Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Letter from... a major international tourist destination

On the joys of travel and the marvel of finding a Hindi audio guide in Scotland

Thanks to a combination of fortuitous personal and private circumstances, I have been lucky enough to visit a number of wonderful tourist destinations in India and elsewhere. From the wonderful Neolithic site of Newgrange, a short drive from Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, to the wonderful town of Krakow in Poland, to the meteorite crater at Lonar near Aurangabad to the crazy fever dream that is Genting in Malaysia. Big cities. Small towns. Weird museums. Interesting people. Tourist traps. Hidden gems. Hot air balloons. High-speed trains. Islands. Bridges. Tunnels. Buffet breakfasts. Hagia Sofia. 

And a few mishaps aside—absentmindedly throwing away a wristwatch along with a bag full of garbage at Flushing Meadows, getting a rather painful liver abscess from Polish tap water, overstaying on my Abu Dhabi visa by exactly two hours—I have enjoyed all this travel very much indeed. This year, time and documentation willing, I hope to tick a few more destinations off my bucket lists. Hadrian’s Wall, Ravenna, Modena and Brussels beckon. And anywhere in the US besides New York. But also New York. I really do love New York. 

As anyone who has travelled even a little will testify, places endear themselves to the traveller for more than the obvious reasons. Yes, some buildings are always beautiful, some landscapes are undeniably breathtaking, some art is universally transcendental and some food is indisputably unforgettable. But there is more to travel. There is chance and circumstance and serendipity and a combination of all these things that lead to unique inner and outer mood. What else can explain why I will never forget a hasty meal of boiled beans and bread that I ate in a ramshackle little restaurant in Istanbul, a stone’s throw from a isolated little church that sat in an empty, unlit little courtyard. An ancient meal, at an ancient table, in an ancient town, on a magnificent evening. The whole was far far greater than the sum of the parts. 

There are other reasons to fondly remember destinations. Consider the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh, a short walk down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle. It is an entirely enjoyable thing in itself—a high-tech interactive experience, in which you tour through a virtual whisky distillery seated in a barrel. There are tastings of whisky to be had, a cafe to dine in, and an excellent shop with a wide selection of spirits to choose from. I recommend it highly. Whilst it is far from actually touring a working distillery, the whole thing is great fun especially if there are non-whisky drinkers in your travel group who’d like a little taste of the water of life, but nothing more. But I have a particular fondness for the Scotch Whisky Experience for another reason—it is one of the very few places anywhere in the world I’ve been to that offers audio narration of a visitor experience in the Hindi language. 

And it is very good too. Last year I went there with my father-in-law and asked for the Hindi language narration in our… err… barrel. (My mother-in-law would rather leap from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle and fall to certain death in the car park below rather than be seen in a whisky barrel, gently gallivanting around a virtual distillery.) 

And Mr Kapoor had the time of his life. It was great fun. I was genuinely impressed at the quality and accessibility of the translation. None of that comedic translations you sometimes see when people use the internet to make Hindi captions that either make no sense or only make sense to professors of Hindi literature. 

But this is exceedingly rare. I can’t think of any other major tourist attraction anywhere else in Europe that offers an audio guide in Hindi or any other Indian language. Nobody feels a need to offer them, I suppose, because they all presume that Indians who travel speak at least passable English. 

Now I am not going to wade into the whole ‘Should Indians speak English’ debate. For the sake of my job, I hope we continue to do so. 

But one issue with this notion of India as an English-speaking country, albeit a miniscule one, is that nobody makes the effort to translate things into Hindi or Tamil and so on. Not for its own sake. But because I think this is at least one way in which people will forced to engage with India and its people and its culture at some non-zero level. If Indian travellers weren’t clubbed into the ‘English’ bucket, then imagine how many places in the world would need menus, signboards, audioguides, brochures, guidebooks and even salespeople. The UK would definitely need a few, and so would Paris, Rome, and, of course, Switzerland. Eventually, perhaps, these translations and accommodations would add up. And these efforts would lead to some form of cross-cultural appreciations that goes beyond Indians being ‘the English speakers who aren’t white are probably vegetarian and that means no egg and no fish mind it’. 

But then here we are. With our three languages per person, inscrutable cultural complexity, insatiable wanderlust and limited budgets. Of course things aren’t all that bad. It is always nice being part of an international tourist group in York or Canterbury or Windsor or Dublin, and being the only people who can make out everything that the guide is saying in English. And then having to explain everything to the Dutch and Chinese and Spanish. And then feeling an iota of self-pride. Before very sweet old Hungarian lady waddles up and says: “You are from India? You are very intelligent people. Especially in Information Technology. Can you please connect my phone to wifi?" 

Ugh.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. 

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