Sunday, April 7, 2013

Indians on Indian culture:conversations

When you travel you meet loads of people constantly, and i have spent a total of nearly 6months in India over the last 4years. But having a real conversation with someone, making a friend, or gaining some insight from people is a good bit more rare, especially in a place where you do not speak the national language or any of the local dialects. It does happen though. i have gained some really fascinating perspectives from and connections with Indian people in India. i have recorded here accounts of some of the best. They are all from this most recent trip, except for this first one, from my first trip.

We talked about arranged marriages, the caste system, family, work, garbage problems, inter-religious relations, my personal theme this trip, The Parition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and more. i do not necessarily agree with all the ideas these Indian people expressed to me and that i am sharing here, i'm just trying to give you a view of what i saw and experienced there.

The Arranged Marriage-loving Modern Girl

On my first trip to India, on my first train ride, i had a conversation with a light-skinned, well educated Indian girl with extremely good English. In fact, three trips later, it is still the only extended conversation i’ve ever had with an Indian woman from India in India. She was on her way back to university in Dehra Dun.

Her assigned seat on the day-train from New Delhi to Rishikesh was near mine. i said hello, and pretty soon we were showing mutual curiosity in each other. She wanted to know where i was from, where i was going, why i was going to Rishikesh, all the normal stuff of single-serving-friends in India. She taught me some basic Hindi, phrases which today are still the entirety of my capacity in that language.

During conversation, she asked me if it was true that in the West everyone believed in love marriage, as opposed to arranged marriage. i told her that i did think this was so, that certainly nobody i knew believed in arranged marriage.

“Really?? Why?? It’s so exciting!” she claimed. She told me that to marry someone you didn’t know well was very exciting. (i wanted to, but did not, say to her, “If you think THAT’S exciting, you should try dating!!”) She made it sound like the first night after the ceremony was a crazy adventure that would last forever after. She stressed that the families would consult cultural traditions, personality types and astrology to make a good match. She assured me that arranged marriages almost never ended in divorce, and that generally the man and the woman in arranged marriage were happy with both life and marriage.

i asked her if she had had a boyfriend or dated at all. She said no, but that she was in love with a boy (how that worked i did not find out), and that they were hoping to have their marriage arranged by their families. No, she would not marry him if it was not arranged, she said, because she was sure that the system of arranged marriages was better than the Western system of love marriages.

She gave me her email on the slip of paper where I took notes from the Hindi lessons. About a week later, i sent an email to say hello and create contact. Having not heard from her, i wrote again a few weeks later when i’d returned to Italy – i have never heard back from her and so never found out if she got her wish of an arranged marriage to a guy she said she already loved, nor do i know if her enthusiasm for that system has remained.

The friendly army guy from Rajasthan

While traveling on a train from Ajmer, in the Rajasthan region, to Puthankot, in the Punjab region, i was reading a book on M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Knowing that he was a controversial and very divisive figure (literally, he was a main architect of The Partition of India and Pakistan), i was worried that someone might see his picture on the front and take issue with me, a foreigner, reading it, perhaps even show hostility. So i hid the cover of the book as a i read.

Sitting next to me there was a gruff, old-ish Indian man; my Danish friend Kristian sat across from me, and next to him was an unusually large, light skinned Indian man with a tight cropped haircut and a beautiful, young woman sleeping on his shoulder. She wore the red stripe at the part of her hair indicating she was a married Hindu woman and he supported her caringly as the train bounced along.

Kristian began chatting with this guy, and i was half listening in. At a certain point the Indian guy asked me why i was writing in the novel i was reading. So i explained that actually i was taking notes because it was a book of Indian history. “Well,” he said,”I am very well read on Indian history, so you should let me know if you have any questions. What is the book you are reading?”

So i hesitantly showed him the cover of the book with the photo of Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam of Pakistan on it. i explained that i was very interested in the period of Partition and that that’s why i was reading it, to learn more about the period. He immediately confirmed the theory that i had already formulated and previously told Kristian about. “Partition was a very difficult thing for India,” he said. “The British came up with it in order to destabilize the country through violence and sectism, giving themselves 10 or 15 more years of influence on the subcontinent.” This is exactly the impression i had.

Having already found out that he was from Udaipur, which had been the capital of the ancient Mewar princedom, i asked him how Partition had effected Mewar specifically. He said that because they were they’re own government, Partition had not effected them at all. It wasn’t until after Independence and Partition that Mewar joined the independent republic of India, he said.

Knowing that Partition had been brought about by Muslim cries of ethnic independence, i asked him what the Muslims of Mewar thought of Partition. He said that most of the Muslims were poor, and were so distracted by their day-to-day affairs that they didn’t really have opinions about politics. So i asked him why the Muslims there were so universally poor, he said that it was because of prejudice in the past, that if, for instance, there was a job opening and both some Hindus and Muslims applied for it, the job would go to the Hindus first. But this was something that had gone away decades past, he said, stressing his claim.

i asked him if he thought that if I was to openly read my book on a train crowded with a mix of Hindus and Muslims, could it possibly provoke misunderstanding or hostility in some of my fellow passengers, but he assured me it wouldn’t. “India is a very safe place,” he said. “Because they know that if someone harmed a foreigner, then no other foreigners would come, and that would be bad for the economy. So it is a very friendly place, very safe.”

“Even Kashmir?” i asked.

“Yes, you should go to Kashmir,” he said, “Very friendly, very safe for foreigners.”

He had mentioned that he was in the army and was on his way back to Kashmir, where he was stationed. He did not then address why he, an army officer from Rajasthan, should be stationed in Kashmir if it was so safe, and i did not push the issue. I also did not at any point test his optimism, never reading the book openly in public.

The one thing that he said that surprised me most was that if India had not had Gandhi and the Freedom Fighters, they still would have gained Independence just the same, and maybe sooner, he said. “Look at Sri Lanka. They had no Freedom Fighters, and Britain gained their independence sooner than us,” he said. (i did not feel the same thrill of agreement on this particular point as i did when he spoke about the British role in this Partition.)

The Silent Handshake That Spoke Volumes

One day in Rishikesh i was sitting on the wall of a stone staircase that lead from the road between Swargashram and Laxman Jhula down to the beach of the Ganges River. Reading a volume of poetry by Rabindranath Tagore, I was distracted by noticing a family as they walked along in the sand, taking pictures of the Ram Jhula Bridge, chatting as they strolled. It was a pair of parents, two children, a girl of maybe 4years old and a boy of maybe 2 or so, plus a few other adult family members. As they veered away from the river bank up towards the road, the father noticed me staring at them. They were a pleasure to see, with the little girl skipping in the sand, the boy just then scooped up into his father’s arms, wriggling around like the baby he recently was.

i realized that both of us, though each on vacation, could clearly recognize the cultural origin of the other. He father wore the skullcap and beard-with-no-moustache of a Muslim, and one of the other adult family members the kameez, the Indian Muslim coverall they wear so often. And their dark-chocolate colored complexion showed their Indian (as opposed to Arabic) ethnicity. i showed my Western (and perhaps, by stereotype if not actual indication, American) background by wearing cargo pants, a United Colors of Benetton coat and a Ben & Jerry’s baseball hat.

The family was chatting among themselves but the father, son in his arms, held my gaze as they approached the staircase to climb past me to the road. i was smiling, perhaps in amusement at the playing children or perhaps in self-consciousness at my compulsive staring. A few steps away from me, the father extended his right hand to me and we shared a firm, friendly handshake while smiling at each other. He nodded, i nodded, and they continued on their way. 

I felt an unexplainable joy as I tried to turn my attention back to the Nobel-prize winning silent music of Tagore. 

The Garbagey Guy

In Rishikesh, i had one of the few negative interpersonal encounters of my time in India. i was walking by a nearly-dry river bed of a tributary of the Ganges, right next to the Ved Niketan ashram. There was mounds of garbage all around. Litter is a big problem everywhere in India, but this was obviously a dumping site for nearby businesses.

Just as i was walking by, a pair of cows locked horns and began to fight. Wondering if something interesting would happen, i took out my camera, pointed it at the cows down by the Ganges, and began filming. About a minute later, a young Indian man with dark skin, academic-ish glasses and a winter hat worn down low on his head approached me from near the entrance of the ashram. From the angle he approached from, he couldn’t see the cows i was filming. And the following conversation took place. He came at me angry and confrontational, and briefly even seemed he would strike me. Admittedly, i did not play the peacemaker:

Him: Where are you from?

Me: Where are you from?
i know that's a donkey, not a pair of bulls. And
this is not the same site as where this conversation took
place, but the pic can give you some idea of both
how much garbage there is all over the place there, and
of how you wouldn't have to go out of your way to
photograph it!

Him: From only here. Why were you taking pictures of garbage?

Me: i wasn’t, i was filming two cows fighting.

Him: Yea, sure.

Me: What if i was taking pictures of garbage?

Him: Then I think that makes you a big idiot.

Me: Really? Then i’m going to leave your opinion here in the garbage.

Him: Really? Then I think that makes you a terrible person. Someone who comes here just to take pictures of garbage must be an idiot. Where are you from?

Me: Italy.

Him: Why don’t you take pictures of garbage in Italy?

Me: i have, you idiot.

Him: Why don’t you take pictures of your Berlusconi? You have garbage too you know.

Me:  There’s garbage everywhere, and i’ll take pictures of what i want.

Him: (unlocking a side gate of the ashram to let himself in) Why don’t you pick up the garbage, idiot?

Me: Why don’t you pick up the garbage, idiot?

Him: (speaking angrily to himself in Hindi as he walked away)

(You can see my blog with pics of trash in Italy in this previous blog post: "i love the shit in Rome")

The Young Hindu Priest

i met a young Hindu priest in a temple in Bagsu, a small town very near Dharamsala, on a trip to India 3years ago. On that trip i took a photo of him. In anticipation of finding him again, i printed out that picture and brought it with me to India this time. When my i took my friends past this beautiful temple last month, I found the priest there, reminded him of my previous visit and gave him the photo as a gift. He was thrilled and asked me to please come back another day to have tea with him. A few days later i did. i found him just outside the temple, and he invited me to the yard behind the temple, where he lived in a small very modest room with a cow and a buffalo tied up outside. He grabbed a pair of chairs and drew me a tin of water from a nearby tap, and we sat in the sun with the backdrop of the Himalayas and chatted for more than an hour.

As we talked he occasionally had to  jump up to attend to various chores, during which breaks i discreetly  poured out the water, not wanting to offend him by not drinking it, but also not wanting to risk dysentery from the unfiltered local water. He was thrilled to have the visit, he told me. “I don’t have any friends. I don’t really believe in friends,” he said. He was about am my age (early 30s) and we were both very interested in the life and culture of the other.

After talking for a while he said he would go make tea. While he was gone a bell rang in the temple, and he went literally sprinting in. Later he explained that a big family had entered and he had had to attend to them. That’s how i found out at least one of the purposes of the bells found at nearly all Hindu temples and shrines.
i found out also that this was the fifth temple he had worked at. He had decided to be a priest when he was very young and had gone to a religious school with a guru to train for the job. The other four temples had been in various other parts of India, but he was very happy to be there now because he had grown up right in Dharamsala and still had his family there.

i asked him what caste he belong to and he immediately, unflinchingly responded that he was a Brahmin (the highest class). At first i thought that this made sense because i had understood that being Brahmin was tied to religious life, but he explained that he was the only priest in the family, that his father was an army officer and his brother an editor at a newspaper, and that of course, he said, the entire family were Brahmins.

This lead him to tell me about his brother, who was making complications in the family because he wanted to marry a colleague of his who was also an editor at the same newspaper. The problem is that the girl was of a different caste than their family, and their family was forbidding it. He had visited them the previous day and they were fighting. “I make final decision in this house,” his father had yelled. But, to the family’s surprise the brother had yelled back, “No, for me, I will make the final decision.” And so his father pleaded with him. The brother, my priest-friend told me, earned 2,000rupees per month (about $36), and the girl also made 2,000 per month. So, his father told the brother that he would give him 2,000rupees per month just to not marry the girl, so it would be like he was getting her income anyway. But this apparently remained far from settling the problem and the brother was still considering going through with the marriage. The priest said to me, “I don’t know what to do. What do you think I should do?”

Believing it was an implied question actually about his brother, i replied, “i think you have to follow your heart.”

He squinted into the sun in silence for a long time. Then he said, “Marriage, it’s about the power of God.”
Smiling cheekily i replied rhetorically, “It’s about the power of God or the power of your father?” And he erupted into the only laughter we shared the whole time. We didn’t say anything more about that topic.

Following my personal theme of the trip, i asked him what he thought of India’s Partition with Pakistan and he replied, “I am a Hindu, but I pray also to Muhammed. God is God.” And that’s all he had to say about that.

The Business Owner

Through my three trips to India, i have become particularly good friends with one Indian man who owns a couple of shops and a hotel. i have gotten to know his family as well as his brothers and father work in the shops as well. He is clearly the leader among his brothers and seems to hold in his hands the responsibility for the family businesses. On this trip i also go to meet his wife and two sons. The kids were fun and cute, and he proved to be an involved father, bottle-feeding the youngest and chatting with the older one who would wander into his officer during the day. 

Over lunch one day on this trip, i asked him if his marriage had been arranged, and he said that it had been. i asked him if it was difficult to get married and that way and he said that, for him, it had been easy.

His wife actually grew up in the house right next door to his. He says he had somehow never met her though because he was always working in the shop and she at home. But then when he had been in his mid 20s, his parents asked him if he would mind to marry the girl next door (literally!) He said that would be no problem for him. And that was that.

Now, seven years later, he told me that he doesn't think they've argued yet seven times. He told me has been amazed by European guests to his hotel who have yelled and screamed at each other, arguing in ways that would disturb the whole neighborhood. He says his wife and he almost never argued, and that on the very few occasions when they had disagree, it had been quiet and brief and that nobody even outside of the room they were in would ever know they had fought at all!

i found this amazing and told him so. He told me that he thought marriage was about surrendering. He said that to make a marriage work, both partners had to surrender themselves to the relationship, and that once that happened, everything would always be smooth. 

As the conversation continued i mentioned that it would be great to be able to show him around Rome, Italy, where i live, as he had helped me out so much there in his home town in India. He said that he would love to come abroad to see me and the other foreigner friends that he had made, but that it is too difficult for him to leave the work of running his businesses. Plus, because the Indian rupee is so weak, international travel is outrageously expensive for Indians. He told me that to take his family abroad for a while would probably cost hundreds of thousands of rupees (thousands of dollars), and that instead he would use that much money soon to buy a new plot of land that he could develop for the needs of his family. 

That was quite a stark reality to me, that he was going to buy land with the amount of money that it would cost him to go abroad. It made me remember how lucky i am to be able to travel so widely and so easily as i do!

My Khajuraho buddies

Even more so than the amazing sex temples, the most intense thing about Khajuraho is how nuts the people there are for foreigner money. Almost every person on the street will yell to, if not actually chase, any white person that goes by and try to convince them to go to some shop or otherwise spend their money, and all the ones who are doing this just straight up beg…or so it seems there sometimes.

Manesh's motorcycle
So it was actually a little bit of a relief when the two college-aged Indian kids walked up to me and, out of the blue, started making fun of me. They attempted to make some sort of bald joke, something about a dome. And i shocked myself by not telling them to f@hk off, like i had done with nearly every other person to approach me on the street that day, but instead actually turning it around and making conversation with them. Turns out they were both from the village of Khajuraho, but one had recently moved away to university in New Delhi, and was just home visiting on a school break. And he, Manesh, was studying art history. Since i am a tour guide who often works with art history in Europe, we suddenly had a lot to talk about. They loved Italy and Italians, they said, and Manesh even showed me that he had an Italian flag sticker on his motorcycle. The sticker also said, "La vita รจ bella," and he asked me what that means. "Life is beautiful," i told him, and they were glad!

Manesh, and his friend Chalee, invited me to sit with them for a tea there nearby. Manesh told me that he was studying art history because he eventually wanted to work in tourism, like i do. He told me that he had met a foreigner girl there in Khajuraho and that she was his girlfriend, though she now lived in Paris. He was thinking about moving there to be with her if he could make it possible. He did not believe in arranged marriage, he said. And he believed that if he could just improve his English and/or learn some French, that he could go to Paris to marry his girlfriend and make a life there. And she already knew that she loved Khajuraho, so arranging visits back would be easy. i wish him luck, i sure hope that works out for him.

Both he and Chalee were from farming families. Manesh told me that at one point Khajuraho had 4years of drought during which nothing grew, but that the farming families had stored up so much food that that they were never hungry even still. He also explained to me that they were both of the 2nd of the 4 castes, Brahmin being the highest and Harijans or untouchables being the lowest. He explained the division of the castes in terms different from what i'd always heard before. He claimed that the Brahmins or priests were the highest caste; then the artists and artisans, the descendants of the great artists who built the famous sex temples there, were 2nd caste; 3rd were the drivers and i forget what he said the 4th were, but he also said of the last two, "We do not touch them, they are the unstable classes." Though this does not match with the traditional descriptions of caste system divisions, i reasonable to believe that local Khajuraho custom describes it this way. But what surprised me most is that he was describing it to me unprompted, and his unflinching frankness as he mentioned the lowest castes.

When i responded by asking if these divisions were still relevant in modern times, he assured me that they very much were. "In the village," he said, "there are four temples, four hospitals, four of everything, one for each caste."

Chalee, who liked to be called Charlie like a foreigner, told me that his name meant "naughty boy." That's what his mother called him when he was little, he said, and the nickname had stuck. He had big plans for his future. He wanted to clean up Khajuraho. "Me and twenty other boys, we will pick up all the garbage. Litter is a big problem in India," he told me, in case i hadn't noticed. "We will make it so clean that to even spit on the street will be a crime."

"And I will make the boys stop following tourists. It is bad for them," Chalee continued. 

i asked him how he would do that and he said that he would open a school and have the boys live there. He would help them to learn and be educated and make good lives without bothering the tourists, he said. i asked him what he would do if the boys still wanted to follow tourists anyway.

"I will beat them," he said. Then looked at me, seemed startle into a chuckle and continued, "I will kidnap them and make them stay in the school until they have learned. I will make Khajuraho a better place." i don't think either of us was very sure how serious he was about the measures he would take, but it was clear his heart was in the right place.

After having tea and then dinner, they suggested that we should hang out the following day, that we could take Manesh's motorcyle and go to a nearby village that was very quiet and free of tourists. i agreed and we spent the whole next day cruising around, visiting Chalee's home, climbing a mountain, going to their families' farms. It was really great to switch from trying to avoid the annoying attention of the locals to having a great time with them and making a pair of real friends. :-)


  1. Thanks for your grateful informations, am working in Tourism Portal, so it will be helpful info for my works.


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