I had formed an opinion of India from several books, a college course and a thousand questions to my Indian wife, Kajal. Thus armed, I made a trip to India in the middle of February, 1996. This document is not intended to serve as a general overview of India, nor as a tourist guide. Instead, I have tried to describe my experiences and opinions about the most interesting parts of my trip. I have enjoyed writing this document as it has given me a chance to organize my thoughts and I hope you enjoy reading it as much.
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Before I left on my trip, I read up on India from books. First, a blurb from my India book from the Insight Guides series (an excellent book, full of historical and travel information and wonderful color photographs) to whet your appetite:
India - the world's most exotic destination. The land of maharajahs and the Raj, Krishna, Buddha, Ghandi, Nehru, saffron, silk and spices, towering Himalayan mountains and luxuriant beaches, ancient Hindu shrines and magnificent Muslim monuments.
I didn't get a chance to experience even half of the above exotic interests. Still, there was plenty to be excited about. But first, some facts to flesh out the glowing review:
Languages: India has 14 major languages and about 200 dialects or related subsidiary languages. Hindi and English are the national languages. There are 826 secondary languages registered to the Linguistic survey.
Religions: There are six major religions: Hindu (80%), Muslim (12%), Christian (2%), Sikh (2%), Buddhist (1%) and Jain (1%); there are a small number of Parisis and Jews.
Size: India occupies blah, blah, blah square miles, or about twice the size of Texas (is that right?).
Population: The population in 1991 was 850 million. It grows by about 25% every 10 years. Life expectancy is 58 years for men and 59 for women. The literacy rate above 7 years of education is about 50%, a large jump from 18% just after independence in 1951. The rural population represents about 75% of the people.
Economy: 70% of the work force is in agriculture, 13% in industry and 17% in services. India has made remarkable industrial progress since independence, and is now one of the top 15 industrial nations in the world.
Currency: The unit of currency in the rupee. At the time of this writing, one dollar will buy you about 36 rupees. The largest bill is a 500. There are both bills and coins for the smaller denominations.
Climate: Describing the climate as geographically diverse as India is not simple. It is like describing the weather in the United States. They have cold snowy mountains, hot deserts and everything in between. In the region I was in (northern India), during February, the weather was beautiful. Warm and sunny in the day (70's), cool in the night (50's).
I traveled in India with my wife and baby boy.
Akaash - not too happy after the long plane flight.
Our stay was short, only allowing us to take in three cities, but the variety of experiences I had gave me some valuable experiences. I visited my in-laws as a family member, shopped in markets as a native, frequented expensive hotels as a rich-person and went to many popular sites as a tourist.
While seeing India as a tourist was easy, trying to quietly experience some of the daily life of the markets was more difficult. As a tall (6'1") goofy-looking white guy I didn't exactly blend. It probably didn't help that I wore T-shirts and jeans and had a camera hanging around my neck. But perhaps the biggest oddity that attracted the most stares from the Indian populace was my newborn son and carrier.
Me with Junior.
I'm not sure what attracted more attention: the unusual carrier or the fact that a man was carrying the baby. Indian women tend to sling their babies against their hips, and Indian men tend to give the babies to the women. Curious people would often scoot up to me and peak into the carrier, as if I might have some pot of gold inside instead of a baby. I quickly noticed that Indians are not at all bashful about staring.
Labor is very cheap in India. We had a driver escort us around town. We paid him 100 rupees/day (about $3) so he could buy food. He slept in the car. The hotel provided facilities for personal servants, such as our driver, as do most medium to high class Indian hotels.
Overall, I know I only got a sample of what India has to offer. I look forward to returning to India sometime soon.
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A month before our trip to India, my wife and I thought to stay in a luxurious Delhi hotel, assuming the price would be comparatively cheap due to the weakness of the Indian rupee. We called the 800 number for Holiday Inn and inquired as to Delhi vacancies.
"Hello, I'd like to reserve a room for two next month," my wife said.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but we have no vacancies," was the response.
Disappointed. "Oh. Well, maybe they'll be a cancellation. Can you tell me the price per night in case there is?"
"$350 per night."
A shocked pause. "Uh, you do mean dollars, right, and not 350 rupees or something else?"
"That's right ma'am. 350 dollars per night."
The story was the same at the Hilton, Hyatt Regency and several other Delhi hotels, even the non-international ones. The prices were far above the most expensive of the American hotels and there were no vacancies. We estimate the prices for popular tourist hotels have roughly doubled in price over the last two years. The reason is fairly simple: demand exceeds supply. The number of tourists to Delhi has dramatically increased over the last few years and the hotels just haven't been able to keep up.
We ended up finding a moderately priced (by U.S. standards) hotel in Karol Baugh (see Delhi). But while the price was moderate, the room was not. It was the grungiest room I have ever stayed in. The walls were dirty and marked, the windows were streaked and covered with soot, the furniture was badly worn and the bedcovers were dirty. The sheets were clean, however, and the bathrooms were in a far better shape than most bathrooms I ventured into on my trip. Plus, they had a TV and some channel that showed highlights from the 1996 Cricket World Cup. At night, my wife swore there were bedbugs. I was too tired from all the day's sightseeing to fight them, and let them have their fill.
We returned to our room on the second night of our Delhi stay and turned on a dim light. We noticed a scurry above in the shadows and a large lizard (chipkali, in Hindi) scampered his way across the ceiling.
"Eeeeek!" my wife said.
"Double-eeeek!" I said.
A confusing call to the housekeeping desk brought up a sleepy looking maintenance man. He looked inquiringly at me. I pointed to the lizard scuttling behind the curtains. He gave a knowing grunt that said he was familiar with this pest and produced a stiff straw broom that seemed to be the Indian general purpose sweeping/raking tool. He opened the window on the far side of the room and proceeded to ferociously bat his broom at the lizard in an attempt to chase him towards the window. His fear of the lizard getting even remotely close to him was quite evident, and I began to wonder if the lizard was not only creepy, but poisonous.
After 15 minutes of broom calethetics, the housekeeping man called his supervisor. Together, they swatted the lizard into the corner and crushed him with their brooms. I felt sick. The poor lizard. Both housekeeping men grunted in satisfaction as they swept the lizard into a trash can and disappeared down the hall. No offer of another room or apologies for the unwanted house guest. We peered fearfully behind the chairs and under the bed, looking for more lizards.
Toilets in India are an adventure in themselves. In the airport, the toilet stall had this little pitcher of water on the floor. I gave it little thought and continued about my business. On arriving in my sister-in-law's house I needed to use the restroom. I went into their restroom and noticed the same little pitcher. And there was no toilet paper. They were not out of toilet paper; there was no toilet paper holder. I left the restroom and talked to my wife in private.
"Hey, there is no toilet paper in their bathroom," I whispered.
"Of course not."
"Uh, so?" I said, hoping she would fill me in.
"There is the little can of water in there, right?"
"Uh, yeah. I guess so." I didn't see where this was heading.
I waited for her to say more. She didn't.
"I use that to, um, clean myself?" I asked incredulously.
She nodded and laughed with a twinkle in her eye at my discomfort.
"Ok," I said a bit lamely. After a brief pause "How?"
Now she was a bit uncomfortable. "Do you really want to know?"
"Well, you go to the bathroom, take the pitcher of water, pour it down your backside and clean yourself with you hand."
"Yikes! Do you think I can hold it until we leave for America?"
Luckily, we were able to talk my brother-in-law in to buying some toilet paper from a remote merchant. It looked like it had been sitting on his shelf for ages and was coarse and brittle. But it felt a whole lot better than my hand would have.
Public toilets are often extremely disgusting. Think of the grossest outhouse kind of toilet you find at campsites and the like in America, with the stench of hundreds of bowel movements soaked in urine, spiced with fly maggots and festering on a warm summer day. Multiply that threefold and you will have captured the odor of some Delhi toilets. Moreover, rarely are the European/American style of sit-down toilets found. Instead, they have a hole in the ground with two foot rests. You stand on the footrests and squat over the hole. And they never have toilet paper but usually have the pitcher of water.
In one part of Aligarh the public toilets consisted of an empty field. No stalls, no toilets, no holes. Just an empty field. A man with a cart full of little steel cans water would give one to you for a few rupees so you could go out, dig a hole, do your business and clean yourself. At least the field was big enough so that you wouldn't have to wait in line.
Even the facilities in fancy restaurants are not guaranteed. One evening, we went out to a nice restaurant. Although not of 5-star quality by Delhi standards, it was quite nice by Aligarh standards. After ordering, I asked the man where the toilet was. He indicated down and to the left. I proceeded down the hall, but did not find the toilet. He shook his head vigorously and pointed down the stairs and to the left. I started down the stairs. Hey, I was leaving the restaurant and going outside! And there was no restroom outside. I spied a man squatting as he emptied his bowels. Ugh, that's what he meant by by restroom. Too embarrassed to admit I was to shy to go in public, I wandered around the block for a bit. Upon returning to the table, my brother-in-law looked at me:
"I told you there was no restroom," he said with a knowing chuckle.
"When you gotta go, you gotta go," I bluffed.
I crossed my legs for the rest of the meal and swore to relieve myself before I went out to eat in the future.
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My short trip hardly did justice to a country as vast and diverse as India. I have often thought of the places in America that I would recommend a foreigner visit if s/he visited for a month. "One month?", I'd think. "You cannot see America in only one month!" Seeing India in a short time is at least as difficult. Still, one can take in sights and make impressions from any stay, no matter how short. Here are my impressions of the three cities I visited:
Agra is most known for being home to the Taj Mahal, the best known Indian landmark to Americans. We drove to Agra just to see the Taj.
The Taj Mahal.
It is a beautiful building, a smooth white-marble palace towering above the fields. And it does take a nice picture. But truthfully, I was a bit disappointed, probably because my expectations were of unsurpassed brilliance, when it was mostly of ordinary brilliance.
The rest of Agra is far less impressive the Taj. The city appeared to be mostly a larger version of Aligarh, offering little to entice the tourist. There was, however, a rather interesting ancient fort, Fataipur Sikri built about 25 kilometers from the Taj. I'd be able to tell you more about it but my in-laws were rather wet-blankets about viewing the ancient structures, so we spent little time there.
Aligarh is an industrial town. It has large brass and lock businesses. In addition, it is home to Aligarh Muslim University. As a tourist attraction it does not have much to offer, but it did provide a look at city life outside of the well-traveled tourist venues. We stayed at didi's house throughout our stay.
Aligarh has no organized garbage collection. Residents toss their rubbish in the streets. We had been carefully wrapping our newborn's diapers in plastic bags to avoid having their odor offend the house guests, only to later find the diapers strewn along the street.
The garbage seems to be cleaned up by the many dogs and cows that roam the street. Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion and killing them is a serious crime. It seems keeping them captive is, too, so they are allowed to roam along the houses and roads, mixing with people and traffic alike. It is common to see a cow rambling along the main road, ignoring the honking and shouts of the traffic, or to see a cow ripping open a trash bag to nose through the refuse within. Having such cows roam freely might seem to be a nuisance, but they have at least three benefits that I can see: first, they clean up garbage, as noted above; second, they provide milk once a day for personal consumption or even resale; and third, their dung is frequently used fuel to heat the ovens (tandoori) used in cooking, or for warmth in the winter.
Children go to school via the one of the myriad of bicycle rikshaws. The below picture shows my banji and banjas on their way to school. In the morning and afternoon, the streets will be full of similar rikshaws carrying uniformed school kids to the various schools. As a kid, I think I would have enjoyed the open-air rickshaw more than the big yellow school buses we have in America.
Kids going to school in a bicycle rickshaw.
Laundry is done at a common lake. Well, I wouldn't call it a lake, exactly. More like a pond. There are a series of cement slabs at one end of the pond where washer-women wade into the water and beat the clothes against the stones. Below is a picture of one such woman.
The Aligarh laundromat.
There is no stream feeding the pond and no outlet. The water is black with dirt and littered with debris. Its a wonder the clothes get cleaned at all!
There are many small food shops that cook wonderful Indian appetizers and sweets. I hung out at one of my them with my jijaji one afternoon, smelling the roasted nuts and frying puris and observing the locals going about their business. As Aligarh does not attract many tourist, the locals seemed to enjoy observing me as much as I enjoyed observing them. Fair enough.
I can see why tourists do not come to Aligarh. It has no ready-made tourist attractions and is very polluted and dirty. Overall, Aligarh left me with a rather bleak impression of Indian cities. That made my trip to Delhi all the more surprisingly enjoyable.
When I first arrived in India, I merely passed through Delhi on my way to Aligarh. After some time Aligarh, I assumed that Delhi was the same, but maybe a bit bigger. I was mistaken. Delhi is far more beautiful and modern than any other part of India I saw. The Rajpath, or King's Road, rivals the Washington D.C. mall and the embassy row has attractive and interesting embassies lining the wide, tree-lined street, as picturesque as any I have seen.
There are numerous suburbs of Delhi, called "colonies." We stayed in a very crowded colony called Karol Baugh. The colonies of South Delhi are much nicer, with wider streets, saner traffic and less pollution. Most Indians seem to call "New Delhi" just plain "Delhi," as I have been doing. But there is a much older part of Delhi they call "Old Delhi." It was much more crowded and much less fun than the newer parts of Delhi.
We took in a number of the tourists sights during our Delhi stay:
Birla Mandir - A cool Hindu temple.
Qutab Minar - The tallest minar in the world.
When I return to India, I plan to spend a lot more time in Delhi.
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The traffic conditions were the most striking of impressions left on me by my trip to India. I'll first talk about the Indian cars, then the chaos in which they drive.
After an all-night flight, we arrived in Delhi early morning. My brother-in-law, jijaji, picked us up in his Maruti 800. Maruti makes a lot of cars, and the 800 seemed to be one of the more popular models. It was quite typical of most Indian cars: no-frills, efficient use of space and small. Despite being no larger than my former Honda CRX, the 800 held far more cargo. The back neatly stored our international luggage and the interior fit four large-adults and our baby and his paraphernalia. Despite this seeming overload, the noisy little engine still provided considerable pickup as we sped away. I noted that we drove on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right. I smugly thought I'd seen enough chaotic driving in Rome and left-hand driving in Europe to handle Indian driving. Little did I know!
Maruti 800 - A common car in India.
The Maruti is typical of Indian cars. They are all efficient, dinky box-type cars with zippy little engines and loud horns. Another common car is the Birla Ambassador:
Birla Ambassador - Another popular Indian car.
And they have the tiniest mini-vans I have ever seen. They are the size of all the other cars, but they are build like a van. Perhaps they are called micro-vans. Even their taxis are efficient. The most common is a very-lightweight, partially open 3-wheeled variety. They are very loud, spew black smoke and drive with wild abandon.
When Jijaji picked us up, he brought along his driver. Although eager to see the country, I found myself nodding off as we drove out of the city on our way to Aligarh. I awoke shortly, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. I glanced out the window and saw chaos. Horns were honking, most of them from the driver at the wheel of our car. The road was thick with bicycles, oxen and carts, dinky little Maruti cars, 3-wheeled taxis and trucks hauling everything from piles of hay to people. And all of this whizzing by as we darted amongst the traffic at 60 k.p.h. (about 40 m.p.h). Pedestrians calmly strolled among the chaos as they went about their business of carrying enormous bundles on their heads or walking to work.
The most frightening aspect was that fast and congested traffic was flowing the opposite way we were traveling. In fact, the road we were on didn't have any demarcations denoting lanes, and the traffic treated it accordingly. Vehicles tend to stay on the left side of the road (steering wheels are always on the right side of the car), but this is not an absolute. All too often another car or, worse, a large truck will charge over onto your side of the road to pass another vehicle. Sometimes, still a third car or truck will be passing the second car or truck, forcing your car to the shoulder. But I can't blame all the other drivers; our driver did exactly the same. Tailgating is the norm. Being a bicyclist or pedestrian must be the most unnerving; cars and trucks blare their horns at them as they pass, often within inches, rarely slowing down. The highway (if you can call it that) is a blur of cars and trucks accelerating and braking, swerving and dodging, honking their horns and revving their engines as they barrel down the road. I truly felt we might not reach Aligarh alive. Only telling myself that they make this trip often (and a white-knuckle grip on the headrest in front of me) kept me sane.
I studied our driver for some time to see what skills he employs to navigate this maze and came up with the following:
Numbers 2 and 3 above are not too tough to master (actually, honking might be kind of fun), but neither my wife felt at all confident in driving aggressively and not wincing every time a truck was barreling down at us. We were quite thankful we had the driver to escort us around India.
Although the above tips pertain mostly to cars, contrary to America, cars are not the most prevalent vehicle on the road. In fact, in villages, cars are rare. I've made estimates of the percentages of each type of vehicle you might find in a village or small city, on a highway and in a large city.
So the most common vehicle by number is the bicycle. These all looked exactly the same to me: the old one-speed apple-seat variety.
The most common Indian vehicle.
An animal drawn cart - Another common Indian vehicle.
Besides honking, aggressive drivers and left-handed roads, the other thing you find in cities that makes driving difficult are the roundy-rounds. There must be some technical name for these, but I don't know what it is. I'm talking about the intersections where 4+ roads converge and instead of having a stop-light, they have a big circle with traffic flowing clockwise. Cars entering the circle are supposed to yield to those already inside the circle, but this only sometimes happens. You basically enter at you own risk, honking your horn going like crazy. Once in the flow you work your way across all the lanes, honking for all you are worth until you reach your exit. About the only good thing about the system is that you can loop around several times if you miss your turn; kind of a built-in U-turn.
It seems bribery is also prevalent at all levels in India. You must line the pockets of the local officials to get your phone connected and the Havala scandal is currently rocking the Narishma Rao administration. I saw evidence of the bribery prevalence first hand soon after we landed. Jijaji had parked the car on the side of the terminal access road in order to pick us up. We must have been there for all of 2 minutes, during which time traffic easily moved past us. Despite this, a police officer strolled up and rapped on the window as we were about to leave. Jijaji got out and had a few angry words with the officer. Moments later, he returned, grabbed his wallet from the glove compartment and proceeded to buy off a potential traffic fine by giving the officer some rupee bills. I understand such bribery is common when dealing with most government services.
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Indian dishes are some of the best in the world. I really enjoy eating and relish trying new foods; and my trip to India was perfect for both. Although it is difficult to generalize about Indian cooking because it is as diverse as the country's culture, there are some characteristics that seem to fit. Indian cooking uses spices in an inspired manner. They are used to enhance rather than dominate the food's basic flavor. They have developed thousands of different dishes using various combinations of a couple dozen basic flavors. Most Americans would call the spiced Indian sauces "curries," but they are far different than that jar of "curry powder" you can find in the American Supermarket.
In addition to spices, there are a few other general food categories:
Despite the appeal, the cooking areas and foodstuffs may not be as sanitary as those in the United States. Selective eating is required to avoid getting sick. I had heard horror stories about tourists getting sick in India, mostly due to unclean water. Nausea, retching, diarrhea and decreased enjoyment of the trip were all symptoms. My parents had similar symptoms in the (former) Soviet Union and Egypt. So, in order to avoid getting sick, I tested the following simple formula:
How did the above formula work for me? Quite well for the first half of my trip. But right as I was starting to puff out my chest with pride, I was hit by a bad case of the runs. Luckily, my diarrhea was rather mild (perhaps I had the walks?), but unfortunately it necessitated more frequent visits to the Indian toilets. I think the small portion of fruit and cream I had trouble refusing might have been the culprit.
At the end of a meal in some Indian restaurants, they bring out this little dish of warm water with lemon. The first time they brought this out, I was prepared to take a sip, thinking it was for drinking. But a quick glance at the other table members saw them dunking their hands in it. The lemon is sort of a natural cleanser without soap. Kinda nice since many Indian dishes are eaten with the fingers.
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Before leaving America, you must be sure you have the proper travel documentation. All visitors to India require a valid visa. A three-month multiple-entry visa costs $40. You can obtain such a visa by going directly to an Indian consulate (as we did), or by mail. Americans need a valid U.S. passport to travel abroad. Infants and children used to be able to travel on their parents passport, but no longer. Even a newborn (such as Akaash, our newborn son) requires a separate passport. Do note that getting legal-sized passport photos of infants can be a bit difficult. Places that do adult passport photos, such as ProEx or Kinko's, do not have the equipment to take infant passport photos. Something about a split lens and infant head size make them unable to get the right resolution. I suspect the fear of baby drool might have something to do with their reluctance, too. But offices that issue passport may be more accommodating, as was the Minneapolis office. Airfare is expensive. Full coach fare runs around $3000 per person, but consolidated tickets can be had for about half this much.
It is a long trip from the United States to India. India and the U.S. are almost exactly on the opposite sides of the world. If you are flying to India from California, you go by way of Japan. If you are flying from Colorado or further east, you go by way of Europe. Departing from Minneapolis, we went via London. I had done the trip from the U.S. to Europe and back several times in the past, so I thought I knew what to expect from a long plane flight. Little did I know. I did do ok on the first leg to London. You get your drinks and dinner soon after you take off. They start a movie ("A Walk in the Clouds" for us. An ok movie, especially when Keneau Reeves is not saying anything. And quite fine for passing plane-flight time). The movie ends and they turn off the lights to make you think its time to sleep. Not that you do sleep since it's usually only 7pm or so. After a few hours, they turn on the lights and bring you some more food. "Breakfast!" the cheerful flight crew says because it's morning in the European country you are going to land in. "Breakfast?!!" your body says, because its actually around 10pm and the last thing your body wants is cold cereal and orange juice.
After you land, you are ready to start dealing with the jet-lag. The secret to adjusting as rapidly as possible, I have learned, is to stay awake the whole first day (night-time according to your body) and go to sleep at the regular European time. You'll be so tired by this time that you sleep through the night (day-time according to your body) and be off to a good start to adjusting. Going from Europe to the U.S. is even easier. When you land in the U.S. it is evening time. You eat some dinner and go right to sleep. This sleep comes easily since you are worn out from the journey.
But continuing on through the Middle East to India really screws up the above plan. Your reasoning says to stay awake because it's daytime in the lands you are passing over, but your body never listens to reason. Your eyelids get super heavy, made worse by watching Keneau Reeves for the second time. You ply yourself with coffee and soda pop (in cans that seem to have shrunk by a couple of ounces since leaving Europe, and so are less effective) but end up feeling worse. Even the crying of a child (my child, in my case) doesn't keep you up. You sleep. But fitfully, since they bring you food and drinks right when you are starting to doze off. Plus, that child your hear crying needs a diaper change all too often. By the time you land, you are frazzled.
But I do have two bits of advice to offer when doing this trip. First, if you have an infant of 2 years or under, request a baby bassinet when you fly. Most airlines have the facilities to attach a baby bassinet in the front of the flying compartments. This gives you a couple of great bonuses. First, your child, though small and cute, seems less small and less cute when you have to hold him/her for 8+ hours. Moreover, the little guy sleeps very poorly when you are stuffing peanuts into your mouth or wincing at Keneau Reeves for the whole flight. The bassinet gives him/her a chance to sleep properly. Second, the bassinet seats are in the front of the plane, by the bulkhead. This means you don't have to fight your way to the rear of the plane with all your baby paraphernalia. Moreover, there are no seats in front of you. For a long-legged person like me, this means no one will press their seat into your knee-caps for 8 hours. And if your the bulkhead seats are along the window, you won't be able to see the main picture screen. In this case, the seat will have a small, private television. Nice and cozy.
The second piece of advice I can offer concerns vegetarian meals. If you are a vegetarian you can request vegetarian fare for your in-air meals. But be warned that there are different kinds of vegetarian. There are two type of vege-meals you can request:
However, I would tend to add a third category of vegetarian fare found on many U.S. airlines:
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There are some strict social etiquette's that must be followed by the Indian host family. While there are etiquette's that are followed in American social gatherings, I feel the Indian social customs are far more formal and rigidly followed. The first includes a well-defined set of appetizers that must be offered to all guests. These include:
Drinks include soda, fruit juices and milk. Alcohol may even be offered, but to men only, never to women. It seems it's an insult to offer a drink to a woman. Whiskey is the most popular drink, but beer is fairly common. I was once offered a Stroh's, assured me that this was a very good Indian beer (there is a Stroh's has a brewery in India). Glasses of water are common, but before you drink, make sure it is bottled water (see Eating).
And then there is the "touching the feet" thing. When men greet elders or persons deserving respect, they must touch their feet. Women do the same but only for in-laws deserving respect. But the term touching the feet is misleading. Here's how I learned what it really meant.
After marrying Kajal, the time came to greet my new father-in-law. Both Kajal and her brother, Amit, had told me I must touch his feet.
"Ok," I thought. "I can handle it. Plus, it should make me look more respectful and not the brash American."
I rehearsed in my mind the appropriate actions I would take.
When I entered the room where my father-in-law was sitting, he rose to greet me. I promptly dropped down on my knees and placed both my hands on top of his bare feet.
"What are you doing?" he said quickly, pulling me to my feet.
"Er, I was just touching your feet," I said lamely. I looked for some sort of explanation, but only saw both Kajal and Amit laughing at me.
Later, I found out the proper way to "touch feet." In fact, the feet are not touched at all. You merely bend slightly at the waist when approaching the elder and drop one hand towards the feet. You might possibly brush your hand against the knee of the elder, but that's about it. You do not touch the feet, you do not use both hands, and by no means do you get on your knees. When done correctly, the elder will reward you by touching your head in a blessing.
The namaste, the greeting with hands held upward, palm to palm, is the Indian form of greeting and is frequently used. I think it's a pretty classy greeting. Indian men, however, do not hesitate to offer you a hand for shaking if you are a man. Most women, however, may hesitate to shake your hands (I was rebuffed at least once), but no offense is intended (at least, so I am told). The interaction among the members of the opposite sex seems a bit less informal than in America. At a party, for instance, the men and women will sit separate if the seating space allows. Even in a common party circle, the women will sit on one half and the men on the other. I didn't like this arrangement much.
Gifts are often given among family members when first meeting a new spouse, the birth of a child, the announcement of an engagement, etc. Although such gifts are expected (required, even) there is an interesting custom followed before accepting gifts. I learned of it after I attempted to give a gift of one of those ear-temperature thermometers (unavailable in India) to my wife's sister and her husband:
"We wanted you to have this thermometer as a gift for the hospitality you have shown us," I began.
"Why?" my sister-in-law said, quite abruptly.
"Uh, you cannot buy one here." Not a very good reason, but I didn't expect to have to convince them.
"No, no, no," they both said firmly. I was taken aback. They wouldn't accept it? I turned to my wife as she entered the room.
"They said the won't take it."
"Oh, sure they will," she insisted. "They are just being polite. You have to give it to them a couple more times."
"Uh, here." I said to my sister-in-law, shoving the gift at her.
"No, we won't take it" she responded, sounding very firm. But I noticed that she and her husband were both smiling.
"They do want it?" I asked my wife.
"Of course they do. They just have to say 'no' a bunch of times before they say 'yes.'"
Sure enough. After saying "here," "here" and "here" a few more times, they took the gift and were quite happy with it.
Etiquette requires that the person receiving the gift to refuse, often several times, before accepting the gift. I fear I may have appeared too greedy to some of the people who gave me gifts by saying "Gee, thanks!" immediately when handed a present.
And the same rule holds when you are offered more food as a guest. I'd be feeling very stuffed after appetizers, two helping of each dinner dish (3-4 at least), plus dessert when:
"Mark, would you like some more gulab jamun?" mami asked (gulab jamun are a sort of fried dough-ball soaked in sugar syrup. Quite good and one of my favorites).
"No," I replied, adding "but thank you," although I shouldn't (see below).
"Do have another piece," she persisted.
"Really, I am very full from the excellent meal."
But she was a juggernaut. "Just one more."
I gave in. "Ok, one more," I say, remembering the last wafer-thin mint that makes the fat man explode in that Monte Python movie.
You must refuse repeated offers of food several times before you will finally be allowed to stop eating. It's kind of a pain (in the stomach, that is) when you really do not want more.
On the flip side of this, saying "thank you", even after receiving a gift, is not required. Not only is it not necessary, but it is mildly insulting when used to family members. It seems that a "thank you" is quite formal. It is only used when a stranger does some generous deed or service. Family's deeds or services, including the giving of gifts, are expected, natural, and not to be thanked. Personally, I think thanking someone for a favor or deed should never harm, but in the case of an Indian family, it sometimes might.
The Indian notion of family is larger than families in America. Generally, the core of an American family is children, parents and, sometimes, grandparents. Occasionally, an uncle, aunt or cousin will be included in the immediately family. But in India, the core family is children, parents, grandparents (always, always), uncles, aunts and cousins. Family outings, reunions and overall concern encompasses this larger group. Moreover, there are separate names for each family position:
nana - mother's father
nani - mother's mother
dada - father's father
dadi - father's mother
mossi - mother's sister
mossa - mother's sister's husband
mama - mother's brother
mami - mother's brother's wife
bhua - father's sister
fufa - father's sister's husband
chacha - father's brother
chachi - father's brother's wife
didi - older sister or older female cousin
bhai - older brother or older male cousin
jija - sister's husband
bhabi - brothers's wife
banji - sister's daughter
banja - sister's son
badiji - brother's daughter
badija - brother's son
The organization is kind of nice, but it has caused me to make numerous mistakes. Some of these people need their feet touched, too, and I have trouble remembering whom. When addressing family members who deserve respect, the suffix ji is added to the name. To be safe, I added ji to almost everybody's name.
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Shopping in India is almost always accompanied by haggling for the price, even in the finer shops. There are no price tags. If you are interested in an item, you ask one of the many store clerks (all hovering over you like the guys in striped shirts at Foot Locker) how much it costs. Often, even if you don't ask they will tell you the price if you look at something for more than one second. Most prices start ridiculously high, even more so for me than my wife (I guess I look like a sucker). If you actually might buy the item, you try and look disgusted and see if they will lower it on their own. If they do (or if not), you offer a much lower price. They will counter with a slightly more reasonable price than the first, you respond with something above your first. This continues until one side refuses to budge and then you agree, or walk away empty-handed. I was never too good at this sort of bargaining (car dealers love guys like me) and usually let my wife do the buying.
I tried my hand at this bargaining once with a street peddler. You are often accosted by peddlers of all sorts of cheap trinkets when walking down the Indian streets. You must say "no" too many times to get them to leave you alone. My wife taught me the trick of saying "Nahi chahi hai, bhaia.", meaning literally "it's not wanted, brother", but translates as "get lost, buddy." It seems they respond to Hindi a bit better than English, at least from her. But during one such instance, I think the street peddler got the best of me. I guess you must be had at least once if you are to truly to experience shopping in India, so maybe I shouldn't feel bad. I was approached by a man selling stamps:
"No," I said, shaking my head.
"Stamps" he insisted, showing me a tattered book full of a variety of Indian stamps.
"Nahi," I said as clearly as possible, this time using the Hindi word for 'no.'
Whew, I finally dodged into a pedestrian walkway and the man gave up. But he had me thinking. Those stamps would make a nice gift for a friend of mine that collects stamps. I thought a bit, steeled myself and turned back to the peddler, ready to get myself a bargain.
"Kitne?" I said, asking for the price in Hindi.
I was a bit taken back by the price. Granted, rupees are not worth much, but most merchandise in Delhi is cheap compared to their U.S. equivalents. Maybe these stamps were really worth a lot.
"100" I countered. Then, foolish me, I felt like I might insult the man. "200" I added, before he could say anything else.
"375" he said.
I tried to appear reluctant, thinking I could strike a hard bargain. "300" I said slowly.
"350" he countered quickly.
Success, I had wheedled him down! "Done." I said, handing over his money, he handed over the worn stamp book and I returned to my wife with my prize.
"I got it for 350," I exclaimed proudly.
She was furious! "You bought it for 350?!?" she demanded incredulously. "It's not worth one-tenth that much!" She was about to accost a different stamp seller next to me and get my money back.
The keen bargaining I had done minutes before began to seem a little less keen. Worse, other stamp sellers, seeing I was a potential buyer, began to follow us back to the tour bus. I heard offers of "300" and "250" as we walked back. If they were willing to offer such a low price to start, what might they bargain down to? And by the time I got on the bus, there was one man offering me less than 100 rupees for a stamp book in much better shape than the one I had bought. I had been had! I could just picture the stamp peddler counting the minutes as more naive tourists like myself are born.
In addition to pesky street peddlers, there are the as numerous beggars. I, like most decent people, feel bad when I see a wretched-looking homeless person begging for money. My conscience makes me feel especially bad if I have just bought myself some luxury item or eaten a good meal. I know that giving money will often not solve the problem, and sometimes makes it worse. Even more so, as I heard, in India where many of the begging groups are organized by begging "pimps," bringing in the profits for a select few.
One afternoon after a particularly good vegetarian maha-burger at Nehrula's, a young girl with dirty-disheveled hair approached me with an open hand. I reached into my pocket an brought out a handful of rupees that were change from my meal and dropped them into her hand.
"Don't do that!" my wife said, angry with me again.
"Why not?" I asked innocently. "It's only a few cents to us and a lot more to her." I had not heard of organized begging at that time.
"C'mon! Let's get out of here," she said, pulling me towards the car.
And not a moment too soon! As we made our way towards the car, other beggars began converging on us, sensing rupees within reach. Even the girl to whom I had given the few rupees became bolder. They reached and implored as we opened the doors of our car and got in. We nosed the car out as hands thumped against the glass in the hopes we still might shed a few more rupees at them. I felt relieved when we cleared the corner. Those were the last rupees I gave to any beggar.
Eager to please service staff are everywhere. At shops, clerks mill around, eager for a sale, bringing you box after box of merchandise while you sit in comfort. At restaurants, waiters hover at your elbow as there are often far more on-duty staff then there are tables. In the bathrooms of fine hotels, an attendant will turn on the tap for you, hand you soap and dry your hands with a towel. All of them, of course, are hoping for a tip. The whole affair is a bit unpleasant, I think. I am fairly used to tipping in restaurants and I do think that giving a bit of extra money to a person that has done extraordinary work is quite appropriate. But I can browse for merchandise on my own. And turning on the tap for me? Like I might pull a muscle or something. Services like these seem only a step above begging.
With so many people trying to get your money, you soon learn to try to hold onto it as much as possible. I had at least one instance where I probably short-changed a fellow:
My wife and I caught a taxi from old Delhi to south Delhi on our way back to the hotel. We wanted to stop at some shops on the way to buy some figurines. As we pulled the cab over, we asked the cabby if he would wait while we did a bit of shopping. He said he would do so without charge. He didn't even take the fare we owed him so far.
"That's cool," I said to my wife as we made our way through the market. "I'll tip him a bit extra for being nice."
We completed our shopping in 15-20 minutes and returned to the cab. The cabby was waiting as promised and he proceeded to the hotel. Upon arriving, I gave him the fare on the meter plus a 30% tip. He got angry. Harsh Hindi words to my wife, and her translation to me revealed:
"He said you owe him and additional 50% of what is on the meter."
"50%?!" I was angry. Here I was trying to be generous and the guy tries to get more of my money. Ungrateful wretch! "No!" I said to the cabby.
More angry Hindi words followed. The hotel staff began to stare. I gave in very reluctantly to avoid a scene, and gave him the "minimum" he argued for. He didn't look at all grateful and asked for at least 5 more rupees. I was incensed! I stormed past him and into the hotel.
Later, I talked to my brother-in-law about the incident. It turns out I was in the wrong. 50% of the meter is required for all cabs. Not only had I given the cabby a hard time about getting his due, but I had failed to tip him for his extra service. I must've added to the image of Ugly American that day. I tried to be a bit more careful in the future.
Streetside peddlers still go door to door in many of the smaller cities and villages, selling ware such as vegetables and milk. I took a picture of the subzivalla (vegetable seller) in Aligarh. He was excited that the "white man was going to publish his picture and make him famous in America."
A vegetable seller in Aligarh.
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For more information on India, you might want to check out these Web sites:
Yahoo on India
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I'd like to thank those that have supplied information for this document, primarily in the form of the proper spelling of Hindi words. Any corrections or additions to the information I have displayed will also be appreciated. Also, please feel free to send me your opinions of this page.
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