If Alasdair Drysdale could visit just one place in India, there’s no question: it would be Kolkata—Calcutta.
But that doesn’t narrow it down much. As soon as he says it, Drysdale, who has taught geography at UNH since 1976, begins to wonder, which Kolkata?
“Orderly and chaotic, spacious and crowded, elegant and scruffy, noisy and serene, green and filthy, friendly and intimidating, manageable and overwhelming,” he writes in a blog chronicling his journey there last spring. “The city confirms all of the common stereotypes, but it also shatters them, surprising one at every turn.”
Venture beyond the typical tourist sites (and stereotypes), Drysdale says, and visitors to India discover a surprisingly diverse, complex, and magical country that no guidebook can neatly sum up.
It’s a message he’ll share with students through his blog, hundreds of breathtaking photographs, and videos. As the semester begins, Drysdale is as eager to incorporate his experiences into his Geography of the Non-Western World course—a class he’s taught for 30 years—as somebody fresh out of graduate school.
“It’s hands-down my favorite course to teach,” Drysdale says, “because it gives me a chance to open minds to the extraordinary diversity of these places. And in the end, perhaps students are less inclined to make absurd generalizations, and maybe they’re a little more humble and maybe a little more accepting.”
Drysdale, whose father was a diplomat, grew up in Uganda and Libya, attended college in England and the United States, and has done research in Syria, Lebanon, Oman and Jordan. Those experiences helped fuel his lifelong hunger for exploring the world—and learning about the histories, cultures, arts, politics, landscapes, and economies that shape a place and its people. He feeds it by traveling the world over whenever he can—often, at a blistering pace.
“My wife refuses to travel with me, because I don’t like to stop. I like to keep moving,” he says.
During his three-week visit last spring, Drysdale explored 11 cities and a stream of rural villages, lush green tea plantations, temples, filthy slums, upscale high-tech centers, snow-capped mountains, hard scrabble fishing villages, and trendy shopping malls. He traveled by planes, buses (often, over horribly rutted roads), trains, boats, and taxis. The journey was a treat he paid for himself during a semester-long sabbatical, most of which he devoted to writing a textbook about the Middle East and globalization, his area of specialty.
While he had visited India several times before, this trip covered new territory for him in southern and northeastern-most India. Drysdale had learned to expect the unexpected in India before, and he wasn’t let down this time, either.
“It’s such a huge, huge country,” he says, “and most students don’t realize just how diverse it is in so many ways.”
India, for instance, recognizes 14 official languages, each generally identified with its own region. English is commonly spoken among educated Indians, however, and more English speakers live in India than in the United Kingdom. Although 81 percent of its people are Hindu, it has more than 138 million Muslims, more than any country in the Middle East.
It is the world’s second-most populous country, yet growing so fast (by about 17 million a year, almost as many people as there are in Australia) it could surpass China by 2030.
Like the U.S., it is a federation of states, often called the world’s largest democracy, with a robust free press and intense political debates. Life expectancy is 63 years, but per capita income is just $2,600 a year and poverty and poor health are realities for millions. Still, 60 percent of the population is literate, many are college educated, and an enormous, growing middle class increasingly finds employment in the country’s booming high-tech industry.
Strolling down the streets of Bangalore (Bangluru), Drysdale says, one can find trendy shopping malls, swanky townhouses, and bustling high-tech offices on one block and, on the next, a squatters’ village where the poorest of the poor live on filthy streets covered with garbage and reeking of sewage.
Drysdale’s photos and blog entries convey all of that and more with each stop.
“As a geographer, I strongly believe that to bring a place alive for students, you need to bring the cultures alive,” he says. “So my teaching is very visual.”
In the end, Drysdale’s journal and photographs don’t leave the impression of one India, or even one Kolkata—but of many. And that is exactly his point.
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