Belly of the beast: the country that will change you

It can appal and sicken, literally. But for most who visit it India can cast a lifetime spell, writes Ben Stubbs.

The attendant considered us for a moment as we stood at the front of the line at the Howrah train station on a humid summer night.

"Does the train to Siliguri leave at 10pm?" we asked again.

He smiled at our question and tilted his head, wobbling it ever so slightly. I took it as a "yes", although it was impossible to tell for sure, and so we lugged our bags and sat in the bare hallway with the beggars and transients who made Kolkata's northern train station home, and we waited.

The remnants of my first experiment with dairy in India - a mango lassi bought off a street vendor - gurgled ominously somewhere below. My initial view of India was one of squalor; outside, the lanes were filled with burning rubbish and the crush of people who lived in tarpaulin shanties surrounding the station.

As hours passed, the symptoms of "Delhi belly" surfaced. I had my first encounter with an Indian public toilet on a moving train in the middle of the night - and my image of the country was tainted. I wanted to go home.

Scottish writer William Dalrymple said of his experiences in the subcontinent: "India thrilled, surprised, daunted and excited me. Since then, it has never ceased to amaze."

And so for my own experience, as with many travel accounts of the subcontinent, the abrasiveness of India that got under my skin initially began to affect me in a way that became positive and endearing as we immersed ourselves deeper in the place.

On the 12-hour journey north, on the train that eventually left Kolkata some time after midnight, we met an Indian family who shared cups of milky chai with us; we woke from our bunks in the morning to discover curious students sitting on the ends of our beds studying the guidebooks we had left on top of our bags; and we were shown the correct way to eat rice and dhal without cutlery by the people with whom we shared our cabin as the Himalayan foothills gained clarity out the open windows of the train.


The transformation from disbelief and frustration at the initial poverty, chaos and lack of personal space to one of acceptance and enthusiasm is not an uncommon reaction for travellers in India.

What is it, though, that allows the complete foreignness of the Indian experience to alarm and then embrace so many visitors and often leave them coming back for more again and again?

Aside from the privilege of witnessing a culture that is so colourful, and different from what many of us are accustomed to, it got me thinking about the letters, postcards and emails I'd sent to family and friends and the journals I'd written just for myself over 10 visits to India.

For me, the draw of travelling in India is in the anecdotes it produces. India is a place rich with stories; in the classic sense, we can appreciate the immensity of a performance of the Ramayana and the reach of the latest Bollywood offering from Shah Rukh Khan, and this extends right down to our own individual experiences as travellers in a place that seems exotic and fantastic.

These experiences make us (as the narrators) sound just that little bit more exotic and fantastic than when we left our homes only weeks before. It is not despite the chaos, contradictions and confrontations that I love travelling in India; it is because of them and the stories they allow us to live out as protagonists and participants.

"One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it's left behind," Charles Dickens said, and there is something in the notion of telling the story of a place that permits us to relive it and create a narrative around what happens to us.

This allows us to attach a sense of the quixotic to the experience we have endured as we recount it from a distance.

There is much more to the evolving appeal of India to the traveller who learns how to deal with hawkers, adapt to the fluidity of time and accept the inevitability of Delhi belly than just the anecdote they take away from it, although I challenge anyone to not look back on many of their stories of India, or travel in general, where being out of their comfort zone is a large part, without a wry sense of fondness and achievement.

As travellers, we tend to romanticise challenging travel experiences from a distance, as do our audiences.

Think about the holiday where everything goes well and there are no surprises. The hotel was nice, the food was nice and I got a good tan. No one is really interested in hearing the mundane travel story, or seeing the three-hour slide show that might follow.

However, if our group emails to colleagues back home tell of travelling through the valleys of Sikkim on the roof of a bus, running around the lanes of Chennai during the Holi festival while children plaster us with coloured chalk, or staying in an 88-cent hotel with cardboard pillows in a backwater town, then we have a narrative people are more likely to be interested in reliving with us - even if it is a vicarious experience and one they're happy to hear of from the comfort of the familiar. We momentarily forget the dampness of the cardboard or the lack of facilities on the roof of the bus (unless, of course, they add a layer to our anecdote) because we have become the protagonists in a great story - one of our own making.

As writer and professor Robert McKee says: "Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact."

This is why the Indian experience is so rich for travellers.

Very rarely do we walk away from a trip to India with nothing to report beyond the plentiful buffet at the hotel and the comfort of the transport that shuttled us between the sights.

It is because of the memory of the first cow we see on a beach, the noise of the fireworks during Diwali, the inescapable photo set-ups with Indian families at the Taj Mahal, the street food adventures and the travel on Keralan boats, Rajasthani buses and second-class sleeper trains that we have pages to write that give meaning and significance to our experiences for ourselves and those who are waiting for us back home. At the end of it all, we have a fuller experience as travellers because of these anecdotes we recount in letters, diaries and even on Facebook.

India is not just the world's largest democracy and a place of social and religious challenges and contradictions to us, the minute travellers seeing it from the ground; it is a narrative waiting to have its story told from our point of view, whatever that might entail.

I think India changes all travellers who immerse themselves, and the more expectations a traveller has, the more it challenges them.

My first trip to India was meant to be only a brief stopover with my brother, although after three months travelling east to west and to the northern extremities, I had been sick more times than I could remember and I'd spent hundreds of hours on trains, buses and rickshaws.

I had also camped on 5000-metre Himalayan peaks, ridden a camel through the desert at sunset and acted in a Bollywood film in Mumbai.

The stories I encountered in India were a large reason why I decided to devote my life to travel writing to try to extend this search for real-life anecdotes.

One of the most valuable things we can learn from travelling in India - where the simple task of finding a meal or a hotel or chatting with a sadhu on the Varanasi ghats can enlighten us to another way of looking at the world - is that the amazing can happen anywhere if you're open to it.

As Salman Rushdie says: "A kind of India happens everywhere, that's the truth too; everywhere is terrible and wonder-filled and overwhelming if you open your sense to the actual pulsating beat."

And maybe this is the most important thing we can take home with us from experiencing the chaos and beauty of a place such as India - there are interesting stories and experiences for us everywhere - we just have to be willing to look for them.


Ben Stubbs is a Canberra-based writer and university teacher with a passion for travelling the world and writing about it.