Safia Sayed- On Authenticity

I’m late in posting this, but here are my thoughts from my last week (!) in India.

As I prepare to head back to the United States, I’m spending a few days in Mumbai playing tourist and catching up with some extended family. I’m having such a great time sightseeing, shopping, eating, and conversing with cousins whom I’ve never before been old enough to have a real conversation with, on previous occasions when we’ve met. More than anything, though, Mumbai is forcing me to evaluate my time in Dehradun in new ways now that I’ve left it.

For starters, Dehradun is nothing like what I’d expected. Everything I had heard about Dehradun emphasized its natural beauty and the fact that it is a hill station. And sure, there’s definitely plenty of greenery around, and the hills in the distance. But Dehradun is still a lot more of a city than I expected it to be, with the bustling Rajpur Road, the traffic clogging up the routes into and out of the main thoroughfare, and the people everywhere. Although minuscule in comparison to the city I now find myself in, Dehradun is very much a city in its own right.

Being in Mumbai makes it easy to reflect on Dehradun’s size, and it’s also led me to consider its culture and character. This too, is different from what I expected. In my last days in Dehradun, I finally got around to checking out some of the famous natural attractions in Dehradun—a river cave formation called Robber’s Cave, sulphur springs known as Sahasradhara—and I was quite struck by how commercialized the areas are. I’ve long known now that people throughout the country like to visit places like Dehradun during the summer for a brief respite from the heat, relatively speaking. But I wasn’t expecting everything to be so touristy, complete with Ferris wheels and cable cars. I’ll admit, I was a bit disappointed. “Desecrated” is the word that came to mind in seeking the pockets of natural beauty obscured by a maze of ticketed attractions.

Again, these observations have truly crystallized in response to my being in Mumbai, a city which to me feels much more authentic. I’ve always been more of a big city kind of girl, and I appreciate places where I can eat, live, and explore like a local. I’m realizing that Mumbai is more my kind of city, but still I’m struck by the negative filter it’s imposed on my memories of Dehradun. Specifically, who am I to say what’s authentic or not, what’s a genuine experience or a mere desecration? Travelers to India, or in fact any destination perceived as exotic, are always in search of “authenticity,” when we are in fact least equipped to make that judgment. We tend to desire a very narrow specification of intercultural experience—balking at things we don’t consider traditionally Indian unless they suit our needs and conveniences, like Western-style toilets.

The truth is, India isn’t stylized to suit these preferences. Sure, it disappointed me that Sahasradhara looked more like a water park than a natural wonder, but I guess that really isn’t the point. And as much as I’m enjoying Mumbai now, I wonder if I could have enjoyed Dehradun more had I realized all this sooner. Still, it’s never too late to learn, and I hope to approach my final days in India with even more of an open mind.