Impressions of India

India offers a constant, but wonderful, assault on your senses.  My family and I had the good fortune to traverse part of the country earlier this month.  We returned to America awed and slightly overwhelmed.  The following impressions are meant to provide you with an overview of our incredible experience.

Street Life – All of life in India seems to take place on the chaotic streets.  At any moment you can see swarms of people engaged in a myriad of activities: working, shopping, walking, sitting, spitting, sleeping, begging, driving, bicycling, getting a shave, getting a haircut, and although we did not see it directly, getting their ears cleaned.  And that’s just the people.  Cows really do roam around unattended, as well as goats, dogs, and the occasional monkey.  Crossing the street is an act of faith that you can navigate the onslaught of humanity and vehicles safely.  I am here to report that we did it successfully.

 Driving – We had a driver, but being a passenger in a car is a sufficiently harrowing experience.  Having another car come straight at me in our lane no longer raises an eyebrow.  It takes two or three cars, some motorized rickshaws, pedestrians, and assorted animals in our path to get my heart rate up.  Sitting in the front seat on some long drives through the countryside was like playing an unending, fast-paced video game – quite the adrenaline rush.  If this weren’t enough, the constant background noise of bleating horns completed the experience.  Quick question:  What does a stripe down the middle of the road mean in India (when it exists)?  Absolutely nothing.  

Food – We love Indian food.  We will not be eating Indian food again for at least six months.  Having it every day for two weeks finally took its toll.  (Enough said.)  Indian cuisine consists primarily of two main types – Northern and Southern.  Since we ate a strictly vegetarian fare, we mostly had the latter.  The distinction between the types of cooking was lost on us.  It seemed like a lot of spicy vegetables presented in different ways.  That being said, we had some delicious meals, typically quite inexpensive, including a light lunch one day that cost $5 for all four of us.  Even dining at our hotels, usually an expensive proposition, was typically around $30.

People – The people we met were uniformly kind and helpful.  Everyone seemed to handle the hustle and bustle of life in India with equanimity and a sense of acceptance.  It’s all about karma, I guess. 

English – Most everyone has some knowledge of English.  The professionals we met were fluent.  There is also a vibrant English press.  But in a country where Hindi is the common tongue, and a dozen or so regional languages are spoken, most people’s English seemed very basic and geared toward a small number of tasks.  This meant that any effort to discuss something outside the scope of the average person’s frame of reference garnered a nod of apparent agreement, even though the person actually had no real clue what we were talking about.  You can easily get by with English in India, but the range of your conversations can be quite limited.

Economy – The gross domestic product of India continues to grow dramatically.  You can see the indicia of increasing prosperity, such as cars on the roads and new apartment buildings and malls being built.  Yet this growth is occurring from a base of extremely limited infrastructure.  For the most part, basic services such as drinkable water or decent roads are more like 1910 in America than 2010.  The new shiny high rises are still the exception as compared to the overcrowded apartments.  The arc of India’s future, however, points toward growth at a strong pace.

Poverty – In spite of India’s rapid economic growth, a large percentage of the country’s 1.15 billion people (17% of the earth’s population) remains mired in incredible poverty.  The poverty smacks you in the face – beggars, people who live on the sidewalks, barely clothed and dirty children, and extreme overcrowding.  It cannot be avoided unless you stay in your hotel.  You want to help everyone, but you cannot.  So you try to help a few people, despite the warnings that giving to one person will draw a persistent crowd of dozens and that many beggars are operated by gangs who take a good chunk of the money.  The experience was haunting.  My wife orchestrated one “bright spot.”  We stopped at a rural school to hand out pens, pencils, and candy to the young students.  They were thrilled to hang with four strangers from America for a few minutes.

Caste System – The caste system is officially dead.  Unofficially, India remains a stratified country in which many people stated to us that their social mobility is constricted by their caste, which everybody seems to know.  Skin color also seems to play a role, at least when it comes to movie stars.  The newspapers and movies almost uniformly highlight light-skinned actors and actresses as the epitome of beauty.

Dowries – Efforts are being made to discourage the tradition of dowries – the family of the bride providing significant “gifts” to the groom and the groom’s family.  A dowry can be quite expensive and a large burden on a family who wants to marry off their daughter.  We heard stories of significant debt being incurred to pay a dowry.  The practice seems to be more prevalent in some parts of India than others.  One of the major newspapers offered a discount for singles ads if dowry requirements and caste are not mentioned.

Religion – Religion plays a major role in most Indian’s lives.  The largest religion, Hinduism, is ubiquitous.  In addition to larger, ancient temples, smaller shrines can be found everywhere and anywhere, such as between houses in alleys.  You also see pictures and statues of various gods, especially Ganesh, the one with a head of an elephant and multiple arms.  Another example of the pervasiveness of Hinduism is the lack of beef hamburgers at McDonalds – it’s either chicken or veggie burgers.    Muslims are the largest minority and we visited a number of mosques.  The Muslim Mughal empire in India (from around 1500 to 1700; and the source of the word “mogul”) greatly influenced the architecture of the country.  Many of the classic buildings have an Arabic feel to them.  Other religions include Sikhism and Jainism.  Sikh men are apparent from their beards and turbans.  Jains do not eat anything that grows under the ground, such as onions and potatoes, in an effort to avoid killing any living thing.  Although Buddhism began in India – we visited Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first lectures to his original disciples – it is not really practiced in India today.  Nonetheless, Buddha is still revered.  The statues of Buddha in the local shops are the skinny Indian version, not the rotund Asian variety.

Ganges River – A wide mix of Hindu religious activities and mundane tasks occur simultaneously at any given time at the holy river known as Ganga.  At the sacred town of Varanassi (Benares), we took an early morning boat ride on the Ganges and saw people bathing and doing laundry in the river, while upstream we viewed the dying embers of funeral pyres.  Hindus are cremated at death.  Optimally, their bodies are burned in Varanassi and their ashes spread on the Ganges.  Heading out of the city, we witnessed a number of dead bodies, wrapped in white sheets, tied to the roof of cars.  They were being brought to Varanassi for their final rites.

Taj Mahal – This wonder-of-the-world lives up to its hype.  The building is beautiful and majestic.  The Taj Mahal is covered with ornate designs of inlaid semi-precious stones in the marble walls.  It is a mausoleum built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his favorite (second) wife.  Our attempt to see it at sunrise was a bust – it was covered in a thick fog.  Luckily we were able to come back three hours later to see it after the fog burned off.

Khajuraho – This small town contains a group of spectacular medieval Hindu and Jain temples.  A number of the Hindu ones are quite tall and consist of intricate and explicit erotic carvings from the Kama Sutra.  While in Khajuraho, we took a yoga lesson from a double-jointed yoga master who looked like a 50-year-old Indian version of Yanni.  We also had massages from masseuses who came from the southern state of Kerala and had a way with body oils.  There is nothing like yoga and a massage to achieve a form of nirvana, however briefly.

Geography – I am sure the mountains in the far north and the tropical, lush beaches in the south are beautiful, but we did not see them.  We covered a lot of ground in the vast semi-arid plains of the north/central region.  Except for some hills in Jaipur and the lakes of Udaipur, the land was not particularly scenic.

Delhi and Mumbai (Bombay) – These are the two largest cities we visited and they could not have been any different.  Delhi is an ancient city and New Delhi is the British addition to the capital.  Except for some broad avenues with government buildings and nice large homes built by colonial Britain, Delhi has little charm.  It is crowded, decaying, and dirty.  We did not see the modern suburbs that were far from the city center.  Mumbai, on the other hand, has the water, stately British buildings, and the new construction of a growing, modern city; although, it too suffers from poor infrastructure, overcrowding, and poverty.

Bollywood – India’s version of Hollywood resides in Mumbai (Bombay, hence Bollywood).  India is crazy about movies, many of which contain music and dance scenes.  In a convoluted manner, we became extras in a re-make of the movie “Stepmom.”  We spent a good part of a day sitting around doing nothing and our brief scenes will likely end up on the cutting room floor.  Fame is fleeting and, in this case, non-existent.  We did not even get asked to dance!

Words of Wisdom

To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.

-- Aldous Huxley