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Debunking common stereotypes about India

Man performing yoga by the beach

India has long held the reputation of being an exotic place, mostly due to the Western concept of the Orient.  While India has undergone modernization and rapid development, the West stubbornly sticks to their elementary notion of India as seen in Eat, Pray, Love. We have decided to bust some of the common stereotypes that have latched themselves firmly on to the idea of India.

1. Where exotic elephants roam the streets

Indian elephant
Srikaanth Sekar

Although we would really love elephants to be our means of everyday commute, it is just a far-fetched dream of ours.  The only place we get to see them are at some temples, where an elephant is adorned for festivals.  We bribe them to bless us, of course.  But jokes apart, they’re highly endangered animals protected by law, and you’re not going to see one walk across the road, except in a few places such as the forested areas bordering Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.  But even there you would have to be really lucky to catch a glimpse of these gentle giants.

2. Mustachioed maharajahs

A Maharaja of India
San Diego Museum of Art

We’re the world’s largest democracy.  Period.  600 princely states were rolled into the union at the time of India’s independence from the British in 1947.  Remnants of the erstwhile dynasties exist, but that won’t help you if you don’t pay your taxes to the modern nation state.  The maharajahs’ old palaces tend to be tourist spots and their titles are honorary.  Before you ask, the answer is ‘no’; they don’t have treasure rooms overflowing with gold and precious stones.

3. Arranged marriages

Not all marriages are arranged
Pee Vee

Arranged marriages are an enduring custom in Indian culture.  However, times they are a-changin’.  We’re more than happy to report that it’s rarely the case today that newlyweds first see their spouse on the day of their wedding.  People are moving past the taboo of love marriage, and young men and women have greater say in whom they choose to marry and when.

4. Mass-produced IT engineers

Harsha K.R
Harsha K.R

With the IT male having replaced textiles and precious stones as India’s biggest export, it makes sense to assume that IT is the most popular choice of profession among Indians.  You’ll be surprised to know that half of India still relies on farming for their livelihood.  Who do you think harvests the spices that go into making chicken tikka masala, Britain’s national dish?

5. Poverty everywhere

Not everybody in India stays in a slum
United Nations Photo

It’s a rather sore spot.  Around a fifth of India lives below the poverty line, and it’s not pretty.  India has a lot of issues – the poor families individually do, too – and this is something to be taken seriously.  But don’t let that be an excuse to indulge in poverty porn.

6. Bollywood buffs

Bollywood everywhere
Meena Kadri

We have a long history of music, dance, and the performing arts.  But we don’t quite burst into a song and synchronized dancing on the streets, Bollywood-style.

7. Where cows rule

Cows aren't worshipped by everyone
Marc Garnout

You got us there, sort of.  We worship and revere our cows, yes.  So much so that it’s the only animal we don’t honk at or shoo away harshly on our roads.  We try more not to hit a cow than a human on the road, to be honest.  These self-proclaimed masters of the road sit wherever they please and you won’t see us complaining.  But not all Indians worship cows.  14.2 % of India’s population are Muslims and another 2.3% are Christians, and together, they form the biggest consumers of beef in India.  A good number of Hindus eat beef, too.  So, if you wager otherwise, you might just have to eat crow.

8. Where women aren’t safe

Sexual harassment is not that frequent

India does have a large number of crimes against women, with many incidents going unreported.  While it is true that the actual numbers are staggering, and even one crime is a crime too many, it is arguable whether in percentage terms more women in India are victims of sexual assault than in other countries, including developed ones such as Sweden.

9. BPOs and call centers

Not everybody works at a call centre
Marc Hillary

Shows such as Outsourced do accurately portray the situation of call center workers in India.  While it is true that it’s a rapidly growing business in India, with millions of people being employed in call centers, only about 1% of our population work in this industry.

10. Indian cuisine

Indian cuisine is not all about tikka and curry

What most outsiders think of as Indian cuisine is but the most globalized regional version: Punjabi cuisine.  There are numerous distinct cuisines local to different states and regions in India, including Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Kerala, Gujarati, Marathi, Sindhi, Bengali, Oriya, Manipuri, and Assamese cuisine.  That means a very large and diverse range of food items, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.  Our recommendation, when visiting unfamiliar cities and towns in India: Go beyond the tried and tested dish.

11. The land of snake charmers

Snake charmers are a rare sight these days

Let go of it already.  It’s like calling USA the New World, for Ganesha’s sake!  We don’t charm snakes any more than ride horses bareback and yell war chants (I know we’re a different kind of Indian).  While snake charmers do exist in India, they are not really a common sight.  With people becoming more aware of wildlife safety, experts such as zoo officials are called to deal with snakes, thus removing the need for snake charmers.

12. Yoga

Not everybody in India practices yoga
Steven Sim

Every Indian knows yoga like every Chinese knows Kung Fu and every American weighs 300 pounds.  Get the point?  Just because India is the birthplace of yoga doesn’t mean that yoga is a way of life here.  Sadly, yoga probably gets more respect and attention in the West than in India.

13. The Indian accent

Not all Indians have an accent
Bold Content

There is literally no single “Indian” accent that can be found when you notice English-speaking Indians, as it varies vastly according to which part of India they are from and what their native language is.  Just as there is the Brooklyn accent and the southern twang in the US.  And trust us, the stereotypical Indian accent played out in most US sitcoms is jarring to most of us in India, too.

14. It’s so hot in India

Snow up in the mountains
Richard Veil

Really?!  You can find just about every kind of climate here and it varies with the landscape. We have sub-zero temperatures as well as searing heat that reaches 45 degrees C and places which receive rainfall everyday as well as places that have barely seen rain in years.

15. Spicy food

Not all Indian dishes are spicy
Nadir Hashmi

We love our spices, yes. While we are liberal with the masalas in our cuisine, by no means does it mean that you brand all Indian food spicy.  Take our staple idlisrotis and dal chaval.  They can be as bland as can be..

16. Religious hotspot

Not all Indian people are religious
Jacob Jung

While religion does play a vital role in the country and it’s hard to separate it from everyday life, there are simply too many people who are just too busy for it in their lives.  Considering that this category seems growing with the number of young office goers preoccupied with their careers, the hold of religion cannot but weaken.

17. Awkward gender divide

Indian couple out on a date
Jason Corey

Not all Indians are awkward around the opposite sex, not even close.  Men and women are comfortable being friends with each other as well as with dating, at least in most cities, which are increasingly cosmopolitan.

18. Everyone is dark

Not all Indians are dark
Kaustav Bhattacharya

Stereotyped as “brown,” Indians actually show a lot of variance in skin tone.  It surprises us that when a Westerner observes a fair-skinned Indian and remarks, “Oh, but you don’t look Indian,” it is often taken as a personal compliment instead of a racist remark.

19. Huge joint families

Ian D. Keating
Ian D. Keating

One is bound to get the impression that most Indians live with their extended family in a palatial house that’s ancestral property.  Reality is that nuclear families are far more common, with even the previous generation moving out of their parents’ house and raising kids themselves.

20. The Indian language

There are 22 official languages in India
Sagar Pradhan

There are about 1,600 languages and distinct dialects in India, with 22 major languages given the status of official languages.  “Indian” isn’t one of them.


Editor’s note:

If you have been to India, you would have inevitably experienced one or more localized versions of the English language.  Read more about Indian English here: Why Prepone Is A Pukka Word.

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Advaith Jayakumar

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