Saturday, November 10, 2007

indian omnibus

Well, it's my last day in India for this trip and I've still got notes on close to a bajillion things to write about. So, in the spirit of the Ask A Ninja Omnibus, hop on aboard as I bang through as much as I can before returning to my New York based, infrequently blogging ways.

  • Chinese food -- Indian people generally only eat Indian food. The only exceptions to this are Western multi-national food chains (e.g. Domino's) and Chinese food. Just as the U.S. has its own brand of Chinese food (think "orange chicken"), so does India. Chinese food here is generally sauce heavy, spicy, and not fried. It's so distinctive, in fact, that it is available internationally and has its own Wikipedia page:
  • Landmark navigation -- No one calls streets by their official names and street signs are rare at best so everyone here relies on landmark navigation to get around. It's utterly confusing as someone who doesn't live here and makes it close to impossible to get anywhere you've never been to before (unless conveniently located next to someplace you have been to and remember). I thought I'd be all independent and learn where things are in Mumbai this trip, but I quickly gave up when I realized all the dirty streets looked the same.
  • Clothing -- My cousins took me to a store that sells casual dress shirts and started pulling out shirt after shirt for me to try, each a different and unusual color -- colors I rarely on people and certainly have never worn. Apprehensively I told them I'd try them on, but I was pretty sure they wouldn't go with my skin tone. Then, lo and behold, ever one of the ridiculous colors matched my complexion just fine. I was amazed until I remembered I'm in India... everyone here has my skin color and they've had thousands of years to figure out which fabric colors go well with it. On the other hand, in a country full of such exceptionally skinny people, the fit of the shirts was surprisingly loose. In all the clothing stores we went to, I consistently ended up getting the smallest size available -- I'm not smaller than the average Indian, but common practice here is to wear collared shirts baggy (and tucked in)... go figure.
  • Historical upkeep -- India does a depressingly poor job maintaining its cultural landmarks. When I visited Raj Ghat (Gandhi's memorial in Delhi) a few years ago, the lawns were dying, the fountains dry, and the pathways dirty. The best maintained sites are almost always World Heritage Sites (maintenance funded by UNESCO) or Buddhist sites (maintenance funded by the Japanese). The notable exception to this is a series of palaces maintained by the Taj Hotels company. This means that whenever you see a large, beautiful, well-maintained, historic building, it's almost always hotel.
  • Local trains -- Mumbai doesn't have a subway system (what they call "subway" we would call "pedestrian underpass") but it does of a simple system of above ground local trains. Riding the trains is considered quite scary but my experiences on this trip weren't so bad (I only went off-peak and always with someone more experienced). The train system is incredibly efficient, punctual, and dirty. It's the backbone of the dabbawallas who operate with "six sigma" precision. There are first class cars (10x more expensive), women-only cars, and general cars. The general cars are by far the most crowded and have people hanging out of the doorways (oh right, there are no doors) at all times.
  • Cricket -- I never realized this, but cricket is way more popular than soccer in India. I don't think I've seen a single pick-up game of soccer here, but I've seen countless groups of all ages playing cricket. According to my cousins, Indian television show cricket and soccer matches but no other sporting events (not even the Olympics).
  • Mustaches -- Something like 60% of Indian men have mustaches. I don't get it. Not beards, mustaches. Doesn't matter what your social status or occupation is, you probably have a mustache. The one exception is Bollywood actors who, for some reason, are generally clean-shaven.
  • Driving -- Driving is perhaps the most singly scary thing you can do in India. I'd always understood that lane markers were optional in Mumbai, but when we went to Bhopal, I quickly learned that the center divider is just a suggestion too. No one wears a seat belt and everyone has their side-view mirrors tucked in (otherwise the mirror would get nicked off). Horns are so integral for announcing where you are and what you intend to do that you'd probably be better off driving blind than deaf in this country.
  • My ignorance -- I don't speak Hindi or Marathi (just English and Java) so everyone (including my relatives) assumes I must know next to nothing about India and the Hinduism. My knowledge of Indian history is certainly lacking, but it gets very frustrating when people start describing to you, in simple terms, a dish that you've had since childhood. Especially annoying when people assume I know little about Hindu mythology. It's true that as a non-practicer, my familiarity with practical/daily details of Hinduism (why you do something x number of times, to always do y before z) is sketchy, but I've found that my knowledge of Hindu mythology is actually broader than most Indian people's. This is, in no small part, due to the fact that my sister and I were voracious readers when we were young and were fed piles upon piles of Amar Chitra Katha comics. At this point, I'm fairly sure my sister and I know more about Hindu mythology than both my parents and perhaps even more than my Grandfather and many of my cousins (incl. the ones living in India). Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to stop people from trying to explain to me who Ganesh is...
Alright; I have more to write about but this is the last stop... everyone off.


  1. I think the mustache is a symbol of virility. Which explains why actors don't need it. They've got tons of money, which I suppose means that they don't even need to convince others of their mojo.

  2. With all due respect, we could as easily, say the contrary like Majority of the American men don't have mustaches, I don't get it. Doesn't matter what your social status or occupation is, you probably don't have a mustache.

    Irrespective of whether they are American or Indian or some other, most of the people act based on their conditioning and their environment.

    And why did you mention social status (whatever that is)? What has, having a mustache or anything else for that matter, got to do with social status?

  3. Praval: I think the mustaches interest me because they're purposeful -- clean-shaveness or full beards as cultural norms make sense, but mustaches indicate a more conscientious effort in my mind.

    The social status line was because in the book I was reading at the time (The Age of Kali) the author talks of a man who asserts that you could tell the social status / former-caste of a person based on how they shaped and maintained their mustache. Also you might imagine that a flamboyant mustache would be a indicator of prosperity -- certainly it seemed a popular style in the picture's I've seen of India's past nobility.


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