Sunday, January 18, 2015

Impressionism of India - Part One: Feeling Different

I recently traveled to India for the first time and had some of the most fascinating, fulfilling, remarkable, and unique experiences of my entire life.  I always find it scary to write about my traveling experiences because, as a rule, I hate speaking with any semblance of authority about things I don’t fully understand.  Given I am not Indian by heritage, I have never lived there, and all I have to go on are my recent ten days in this massive, diverse place, I fear that sharing my thoughts will be nothing short of superficial.  Be that as it may, I call this post “Impressionism” because, just like the painters of the Impressionist era, I am not seeking to accurately represent the reality of India.  I fully acknowledge that would be impossible, as there is so much I do not know and can never understand.  I can only share my perception of the special moments I experienced there.  So, this is my attempt to capture the vivid yet constantly shifting lights, colors, sounds, and feelings of India.  

Part One: Feeling Different

Once I decided to travel to India, I quickly found that whether they have been there or not, everyone has a lot to say about India.  Consequently, I couldn't avoid a flood of prejudices before embarking on my trip there.  It seems that people fall into three camps when it comes to India:

  1. The Cynics: They told me that India is crowded, polluted, dirty  and smelly.  That everyone would try to take advantage of my white skin.  To keep my possesions close and not trust anyone who was being too nice.  To avoid any food that is not securely packaged or else contract the dreaded 'Delhi Belly’.
  2. The Pragmatists:  These people warned me that India is not quite enjoyable, but there is a certain beauty in the chaos.   They said it is an exciting, exotic, and different, place but just “not for them”.  They acknowledge that it is evolving at a rapid pace, both economically and culturally, and that we should all take note or be left behind.
  3. The Idealists:  According to this camp, India is a mystical and enchanting place.  Life in India is in technicolor, a delight for all of the senses.  The spices, the music, the laughter... it would be nothing short of a magical experience.  They emphasized how unique it is in its unbelievable diversity (over 780 languages are spoken among its 1.25 billion people), and yet still a loving and accepting country.  I should embrace the opportunity to take part of it.  
And so, both confused and curious, I eagerly set off for my journey through India.  I was at once determined to be devoid of preconceived notions and relieved by the fact that given so many contradictory heedances, it was already impossible to know what to expect.  All I knew is that, no matter what, I would surely learn a lot.

Lesson One:  Embrace that you know nothing

I arrived in Chennai late on a Tuesday evening.  The airport was surprisingly large, as it should be given Chennai is one of the largest cities in South India, a capital of its state Tamil Nadu, and it has nearly 5 million inhabitants.  Upon exiting the airport, I was immediateely bombarded by hundreds of men offering taxi services, and I felt my first wave of panic as I remembered the warnings I had received about being a prime target for deception and crime.  My fears were quickly allayed, however, as I quickly located the driver that our kind hosts had arranged.  I was still on high alert, given I was traveling alone, but the sign saying, "Rasanath Welcomes You!" followed by my name certainly made me feel safer.

The next day was the first day of wedding festivities for our friends Rasanath and Anuradha.  I don’t even know where to begin.  I had heard stories about the boozy, loud, late night Bollywood-style festivities of many Indian weddings, but somehow that didn't seem to fit the bride and groom, both of whom are extremely joyful but also devoted to their spirituality.  My first lesson in the grand diversity of India was that these raucous affairs most think of as "Indian weddings" are actually "North Indian weddings".  These festivities involve lots of drinking and dancing and elephants and can last for days on end.  They typically take place late in the night, leaving guests partying into the wee hours of the morning.  South Indian weddings, like that of Rasanath and Anuradha, are much more traditional and subdued affairs.  They typically last two to three days, are devoid of alcohol and dancing, and focus much more on family, tradition, and faith.  The marriage itself occurs early in the morning, around 11am and each day the ceremonies are concluded with a deliciously and lovingly prepared serving of prasad, blessed food served on giant banana leafs that is to be eaten exclusively with the hands (oh yeah!)

Lesson Two:  Accept that you have no idea what is going on

The wedding itself was two days long and consisted of no alcohol, a LOT of food, a steady stream of fragrant incense, and countless rituals which made absolutely no sense to me.  The entire ceremony was in Tamil, so I couldn't understand its significance, but there was a lot of bowing and touching of nose then ear then nose then ear then bowing again.  It was festively accompanied by a band of men playing drums and the Indian version of trombones, who were unable (or unwilling) to gauge the strength of their own sound.  Their music had seemingly little correlation with what was actually happening on stage.  

Especially with no musical cues, it was challenging to figure out where we were in the general program of things.  There was no marked schedule of events, and starting times turned out to merely be suggestions.  The majority of the ceremonies were performed on a stage, which was brightly lit by studio lights and every moment captured by a clunky video camera plopped directly in front of the attendees.  The expectant audience was arranged into careful rows that quickly devolved in clusters as family members and friends scooted around catching up with each other, paying very little attention to ceremony itself.  The stories of chaos I had heard from the Pragmatist camp were starting to make sense.

Lesson Three:  Acknowledge you are not like the others 

Outside of the wedding, I did not see a single other Western tourist.  Walking through the streets, we were the only people who looked like us, and we drew quite a few stares.  Children and adults alike had no shame in putting down their newpsapers or pausing their conversations simply to watch us walk by.  My saree and Michael's kurta were the source of endless amusement for them, and packs of kids on their way home from school would follow us for blocks.  The wary cynic within me figured it was because they wanted money, or to pickpocket us, but it was nothing of the sort.  They were simply curious, eager to watch and listen to our silly accents. 

Because we were somewhat of a novelty, there were quite a few people at the wedding that wanted to tell us about the other white person that they once knew.  I was chatting with another Westerner (we were two of the four at the wedding), and an older Indian gentleman came up to us with an excited sense of urgency as if he had something very important to tell us.  He opened, “I interviewed for a jobs in Mumbai in 1958.  The interview committee… the interview committee.. do you know who was on the interview committee, Sir?”  We didn’t even have time to respond before he waved and twisted his hand in the air for effect and proclaimed, “A man from Canada, Robert Thompson!” and then walked away triumphantly.  He returned only a second later to check in to see whether we were fully appreciating the gravity of what he had just shared.  Naturally we were confused, but feigned excitement to make him feel welcomed.  He was visibly disappointed that his anecdote was not seeming to have its intended effect, so we attempted to distract him by asking, “Did you get the job?”  Well, yes he did, he told us.  “I worked there for 34 years, and I have been receiving my pension since 21 years.  Now, I just roam around.”  All I can do is smile and delight in the beauty of this preciously absurd moment.  Though there was clearly much lost in translation, I can’t help but feel warm inside knowing that this person was so eager to relate to us.  

Lesson Four:  Ladies, step aside

The culture in Chennai was much more conservative than I  expected.  I did not feel comfortable walking around in shorts or sleeveless shirts — even in a longer skirt and a t-shirt, I still felt compelled to cover my top with a scarf so that you couldn’t see too much of my shape.  I was embarrassed to find that as a foreigner, I had somehow accidentally managed to even make my saree look slutty by not adequaletly covering the outline of my chest.  I never understood how sarees were so conservative given they leave your entire abdomen exposed, and in Western culture, showing skin can be risque.  However, it seemed the point is much more about covering your shape than your skin. 

Now, I have to admit that Indian English is not that easy to understand.  In the average conversation, I could make out ~60% of what was said, which lead to a lot of polite nods and head bobs and awkward bowing.  But one word that did punctuate every sentence which I could clearly understand is their frequent use of the word “Sir”.  By prolific, I mean that “Sir” makes its way into nearly every sentence, sometimes twice: “Excuse me Sir, but what are the timings, Sir?"

At first, I thought it was for effect.  Then, I thought it was simply a verbal tick.  Then, I thought perhaps they weren’t sure of my gender (had I covered up too much?).  Then, I realised that people were simply not addressing me.  If I was alone, they’d call me “Madame”, but if I was in the presence of a man (regardless of whether it was my fiance or another man), they would only address him directly.  I’m not in position to comment too deeply on women in Indian culture, but I did find this to be somewhat frustrating.  Who knew you could feel so different and so invisible at the same time?

Lesson Five.  Respect the Moustache

This deserves its own point because facial hair is generally amusing, and the ubiquity of the moustache in India is downright hilarious.  Where I come from, moustaches are a style generally reserved for hipsters, Tom Selleck, and Movember.  But in India, literally, every single member of the male species has a moustache.  And it's not ironic.  Some of the handlebar variety, which are particularly impressive, but really any kind will do.  Young men, old men, all of them seem to abide by an unspoken code that no matter what, thou shalt not shave thy upper lip.  

.... To be continued