Politics & Policy

Notes on India, Part III

Welcome to the third installment of these notes on India — remember, we are exploring Bombay, and Gujarat, and Rajasthan. And India generally. And maybe life “its own self,” to use a Dan Jenkins phrase. For Parts I and II, go here and here.

Where were we? Not sure, but let me tell you a little about driving in India — driving on a highway. This is a singular experience. I know some people who won’t look — who prefer to keep their eyes closed, all the while. It is too frightening.

Say you have a two-lane highway — I mean, one lane in each direction. Your trip is like a perpetual game of chicken. Your driver will want to pass the car in front of him — so he goes into the other lane. (And you will want a driver in India, because you yourself don’t have the skills, and probably not the nerve.) So, he’s in the wrong lane; and there’s another car coming at him — and you. Will he swerve back in time?

There are many, many close calls. (And I have not even talked about the animals, and some human pedestrians, in the way.) But, as I mentioned earlier in this journal, people seem to take things in stride. They simply know how to do it — they follow the Indian rules of the road (and there are such rules, unwritten, to be sure). It all works, rather seamlessly.

My gang happens to have an expert driver: Harishbhai Pandya (of Ronak Travels in Ahmadabad, incidentally). With him, one is in very good hands. But the thrills still come.

I could talk to you for an hour about driving experiences — of the harrowing sort — but let me give you just one anecdote. Okay, this is a four-lane highway — two in each direction. And coming the wrong way on our side of the highway is a man on a bicycle. He is right on the road — pedaling the wrong way. Trucks barreling by. Heart-stopping.

But there’s more: On his handlebars is one child; and in back of him is another. Quadruply heart-stopping.

‐I will give you an unusual fact about the drinking of water in India. Some people like their water refrigerated, “chilled.” But others cannot tolerate it that way. It must be room temperature.

Foreigners are always aghast at the amount of ice in American drinks. And I must be very American. Because I likes me ice.

‐During my travels, I often hear the muezzin of a mosque, at 6 A.M. (among other times). And I think of a line from a sturdy Christian hymn: “Early in the morning my song shall rise to Thee.”

‐Sometimes, I see women and girls whipping around on motorcycles or scooters, and they have a scarf of some type over their faces. Looking quickly, I think, “Muslim or dust?” And I think the answer is: dust (protection from). But the men, I notice, don’t wear any such cover. Maybe very uncool, unmanly.

‐An Indian-American friend says, “India is a very, very dusty country — a country of dust.” Hard to argue.

‐Care for a little language? Indian English can be a delight, and very musical, often. It can also be quite formal, even antique — King Jamesian. For example, a guide in Jodhpur says that a certain king “had no male issue.” I also hear “intelligency,” “anti-clockwise” (instead of counter-), and other flavorful words.

Also, I must say it’s interesting to hear “idols” — at temples, shrines, and so on — used in a non-pejorative sense. We are so used to the pejorative.

Heck yes, they’re idols!

And here is something interesting about Indian languages — Hindi, Gujarati, Rajasthani, etc. English words pop up frequently — and most numbers seem to be given in English. Someone will be whipping along in an Indian language, and then you’ll hear “15,000,” or (the year) “1837” — all in English. You’ll also hear “75 percent” — both the “75” and the “percent” in English.

Also, an Indian asks directions, and the man giving them will rattle them off — and the words “left” and “right” will be in English.

Of course, there are perfectly good words in Hindi, etc., for “left” and “right.” But the English words are used. Curious, that.

Moreover, I am with several ladies who are buying saris in a shop. I am listening to the salesman’s spiel (very smooth — also a hard sell. A smooth hard sell). And, when it comes to colors, he uses English words. He’ll be whipping along in Rajasthani — or some Rajasthani/Gujarati/Hindi mix — and then he’ll say “orange,” “maroon,” and even “rust-colored.” Yes, “rust-colored.” He also says — I really love this — “evergreen item.” And the word “bargaining” is in English.

In Bharuch, a neighborhood is called a “society.” You live in X Society (Jones Society, Smith Society). Nice, huh? (My society happens to be Pritam Society No. 1!)

And let me give you a particularly nice moment, language-related. There is a waiter at a fairly remote restaurant near Bikaner, Rajasthan. I sense that he has a certain curiosity, a spark — including about English. He knows not very many words. Which would I like? he asks. Tea or coffee? I say, “Neither.” He looks at me uncomprehending. I explain: “Not that one, and not that one — neither.”

Later, he comes to me, as we’re leaving the restaurant. He says (in English more broken than this), “What about ‘nor’?” I explain about “nor.” And then he tells me something astounding — he must have learned it in school. He says, “Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I.” And that word “nor” has been bothering him. (“Neither” must have been in the same camp.)

Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I. The words are Christina Rossetti’s. And what a beautiful pair of sentences to know, don’t you think?

‐I have one more language item for you — an experience that proves that foreign cultures, no matter how accessible, can be a minefield. I’m sitting in a restaurant in Bombay, with Bombay friends — new acquaintances. And, in the course of the meal, I ask them, “Does this restaurant cater mainly to tourists, or do natives come here too?” There is an awkward silence at the table. This is not like the group. Finally, one lady says, “What do you mean by ‘natives’?”


I say, “Well, you know — ‘natives.’ People born here, from here. Bombayers.”

More silence.

I say, “Is the word pejorative here?” The aforementioned lady says, “Well, it was under the British.” I say — defensive, maybe a little bristling — “Well, it isn’t in standard English. ‘Native’ is a perfectly good and innocent word. We’re all natives of somewhere.”

Yes, a foreign culture can present a mine or two — and that’s part of the fun of travel, isn’t it?


‐You will want to know something about Indian toilets — there is a wide variety of them, just as there’s a wide variety of them in the world. Someone ought to write a book. I’m sure someone has — and probably many someones.

Some toilets throughout India are terrifying. You will hold it until kingdom come, if you have to. Some toilets are benign, even inviting. Let me take you to one restaurant in Udaipur. There are two doors: One says “Indian Toilet,” the other says “Western Toilet.”

You know the expression, “When in Rome, do as the Romans?” I do not — do as the Romans.

It was awfully nice of them to offer a choice, wasn’t it?

And the variety of showers and baths — just as wide, really. There is another book.

And here’s something semi-cute: At one rest stop, there are two bathrooms, one for each sex. The first has a symbol of a man — a standard silhouette. The second shows a woman — in a sari. How Indian is that?

There is yet another book to be written, if it hasn’t already — symbols and words on bathroom doors. I remember one seafood restaurant, at some shore, long ago: “Buoys” and “Gulls.”

See you tomorrow, for Part IV.


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