervaded the faculty. There was the optimism and energy of an open frontier, unconquered by brick and mortar but brimming with an idea of what it could be. The campus was surrounded by open fields on all sides, space ripe for the imagination and evidence of continuous development was everywhere — from newly-constructed facilities to unwrapped light posts and the occasional slag heap. The perimeter of the campus was broken earth ready to be built upon. This university was a work in progress and it was moving along rapidly.

Two weeks earlier, I had graduated from UC Berkeley with a computer science degree, and on the banks of the Sabarmati river, I found an unfinished campus where I met more spirited faculty members in three days than I had met in my last six months at Berkeley. This wasn’t a tired patriarch retelling old victories — this felt like a new competitor, hungry for its place.

In the evenings, the professors would eat in the main dining hall alongside students. This institution had first-rate minds but all eccentrics, independents and idealists. It occurred to me that this must be how brain drain starts. First, offer freedom and stability to the independent minds, and after reaching critical mass, you can attract the next generation of minds, now of a more conventional fare.

© Steven Elleman

I had seen at UC Berkeley how a brilliant and beloved math professor had been whacked for refusing to use specific teaching methods mandated by the math department, despite published student data showing that his methods were superior. When “great” institutions begin rejecting great minds, they are on a well-trodden path to suicide — and IIT was the kind of hungry institution that took them.

Heritage and Havelis

At sunrise, I joined Atul and the main administrator, Santosh Raut, for breathing exercises. There was a gentle discipline to Santosh, and he pointed out tiny adjustments to improve our posture and technique. It felt like he had access to a deep well of knowledge that would not be appreciated in the US, largely because it had not gone through the trust brokers we recognized: government and research institutions. It felt like this knowledge had been accumulated over generations. There was a kind of lineage of thought in all of this, and I was being included. Atul’s attitude was the same as Santosh’s. There was an unwritten and unspoken obligation, one united with the motivation for the knowledge itself: If the knowledge is valuable, it is essential to pass it on. My thanks to them would be to pass it as well.

There was magic in this approach to learning — theory and practice of knowledge were united into a single living body. Knowledge was not a book in a library, a theorem on a chalkboard or anything objective for that matter. Knowledge was a mode of living. A book or theorem could only be understood embedded in a matrix of active and living understanding.

In the institutional world, I had recently felt theory was deeply divorced from practice. Theorems were beat into students through a pretense of self-evident meaning — only an idiot wouldn’t understand. This pretense of objectivity was brandished as a moral club by professors and graduate student instructors, either to redirect blame for abysmal instruction or to externalize angst from their own academic insecurity onto students already filled with self-doubt.

Three general types of students emerged in this environment. The first type had come into university with a fully-developed matrix of understanding and they succeeded because they were already a finished product. At the center of their understanding was faith in their own ability to digest their experiences of reality and fit them into their matrix of understanding. The second type “succeeded” by channeling fear into academic productivity. Intense neuroticism produced understanding bereft of confidence and trust in the world. If the first group of students was a sun whose enormity of trust brought more and more matter into its orbit, the second group was a black hole. The third group of students, which was easily the majority, had lost their spiritual center. It had been too damaged by the barrage of blame and negative reinforcement.

© Steven Elleman

The first group became entrepreneurs. The second went to graduate school, succumbing to a perverse Stockholm Syndrome with academia playing the part of the abuser. The third group desperately sought social and economic security in a corporate job.

My own experience was a mix. My parents are historians with a deep appreciation of the humanities. In the humanities and the arts, I was in the first group. After taking my first computer science class in university, I realized I had to be literate in programming to have agency in the 21st century. I knew university would be the easiest time to jump into a new discipline even if it was initially excruciating. For three years, I struggled in the third group in my computer science classes. During that time, I anchored myself from being part of the first group in the humanities. It allowed me to weather the storm in computer science, and I began succeeding in my final year at university.

Coming from this world, these two mentors — Atul and Santosh — were a godsend. The contrast between university and this was night and day, and this was so clearly the better way of passing knowledge. It is difficult to describe the depth of gratitude I felt. I felt affirmed. The sputtering sun at the center of my understanding burned brighter.

Immediately after exercise, I was off to Ahmedabad to meet Vishesh at the Gandhi Ashram. Unlike the other sights, there were very few pictures or selfies being taken. In crowds of people, there was no sound. Here, Mahatma Gandhi had innovated and practiced his methods for living, along with his disciples. The location emanated a spiritual gravity, a central star in the cosmology of story that was India. There was a quiet pride in the crowd: this was our man. Where previous locations had to be resuscitated with imagination, the Ashram felt alive and was overflowing with belief.

© Steven Elleman

In Old Ahmedabad, Vishesh had a surprise for me. We drove through one of the main arteries of Ahmedabad and walked to the Jama Masjid, one of the oldest and largest mosques in the city. When we walked into the stunning structure, I slung my camera out of respect only to have the imam encourage me to take photos with a massive grin on his face. He was clearly proud of his mosque.

I followed Vishesh as we continued to his mysterious destination. On the way, he insisted we stop for sweets. The Indian state of Gujarat, of which Ahmedabad is the capital, is known for its delectable desserts. At a tiny shop, we tried several samples of delicious saffron and honey-infused sweets. I wiggled around like a child out of sheer pleasure. When I attempted to pay, the shopkeepers refused to take my money. They were proud of their sweets and insisted it was a gift. I took note of the kindness and reminded myself to pass it on to some future traveler.

Vishesh had taken me to his favorite place in the entire city: a fully restored haveli, complete with stunning traditional woodwork on the wall panels, window shades and the inner courtyard. With an immense sense of pride, he explained the process of his family restoring several havelis in the old town to their former glory. It was immensely heart-warming to listen to the labor of love of restoring relics of a beloved heritage and history.

We returned to his home where I was treated to superb family hospitality. Vishesh’s affectionate mother fed me unbelievable homemade food until I was at bursting point. We talked the entire night and, at 4 am, I left for my flight to New Delhi.

The Godfather, Indian-Style

In New Delhi, I was treated to hospitality by another school friend. When I came out of the airport, he was waiting with his driver, sunglasses on despite the smog that clung to the city. We caught up and when I jokingly mentioned my driver scam story, he replied immediately, “We’re going to fix that for you.” I didn’t quite know what he meant. We continued to his house in New Delhi where I was introduced to his warm and affectionate family: his parents, his sister and her Indian-American husband, and the two house servants. “In India, we say that the guest is god,” his mother said with her eyes beaming.

© Steven Elleman

After 15 minutes, several other young men came in. Along with my school friend and his brother-and-law, they were co-founders of a startup and were preparing a pitch for a big investor that evening. I was surprised when they asked if I could help with the pitch.

In California, I had been giving weekly lectures on blockchain technology at university. I found the technology genuinely interesting, despite a majority of blockchain entrepreneurs being unabashed scam artists and the bouts of “tulip fever.” Hilariously, none of the co-founders had actually studied the technology. Clearly, they had caught the fever. I told them I would be happy to explain the technology but would not pitch directly for their company. “I don’t have enough understanding of your company to pitch it,” I said.

I prepared a presentation and, at around 8 pm, we went to one of the most expensive hotel restaurants in New Delhi — apparently the meal cost over $1,500, which easily made it the most expensive and absurd culinary spectacles I had ever participated in. I remember the investor’s bushy ear hair and massive gold rings most clearly. He constantly talked about money and the cost of the meal and other purchases. My lectures were played up and I had to restrain some snorted giggles.

Rather than intervening, I allowed the sycophancy to continue. I was enthralled by the spectacle of the evening. It was all so absurd. The meal was at least five or six courses, each was more grotesquely complex than the last but none particularly good. The meals were an exercise in vanity more than taste.

The investor’s son was far sharper and suspicious of my classmates, as he should have been. I genuinely enjoyed his company. When I mentioned that I loved spicy food, he requested the hottest pepper from the kitchen. He was sizing me up. Without hesitation, I ate the peppers and was surprised that they were not that spicy — I had lucked out. I ate half and turned to the investor’s son and, with a big grin, looked him in the eye and asked if he wanted to finish them. It was hilarious to watch him momentarily break eye contact and bow out. “In a previous lifetime, you must have been an Indian,” he exclaimed to uproarious laughter from the others.

After dinner, I gave a short, semi-technical presentation to the investors, answered the son’s varied and excellent questions, and then bowed out to allow the co-founders to present their company. Everyone seemed very happy with the outcome of the evening. On the way out, my classmate asked if I wanted to join them as a co-founder. I told them I couldn’t because I didn’t know enough about business, but I would be happy to offer strictly technical advice.

© Steven Elleman

I began the next and final full day in India by returning to the tourist agency I had started at. “Go to the agency with my driver and give them my dad’s card — that should sort things out,” my friend said.

We went to the tourist agency and I politely explained that it seemed like I was overcharged for the otherwise excellent package I had received. Before letting the manager respond, my driver went up to him, gave him the card and began speaking aggressively to the manager in Hindi while pointing at the card. Threats were being made. I waved at my driver to chill out and let the manager speak. Immediately, the manager claimed that my agent had deviated from company policy and had overcharged me on his own accord. He asked if a half refund sounded reasonable. I thought it was more than reasonable and assented. Here was corruption in action, but this time it was on my side.

That evening, I was invited to a party at a “Delhi Ranch,” one of the large estates on the outskirts of the city. The party was fascinating. I felt like I was an extra in an Indian version of “The Godfather.” It was positively mafioso. My classmate’s father joked around with his lawyer about “that time he helped me out,” publicly guffawing and winking about evading the law from some unstated crime.

In the group of people, there was a clear generational divide. The middle-aged people at the party were clearly self-made. They all wore jeans and simple coats and polo shirts. Their wives wore tasteful designer clothes and small and expensive golden jewelry, studded with emeralds and rubies. Among the men, there was a feeling of calm power and confidence. The next generation was different. Inherited wealth had clearly gone to their children’s heads. The younger men wore alligator-skin shoes, gold chains, expensive designer clothes and leather jackets. The women wore stunning, tight-fitting dresses, low-cut and voluptuous.

As the evening progressed, a drunk cricket game got more and more out of hand among the younger generation. They had been educated in the US or the UK, and my classmate’s American brother-in-law was clearly a status symbol in that particular crowd. My classmate’s mother left early to drop me off home to pack. She emphasized again how the “guest is god” and how they “saw me like a new son.” While the mother was unbelievably kind, these statements began to take on a sinister, mafioso feeling by the time I left.

The driver asked me for a favor before I exited the car for the airport. He wanted an American dollar to put on his wall. I assented, it was the least I could do. This reverence was unexpected. Halfway around the world, the dollar represented some flavor of hope.

Just 24 hours and three nearly-missed flights later, I started my new software engineer job in San Francisco. No time was wasted.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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