Thanks to Goa, many Russians think the weather is always hot across India.Alamy/Legion Media
Over the last 13 years, I have travelled to many corners of Russia and have even been to places where people had never seen a dark-skinned person before. I am used to strange questions and have always answered them with a sincere smile since I realize that many a time in isolated places, I am an unofficial ambassador for India.
As I wrote in July, members of the intelligentsia of Russia are very well informed about India and in many ways know more about our country than a lot of Indians. When it comes to the common man in Russia, the misperceptions about India are widespread, and often the negative reports about India from the western press get translated and make it to the Russian media and blogosphere. Over the last few years, I have been repeatedly asked some annoying questions from people who harbor no bad intentions but are genuinely curious. Here are the five most common ones.
This, for me, is the king of irritating questions. When someone asks me this, I reply the same way I did when a government official came to my apartment in Bombay on census duty. I say my caste is Indian! I’ve filled this out in university and other government forms as well, since I completely reject the caste system.
I’ve never ever cared about the caste, race, religion or ethnicity of anyone and this is so far removed from my life in India that I get taken aback when I am asked about this in Russia. Being born to modern and progressive parents in India’s most cosmopolitan city played a big role in me not bothering about such trivial matters.
I tell people in Russia that the people who care about their caste in India’s big cities can be broadly divided into two categories: The first being members of lower castes who get benefits via reservations in universities and government jobs and the second are people with self esteem and identity problems who need to feel good about belonging to a high caste.
This question comes from well meaning people who appreciate the fact that I know Russian. They just want to return the courtesy and say something nice in ‘Indisski,’ but the problem is that there is no such as THE ‘Indian’ language! One of the things that make India great is our rich collection of languages, each with their own history, traditions and literature.
Although Bengali, Telugu and Hindi are not my native languages, I love the way they sound and I love their rich literature.
Many Russians get surprised when they’re told that a large number of Indians are trilingual, and can speak their native language, Hindi and English. People living in state-border areas in the country often pick up a fourth language, and this is without a formal education in it!
This question has a lot to do with the fact that for many Russians, Goa = India! The paradise state in India’s west coast has sunny and warm weather except in the rainy season, and is a winter refuge for many a Russian. Some Russians have started exploring places that are relatively close to the state, such as Gokarna and Hampi, which also tend to be hot.
I have to tell people that the plains of northern India actually have winters where temperatures drop to single degrees and then there are places like Srinagar, and Manali that get plenty of snow!
The idea of the weather in India being always hot is as ridiculous as a belief that Moscow is in a permafrost zone!
A larger number of Russian tourists need to start visiting northern India in the winter and enjoy the pleasant weather in places like Rajasthan. Then there are the Himalayan regions where the weather is ideal in the spring!
I will be the first person to admit that we have a serious problem when it comes to sexual violence against women. The gruesome stories of rape, particularly the Nirbhaya case, spread far and wide across the world. Russians first heard of the case when news of protests against the rape forced the Indian government to shift the venue of annual India-Russia summit in 2012.
We all need to condemn such barbarism in India and also work to change attitudes across the country. I would add that it is ridiculous to say that other countries are free of this problem.
When Russians ask me about women’s safety in India, I tell them that there are places that need to be avoided and that in my neighborhood in Bombay, young women (Indian or expat) wear whatever they want and nobody even bats an eyelid. Of course, being a man, I am not blind to the fact that I enjoy what is called ‘male privilege.’ If I want to go for a run at 2 am on Juhu Beach, the worst thing that could happen to me is that a policeman on night patrol asks me to go home! No matter how safe the city is, I wouldn’t recommend a woman do the same thing, but then again, it wouldn’t be wise for a young woman to go for a late-night run alone in Moscow, either.
In a country of more than a billion people, there are likely to be more than a billion opinions. What many of the people I meet in Russia don’t seem to understand is that the Indian government’s decisions in foreign policy don’t always reflect the opinion and wishes of the masses.
I always remind people who ask me this question about the fact that India’s friendship with Russia is one of its foundational relationships in international diplomacy.
As for the common people, well, the average Indian likes so-called western comforts just as much as the average Russian does. The main reason why the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia are considered good places to migrate to is their usage of the English language. Indians still know very little about Russian life and conditions.
As someone who is an insider in Russia and India, I will say that there is a genuine emotional and spiritual bond that links us. It’s inexplicable but nevertheless present! As a child growing up in New York in the early 1990s, I could never understand how my father’s Indian friends, many of whom were naturalized American citizens, were totally anti-U.S. government and pro-Russia. Years later, I understand the sentiments, and after living in Russia, I totally get that the feelings for India are mutual!
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