Sunday, January 20, 2008

This is from my favorite India Forum. Stop by and learn something new everyday

A must-read article for anyone contemplating a journey to India. Beach, one of IndiaMike's resident gurus, perfectly sums up the enigma that is India.

ARTICLE by beach.

Title image submitted by mistral

This write-up is intended to throw some light on various India facets for the ones who are still searching to locate India on the map. It is difficult to explain the whole of things in this short (!) posting. This obviously suffers the fatigue of oversimplification of a complex topic. But still I feel that for a novice India tourist this can give a glimpse of what is India. A few apparent topics of interests are attempted.

This is not a ‘quick fix guide’ or a ‘sure shot trick’ for the India candidate. Nor it is trying to suggest you the optimum itinerary. Where to go and what to see is not discussed.

Also this is not to scare you away or discourage with the real facts. The ones planning to visit India is a special league with a taste for a mini adventure and inquisitiveness to see a new way of life. It’s not an easy and lazy experience. You need not have to be a brutally brave macho to visit India. It’s neither a cakewalk nor a mission impossible.

A better understanding of the scheme of things goes a very long way in your memorable India trip.
The India confusion

Unexplainable. It works more like biology than physics. Your India plan invariably starts with the classic confusion - India or Not. The experiences narrated by the ones already visited India only add fuel to fire. Any one can convince you (with proof) contradicting facts about India.

The stories I heard ranges from how someone flew out by the next possible flight within hours after landing in to the one dreaming about the next India tour when she was only at the beginning lap of her first India tour. That she had the real cultural shock on returning home. I’ve been convinced with unquestionable reasons for all their points.
“The most valuable currency you need to enjoy India in total is patience. She never allows you to run faster than her nor she is bothered about your hurry.”

The excitement a traveler seeking from the ‘ancient spiritual India’ is comparable with that of the Microsoft executive visiting India for business. Both are enthusiastically scratching the India itch but at the two ends of a century!

It is a unique, overlapping and entangled landscape one living within the other. Her one part is stuck in the history. You as a tourist are going there to experience this living past. The other part is the modern India that facilitates you as a traveler.

Her past collide with her present in the middle of the road. You witness this never ending and mind-boggling fusion of contradicting things. This is the how the whole of hysterical chaos can be explained in simple terms. It’s akin to two huge elephants wrestling avidly. Nothing bothers them nor no one can stop it.

A man driving a Mercedes honking horn at a bullock cart to give way is not a funny sight. It’s a real life picture you'll see on the Indian roads.

At every turn awaits you a hither to unknown surprise. This suspense hound you all the way from the ‘India or not’ skepticism through the India adventure and finally fade into that India nostalgia.
The rude welcome

Your welcome to India is never a friendly one. The first thing you’ll notice is the people. I mean lots of them. People moving in all directions. You’ll have to deal with the worst of India head-on. It’s really raw. Let it be the beggars or the touts or the poor children pestering or the local taxi drivers, you’ve to deal with all of them in minutes after arrival.

Whatever tricks and tips you’ve by hearted will be forgotten in a matter of minutes facing this. It’s like learning swimming by reading a book and jumping into the pool! It will teach you new lessons only after you’ve failed the test!

And it is powerful enough to change the way you look at life. The shock treatment that strikes at the very core of you. No amount of homework can prepare you to neutralize this. Nevertheless you won’t be caught totally off the guard if you have done some.

A regular foreign tourist in all probability won’t be dealing much with their Indian counterpart social class during the tour. The shock is more so due to this reason also.

Even for an Indian visiting an unfamiliar Indian city is as eventful as a foreigner doing it. The India poison works a bit quick on you. You need to give it some time before you take control of the whole scheme of things.

Its bizarre but that is how India welcomes you. This shock is also very much the part of experience India package.

There is no India culture

This is a fact about India. And you would fail miserably if you were all out to find out the Indian culture. India is not a monolithic cultural block. It’s an anthology of a thousand countries within a country.

More than a dozen languages are spoken principally within various geographic regions. The diversity is visible in food, costume and even in the social behavior. The way people look and think are different. The ways people cook and eat are different. All has different festivals and customs. Even the religious holidays are different for different regions.

For an Indian living in a southern town, Varanasi at the north is a mysterious place far away from his visual range and comprehension. If you’re traveling the length and breadth of the country everyday you are arriving at a new India, different from the one you have seen yesterday. The north, south, east and the west are all distinctively different. No cities or towns are stereotype representative of India. All are unique in its own way. It’s a never-ending roll of menu for you to pick places of your taste.

Culturally this country falls somewhere in between the orthodox and the modern. You’ll find a lot of sex symbols and signals of modernism almost everywhere in India. Like women in the cities walking around in tight T-shirts and jeans. Those huge billboards profiling modern attire. Make no mistakes about it. Deep in their mind it is a conservative culture that respects tradition.

The difference between a sleeveless blouse and the one with elbow long sleeves is HUGE in terms of modernism. It’s technically possible to prove that a traditional Sari is (can be made!) more ‘sexy’ than a T-shirt and jeans. But still the later is accepted with skepticism.

The younger generation is a century away from that of their parent's. The cultural clash truly happens more at the middleclass Indian living rooms than the one with a western tourist at a social place. They are notorious in “Indianizing” everything they like. The numerous “Chinese fast food” joints doted all around the country serves food neither Chinese nor Indian. The vegetarian McDonald and the Indian version of MTV (empty V, as they call it!) are other examples.

But the peculiar thing about this diversity is that you can feel the presence of a strong and widely spaced common cultural net encompassing all the individual Indian cultures. The blood circulating is common.
The Social structure

There is nothing like the poor lives in villages and the rich in the cities. The extreme riches and the unimaginably poor live almost side-by-side. Well. The burgeoning population of middleclass lives somewhere in-between.

All share more or less the same public landscape. The cultural co existence of these classes for the lifetime is a miracle unexplainable. Accommodating an alien foreign tourist in this society is not a surprise as compared to her own social contradictions.

The shear sizes of all these classes created a unique economic system to accommodate and cater all of them. As a tourist this plays to your advantage. You can fit into anywhere in the economic spectrum. This is one reason why it is possible for you do an India tour with a lavish or a tight budget.

You'll not miss anything expect the luxury and comfort as the hotel accommodations are available from $3 to $300.Three thousand kilometers you can travel for a cost from $10 to $150 by the same train at different classes. You can have a decent meal from less than $½ to a king like supper for $50.

There is something like the "poor man's Mercedes" available for anything and everything in India. Like anyone in India you need to find out your financial class and just fit into that! ‘When in Rome, do as Romans do’ is a practical piece of advice in this context.

A foreign tourist definitely stickout in a social setup. The difference can be made as an advantage. People taken it for granted that a foreign tourist is well traveled and courageous. It’s up to you to make it to your advantage. Probably this is evolved from the fact that they see countless number of lone foreign travelers roam the nook and corner of the country.

An average Indian thinks as if the whole of the western population is of the same monolithic culture. For him the US culture and the UK are the same, leave alone the difference between Scotland and Wales!

This has nothing to do with the geography understanding or the lack of it. The reason assigned for this could be simple. Both the learner guest and the host are unaware of each other's culture.
The family factor

Don't get surprised if your Indian friend introduces you to her dad's eldest brother's son-in-law's younger sister to you! It is a highly networked family structure alien to the west. People are not independent to each other as in the west. Parents play highly influential role in everyone’s life.

A simple example is the marriage. Selection of ones life partner is rarely an individual’s decision. People prefer a wider acceptance in the family circle on matters related to marriage. It’s perceived as a creation of a new network of relations and not as a one to one agreement.

This is what the social security net in India. The same hold good for many aspects seemingly individualistic ranging from academics to career decisions. A family is more of a collective consulting body where everyone’s opinion matters.

This explains why a large number of people travel as family. This is one reason why the trains and busses are crowded. ‘Family only’ sections are available in most of the restaurants.

The family is the elementary building block of the Indian society.

Any layman on the road wants to talk something with you. They love talking. That is talking a lot even with a total stranger on the street. Such communications hardly starts with introducing each other by name. The starting topic is generally a subject of popular interest. They can talk for hours as if they are long time friends. At the end they may depart even without knowing each other’s name!

To a foreigner the first question is invariably about his country. Everyone is licensed to ask anyone on the street the latest cricket score! Probably this explains the high sound levels in public places.

It’s a patient but emotionally sensitive race. Personal attachments and intimacies are valued. They are notorious for asking personal questions. This may not be with any malicious intend. They socialize and ‘come closer’ by sharing personal information. It typically range from where they live, where are they going, what business they do…. and the list is endless.

Never get embarrassed if a total stranger standing next to you in a queue ask such blunt questions. The fun is that if you are not asking such questions back you’ll be regarded as impolite or rude. In Indian customs this is a bit of insult to the initiator.

Not looking at your face when answering is not a sign of impoliteness. Eye contact in face-to-face communication is much less compared to the western practice. The funniest fact is that you will attract a lot of stare when you are not talking to them. This is more so in a rural or a small town setup.

English is the de facto communication language for government and business communications. A business traveler faces much less or no trouble at all in speaking in English as compared to the tourist. India has the second largest English speaking population after the US. But majority of this is in the professional, academic or business community. As a regular tourist you may not encounter them in any direct sense.

Your concern is the English knowledge of a taxi driver, a counter clerk or a layman at the bus stop. But you’ll be able to manage in public with English. Almost every Indian language uses a good amount of English vocabulary. What this means is people may not understand the sentence but they can pickup the key words.

Even the English spoken in India has its own style. The accent is distinctively different. Each and every letter in the word is pronounced distinctively. You’ll be addressed ‘Yes Madam’ (d not silent!). They don’t bother much about it .

The worst is the structure of the sentences. They try to translate and speak verbatim as spoken in the local language. The infamous “You are from which place madam?” is a perplexing question for a novice listener. Almost everyone at the street (read as taxi drivers and vendors) knows to count in English. Speak to them in English without grammar!

Culturally there is no “NO” in India. An evading answer is equivalent to NO. Never use the word NO if you don’t want to harshly deny something.

* “I just had a tea” is the polished way of saying NO to a tea offer than a polite “No. Thank you”.
* Never deny an invitation by saying that “I Won’t be able to join”.
* “I’ll try to come” almost means, “don’t wait for me,” told in a polite way.

In written communication also the NO is not usually communicated unless it is very formal. A long silence from the other end can be treated as a negative answer.

The most valuable currency you need to enjoy India in total is patience. She never allows you to run faster than her nor she is bothered about your hurry. The India elephant moves at her own pace. Stops hear and there at her own wish. Enjoys every bit of her journey. Follow her procession in style is the best way to enjoy India.

Your patience will be put to the ultimate test. If you are on the way to another country and want a quick 2-day India tour, you are in for serious trouble.
If you are used to the clockwork life style, leave it at your departure terminal to be picked up on your return! Don’t get frustrated if someone tells you that you have to sit on a bench and wait for four hours for the next bus to the town..

She teaches you systematically the new limits of your patience!
The India nostalgia

It’s more of an infection you get after visiting India.
If you haven’t fallen in the ‘runaway from India’ category, in all probability you are in the India addicted league. There is nothing like a neutral feel about India. Those who are already infected try hard to spread it on to others!

As a novice traveler you’ll be satisfied with the most popular tourist spots you visited. The first experience has already induced the courage to go further. In the second time you are less skeptical. But this time you have an advanced set of questions about her. You want to go to the regions you couldn’t last time. You comeback from your second tour with the knowledge that how little you seen India.

The itch makes you to go there again. This time you have a better control over the scheme of things and are more adventurous. The advanced India traveler ego drives you to explore the out of the circuit and remote places.

For you this doesn’t feel like a movie seen again and again.
If you’ve reached this stage, well, you can assume that your India addiction has reached a point beyond cure!