Scenes from Indian tourism

Jan 26, 2014, 07:10 IST | Paromita Vohra

It's confusing to know whether Indians like to travel or not. On the one hand it's near impossible to ever get a ticket on train, plane, ship or bus at short notice, so clearly people are to-ing and fro-ing.

Paromita VohraIt’s confusing to know whether Indians like to travel or not. On the one hand it’s near impossible to ever get a ticket on train, plane, ship or bus at short notice, so clearly people are to-ing and fro-ing. On the other, sometimes it seems like for us as people, travel is a shoot in a green screen studio, where we remain fixed. Only the backdrop keeps changing — Khajuraho, Lakshadweep, Gangtok.

Indian tourism offers some typical scenes, some of which I kind of enjoy. My favourite are the Sari Swimmers. For reasons of modesty, women, even younger ones, don’t wear swimsuits much in India. Aunties and didis alike sally forth into the waters fully dressed in saris, mangalsutras and bindis. This sight always makes me laugh and touches me deeply at the same time, for there is a certain childlike avidity in swimming in unsuitable clothes.

The other common sight is the ‘Honeymooning Couple’, usually an arranged match. The new bride will be obvious from the chuda on her arms. Her modest western wear — a long T-shirt with Capri pants, will reveal knee-length swan design mehendi and winking bichhuas. She will almost never know how to swim and as her new groom helps her float with maximum touching-feeling she will scream, cling and finally leave in a huff — ‘Force kyon kar rahe ho! I told you I can’t do it.” As the groom tries to coax her back everybody else affords them privacy in the crowd by pretending to not pay attention.

Illustration/ Amit Bandre
Illustration/ Amit Bandre

Both sights were on offer a plenty when I was on vacation last week. A rope was strung from shoreline to far in the water. People swarmed around it — the women’s saris floated gently around them, like marine tutus, unclejis instructed them strongly. Honeymooners squealed. Chatter churned the air.

I turned to my friend and said, ‘It’s like Haridwar.’ We were waiting our turn to go snorkelling at a marine park in the Andamans, but it reminded me of all the temple towns where people go in for holy dips.

For centuries most Indians travelled only to hometowns, or on pilgrimages. Both types of journeys are a deep affirmation of who you are — they require not an encounter with an other, but rather, a communion of sorts for the self. An idea of tourism where we abandon our usual selves or immerse ourselves in a new experience, sits ill with us.
If travelling, we evade the experience, by constantly discussing logistics, statistics and arrangements. As soon as our glass bottom boat took off, a gentleman immediately wanted to know — how deep is the water. He stared strongly at the guide while rainbow fish danced past our feet. It’s as if by conquering the statistics, we will prevent the place from
overpowering us.

Most folks spend inordinate amounts of time calling home to provide a running commentary on what is going on. One person in the group will dismiss lingering or exploring with — ‘there is nothing to do there.’ Travel must be conducted  with noisy efficiency. Beauty may be noted but is not to be wallowed in. This enumeration too feels like a carry over from the idea of a newly independent India, in which travel was conducted with a view to education or consuming all of the Indian heritage of schoolbooks in the summer vacation.

Times are changing and as more people travel for leisure, no doubt the way they do it will change too — who knows in what way. For now, it still seems, most travel, so they can confirm that home is really best!

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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