Judging India

Travel Stories: In New Delhi, JD Roberto deemed much of what he encountered backward and barbaric. But his moral compass was about to be reset.

09.14.09 | 10:37 AM ET

Delhi rail lines (The Wandering Angel via Flickr, (Creative Commons))

The train platform at New Delhi central station is about as wretched a place as you’d want to find yourself in the wee hours of the morning. It’s nearly 2 a.m. which, here in India, means that the 8 p.m. overnight to Varanasi should depart in about an hour. Karen and I have staked out a small patch of concrete and dirt that is almost entirely free of rotting garbage and human waste. We’ve gone a full three minutes without anyone trying to beg/sell/pilfer anything, but the Shih Tzu-sized rats are getting bolder. One of them is actually leafing through my Lonely Planet book while another is laying waste to a bag of trail mix from our day pack. I am exhausted and sweaty and cultivating a rash of mysterious origins.

Look, I’m not a sissy. I have trudged through more third-world shitholes than most people have ever heard of, and, by and large, I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve survived Cambodian bedbugs, bowel-trampling food poison in Petra and a 400-pound Bahamian customs officer with a serious crush on me. And I dig it; I like a challenge.

But right now, I’m spent. There are parts of this experience that I just cannot square with my normally forgiving moral compass. Yes, there’s “cultural distinctiveness,” but there’s also “bereft of civilized decency.” Surely there has to be a point where some foreign cultural norm clashes unforgivably with one’s personal core beliefs. I mean, how far can you open your mind before your brain falls out?

How am I supposed to see beauty when I am so continually confronted with the backward and barbaric?

The four guys at the end of the train platform aren’t helping my attitude even a little. They are staring us down and giggling like a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirls. They’ve been studying us and plotting their approach for about 20 minutes now. When they finally make their play, they each shove someone else to the front of the pack as they approach, physically nominating a spokesman.

The skinny one in the middle summons the courage to ask what they’ve clearly been discussing at length:

Skinny Guy: “Are you a love marriage?”

I’ll be honest and say that I was appalled the first time I flipped open an Indian newspaper and found the “Matrimonials,” an entire section of the paper dedicated to families shilling their daughters in hopes of finding a suitable man. It’s a personal ad, of sorts, with height, weight, education and family status included and there are various sub-categories when the family is looking for a groom of a particular social status or occupation.

Families often go into unrecoverable debt to provide a dowry large enough to attract a higher status groom. Assuming a proper dowry and provided the astrologer sees nothing bad in the commingling of signs, the match is made.

Divorce is legal, but rare. A divorced woman is unlikely to find good employment and a family that takes in a divorced female is thought to bring shame into the house.

The truly tragic lot, however, belongs to widows. A widow is an omen of bad fortune—surely anyone whose husband has died must carry terrible karma—and is often not welcome at family functions or celebrations. Many family members will refuse to touch her or take meals in her presence. It’s not uncommon for widowed women to turn to prostitution or begging to survive.

In rare instances, a widow may choose “sati,” the ritual of joining your dead husband’s funeral pyre and burning to death. The practice was banned in 1987 but it still happens, and women who choose sati are, in some circles, glorified and worshiped.

This is what I am thinking as this tittering flock of strangers hovers in my personal space waiting for a reply.

“Yes,” I tell him, “we’re a love marriage.”

And they giggle and nod and whisper something indecipherable to each other.

Hours later, as we settle into our mercifully cool and quiet train compartment, we meet Claire and Megan. They’re British medical students who, like us, are wrapping up a glorious and torturous month of traveling around India.

Next stop for Claire is Washington, D.C., where she’s landed a highly coveted spot training in an American ER. Brimming with excitement, she tells me that there’s nowhere else for a medical student to get such frequent, hands-on experience with gunshot wounds. Apparently, nowhere else in the world do people shoot each other on such a regular basis.

Late that night, crammed into a single berth, Karen and I are drifting off to the rhythmic clatter of the train. I’m staring at the ceiling and wondering what Claire will think of my country once she’s come and gone. It is equal parts amazing and imperfect, visionary and dysfunctional.

I’m hoping Claire will be good at seeing the beauty instead of the backward and barbaric.

JD Roberto is a writer, actor and host for television, and a travel junkie. Over the past 14 years, he and his wife Karen have hitched, packed, walked and tuk-tuked their way through nearly 70 countries. Their son, Enzo, has a well worn passport and budding fascination with all things cartographical.

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36 Comments for Judging India

A Ganguly 09.14.09 | 12:01 PM ET

Mr Roberto seems totally ill-informed about the status in Indian and believes what a westerner is made to believe in India . The Condition of married men in Indian is far far worse than the women . The government statistics say that over 56,000 married men commit suicide every year unable to bear ge torture and harrasment at the hands of their wives every year . As a comparison only 26,000 kill themselves each year . Although the number of men killing themselves is twice , there are over 15 laws created for women to extract money legally from men and there is not a single law to protect women . The government claims that the over 98% of allegations is dowry cases are false and divorces have become a way of grabbing money and real estate from husbands . The western media is fed such false statistics for them to sympathize with the oh so poor state of Indian women and then the Indian government begs for funds for the empowerment of the same . The condition of Indian men is so bad that many have to resort to selling their body organs to pay alimony and maintenance to their enstranged wives while the wives relax in the husbands house .

JD Roberto 09.14.09 | 12:10 PM ET

^ Awesome.

Maureen 09.14.09 | 3:49 PM ET

If men in India are worse off than women, I think India jumpts to number 1 in the world’s treatment of women.  And somehow I doubt that.

This article was amazing, not just by making y reevaluate my ideas about India, but by making me think about the U.S. 

Loved it.

Renee Tomer 09.14.09 | 3:53 PM ET

Great story, JD.

The description of the train platform and the boys “giggling like a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirls” brought back some great memories of my own India travels.

I found the love vs. arranged marriage topic quite an ice-breaker. I nearly became obsessed with the topic, finding myself asking nearly everyone I met what their particular arrangement was.

JD Roberto 09.14.09 | 5:09 PM ET

Renee, my wife and I felt the same way.  We were, perhaps unfairly, surprised how many great, happy arranged marriages we stumbled across.  I like to think that I am good about keep judgment out of my travel experiences but India, in particular, challenged me in that regard. 

At this very low point in our time there - exhausted and aggravated beyond measure - to stumble across other Western travelers and suddenly see our own country through their eyes was humbling.

India is truly a magnificent country and a great experience/challenger for any traveler.


zach 09.14.09 | 6:49 PM ET


Seriously, defensive much?  Here’s what I got from your comment:  “Indian men are such pussies that their wives beat them up and take their dough.  Nice.  I have yet to hear about an Indian cat throwing his sorry carcass onto a funeral pyre.  Until then, I come down squarely on the side of the gender that’s forced to wear 13 pounds of clothing to cover up their “evil bits.” (personally, I’m a big fan of Evil Bits…)

It’s also nice to see how you completely and humiliatingly missed the point, but that’s a different topic alltogether.  Rock on, Ganguly. 

Whaddaya get for a kidney these days anyhow?  I gotta pay shipping on that?  What do ya tip a kidney guy?

Cochin Blogger 09.15.09 | 4:41 AM ET

Part 1:

The introduction of Claire makes this piece interesting, but the depiction of India is on the level of gut reaction; there is no attempt to analyze or dissect. The eyes see what one’s conditioned mind wants them to see. It must be nice for Westerners to read about third world shitholes and allied stereotypes and think, “There I would have been born but for the grace of God.” But surely a travel piece can rise above this level of superficiality?

Let me first critique some assertions that are presented as bald facts (well, I could have sworn I spotted a literary license or two lurking in the background):

“Karen and I have staked out a small patch of concrete and dirt that is almost entirely free of rotting garbage and human waste. We’ve gone a full three minutes without anyone trying to beg/sell/pilfer anything, but the Shih Tzu-sized rats are getting bolder. One of them is actually leafing through my Lonely Planet book while another is laying waste to a bag of trail mix from our day pack. I am exhausted and sweaty and cultivating a rash of mysterious origins.”

The above sounds like a bad acid trip than anything corresponding with reality. It gives the impression that Indian railway platforms are overrun by human waste (by which euphemism I think our hero means “shit”), rotting garbage, and rats. I live in India. Trains are to India what planes are to the U.S. I’ve been to many a railway station, but am yet to see what our writer has seen: mounds of shit and rotting garbage leaving just a patch of uncontaminated terra firma that our heroes gratefully occupy, only to be besieged by rats that have somehow lost their fear of humans. I think it was probably more like this: our heroes saw a pile of rotting garbage (or perhaps a banana peel) and some pigeon droppings and put as much distance from it as they could.  I’m not saying human waste and Indian railway platforms are like oil and water. Sanitation is a big problem in India. There are people who defecate by the tracks, and in fact, even train travelers defecate onto the tracks, because everything is funneled to the ground. But I draw the line of credulity at mounds of human waste ON railway platforms. Indians are no strangers to shit (presumably unlike civilized “bottom-swiping” Westerners), but even we Indians don’t like to roll in it. Please. (And talking of shit, an Indian who traveled by train in the U.S. in the Fifties recalled seeing people squatting in the fields with exposed bottoms, a corncob stick in hand for swiping the bottom.)

Cochin Blogger 09.15.09 | 4:52 AM ET

Part 2:

Again, the references to widows, dowry, sati, and divorce are misleading. India is a country in transition, and the old customs and attitudes are fast withering away. It is only in feudal, hidebound pockets of the country that widows are regarded as bad omens. Dowry can become a problem, but most families arrive at a mutually agreeable settlement. Sati ... it makes the headlines in India on the rare occasions when it occurs. The stigma attached to divorce is fast disappearing as divorce rates increase, but again, it depends on which segment of society one is talking about.

On arranged marriage ... I have posted on this earlier and have no wish to cover the same ground. Remember, dowry and arranged marriages were not invented in India; they were pretty common even in the West not so long ago. In any case, those wish to marry a partner they love can do so in India. One can also opt for the arranged marriage. Both options exist. A successful marriage is a tricky business, and one can see from the ragged state of the institution of marriage in the West that the Western way is hardly the solution.

The four gigglers who asked our heroes about “love marriage” are the Indian counterpart of Westerners who harbor stereotypes about India. I know how they and their ilk view the West and Westerners: Westerners indulge in sex, booze, and drugs while still in school; the family as an institution has virtually broken down, with parents divorcing and remarrying as they keep falling in and out of “love” with nary a thought for how it affects their kids; maladjusted, neglected, psychologically troubled kids grow up to be sociopaths and psychopaths; parents are abandoned by children in old age; rampant alcoholism and drug abuse; high levels of violent crime, much of it mindless as in school carnages; high incidence of sexual crimes, sexual sadism, serial killing, and every sick, violent perversion under the sun; and all this, despite a relatively high level of affluence. In the eyes of the “gigglers,” Western women are available, because they start trading their bodies for material rewards while still not out of school, often have multiple partners, keep changing partners (a different partner for each season of life?), and leave their kids and elderly parents to fend for themselves. In the eyes of such Indians, the sexual habits of Westerners are comparable to those of dogs copulating in the streets. (And, horrors of horrors, they don’t even wash their bottoms properly with water, preferring to swipe with tissue instead!)

Do successful, long-lived marriages exist in the West? Yes.  Are Western women available? No. Are Western bottoms encrusted with shit? No. Are Indian railway platforms encrusted with shit? No. Are widows burned in India? No. Is the custom of arranged marriage uncivilized, barbaric, or even undignified? No.

What is the point of traveling if one cannot take the trouble to peer behind the veil and ask why something is as it is?

Joanna Kakissis 09.15.09 | 7:04 AM ET

No offense to Mr. Roberto, but reading Cochin Blogger’s response was like reading a whole new essay.

JD Roberto 09.15.09 | 11:10 AM ET


I can only speak to my personal experience in India which this accurately depicts.

You’re obviously proud of India which is, to be sure, a wondrous and interesting place.  Your (lengthy) reply is thoughtful and well written.  That said, it’s easy and lazy to hide behind the ‘You Westerners and your stereotypes’ argument.  Most anyone that’s traveled India extensively has had a taste of what I wrote about and we didn’t get our experience from reading the guidebook and staying at the Hyatt.    None of it is embellished for the sake of entertaining the reader - it didn’t need to be.

I could tell you that the rats in the NYC subway or the poverty in Appalachia or the bigotry of a Klan rally in Mississippi aren’t indicative of America and - to some degree - I’d be right.  But they are certainly part of the American tapestry and, as such,  when a foreigner experiences these things they are experiencing America. 

The same is true of India. To defend and deny the dark parts of your own culture does a disservice to your country and its bright future.

As you said, India is a country in transition - with one foot in the occasionally medieval, 3rd world past and another in its urban, 21st century, 1st world future.  This makes for a fascinating and sometimes head turning collision of the beautiful and the backward. 

Sadly,  you miss the entire point of the article which is not at all an indictment of India.  It’s really an indictment of a traveler (me) who saw this (sometimes bizarre) juxtaposition of old India and new India and gave into the temptation to judge it - only to be reminded of the barbarism is his own country.  It’s a travelers morality tale about remembering that judgment is the enemy of experience.

That is the heart of the essay.  I guess, since I had to explain it to you, I failed to communicate it as intended.

Patrick Caneday 09.15.09 | 2:13 PM ET


Great story. Loved it. You really painted a vivid picture. I’ve been in similar places and your words brought the smells back to me unexpectedly.

That you are such an experienced traveller, yet were so beaten down by the things you saw, was I think the point of the story. Those sites can reduce even the most hardened to question the openness with which we try to view the world. There’s nothing romantic about someplaces and to do anything but expose that, and yourself in the process, would be a lie. Well done.

Loved the ending too. Step outside our country for a minute and you can see that we are barbaric and backwards in so many ways too.



Gsp 09.15.09 | 11:29 PM ET

JD Roberto,

I must find myself somewhat taking issue with your follow up comments to your article, not least the article itself.

Whilst it seems perfectly plausible to state the article is not an indictment of India, but of the traveller (yourself), this belies the true experience of reading the article, which actually paints a short, vivid and exaggeratedly negative picture of India, which I have no doubt may have been consistent with your reactions to the culture shock at the time.  Even for an experienced traveller India can be a difficult country to experience for the first time & culture shock is always a strong part of the experience (it certainly has been for me).  Whilst I can imagine your train of thought as the writer (& traveller), as a reader I find the article unrelentingly focuses almost exclusively on a negative perception throughout its entirety…right up until a final 4 sentences - what essentially comes across as an afterthought comprising less than 10% of the article.

I’d also like to take issue with your later comment to the blog: “I can only speak to my personal experience in India which this accurately depicts.”
Really?  Is it really your personal experience of meeting families who’ve gone into “unrecoverable debt to provide a dowry large enough to attract a higher status groom”, or of divorced women who are “unlikely to find good employment”?  Is it your personal area of experience & expertise of the culture that revealed to you widows being considered/treated as bad omens of terrible karma, or of family members refusing to eat in her presence (in a country renowned above all for its esteem of family no less).  Did you personally experienced a ’sati’, or encounter someone glorifying it?
All of which you state with a rather bold conviction, but to me read rather like an outdated travel guide from the 70s.  In fact many of these ‘personal experiences’ of yours read like a throwback to a past; equivalent to someone talking of men in the US wearing spurs and sixshooters, and having showdowns at high noon as a matter of course.  Of course it could be reasonably argued that these things still occur, but it’s hardly what characterises the country now; unless you allow culture shock to send you retreating to the familiar harbour of some very outdated preconceptions.  At no point do you reveal any voluntary interaction with the people or culture of India in a positive vein (in fact your remark of staking out your small patch reveals a psychology of avoiding interaction), & though I’m sure you’ll tell us much interaction happened outside the timescale depicted in your account, it’s disappointing that you reveal this is still how you feel after a month of travelling India (I would have been far more sympathetic had this been the beginning of your journey).

I believe the article conveys strong feelings (regardless of how unintentional), which are not consistent with the message you claim in your later explanation of the article.  Unlike Cochin Blogger, I don’t begrudge you these feelings, and had hoped to avoid my own knee jerk reaction to your article in kind…however, I must point out that I do feel the choice of controversial language such as “I have trudged through more third-world shitholes than most people have ever heard of” smacks to me of a certain negative prejudice, and self-importance that can’t be neutralised by any following “and I’ve loved every minute of it” type comments.  This combined with comments such as “I dig it; I like a challenge” seem indicative more of a tourist mentality writer (& ego - sorry), than of a true traveller.  Your claims to the contrary, of this article being an indictment of the traveller, and your assertions that you’re merely trying to describe part of the rich tapestry feel half hearted; particularly when contrasted with the voracity of descriptions such as that of “families shilling their daughters”.  These do not speak to an image of a traveller recalling, post epiphany, his first reactions to culture shock…but to one of someone still feeling those things in the present.

It’s a shame because I think without these additions, actually speaking only of your personal experiences would have been more powerful and lent the article, and your voice in general, much more credence.  I hope I haven’t been too harsh in my critique, as I certainly value your courage in revealing yourself and feelings in such an article, and the sentiment to create a travel article in the first place.  I guess travel, and India in particular, are complex subjects to navigate emotionally, as both the writer, and the reader.

JD Roberto 09.16.09 | 2:11 PM ET

I don’t, at all, find your feedback too harsh but I’m left with the simple truth that there’s little point discussion a piece of writing if the reader in question doesn’t understand the nature of the piece.

Sadly, you continue to read the piece as a travelogue of India which it is not.

grizzly bear mom 09.17.09 | 12:38 PM ET

I’ve been traveling the world for years and found the most offensive place I’ve visited to be London.  It appeared to be a celebration of the British EMPIRE, or explotation of less technologically advanced people, rule by the “upper classes”, use of religon to support those in power, and lack of freedom of advancement.  There Brits asked me why Americans didn’t visit them.  I was not offeneded by the question, but by our lack of appreciation for foreign culture and travel.  Disneyland and amusement parks are not valid comparrisons. 
They also have a system where women must demonstrate virginity before marrying their Crown Prince.  After they provided their heir and a spare, Diana and Sarah were rejected by the royals for screwing around, just like the Princes’ did.  U.S. Ambassador evidently has his mentally ill, not low IQ daughter Rosemary lobotomized for sneaking out of the convent school at night (to be wild) just folowing her brothers’ and father’s example.
Additionally Indians don’t force their daughters to marry the richest merchant they can attract.  Forced marraige are illegal most places, including Islam, and it is not approrpiate to judge a religion or society by its abuse.  Because family support is so important to Indians they look at education, values, relgion, etc to ensure their children are matching successfully.  Wise couples learn to love each other.  Too bad we Westerners don’t do so before the passion wears off.  I envy the support Inidan families have, and believe that many of us would marry better if we relied on our paren’ts wisdom, unclouded by passion, which wears off.
I found JD’s article zenophobic and judgemental.

Ryan 09.17.09 | 12:39 PM ET


While I understand your intention with the piece, you hardly managed to put America on a level with India in terms of a barometer for barbaric behavior.  A vague couple of sentences about impersonal shootings are a lot easier to dismiss than piles of filth and excrement, rats, and what, to Western readers, will obviously come across as glaring human rights issues.  So it’s a bit unfair to expect the reader to judge both sides fairly.

Too, you seem to wear the “third-world shitholes” you’ve suffered through like merit badges.  And such egoism, even if unintended, doesn’t cast you in a very fair-minded light to later ask your reader to follow along in some moral introspection.

Again, I understand you probably wrote with the best, most self-critical intentions, wanting to share a valuable lesson you learned about judgment and whatnot.  But when touching on such sensitive issues, be ready to read as deeply into your words as your audience is obviously going to.

However, in the spirit of a fair and balanced critique, the piece was well written, you do bring the reader along for the ride, and your style is clearly evocative, considering the mounds of discussion it’s generated.  So goodonya.



JD Roberto 09.17.09 | 6:42 PM ET

Perhaps the trouble with the reactions to this piece lies in the approach to it.  In no way is the intention to cast me, the writer/traveler as a travel expert, an adviser, a person writing about what the reader would/will/should experience in India.  The perspective isn’t that of wise travel writer, it’s of weary traveler at low point in his journey.

This is not a travelogue or a cultural dissertation. 

It is meant to be a slice of life, a taste of a moment in time.  In that moment in time, the narrator is exhausted, hot and worn down.  His perception is colored and clouded and what he writes is his own conflicted internal dialogue: 

“Hey, it’s not me – I’m a great traveler – it’s this freaking place!”

He is struggling with himself about how he is perceiving this journey – part of him knowing that he is failing, wildly, to have the experience he wants to have and the fault is entirely his own.

He’s spiraling into his little cocoon of judgment, all the while trying to justify it to himself. 

Only at the end of the day does he get a glimmer of perspective in the form of the girls he meets on the train.

Perhaps our disconnect here is stylistic but my intention wasn’t to portray the narrator as a morally upstanding authority on cultural interaction but rather as a flawed, fatigued traveler struggling to be in the moment rather than outside it, judging it.

Obviously, the piece will either work for you as a reader or it won’t.  I can live with either outcome.

Ben 09.18.09 | 10:26 AM ET

I’m a long-time backpacker and one-time travel writer who now exists in the University world, where critiques of travelers as rapacious, all-consuming colonialists are nothing new.  This goes doubly for travel writing, which tends to be an easy target.  Without all the mind-numbing academic jargon, some aspects of this debate is playing out on the comments here.

Still, I want to defend JD Roberto.  Among cosmopolitan Westerners - and particularly travelers - there is an intense and moralistic pressure not to do or say anything that smacks of judging countries in the global south.  Yet as almost all Western travelers know, the result is often a moral pose, not a reflection of what one really felt at the time.  To me, this generates several problems.  First, it’s often false.  If someone gets mugged in, say, in Quito, Ecuador (a place I love), eventually someone will say, “Well, you can get mugged in New York.”  Of course you can.  But Quito’s tourist and business areas do, in fact, have a much more severe crime problem them comparable areas of New York (or at least they used to).  As such, the statement is just moralistic posturing.  Or do we really want to argue that Quito’s crime or India’s inadequate sanitation are just part of their respective cultures - that people, in effect, prefer it that way?

Second, argument thats “here is just like home”  hide the real moral issues.  They aim at an easy, feel-good relativism that avoids what are, in fact, truly difficult moral questions:  why do “shitholes” exist and how does my country, my lifestyle, and even my presence there contribute to their wretchedness?  Or, less politically, what might this situation ask of me, ethically?  I’m not saying you have to travel with these questions in mind all the time.  I certainly don’t.  I AM saying that a rote invocation of an equivalence of all places is a convenient way of feeling moral without doing anything about it.

In fact, that seems to be partly what JD was aiming at;  the major complaint was that he seems insincere in pulling it off. 

If JD grossly distorted facts (sanitation, sati), then that’s on him. But part of traveling is being horrified occasionally, and being forced to reflect on what your horror says about you, your place in the world, and your understanding of the world.  Everyone reacts to things that bother them.  You shouldn’t be required to hide that reaction, or what provokes it.  You should be asked to move beyond that reaction to a thoughtful response.

Arjun Basu 09.18.09 | 10:58 AM ET

As a Canadian of Indian origin, I didn’t see the problem with this. This is a moment from a trip and as such it is as accurate as anything else. I rather liked the piece. I’ve been on train platforms in the middle of the night. And though I did not experience the “human waste” problem on the platform, I can quite imagine everything else. This piece is more about the writer than about anything else. And those who reflexively get defensive about it are doing, frankly, India a great disservice and are being overly sensitive. And note that no one has complained about the fact about the hospital in Washington.

nidhi 09.19.09 | 4:40 AM ET


While I try to see your perspective in this article, in most places it seems to be focus on creating shock value. As an Indian, I will be the first one to admit that railway stations are not the epitome of cleanliness. However are they garbage and human waste encrusted? Assuredly not.
And if you walk down a high street in Mumbai or Delhi, it will not be different from a stroll down the roads of any other city in the world
On the same lines, while divorce stigma, sati may exist but they are certainly not prevalent or existing in wide pockets of India. These are practises which are increasingly on their way out and becoming almost absent (Sati) even as I type.
Finally, arranged marriages. As an age old custom, there is certainly nothing appaling about them. On the other hand if you visualise them to be romantic scenarios where you see your bride/ groom on the day of the wedding, nothing could be further from the truth.
In majority of cities and towns, arranged marriages is usually a sort of dating with family/ parental approval. ANd surely nothing is backward or shocking about that.
Instead of formulating and passing judgement based on stray incidents and heresay (i hardly think you would have been directly exposed to sati and perils of indian widows), its best to open your mind and see India for what it truly is. A beautiful country where tradition is walking with modernity

Mary Arulanantham 09.22.09 | 4:55 PM ET

I have travelled the streets of Bangalore, Colombo, Kandy and Batticaloa and even parts of Singapore (little India) and can say that definitely they ARE different from many other cities in the (Western world). I have travelled throughout the U.S., in Italy, Puerto Rico and in Melbourne and Sydney, and I can truly say that the Indian sub-continent and S.E. Asia are a totally different experience in terms of hygiene and getting culturally smacked upside the head. That being said, I get the point of JD’s article; it is a vignette, a moment in time. Are all of you who are so critical of his post so completely politically correct that you never find yourself conjuring up random cultural stereotypes when faced with the stresses of travel? Notice, he didn’t spew all that stuff about arranged marriages and sati to the giggle boys; he only confessed to his readers that these thoughts had crossed his mind. When I have travelled in India and Sri Lanka, I am visiting my husband’s family. For every potential cultural landmine I struggle to keep to myself (or faux pas that I actually commit), there are equally silly and/or serious stereotypes I have to answer questions about from my relatives.  I try to monitor my reactions and forgive myself to travel another day when I sometimes have just had enough for the moment.

JD Roberto 09.23.09 | 8:16 PM ET

^  :)

wanderer 09.24.09 | 12:01 AM ET

I am Indian. I have traveled extensively. And sometimes during the course of my travels, I have felt exactly the way JD felt. When I was tired, grumpy, or the traveling was not going too well, I found it only too easy to judge the country I was in, or—even easier—to judge the natives of that country. Back home, enclosed in familiar and comfortable surroundings, I feel utterly guilty for thinking so.

I know someone who traveled around the US. When he came back to India he said “America is just a glorified shithole full of racists.” He said that because of several negative experiences he had had. It happens to just about everyone when traveling. 

We judge people and places we are not used to. It’s human nature.

All travelers would have experienced this moment at some point. We can’t say no way, I loved every place I’ve been to and loved all the people I met, and loved all the moments I experienced even though nothing was going right. That just does not happen.

Of course India is a beautiful country with beautiful traditions. There’s no denying that. I’m sure JD experienced the beauty at other moments.  Blogger and others who were offended by this essay, it’s wonderful that you are defending the motherland, but seriously, let’s just not get too riled up and jump to conclusions about what the author meant to say or meant not to say. Because we do it too.
We just don’t write essays about it.

JD Roberto 09.24.09 | 6:35 PM ET

I did, by the way, experience amazing moments in India.  They just weren’t the subject of this particular piece. 

The warmth of the people in Goa and Kerala, the history and stunning architecture of Rajasthan.  It is as fascinating and diverse a place as I’ve visited (70 countries or so on that list thus far).

But not every moment of every journey is a postcard or a twenty word snippet in Conde Naste.  I’m more interested in the feeling, experience and emotional journey of traveling than in telling you that the Taj Mahal is closed on Friday and that Varanasi is best experienced by boat at sunrise.  I’m not a travelogue, sorry.

If you want to hear everything sanitized for your enjoyment or air-brushed into some homogenized, easily digested brochure, you should take a pass when you see my name on a byline.

That said, the out-pouring of negative reactions makes me all the more appreciative of those that were able to read this piece and find themselves sitting with me - sweaty and exhausted - on a train platform at 2 in the morning.  Thanks for letting yourselves come along for the ride.

wanderer 09.25.09 | 2:26 AM ET

Quote “But not every moment of every journey is a postcard or a twenty word snippet in Conde Naste.  I’m more interested in the feeling, experience and emotional journey of traveling than in telling you that the Taj Mahal is closed on Friday and that Varanasi is best experienced by boat at sunrise.  I’m not a travelogue, sorry.”

Very true, JD. I really enjoyed your piece. Reading it brought back several memories for me—of moments spent waiting it out on those very same platforms.  Look forward to reading more of your work. Cheers!

Leon Mahoney 09.26.09 | 4:48 AM ET

After living and travelling in India for 10 or more years I can appreciate your negative musings at the time, probably after about 40 hours of no sleep or wash and and the prospect of the same ahead but usually forgotten shortly after. How many of us get fugs like that during our travels. Just a little bit p’d off at the time. Not much different after driving the highways for about 20 hours without a break except for diesel, nothing much looks good except a room at the Taj. The last sentence says it all.
Will you be coming back to this mad country J.D?

JD Roberto 09.26.09 | 7:24 PM ET

Without a doubt I will go back to India.  I spent frightfully little time in the north (save a 48 over stopover in Amritsar) and only sampled Goa.  Too much to see for a month’s trip, to be sure (true of everywhere, I suspect, but especially so in a place as vast and diverse as India)>

Leon mahoney 09.27.09 | 7:28 PM ET

JD , It’s good the rats at Delhi have not put you off. It’s a wonder no one has done a doco. about the railway rats, they have done most other subjects. I have driven 250,000 klms looking for the treasures that are tucked away in different corners of this giant country and have not been able to get past the tribal district of southern Orissa for the last 5 years. Now there is a small guest house in a pottery craftS village here for the discerning traveller. It’s a bewitching part of the country without the hustle and bustle of the rest of India while being only a couple of hours from the Kolkata/ Chennai line. Being an unknown destination only around 500 foreign tourists come this way per year to see the adivasi, so it is still very fresh for the tourist and just as importantly the tourists are still fresh for the people that live here. Safe travels.

mozoak 10.01.09 | 11:13 AM ET

Hey Roberto - Where exactly on Delhi station is this ‘small patch of concrete and dirt that is almost entirely free of rotting garbage and human waste’? I’d like to use that space too; when I go there next time. Too bad, the rats knew who you were coz I’ve never had my bag entrailed by any of those furry friends till date.

Your reply to Cochin Blogger states this: ‘I can only speak to my personal experience in India which this accurately depicts’ .......If your depiction is accurate, are you implying that the Delhi station is really a Big, Giant shit hole? And all the rest of the mere Indian mortals are rolling in shit?.......you, my friend, have tried to EMBELLISH this story to make it a more interesting read.

Now look at this: ’ we didn’t get our experience from reading the guidebook and staying at the Hyatt. None of it is embellished for the sake of entertaining the reader - it didn’t need to be’..........hmm…....
Where did you get to know about Sati, my friend? Did you see a live coverage of Sati running on prime time TV? Did you meet and speak to a real life ‘Sati’ aspirant?........You have merely added on to the stereotype and thereby diluted what could have been an interesting article.

Si Knight 10.05.09 | 2:51 PM ET

JD’s only crime is bothering to explain his piece. Look, you either get it or you don’t. If his writing doesn’t make his point then fine, let him (and every author) know and give them something to work on. But, there is no need for all this nit-picking and petty parochialism; so much for the readers suspension of disbelief!

atula 10.12.09 | 8:18 AM ET

I think most readers are just not getting the MORAL OF THE STORY: If you are pointing a finger at someone, there are the other fingers pointing at you.

JD I think every person in this world experiences a thing like that, I will call it a humbling experience because after grumbling about everything bad about India, you were remined of the not-so-shiny things about your own country. As a writer, you could vent out the feelings through your words, not many can do that although they have had the same kind of experience.

I am from India, and initially I was horrified with yet another westerner defacing my country, but the last lines did the trick and I understood it is a westerner opening his eyes and seeing the worst and best of all countires including his.

I hope every other westerner landing in India, remembers, good and bad are faces of the same coin. Don’t be judgmental, just observe and maybe learn something worthwhile in a foreign land that can help make YOUR country better than ever before.

Greenhousecarol 10.27.09 | 5:38 AM ET

Hmmm. Interesting discussion. I am heading to India for the first time in less than one month and looking forward to it tremendously.

steph 10.28.09 | 8:39 AM ET

India’s fantastic, but also a grotesque eyesore.

I travelled extensively in India for almost 2 decades - from Kanya-kumari to Ladakh, Kashmir to the Rann of Kutch, Sikkim and the Andamans.

The problem of garbage and excrement in India is colossal, almost a religious edict: keep body clean, but throw your little bag of rubbish into the thoroughfare below.  The river in Madras stinks to high heaven and the Yamuna in Delhi is now black and lifeless due to industrial effluent. Though the piece about the rats is probably an exaggeration; the big rats start in Calcutta & Myanmar and there are some magnificent specimens living side by side with humans in the markets of Bangkok, something about the climate and sticky rice.
Also in the last ten years there’s been a major effort to clean up New Delhi station; they’re getting into it, trying very hard, but considering there are about 14 million passengers a day travelling on Indian railways…

Throughout Asia - the 3rd world - there’s garbage, monolithic eyesores, chaos, and when they clean it all up and modernize everything, you’ll wonder why you came.

The rebuke about Indian men being worse off than women, I won’t comment on. Sati has officially been outlawed and occurs rarely and usually the police are quick to react. However, disposing of women, or horrendous treatment, is legion; if you pick up the paper in Haryana or Uttar Pradesh it’s a weekly or daily occurrence often termed, ‘kitchen accident,’ where the unfortunate wife is doused in kerosene and set alight.

From a traveler’s perspective, modernity is a major bane, the profusion of little cars with loud horns, the arrogant nouveau bourgeois mentally; even parts of the Himalaya are now changing dramatically.

Historically and geographically India is superlative in many ways, and almost any essay on India leads to controversy. If one is truly concerned one would see its magnificence and its flaws.

lsr 10.31.09 | 8:35 AM ET

oy. i didnt know people still wrote these kind of jejune essays about other cultures.

Tunku Varadarajan 11.01.09 | 10:11 AM ET

Depressingly, sophomorically trite.

Leon Mahoney 11.04.09 | 1:28 AM ET

Well I better not travel by train again in India as I don’t want people to think of me as another one of those stupid pauper ragged hippies and a parasite that sucks of well heeled Indians. My goodness maybe I should catch buses instead.

pat 11.05.09 | 12:22 PM ET

This is the 21st century but we still have people thinking and pointing fingers-“us” and ” them”. It is pointless to try and explain to these lot that we should only perceive cultures as “different” rather than apply adjectives such as better, bad et cetera

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