Incredible India: A Canadian’s experience in India


By Tom Peters

“India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.” So wrote Indian politician and author, Shashi Tharoor.

I had to see for myself: underdeveloped or in a state of decay.

What I found, from my experience, was a bit of both and a lot more.

India was a bucket list trip for me. All the stories I had heard of heat, poverty and a lot of bad smells didn’t deter me. If anything, it all added to the lore.

It was also another place I wanted to play golf. So with clubs in tow and an open mind, I set out on a busman’s holiday. I was ready to accept whatever I encountered. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala authored, Out of India, a collection of short stories on what it is like to be a foreigner in that country. I wondered that when I returned home would I write my own collection of stories under the same premise.

Guwahati, the capital of the State of Assam in northeast India, was my first stop. First impressions are indelibly stamped in your brain. The massive traffic confusion and congestion in the streets in that city of over two million people, hit me like a ton of proverbial bricks. Weeks later I could still feel my palms sweating, my fingers clinging tightly to the car seat and in my mind’s eye, still see the hundreds of close calls.

I wouldn’t have traded it for the world!

Guwahati was interesting to say the least. With its daily, open air fish auction, Hindu temples and Rongali Bihu festival with all its colours, traditions, music and spicy food, it was a great kick start to my adventure.

In Shillong, toward the eastern side of the country, I had scheduled my first round of golf. But on the way I traded a car seat for a seat on the back of an elephant at the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in the Marigaon District of Assam.

The sanctuary is home to the endangered one-horned Indian rhinoceros and it wasn’t long before we spotted several grazing on the open plain.

I realized before I left home that getting a tee time in India required more than going to the pro shop and finding an open spot. There was a lot of advanced booking to be done but I did get times at the Shillong Golf Club; the Bombay Presidency Club in Mumbai; a visit, but not a game, at a very busy Delhi Golf Club; and a game in Chandigarh.

The Shillong course was closed on the Monday I arrived, but being a gracious host, the club manager allowed me to play. A young Indian lad offered to caddy for me and for the princely sum of 300 rupees (about $6 CAD) it was a bargain.

While there were no golfers because of the course being closed, I could hardly say I had the place to myself. The course was open to the public who randomly wandered the fairways and staged the occasional picnic. A distraction but not a problem.

If you go to India for some personal spiritual uplifting, it’s a country that addresses many religious beliefs and practices. Religion is very diversified — Hinduism, Buddism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity — are among that diversity.

Hinduism has the largest following and you can easily become absorbed in the many Hindu temples throughout the country. You may also stumble across a sacred cow sunning herself in the middle of the road or Hindu rituals being performed, as I did. I happened upon a Hindu cremation, where the body is cremated on a large open fire. Definitely an experience for my own book of short stories.

In Mumbai, a city of 22 million, I was in awe of everything around me in the sprawling, noisy metropolis that still bore a lot of past British influence. Many buildings displayed Victorian architecture and the Gateway to India on the waterfront, a massive arch completed 1924 to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary, was a reminder of pre-independence years.

Not far away from the arch, 5,000 people worked in the world’s largest open laundry, the men washing bedding, towels, etc. from hotels, hospitals and the like, in large concrete tubs while the women ironed out the wrinkles. Underdevelopment accented here!

On the sidewalks, outside of the walls of Bombay’s Presidency Golf Club, a parkland style course established in 1927, street people slept in the shade of overhanging trees. On a street corner, a small, frail woman, with a large blue cotton bag over her shoulder, rummaged through a garbage pile weeding out pieces of plastic and cardboard to be sold for a few rupees to a recycler. The daily hustle and bustle of the city fell into the shadow of tall concrete buildings, blackened over time by weather and smog. Reflections on author Tharoor’s comments of a decaying country, I wondered.

Inside the Presidency Club, as I walked the first few fairways of the manicured layout, lined with mature trees and flower beds and dotted with occasional ponds, I felt an enclosed tranquility surrounded by an outside world of desperation.

While my visit to the Delhi Golf Club did not afford me the chance to play because it was very busy (5,000 members), it did give me an opportunity to learn a bit about golf here and India’s desire to become an international golf destination.

Rajan Sehgal, President of the India Golf Tourism Association, told me his association was working with India’s government to promote India’s golf product and golf tourism around the world. Of the approximate 220 courses in the country, approximately 45 are of international calibre and there are several more courses either planned or under construction.

The city of Chandigarh, about a five-hour drive north of Delhi, certainly doesn’t speak to Tharoor’s underdeveloped theme. Also known as The City Beautiful, Chandigarh was India’s first planned city following independence in 1947. It is filled with clean, tree-lined streets, parks and modern architecture. Its master plan was prepared by the famous Swiss-French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier. The city of just over one million people, has a high quality of life and is considered the face of modern India.

The Chandigarh Golf Club and course fit nicely into the local, green surroundings. The tight fairways were lined with mango, eucalyptus and many other tree varieties. The greenery and attention to detail were exceptional. The club’s welcome was warm and genuine. The course, opened in 1962, is more than 7,000 yards from the tips and also has nine holes and a driving range lit for night golf.

I had come to India with no pre-conceived ideas and no great expectations. There are real life issues and habits that could be disturbing to some people. It’s not for everyone. But what I learned was that there is so much more of India I want to see.

In the novel, A Passage to India by E.M. Foster, and within the context of the story, the question was asked: Can an Indian be friends with the English?

I’m not sure how the question was answered in the book but based on my experience, an Indian can certainly be friends with a Canadian. I learned that firsthand.

The story was originally published in The Chronicle Herald