Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Indian Culture - a personal perspective

I have a huge advantage in being fluent in the local language, but I am noticing that the interpretation is a little off, which explains why people do not find my sense of humor funny at all!! And, I don't find their jokes funny either! There is an entire channel on TV that is dedicated to comedy... showing funny clips from past movies, hosts cracking jokes, etc., and most of the time it is incredibly cheesy and silly in my opinion and when I think that a segment is over it is not, and when I think that they have more to say, it abruptly ends!

As a culture, people are warm, hospitable, and very obliging especially if they perceive you to be a bit more economically well off, and influential than they are.... I am noticing that people are not respected for WHO they are, but rather for WHAT they are. The family that you come from, and your current job position are crucial to how people treat you, and how much power you have in terms of being able to get things done, complain to someone if you are not happy with the service, and even have access to certain stores, restaurants and other people! Therefore, the poor have absolutely NO POWER.... period! They are invisible to the bustling crowd around them and seldom do people pause to drop a coin to a beggar, or to someone sitting there with no legs.... yes, it is desensitizing if you see the poor every day, and for most people walking past these people, life is a struggle too! The other day there were a couple of scrawny, cows on the street driven by a man with a stick and just as I was feeling sorry for the starving cows, I realized that the man himself was so thin and mal-nourished and so were most of the people around him. So poverty is everywhere and for most people (at the bottom strata of society), life is a daily struggle.... but despite that, they do reach out a helping hand to others.... I see the poor helping the poor much more frequently than the rich helping the poor.

"Prosperity" is seen here and there ..... dots of beautiful glass and steel buildings that have been put up by some foreign company right in the middle of tiny huts and naked, half-starved children. Yes, if you keep your sights high, you will miss out on the reality in the shadow of these buildings.... and I think that for most people keeping their eyes on the beautiful buildings gives pride in how far India has come, and hope for the future. Some of the new malls are quite spectacular.... no, you cannot compare the US malls, but for India, these are great! And this is where I see young women with jeans and T-shirts rather than traditional clothes and shopping for the foreign cosmetics and gadgets.... then again we have to keep in mind that these shoppers arrive in chauffeur-driven cars, and not exactly pedestrian traffic that has to deal with the sweltering heat and jostling crowds!

India has come a long way in terms of social behaviors too particularly among this mall-strolling influential crowd .... yesterday as I was purchasing my first Revlon lipstick here, I noticed at the counter beautiful six-inch colorful bottles with little spouts begging to be sampled as I usually do with lotions and hand creams..... just to make sure that it did not contain liquid soap, I asked the young men behind the counter what these were..... no one answered for a few minutes, and I had to repeat the question again.... one young man staring intently at the cash machine answered "that is gel condom madam" and blushed..... I too stared at the cash machine and remarked under my breath how advanced India had become, and sighed gratefully that I had not helped myself!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Through the eyes of an Indian foreigner

When I came back to India after over 30 years, I had assumed that since I was still fluent in the language adapting back would not be challenging. I was sadly mistaken indeed! Yes, although being able to communicate in the local language is a huge advantage in terms of negotiating the daily business in the local markets, and bargaining with the auto rickshaw wallahs, it still leaves a huge gap in how people interpret you as a person. I feel most of the time like Ms. Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady who was taken out of her flower-selling roots by an English professor, Higgins, who took it as a challenge to make a "lady" out of her and went on to do exactly that.... but the lady was completely a misfit in both the worlds after her transformation. In her former world, no one would recognize her enough to accept her, and in the new world she was an impostor!
Every place that I go to here, dressed in the local garb, people look at me with questions in their eyes and at least one would venture boldly to ask, "Madam which country are you from?" It is as if I have a sign written over my forehead.... while it is true that I am much taller than the average woman here and even most men, and my skin is a bit lighter than most(just genetics), I still have not figured out why I stand out so obviously..... to convince them that I am from Chennai, so that my prices are not automatically doubled, I read some sign that is posted in the store in the local language Tamil, and that forces them to reluctantly acknowledge that perhaps I am a "local" after all!
The local conversations are loud in the market place, full of hand gestures and facial expressions that are unfamiliar and too far off in my memory lane! I do find it all interesting, but I am still a spectator rather than a participant. Imitation is still uncomfortable and formidable, so I try to be myself which is what signals the "other" to the "locals". Then there is the issue of speaking down to people who serve you.... be it to the server at the restaurant, to the cab driver, or a clerk at the supermarket.... people's tone of voices are demanding, and the language used is the non-respect form to address "you". The attitude and the tone of voice clearly says, "Well, you're here to serve me, now get on with it!" Since it is impossible for me to do that I use the formal "you" to the servicing group here, and say "thank you" and that invokes strange looks......

I notice that in the regular news dead people's faces are shown as if it were the most normal thing to do! A couple of days ago as I was watching the news, there was an item on this woman who had committed suicide at home... and the next moment there she was on the screen just the way she was discovered on her bed with her face exposed for full viewing!! This seems to be the norm, and almost daily one can see such items on the news and squirm if you are not used to seeing dead faces! This may have to do with the aspect of how death is viewed here.... for instance, funerals are a jolly good procession with loud drums, dancing, and fireworks, along the main roads.... one can heardly be tearful in the midst of all this "celebration". I was informed that the dancers and the people firing up the crackers that make loud noices are 'professionals' that are employed by the family, and they really do have a great party that involves a lot of alcohol too.... perhaps if I have to dance daily in front of dead people for a living, I would be drunk too!!