100 years in 10: watching India transform through travel

Malabarismo in Spanish and Portuguese means juggling. One can only assume that the etymology takes us to India’s extensive western coast, known as the Malabar Coast, where Vasco da Gama, the great Portuguese mariner, might have encountered some people with astounding talents just after he arrived on May 20, 1498.  It is said that the martial arts trace their very origin to this coast in antiquity, the home of a cosmopolitan society that had not only been cultivating astounding disciplines of mind and body, but also juggling commerce with Arabs, Chinese, Egyptians and Mesopotamians for thousands of years.

Today I find not only this coast but all of India continuing to juggle different interests and lots of different cultures in the uniquely Indian way that is patient and accommodating, but not without great tensions.

It was December 16, 2012 when I woke up in the news that a girl had been viciously gang raped on a bus not too far from where we sat at home on a cold Delhi morning. She was in critical condition and being transported to a special hospital in Singapore. The faces of my beloved Indian family were ravaged. Delhi was brought to standstill of disgust and outrage. The perpetrators had been arrested. The military was called in the protect them from lynching. I will never forget the candlelight procession in our neighborhood of Chandni Chowk. It was a horrible day that got worse two days later when she succumbed to her injuries and died.

Even more infuriating were the impertenent questions: who was the boy she was with? He wasn’t family, was he? What were they doing? Where were they going? What was she wearing? Everyone knew where the questions were coming from and where they were leading. We even saw them on television, some of whom were authorities, implying that a woman is always at fault for suffering violence of any kind.

If it is true that even in the worst of tragedies there is something good to be found, I think that was the day that India woke up: Women had had it! They went to the streets. They wanted to be taken seriously. It was time to talk about sex. It was time to talk about justice. It was time for change.

I had seen how boys would sneak out the house without undershirts on before their mothers could verify their attire. I heard stories of how they met girls, who left home dressed a certain expected demure way, then went to change clothes into something more risqué before meeting their friends — not their cousins, as they had lied, modern telecom facilitating such deceit.

This is not working, I thought, too much dishonesty, too much change too fast.  I had an inkling as to the clash of cultures at hand. Their bringing the West too fast. The changes are happening too fast. They are not ready for this kind of individualism.

It was my fifth travel to India, and across those five previous years, I arrived annually to find a startling progression of change. I started to see women’s shoulders on TV and at the cinema, then I saw them on the street. Then I noticed I was actually seeing women on the street: it occurred to me that I had never really seen them alone or unaccompanied. Then one had reached out to shake my hand, touching me. Another had come to the house wearing jeans. I saw students in t-shirts. Some were working. One had to travel alone for work.  Another had a “boyfriend”!

In what is called the New India, the modern India to be found in the large cities, women were working, studying and dressing Western – with an air of independence – breaking with certain traditions and the norms of conduct of old that I had only ever seen among the Indian diaspora. The India of old was not adapting well to this individualism. This contemporary woman is still dangerously out of context for much of the predominating traditions of old. While this is hardly news for Indians, what had been insult to injury was to find that the institutions of state were also not there to protect women, or even take them seriously for that matter.

That is why after another five years and on the occasion of my tenth journey to India I was shocked to see young Indian women taking holidays on their own. When I saw some enter the beach café, ordering beers, wearing bikini tops, unaccompanied by family, my little Indian brothers laughed at me. I had been watching to see their eyes pop out. They were watching to see me scoff like their parents would. But we saw each other’s thoughts and laughed. “Actually, it is not the just the girls,” I told them. “I am surprised to see so many young Indians taking holidays to go to the beach. And this is Gokarna! These are not honeymooners in Goa.” We had been to so many destinations in the past where we might have encountered a school groups of friends, but more often than not, it was families that travelled together. On more than one occasion, I had even  been to places where Indian travelers were unwelcome: they haggled, they complained, they drank too much, they tried picking up foreign girls. I had been welcomed but my Indian brothers were eyed suspiciously.

“That’s the new India, bhai. Young people are working now; we have our own income. We want to have fun too.”

Fun. It can come with a huge cost. I know. I was born and raised in West, raised to be independent individual, allowed the freedom to make grave mistakes. When I discovered the sanatana dharma and the Indian tradition so many years ago, it was part of a process that made me re-evaluate what freedom is. It made me consider that no, and no choice, a limitation, a rejection, a denial, and a prohibition can also be liberating. No can force you in a direction to make more profitable choices for your growth. But this concept is almost alien to Westerners, not being allowed individual choice is torturous, criminal even. I sometimes fantasize at how easy – or not – life would be if my father had simply commanded that I marry this person, I study this, and I do that. No fun. Contribute as part of a family and do your duty.

Therefore, contemplating the newfound liberty of the youth for an initial moment, I concluded the change I was witnessing around me was neither good nor bad. Like all changes it would come with consequences both desirable and undesirable. On a secondary moment, watching a table of young Indian women talking over a beer, I swayed, “maybe it is good”. My only reservation was a concern for their safety, and how an entire social contract must be re-written, as well as its impact on a beautiful Tradition.

But before noticing the changes, I saw the malabarismo that has remained the same over ten years of travel, which has included three visits to the Coast, once in Goa, another in Kerala and now in Gokarna. There were the handsome and outgoing Kashmiri and Northeastern waiters, cooks and salesmen in establishments, having brought their Northern craft, refugees from their complicated borderlands to the beaches of the the South, where they do not speak the local language of the villagers who clean floors of hotels and inns with traditional hand brooms; the smiling, polite and blond Eurofamilies on holiday with their naked children running freely; the generous, heavy-drinking and somber Russians with their painfully bright red sunburns; the occasional odd couple: a Western woman accompanied by an Indian man; the Israeli youth fresh out of the their tour duty, loud and happily carrying their backpacks; Western hippies both young and old at various degrees across the spectrum – from serious yogis to seriously into drugs.

For the first time in my experience, however, I saw Western tourists outnumbered by domestic tourists at a beach destination. Often not knowing how to swim; with no liking of feeling hot, tanning, and being half-naked; and with a certain traditional aversion to the sea; I had always seen Indians head to their beloved hill stations with their families. The Malabar Coast was more the choice of Europeans who had found an affordable, safe, and beautifully tropical beach destination. Now, however, everywhere I looked there were more and more of these young weekenders from Bangalore. Groups of friends travelling together. They were not the occasional Indian family, holding hands together in a circle, fully-dressed, while entering the shallowest part of the beach at sunset. I suspected some couples were unmarried – something that is still explicitly prohibited in most hotels of India. Religions were irrelevant and I could not distinguish among them by just observing them. They consumed alcohol responsibly and without a sense of taboo. And there were the groups of girls, dressed casually, comfortably for the beach, simply enjoying themselves with nothing to be ashamed about.

“My God how things have changed!” I told the boys. Good for them, I thought. I was feeling proud of them, actually, this new generation that was balancing working and playing, cultures old and new, as best they could. They were youth much like the boys that have now left the family nest in Delhi to begin careers in Bangalore, like so many others. It is for that reason that my travels the last few years have taken me to Karnataka, a place that has given me a good impression the way the natives graciously juggle among South and North Indian languages, as well as English and other foreign languages, whereas other places in India are not so flexible. I am sure this is partly due to the people pouring in from all over the Republic to the good weather and opportunities in India’s tech capital. Alone to fend for themselves, they have come together freely and without much of the prejudice of old, far from the eyes and limitations of home. The city has obviously exploded in size within twenty years. Social norms may be adapting but the infrastructure has not. Traffic is notoriously worse than my beloved Delhi, which has gone in the opposite direction: the ancient city has been reluctantly adapting social norms but has managed to get some infrastructure improvements. I just hope the air and water of Bangalore do not follow the suit of Delhi.

Bangaloreans often escape weekends and holidays out of the stressful city and their tech and service working hours (often nights, since it is day for the clients on the other side of the world). At the center of South India, they have an entire menu to choose from, but they seem to be discovering the joys of the beach, despite the 10-hour overnight ride to Gokarna and its annoying lack of electronic payments.

Since The Lonely Planet guide is never wrong, I can only reiterate that there are two Gokarna’s: that of the beach and that of the ancient village. There are some centuries separating the kind of tourism each receive. Gokarna remains a holy pilgrimage site of profound importance to Hindus, home to what may be the most important of Shiva lingams. It is the place where Ganesha tricked Ravana, sabotaging the demon-king’s plan to consolidate unheard of power. This is not necessarily the only reason why foreigners are not allowed into the temples of Gokarna. It might just be their way of juggling the changes, by delivering that no. As a Hindu, I would have loved to visit the temples, but I also comprehend the importance of maintaining the Tradition. So it is better that those inappropriately dressed, without knowledge of how to approach a temple or what it is exactly that one does when worshipping, to remain outside. Besides, there are many other temples throughout India open to all, and actually, one might experience divinity better without a temple and with nothing more than prayers in front of the sunset on the beach, among the softness and warmth of the Arabian Sea.

If, that is, you can manage the malarbarismo of prayers, endless selfies, beers, swimming, hiking, prohibitions and camaraderie with travelers from all walks of life — even the ones you do not agree with — as has been done on the Malabar Coast since time immemorial.

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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