In Search of the Real India

Samuel PorterUniversity of Cambridge


Today I described my experiences in the field to friends at home - the kutcha houses, the women bathing in ponds, and the cattle that shared the family home. One remarked: “It’s great that you’re getting to see the real India”. I faltered, and only after a concerted period of reflection and further experience at Tata Chemicals in Haldia, am I now able to respond.

I also came here thinking that eventually I would find “the Real India”. But it was only when asked if I had yet found it that I realised my naivety. It startled me. We spent our brief time in Mumbai shuffling between hotels, tourist spots and Tata Group’s glass towers. I was quick to dismiss this as a false impression of this new country. Indeed, in the novel Shantaram, the protagonist is immediately told that Mumbai is not the true India. As I travelled on, through glamourous airports, past tall, gas-billowing factories, and along busy trunk roads towards the Garden City of Haldia, I longed for that genuine picture.

But now, I reflect on that first day in the field. The sight was clearly not English; but nor did it fulfil my preconception of the Real India. There was poverty - the area is a focus of Affirmative Action initiatives - but that is not to say that it was devoid of development. Biogas generators provided the cooking fuel, smart phones buzzed noisily, motorbikes hummed past, and on the road outside Tata-emblazoned HGVs lugged cargo away from Haldia’s international docks, where most were employed. I then realised that, by necessity, the Tata skyscrapers, the industrial chimneys, the bustling highways and pucca apartments were no less genuine a picture of this country than the mud floors and chullahs. Instead, it is the adjacency and intermingling of these things, these extremes, that presents the truest picture of India.

Perhaps the remark itself, the idea of a Real India waiting to be “discovered”, is a sad, almost colonial misconception of developing countries. Neither what I saw that day, nor any single experience before or after can fairly illustrate this country. It takes time to appreciate the diversity and intensity that best explains India – the perpetual bombardment of sound, colour, people and smells – but a search for the Real India is pointless. There is no black and white in this rainbowed reality.