Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Being Indian - Part 2 - Power

I have continued reading and making notes from the book Being Indian by Pavan Varma. The chapters are very long and wordy and take a while to digest. Here are some points that stood out to me from Chapter 2 which is titled Power...

The pursuit of power is an important undertaking for Indians. They respect the powerful and will cooperate and collude with those they perceive as powerful for personal gain.

The caste system began as a functional way of categorising people but overtime it has completely degenerated into an inflexible tyranny.

Projection of power and status are related.

Corruption is not only about material gain but also hierarchy and status.

Without power moral worth is not affirmed and corruption is a form of exercising power.

Indians have individually developed finely tuned skills to locate a persons exact status in society. To meet someone without knowing of their status is like entering a pool without knowing it's depth.

Indians ask increasingly intrusive questions to determine status. Then a person will know where they stand and how to act so that the accepted lines of deference, distance and familiarity are not crossed.

How well a person speaks english indicates social background. This leads to people who do not speak english well choosing to speak it often leading to the spread of poor english. Personally I have seen a lot of this especially when someone who has not mastered english as a second language then goes on to teach it to others leading to poor pronunciation and sentence structures. However I have the utmost respect for anyone who has the persistence to master more than one language.

If a person knows or is related to someone important they must reveal it asap. I do not think this is unique to Indians, though in western cultures it is perhaps not a 'must' but is generally made known.

Indians have a radar like sensitivity to other peoples importance or lack of. A skill that I am developing but I don't place it on importance rather just understanding how they fit in with other Indians and how they will be treated.

There is always an acceptable reason for foul play or corruption and deception is acceptable when the enemy is stronger. The end justifies the means.

India has no developed indigenous ethical system. There is no uncontested definitions of right and wrong; the only concern is the end result.

The power of position is more important than the strength of convictions. Private beliefs are not expected to come in the way of personal benefit.

Hinduism has an air of moral superiority yet hindus feel it is no contradiction to their immoral actions. Any action that is considered wrong in one text is lauded in another.

Flattery must not be subtle, it must be obvious and excessive. Also, indians are known for their bizarre exhibitions of loyalty.

The bedrock of relationships between master and slave is distrust and envy- the primary enduring emotion of Indians.

Altruism without a self-serving ulterior motive is deeply suspect.

A rising star receives much adulation but a fallen hero is condemned.

Esteem is related to status and is easily detected by other Indians.

How did corruption become so rampant in a country which prides itself on its moral heritage? It is because unethical conduct is not considered wrong in an absolute sense. There is never any remorse or guilt for playing dirty but rather self congratulations. Even if caught being corrupt an Indian will never admit guilt.

It is all about the end result; ethics and legality mean nothing on the journey.

Politicians are attracted to the rewards of democratic process not democratic idea.

It is not the pervasive poverty or illiteracy that allows politicians to get away with corruption. The people, no matter what their position in society, value effectiveness over principles.

Indians look up to powerful leaders even if they do not agree with their actions. It is just because they exude power.

Among other aspects democracy has survived in India not because India is democratic but because democracy is an effective tool in the pursuit of power.

Before signing off I just want to reiterate that the observations and generalisations  are not my own but rather those of an Indian National. Also these are generalisations; there are always exceptions to the rule, and I know plenty of people that are!

Friday, May 20, 2011

To the orange haired men of India,

What are you thinking? I know you think dying your greying hair orange might be the height of fashion but you are sorely mistaken. You look like Bozo the clown.
I don't know who tricked you into thinking this looks good...

but they are not your friend and if they happen to be your hairdresser they should be shot before they do any more damage to the sensitive eyes of the public.

Let your hair go grey…. or at the very least dye it your natural colour. I am telling you, you would have much better luck with the ladies being a sliver fox than a crazy clown. Let the following be your inspiration… 

                                                          George Clooney

                                                               Eric Dane

                                                           Pierce Brosnan

                                                               Not this…
                                                        Ronald McDonald

Thursday, May 19, 2011


On Sunday afternoon we went to Bipul and Dolly's wedding.

Bipul and Dolly are both ashram staff and it was so great to know them from when they first met up until now that they are married.
The wedding was not your typical Indian wedding as it was not Hindu but rather Christian. It was interesting to see how this differed from a Hindu wedding in that they got married in a Methodist Church and the bride wore a western style wedding dress and she had bridesmaids and bouquets etc. I think it was a bit of a shame that it was not a little more Indian traditional. Although the bride looked beautiful, I think she would have looked even more so in a traditional sari… perhaps a crossing of east meets west.
Here are a couple of other observations I made on the day.

We travelled to the church by metro as our car was being used to transport the bridal party. Our car was covered in little red rosebuds which has been sticky-taped over pretty much the whole car. There was also some very wilted bouquets taped to the front. You can kind of see what it looked like in the pic below. We now have our car back and it is covered in dirty sticky-tape residue.

On the metro we were stared at the whole way - as usual. In fact a woman in a full face covered burka even lifted her veil so she could peer at Hunter.

We arrived at the church at 4:30 for a 4pm wedding. We were sill half an hour too early. At 5pm the minister, looking frustrated, said over the microphone "bring the girl we are late already"

It was a 42 degree day without air-conditioning. Thankfully the heat does not bother me too much except for when I am trying to sleep.

Indian videographers do not know the meaning of being discreet. These guys were seriously obstructing the view. They were walking down the isle literally a metre ahead of the bride causing the bridal party to be all bunched up.

The bride did a fabulous job of playing the role of a terrified girl sad to be leaving her family. Even though it was clear she was happy. The groom looked petrified.

Guests would walk up onto the stage and take photos anytime they felt like it.

After they were married the bride's veil was removed by her husband but they did not kiss.

After the ceremony, outside the church a 10 shot firecracker was lit in way too close proximity to the bridal party, the church and the guests. Hunter had a burning ember land in her eye. No damage done.

I brought a book with me to read during the commute and all the waiting around. Unfortunately it was a pirated book and when I got to the crucial part, about 30 pages from the end, I discovered pages were missing and many were out of order…grr

The wedding cake toper was a cutesy caucasian couple in wedding garb.

At the reception some kids went up to Sam and asked him very discretely if he ate meat and later said he looked liked Justin Bieber.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Being Indian

After a particularly frustrating week here in India I felt like taking out a full page add in the Hindustan Times simply saying

                                     “Say what you mean and do what you say”

I have never felt frustration like I did that week. In the back office of the post office I had seen my friend Ashwinee pick up a chair and while waving it over her head she screamed at a postal worker to get the postmaster. Later in the week I found myself yelling at a roomful of tailors and then ripping their iron out of the wall and smashing it on the floor in frustration. These are just two of the many frustrations that I had experienced that week.

You would think after two years here I would understand the culture well enough that I know how to deal with these situations without behaving like a crazed lunatic, but clearly I don’t. I think the clash comes because the Australian and Indian cultures are quite opposite. Australia is a relatively young country, which means we have very little in the way of deep cultural norms and traditions; we are comparatively cultureless. India however is one of the longest inhabited lands on the earth; in fact it is claimed that Varanasi is the oldest city on earth. This long history means that this country has a lot of deeply rooted traditions, values and for want of a better word behaviours.
So the line was drawn in the sand. I either leave now or I get to know and understand this country and its culture better. I guess I chose the latter because I am now wading through a very enlightening book called Being Indian by Pavan K Varma.
As I am reading the book I am taking notes so that at the end of the particularly long chapters I have a summary of the key points. I thought that people who are interested in Indian culture, but do not necessarily want to wade through such a wordy and detailed commentary, might find my notes informative and perhaps useful.

I am not going to add my notes from the complete book here as this would mean a protracted blog and could be too much to digest in one sitting. So I plan to add an entry on each chapter week by week. So, for this week I will cover some background information on the Indian Culture and how they perceive themselves.

Disclaimer- Some of these observations and generalisations are quite controversial, so I want to make it clear that they are not my own but rather those of an Indian National. So please don’t feel the need to have a go at me if something I have noted upsets you. Also, these are generalisations; there are always exceptions to the rule.

Image Vs Reality

Indian leadership and educated Indians have projected an embellished image of India and Indians that they know to be untrue and have encouraged foreign observers to accept it. This is so much so that they have become convinced in their own mind that this projected image is true. They have projected an image of what they think India ‘ought’ to be rather than what it ‘is’. This is not unique to India a lot of societies perceive themselves incorrectly.
The projected Indian image is not entirely based on fiction. Every myth is based on a kernel of truth. The Indian myth creates unity yet it also deceives the nation.

Hierarchy is immensely important- Bending to those above and being dismissive to those below.

Indians pursue profit and hanker for material goods. They esteem the wealthy.

Spiritualism- the motivation is for divine support for power and money (even when gained in a dishonest way).

Indians are largely indifferent to whatever is not of direct benefit to them. This means that they have no problem tolerating inequality, filth and human suffering.

Indians are naturally amoral in outlook; any action is justified. Corruption has thrived because it is not considered wrong as long as it yields the desired result.

There is a limit to the amount of change the culture (inherited ethical habit) can go through due to it being so long and ingrained. It may be slightly diluted or modified but never changed.

Indians have an amazing ability to retain hope even in the most abject situations. This is due to the resilience they have formed from continued exposure to adversity. An amazing will to survive.

Although much of the listed traits are uncomplimentary they have actually helped India develop many of its positive attributes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Another month slips by...

I just sat down to right this blog and at the same moment the power went out for the second time today. Now I have just noticed that the ceiling fans are not slowing; I assume this means we have blown a fuse and I need an electrician. I have been trying (not very hard) to get an electrician to come to our home for about three months now. I guess now I will have to try a little harder otherwise everything in the fridge will go off. Actually, it seems our fridge is not coping too well with the heat. I went to get the milk out this morning and found it had turned into yogurt… not smelly sour milk, but yogurt. I think it must be about 20 odd degrees in the fridge and about 40 in the kitchen itself. Anything I really need to keep cold goes in the freezer.
Sometimes I feel like I am forever chasing my tail… there is always something that needs to be done or needing repair. Just when I feel like things are in a semblance of normal something will pop up.

Wow it went fast. Ray's parents were here for the best part of it and I think overall they thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Lola had a few ups and downs as she came to terms with the way things work (or don't work) here.

I organised for Sam to take them on a day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal; personally I could not face it again. So I briefed Sam with all the knowledge I had gleaned over four visits, including the history as well as the dos and dont's of Agra and I think he did a fine job as acting tour guide.

The only other trip we went on while the relo's were here was the annual expat whitewater rafting weekend in Rishikesh. About 90, mostly foreigners, who know of this trip through an assortment of networks, book out the Silver Sands camp on the banks of the Ganga for a weekend of hanging out and whitewater rafting. It was so great to have some family with us to share the experience with.
The Friday morning of the first day we all met at New Delhi station and caught the train 4-5 hours northish to Haridwar. From there we hoped on a bus which takes us to our camp. It seems that this year we had a bus driver with a death-wish. Most of the road to the camp is steep and winding and our bus driver was insane. He was overtaking on bends and giving us a close look at the precipice leading to the river below. It really was a bit much so Ray went and told the driver to take it easy. He was fine after that.
The camp was as  good as last year; great tents, comfy beds, amazing food and a couple of days of rafting the river. Where in Australia can you get all that for $100? The river was just as cold as I remembered it to be and I was not impressed when  I was dragged out of my raft into the icy water. I think the river was a little tamer than last year which is just how I like it. I definitely enjoyed the trip more than last year. I think I was more relaxed. Last year the rafting weekend was just a couple of days before I was due to fly to Australia and I think that was all I was looking forward to.

The rest of April was fun. Just hanging out with the family enjoying good food either out and about or cooked for us by Hans at home. Hans put our dish-washing lady out of a job for the month; she was so worried she had been replaced.
I should mention we have discovered what I think is the best value five star breakfast buffet in Delhi…. The Oberoi.  Rs550 ($12) including taxes.

So now we are on our own again and I am back to eating just to keep hunger at bay. I have totally lost the joy of eating. In fact the other night before bed I was hungry so I thought I would have a quick milo milkshake before bed. I smelt the milk as I got it out of the fridge to make sure it was ok, then mixed in the milo and drank. As soon as I got the first taste of the milk I realised it was sour. Rather than tip it down the sink I held my breath and drank it anyway. I just could not be bothered thinking any further about food and I did not want to go to bed hungry.

I am going to keep this blog relatively short as I have another one about ready to publish and  I don't want to lose peoples attention with boring longwinded lists of events. My next blog will be about Indian culture and why I am now specifically taking the time to learn more about it. It has been a real eyeopener.

Until then


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Back in the Groove

After a fairly hectic first three months back in Delhi things have finally slowed down and we are back into a fairly normal daily routine. I think I needed things to slow a bit, I was going a bit crazy there for a while; as evidenced by my iron smashing drama…more about that later.

February was reasonable uneventful. Much of the month was spent getting back into the school routine and trying to come up with new and different things to cook that did not taste Indian and didn't cost a fortune to make (not as easy as it sounds).
The other thing that occupied a surprisingly large amount of time was coming up with a ten day itinerary of travel for my sister and her husband who were visiting us for the second time in early March. The problem was I could not book any of the train travel while in Australia and by the time I got back to Delhi there were limited options available. After much stress and countless trips to the rail booking office in my neighbourhood (which I refer to as' hell on earth') the itinerary including travel and accommodation was sorted. If anyone wants a ten-day itinerary around North India taking in as much as possible I am your guide.
Retrospectively I may have pushed it a little bit too much, it was a hectic schedule, but thoroughly enjoyable.

March flew by; Julie and Michael arrived during the first week. The morning after the night they flew in we were up at 6am and on a train to Amritsar. This was  an easy six hour journey that was made more enjoyable by the amazing chocolate-chip breakfast muffins Hunter had made the night before and then less enjoyable when I realised in the taxi on the way to the hotel that my Oakleys had fallen out of my backpack on the train and were lost forever…grrr
We checked into our regular hotel (can you call it your 'regular' on your second visit) and had a delicious vegetarian lunch before heading out to the Waggah Border so that Julie and Michael could enjoy the Monty Pythonesque border closing ceremony. Refer to 'A collection of life & lentil anecdotes from the past six months' for a detailed description.
The rest of our time in Amritsar was much the same as our last visit… dinner at Crystal's; a night-time stroll around the temple; breakfast at the Golden Temple dining hall followed by dish washing; a wander around the city and the train home. This time we did not make the stupid decision to drive but rather took a leisurely train journey back to Delhi.
The next morning I was up at the crack of dawn again, but this time it was to drive Julie and Michael to the airport. They were off to Calcutta and Darjeeling. We had already visited both places and as much as I wouldn't mind seeing Darjeeling again (Calcutta not so much) we just could not organise an economical way to fit it in as I had to leave the train bookings so late.
Julie and Michael had a great couple of days away, but I think they thought I was trying to kill them when I booked them a luxury attic room in the Darjeeling hotel. Climbing four flights of stairs at that altitude is hard work!
After their jaunt I picked them up from  Delhi airport and once again it was go, go go. A quick lunch, a bit of necessary shopping, then we were off to catch the night train to Varanasi.
I was really looking forward to this for a number of reasons; firstly because we were traveling first class on the train (first time) and secondly because this time we were staying at an ambient hotel on the river rather than out in the sticks like we did last time (Ray is never going to hear then end of that).
First class was all I had hoped and more. Bigger beds, locking door, cleaner bathrooms and even a little bathroom indicator in the cabin that showed whether the bathroom was occupied. I did not sleep fabulously, but I did enjoy the soothing rocking motion of the train during the night.
We arrived at Mughal Sarai -  a station a little out of Varanasi itself - a little later than we were scheduled. This was due to some riots causing delays, cancellations and diversions. Frankly we were very lucky. A friend of ours who left from Delhi to Varanasi the morning before us got in long after us!?!
I hate to say it but the thing that strikes you first and foremost about Varanasi is the stench of urine and other human excrement. Delhi has its fair share of open sewer drains and stinky public urinals but this takes it too a whole other level.
We stayed at A Palace on the River during our time in Varanasi. I feel it was a bit overpriced; you are paying for location and a very flashy garland made from hundreds of roses on arrival. The restaurant was ok but painfully slow.
My recommendation for Varanasi would be Sita Guest House; not very flash but great location and a good price… all you need really.
I don't know what it is about Varanasi and the Ganga but it is really a sight to behold. The old city sitting on one side of the sacred river and barren flood planes on the other. In the evening hundreds of people take a sunset boat ride and release hundreds of floating candles onto the river. It is a spectacular sight.
The next morning after being woken by the incessant bell ringing of some guy doing his morning puja we had breakfast and then headed out for a tour of Varanasi.
My friend Jay recommended her friend Jai from Varanasi Walks and I have to say this was the highlight of our time in Varanasi. Jai is from the USA but has lived in Varanasi for 15 odd years and has studied the city and the culture. I know it seems odd that we would have an American guide us though an Indian city but it strangely makes sense and this is why. His english is easy to understand… sometimes it is a real struggle understanding Indian guides. Also, he gets that we do not have an understanding of the Indian culture or the the Hindu religion so he is able to convey the culture and religion in  a way that makes it easier to comprehend as well as comparing and contrasting cultures and religions. I cannot recommend Jai and Varanasi Walks highly enough… make sure you ask for Jai though.
The rest of our time in Varanasi was spent exploring the river, shopping and catching up with friends who had recently moved to Varanasi. Although I did not go on the mandatory sunrise or sunset boat ride I did manage to utilise the boat service to fulfill a transport need. One afternoon I had walked from our hotel half-an-hour down river to Assi Ghat (stairway) to catch up with my friend Jay who also happened to be visiting Varanasi. To put it in perspective this is not a leisurely stroll along a river bank, but rather it is half-an-hour of climbing up and down stairs  in the blazing sun. After a cold drink at the Open Hand Cafe rather than walking back up the ghats in the searing heat to the hotel we decided to take a boat. Best decision ever! It is such a leisurely way to travel and disgustingly cheap for the effort of the poor guy rowing the boat. So, I had my mandatory Varanasi boat ride.
After 3 days in Varanasi we flew back to Delhi. This flight deserves mentioning…
We were flying Spicejet. I used to find this airline endearing as each of their planes is named after a culinary spice. I have flown on Mustard, Fenugreek and Coriander :)
The flight out of Varanasi was delayed as the plane was late arriving from its previous leg. Rather than leaving before the Air India flight to Delhi we ended up leaving after… literally moments after. You have never seen a plane turn around so quick. We were rushed out of the terminal onto the tarmac surprisingly soon after the plane had landed. We were then herded onto the plane, thrown our complementary water and watched what seemed like an abridged version of in-flight emergency procedures. Next thing I knew we were speeding towards a bend and drifted onto the runway. The pace only quickened from there. It did not feel as though we were in the air for long before we commenced our decent. We must have overtaken the Air India flight at some-point. The landing in Delhi was fast and furious as was the taxi to the terminal until we came to a screeching halt. So we left Varanasi late and arrived early!!! I don't know if this constitutes timely service or recklessness. It felt like the latter.
We kept Julie and Michael on the go right until the bitter end. In fact there was some mad final packing and a bit of a rush to the airport. They were going to need their week in Penang to recover :)

We had a week of normalcy before our next lot of family arrived. This time it was Oma and Opa. They were staying with us for nearly five weeks. Thankfully there was no mad schedule to keep to but rather it was a month of largely hanging out in Delhi.

Well I feel like the skin on my wrists in blistering from resting my wrists on  the edge of my mac while typing. So I think I will leave it at that for today and fill you in on our rafting trip and all out other news including the iron smashing incident another day.

Until then, namaste.