Back to my motherland

India is a challenging land: tranquil yet chaotic, beautiful yet shocking, rich yet staggeringly poor. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown finds a visit to the home of her ancestors a trying yet uplifting experience

Never mind the heat and dust, the spices and colourful hordes, it was the fantastic buzz that hit straight away and quickened the pulse. I was in India this April to deliver a couple of lectures and then have a break with my husband and young daughter. As we landed in Mumbai, electioneering was well under way in the world's biggest and most complex democratic nation. The country was especially charged up, partly because they take voting very seriously, but more because Indians are becoming keenly aware of their manifest destiny. India, together with China, Singapore and other eastern nations, is set to become a potent economic engine in the globalised world and the power of the West will inevitably be unsettled by these phenomenal advances. From our first day it became obvious that there was no point in retreating into a sybarite holiday mood. I knew we would love the beautiful places and find it hard to reconcile ourselves to the poverty. But the sense of history in the making felt like an aphrodisiac

Never mind the heat and dust, the spices and colourful hordes, it was the fantastic buzz that hit straight away and quickened the pulse. I was in India this April to deliver a couple of lectures and then have a break with my husband and young daughter. As we landed in Mumbai, electioneering was well under way in the world's biggest and most complex democratic nation. The country was especially charged up, partly because they take voting very seriously, but more because Indians are becoming keenly aware of their manifest destiny. India, together with China, Singapore and other eastern nations, is set to become a potent economic engine in the globalised world and the power of the West will inevitably be unsettled by these phenomenal advances. From our first day it became obvious that there was no point in retreating into a sybarite holiday mood. I knew we would love the beautiful places and find it hard to reconcile ourselves to the poverty. But the sense of history in the making felt like an aphrodisiac and gave a massive boost to everything.

The ruling Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has benefited from the burst of economic energy that followed the economic liberalisation initiated by Rajeev Gandhi just before he was assassinated. "Shining India" was their slogan and the successful in India are indeed glowing, burning with unstoppable creativity and optimism. Indian products, popular culture and influence have spread around the globe - glass towers fill the cityscapes, luxury goods and lifestyle obsessions bloat the lives of the middle classes and the fabulously rich. Stupid prices are charged for "designer" Indian clothes (modelled by breathtakingly beautiful men and women) aimed at rapacious and competitive fashionistas.

Successful Indians boast that they have a third of the world's software engineers and that the economy is booming. But they fail abjectly to recognise the spreading destitution around them. As Arundhati Roy writes: "Outside this circle of light, the past five years has seen the most violent increase in rural-urban poverty since independence." The rights of ordinary women, too, have been crushed further - dowry deaths, female foeticide and forced marriages are rife in the midst of a nation marching into modernity.

There were spasms of guilt as we were forced, quite properly, to confront inconceivable suffering - suckling babies and their emaciated mothers both too weak to make a noise; vegetable carts lined up at night with rows of beatific, childish faces asleep while clouds of mosquitoes feasted on their uncovered bodies. And all the time middle-class friends - decent people in other ways - were telling us not to "spoil" the poor by giving them the equivalent of 10p. (We did anyway. We had changed £200 for an endless supply of 20 rupee notes and we spoilt the poor wherever possible - only to salve our own distress, I admit.)

Yet we felt animated with perpetual vitality. The intense pleasures and trials; the bracing sweep of life; the ceaseless energy will remain with us for a long time. Nothing has felt quite as exhilarating and concentrated since we got back - not food, sights, sounds, words nor (if it is not too brazen to confess this) sex. Usually we Westerners live in comfort and go on holiday seeking a softer cushion of greater comfort, a purchased drowsiness and dulling of the senses.

For me and my daughter Leila, there was another unexpected pleasure. We felt embraced by a country that in no sense belongs to us. My mother's family went to East Africa from Gujarat in the late 19th century and although there are linguistic and cultural connections, I have no claim to any of the countries on the Indian subcontinent. But as soon as we landed in Mumbai, Leila, with her lovely caramel skin and dark brown eyes, melted into the crowd. We looked Indian and were received as if we were long-lost travellers returning. I miraculously found that I can speak excellent Hindi (I understand Bollywood films and songs but had never spoken the language before) and both of us picked up Hinglish (Hindified English). Soon we were moving our heads from side to side to say yes and adding "ji" at the end of words, which is very polite. "Yes, I only was asking the price," I found myself saying to eager traders, while to friends: "Also we must be going over there, no?"

We flew Air India and although this was not a freebee tour (I don't do those) the crew knew I was an Independent columnist and generously escorted my daughter and myself upstairs to where the toffs exult in the good life. They bestowed lotions and potions and gargles and rubs and brushes and combs. Lobster laced with saffron too, plus Swiss chocolate truffles, dainty parathas, pure linen tablecloths. The crew attended with such willingness that we felt like upper-caste Brahmins. With enough leg room to tap dance or balance a beach ball, and seats which metamorphosise into snug beds, is there any other way to travel, I ask you as a committed socialist?

My husband was not given the privilege. He had to sweat it out with the huddled masses. Maybe the Empire does strike back. The Indian passengers were scandalised that his Asian wife hadn't managed to get him an upgrade. "Not right, Sir. Our women are not doing such a thing," said one wise man. "You know Sita was prepared to die for her husband. I must be telling your good wife this." In some ways you enter India the minute you step onto this airline - the journey is a useful induction into a different universe where there prevails such a different sense of space, time, society, individualism, volume, speed, manners - and intrusion.

His neighbours asked Colin many inquisitive questions, which he was pleased to answer. They said the food was disappointing. But he loved the vegetable pilau and the lamb, which he said reminded him of the Banglore Phall he used to eat at the local with the lads in Clapham in the Seventies. Blood-sweat-and-tears food for mad dogs and Englishmen.

We had asked a local tour operator to organise our trip through Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. That way the money goes to Indians. And luck had intervened. When my family was dispersed from Uganda, a close school friend, Vira Metha, a Parsee, simply disappeared. Last year, amazingly, she contacted me. It turned out she works at a tour company, Business and Tourist Services, in Delhi. She set up a flawless tour, incredibly reasonably priced.

We stayed in Mumbai with a family - modest people related to an Indian friend here in Britain. Mr and Mrs Bandukwala and their young daughter Mubina had never met us. But at the airport they said they were blessed to have visitors, that Allah was smiling on them. Leila was stunned - how could strangers greet us with such genuine warmth? Mubina is a classical Indian dancer, a rising star, the only Muslim woman on the competitive circuit (she danced for Prince Charles last year). She generously gave us her bedroom. Later we were to be pampered in exquisite establishments, but ask Leila what she most remembers today and she will say the hotel swimming pools and Mrs Bandukwala's home-cooked food of infinite variety, which we shared around the small coffee table while we talked. All across India now there are paying guest schemes where you can stay with Indian families, and there is no better way to get under the skin of India. Hospitality that flows easily, mutual respect between generations, values to rediscover, deep political engagement - these are the priceless experiences that made this trip.

How different this was from the first time I went to India. It was 1972, the year that Idi Amin threw all Asians out of Uganda. One sister-in-law worked for a travel agency and she smuggled out a pile of airline tickets. With one of these I travelled to India with £30 and the addresses of some acquaintances. I was feeling both wounded that my birthplace had ejected us and absurdly convinced that once I landed on Indian soil I would feel the waft of ancestral belonging, just as African-Americans imagined they would once they set foot in West Africa. Like them, the delusion quickly evaporated. People treated me as if I was an imposter or an alien. I was snubbed, mocked, rejected, robbed. And it hurt. Times were hard, with a drought in many areas and relationships between India and Pakistan at breaking point. In Pakistan, where my father came from, I felt even more shattered because the politics were fraught and menace was thick in the air. Friends were good to me, the sites were interesting but I rushed away full of self pity after three long weeks.

I refused to go back until this year. Now I feel myself firmly a Londoner I find that India entices me, is eager to grasp me as her own. This time I was travelling as a proper British tourist - something that takes some getting used to on both sides because European tourists are supposed to be white, and most Asians used to go to India to keep alive family ties, maybe one day to return forever. Travel brochures for India feature South Asians as waiters and cooks and guides, never tourists, even though for our middle classes, India is becoming an appealing destination.

What can I say that hasn't been said before about the dazzling beauty of the Taj Mahal, the hedonistic pleasure palaces of the kings, the aestheticism which is so deep in the culture you find it on mud walls and the cheapest saris and, of course, the heavily adorned, bejewelled interiors of temples, mosques, monuments and residences? But beauty isn't truth, nor truth beauty. It was a blow to learn that Shah Jahan built the Taj for his favourite wife Mumtaz (who died during the birth of her 14th child) but was not the perfectly devoted lover. His was a long and dissolute life. The old Jain temples in Ranakpur, between Jodhpur and Udaipur, overwhelm and contain nearly 1,500 wondrous sculpted pillars. Never have I seen stone that breathes and moves so. The temple survived a vicious onslaught by some of the more fanatic Mughal rulers. But worshippers here - among the wealthiest people in India - donate 5,000 rupees every day, adding gold leaf to the statues of their holy deities, which seemed to me blasphemous when the money could be used on human beings. I cried at the peaceful spot in Delhi where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, in part because so many Hindus in India today disrespect his vision of an inclusive country.

The Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur (where the Bond film Octopussy was shot) is truly the most beautiful hotel I have ever stayed in. Our room had magnificent lake views through every window, while the old city looks like an oriental Venice. The staff had none of the arrogance nor trained subservience that unfortunately comes with such places - this was true of all the hotels we stayed in. They were proud and super efficient. The swimming pool in the Samode Haveli in Jaipur had a thousand birds flying across it, monkeys teasing on trees, peacocks, and four-poster king-size beds with silk cushions to lie on and count your blessings.

We stayed in small villages in Rajasthan where they knocked up a pure cotton indigo salwar khameez for me in three hours (it cost £7), and where I went dancing in the streets with dozens of children singing Bollywood songs. Nothing is embarrassing in this lively country. In the village of Rohet, we stayed at the landlord's house, now a small hotel. Rajasthani musicians played every evening as the sun set over the nearby lake with its swans and ducks and the most brilliant and audacious kingfishers. At the Lake Palace, the musicians were Muslims who immediately saw I was one of them (don't ask me how), didn't seem to mind that I had an English husband and claimed us as their special friends. They made up songs for Leila. Dancers performed graceful miracles with knives in their mouths and fires burnt brightly on their delicate heads.

In the cities we were invited to the most outlandishly opulent private clubs named after British generals. There they drink fresh lime and soda, the old with their memories and the young with their speedy lives (alcohol is kept out of most of the recreational areas). Gossip is the great pastime. People, whatever their status, were always modest and forthcoming. We were entertained warmly by the deputy editor of the Times of India in Mumbai, a senior Times journalist and his artist wife in Delhi, and the respected art-house film maker Shyam Benegal and his wife Nira. It was good to talk to such people who have never sought to move to the West, to whom India means so much.

And there are good reasons for this. We described road rage to Talib, our driver in Mumbai, where traffic is mad and everyone hoots all the time. He was horrified. In spite of all the outrageous difficulties moving through the roads, nobody shouts at each other. Somehow they maintain civility, perhaps because they must. That is until politicians incite them to hate and kill. Surinder, our Delhi driver, took me to the back streets to shops and homes of people he knew. His small village is without water, without hope. We gave him money to cover a year's school fees for his only child. He said he couldn't use the money for his son, but would do something for the village.

My friend Shamsul Islam is a brilliant academic. He now works part time with homeless people in Delhi, getting them involved in inter-communal political street theatre. BJP thugs attacked him; one of his hands is numb, and his head was slashed. No problem, he says. It's part of what happens.

Politics, economics, morals and behaviour matter so much more to Indians than they do to us in the West. How reassuring that they went forth and voted for parties which will ensure an open, secular, non-communal future for the next few years at least. Rushdie described India in The Moor's Last Sigh as: "Mother India with her garishness and her inexhaustible motion, Mother India who loved and betrayed and ate and destroyed and again loved her children." Today she loves her children again.

The secret then is to stop thinking like a tourist, to enter into the world where the real people are and to engage with them, rich and poor. Then, instead of escaping from the toils of life, you gain a profound experience of its meaning.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com) fly daily from Heathrow to Delhi and Mumbai from around £550 return. Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) also flies from Heathrow to Delhi. A dozen other airlines will fly you from various UK airports to Indian cities via a range of connecting points

STAYING THERE

A list of selected homestay residences can be found at www.primeindia.com/crystopal. Colours of India (020-8343 3446; www.partnershiptravel.co.uk) also has a selection of homestay residences. The Lake Palace Hotel (00 91 294 252 8800; www.lake-palace-udaipur.com) in Udaipur has double rooms from around £120, room only. The Samode Haveli (00 91 141 263 2370; www.samode.com) in Jaipur has double rooms from around £31, including breakfast. The Rohet Garh (00 91 293 626 8231; www.rohetgarh.com) has double rooms from around £36, room only. You can get more information from the tourist office in Delhi (00 91 11 332 0342; www.tourisminindia.com) or regional tourist offices.

RED TAPE

British tourists visiting India need a visa. Apply in person or by post at The High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA; The Consulate General of India, 20 Augustus Street, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham B18 6JL; or The Consulate General of India, 17 Rutland Square, Edinburgh EH1 2BB. You can download a form from www.hcilondon.net, or send for one with a stamped addressed envelope to the Postal Visa Service at any of the above addresses. You need to supply two passport photos and pay a £30 processing fee.

SOPHIE LAM

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