Be reasonable

Booking

Last year, we were booking our daughter into a simple home-stay by the sea in Kerala, India. While we sat in the owner’s office, I spotted a framed certificate issued by the Booking.com website. It showed that the home-stay had earned a 9.8 out of 10 satisfaction rating. I congratulated the owner for achieving this. Sadly, he told me, the latest rating was now 9.4.

“That’s still pretty good,” I said.

“Maybe,” the owner replied, “but it keeps going down. The problem is the Indian guests who stay at my place.”

“Why?” I asked.

“When foreigners come and pay £10 per night, they know what to expect,” the owner began, “but when Indians come here they expect accomodation worth £100 even when they are only paying £10”

“The problem is,” he continued, ” that Indians arrive expecting included breakfast, a swimming pool, and other facilities, for which they would usually have to pay £100 or more. These are not available at £10 per night. So, when they write their reviews on Booking.com, they give us a low rating, which is not fair given how little they have to pay. These low ratings bring down my overall rating.”

I sympathised with the man, who then admitted:

“I would rather have no Indians staying here. I prefer the foreigners because they know what to expect of budget accommodation.”

When I stay at places that I have booked on Booking.com, I tend to be over generous with my rating unless there is something very seriously bad about the place. Also, when choosing where to stay, I am not put off by ratings of just over 6 out of 10. I have often found hotels with lowish ratings to have been under-rated because people have been over-critical about minor defects.

So, when you next rate a place you have visited, try to be fair and reasonable with your ratings.

Tastes change

Once, long before ‘political correctness’ became fashionable, when my wife was an undergraduate student, she asked two Nigerian students whether they preferred their tea “black or white “. They looked at her indignantly before answering aggresively: “with milk“.

When I was a child, I drank tea without milk. That was the way my parents preferred it. That is what I became accustomed to. If I sipped even a little tea with milk, I felt nauseous. Tea with milk, as served in England, is made by adding brewed tea to milk or vice versa depending on your preference.

My prejudice against tea with milk persisted until I began visiting India in 1994. At first, I was suspicious of the “white” tea on offer, but soon began to enjoy it. I think that this is because it is made differently from that which is served in the UK.

In India, tea leaves are boiled vigorously with milk. Often additives such as sugar, crushed ginger, cardamom, mint, and lemon grass are added to the hot bubbling mixture. After a while, the boiled milky tea is passed through a strainer, often cloth, and served in cups. The resulting drink is a harmonious blend of the flavour of tea and the additives. In my opinion, it tastes quite different from, and much better than what is served in England.

I have visited India many, many times since 1994. Apart from developing a great fondness for the country and its people, my tastes in food have changed for the better as a result of my exposure to life in India.

TAXI DRIVER

Like London, Bombay is heavily dependent on workers who were not born in the city. This is the case for most of Bombay’s multitude of taxi drivers. Many of them came to the city from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP).

During a long journey from Colaba in South Bombay to Bandra, we spoke to our cab driver, ‘P’, from UP. A well educated man, he has been driving his black and yellow taxi in Bombay for well over 20 years. For most of the year, he drives for 14 hours per day, 7 days a week. His wife and children live in his village in UP. Much of the money he earns pays for his children’s education.

P owns his taxi and has a small house in Bombay. Occasionally, his family come to visit him in Bombay. Thrice a year, P visits his village in UP. There, his family have land where they grow a wide range of vegetables such as carrots, cabbage,potatoes, aubergines, rice, wheat, and more. While he is away from Bombay, he hires a driver to work his cab.

P feels that the present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is good for India because he seems to be reducing corrupt practices amongst the country’s civil servants. Another good thing that Modi has done, P told us, was to ensure that everyone including humble village people have bank accounts. In the past, state benefit payments were given to the panchayats (local village councils) to be distributed amongst the intended recipients. The panchayats usually deducted an amount from the beneficiaries’ payments and kept it for themselves. Now that everybody has a bank account, the state pays the people without intermediaries and be sure that the recipients receive the whole of the amount intended for them.

In P’s words, the Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi is “… lacking in talent”

P said that people in UP spend too much time worrying about what their neighbours have achieved and criticising them jealously instead of getting on with life. As he put it: “They don’t care about what they eat in their own homes, but instead what their neighbours are consuming .” People in UP are lazy, P said, they do not want to work; they just want to drag you down. In contrast, he said, people in Bombay are too busy working, trying to make a living, to care about what their neighbours are up to.

Although P has prejudices, which he barely concealed, he is intelligent and knowledgeable. At one point in our journey my wife mentioned two brothers, whom she had once known, and said that they were named after twins in the Hindu myths collected in the Mahabharata. “Madame,” the taxi driver said politely, “They appear in the Ramayana.

Later, when my wife told P her name is Lopa, which is short for ‘Lopamudra’, our driver immediately recounted the mythological origins of that name.

P, like many other drivers of black and yellow taxis in Bombay, is keen on conversing with is passengers. In contrast, most of the drivers of Uber cabs in Bombay, whom we have encountered, tend to be sullen and reluctant to chat.

MOTHER IN LAW

This story was related to me by a good friend. She suggested that I publish it on my blog because it illustrates certain attitudes still prevalent in India. I have changed the details for obvious reasons and will tell it in the first person.

This happened during my days as an undergraduate student in the early 1970s. Those days, we were all hippies, often high on dope. I had a fling with Raj. Nothing came of it.

Later and quite by chance, I found myself enrolled in the same postgraduate course as Raj. We got together again, and I became pregnant. Although we weren’t married, I wanted to keep the child, who was conceived out of love, not as a result of rape.

One day, Raj, without informing me where we were going, took me to his parent’s home. I was not dressed appropriately for such a visit, to meet a boyfriend’s parents. I was in shirt and jeans, wearing non matching socks and tatty sneakers.

When we arrived at his home, not only were Raj’s parents waiting to meet me, but also various of his uncles. Raj’s mother, let’s call her ‘Mom’, made me sit beside her and the men left the room.

“So, where did you do it?” Mom began, “was it in a hotel?”

“No, in my room at the hostel” I replied, wondering why she needed to know.

“Oh, in your room… very liberal,” she commented.

“And how many times did he do it?” Mom enquired.

Irritated, I replied:

“Too many times to remember.”

Then, the men returned to the room where we were sitting.

Raj’s father addressed me formally: “My son has been unjust to you. We will honour you by asking you to marry him.”

Raj and I were duly married. Just before our wedding, Mom took me to be examined by a gynaecologist. I was surprised as I had already consulted one before I was introduced to Raj’s parents.

Years later, it dawned on me why Mom had taken me for the gynaecological examination. She was probably checking that I really was pregnant, and not falsely claiming to be with child in order to entrap her son into matrimony.

To save face, Mom always told people that my child was born three months later than its true birthday.

Read what you wish into my friend’s story, but try not to be surprised by it. After all, deciding ones spouse by means other than by arrangement is still relatively uncommon in India.

The Old year in flames

The ending of the old year and beginning of the new one is celebrated all over the world in a variety of ways and at different times of the modern calendar. For example, the Chinese, the Gujaratis, the Parsis, the Jewish people, and the Russian Orthodox all celebrate the start of a new year on different dates. People, whatever their personal beliefs, also celebrate the end of the year on the 31st of December.

Cochin, which is a historic port in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was a Portuguese colony for a while in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Papaanji (spelling varies!) is named after a Portuguese word meaning ‘old man’.

Every year, a giant Papaanji is erected in a centrally located open space in historic Fort Cochin. During the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, the Papaanji is stuffed full of dry straw and fireworks. The roads around the open space are closed to motorised traffic. Despite this, a few youths on motor bikes manage to enter illegally.

After sunset and during the evening of the 31st of December, the area around the Papaanji fills with vendors and ever increasing numbers of people. Some of these merrymakers wear masks and others wear glowing red devil’s horns.

During the few minutes before midnight on the 31st, unbelievable numbers of people gather. The strong tide of people resembles a powerful surge of water such as you might expect if a large dam has just been breached. The crowd adds much noise to the cacophony of sound being relayed over various loudspeakers. Several times, I was almost knocked over by this human tsunami.

At midnight, the crowd became even noisier when flames began leaping from the ignited Papaanji. First, I could only see billowing clouds of smoke. Soon, frightening flames became visible. Then, bursts of stars appeared as the fireworks exploded.

Within minutes, the conflagration and fireworks ended. The old year, represented by the Papaanji, had been burnt out to make way for the new one. The crowds began to thin out a little, but despite that, it was quite hazardous trying to leave the area.

For an hour or two after midnight, boisterous revellers created much noise in the streets. The whole affair seemed to be generally good natured.

I am glad that I have seen the Papaanji aflame, but once in a lifetime is enough for me.

Indian way of worship

Over and over again, I am impressed by the “Indian-ness” of worshipping in India. I will illustrate what I mean by this by describing a small Orthodox Christian chapel I visited on Bazaar Road in the Mattancherry district of Cochin (“Kochi”) in Kerala.

Outside the chapel, there stands a carved stone stand with indentations for oil lamps (diyas). It looks just like any diya stand that you could find in a Hindu temple, except that it is surmounted by a Christian cross.

The crucifix that stood above a small high altar within the chapel was draped with flower garlands (malas). Again, these are commonly found draped around effigies of Hindu deities.

I saw a brass diya stand with burning oil lamps directly in front of the crucifix. Like the lamp stand by the entrance, this one was also topped with a Christian cross.

If one were to replace the crucifix with an effigy of a Hindu deity and were to remove the crosses from the diya stands, the chapel would become identical to a Hindu temple.

The use of diyas and also agarbati sticks (incense sticks) is not confined to Hindu temples. I have seen them used in Christian as well as Islamic (especially Sufi) and Jain places of worship.

At a Sufi shrine at Sarkej Rauza on the edge of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, I have seen tulsi leaves being sold. These are commonly associated with Hinduism, but the vendor in the Sufi shrine told me that they were also used by worshippers who came to the shrine.

I have seen threads tied around the trunks of peepal trees by pious Hindu women hoping to have their wishes granted. I have also seen threads tied by women around pillars in Moslem shrines for the same reason.

Hinduism was probably one of the earliest religious belief systems to become evident in the Indian subcontinent. Christianity and Islam were relatively recent arrivals. Many Hindus converted to these two religions, but, I imagine, they were reluctant to abandon their Hindu heritage completely. Hence, the Hindu-ness or Indian-ness of some aspects of other religions in India.

Rules of the road

As in the UK, Japan, South Africa, and Ireland, the rule in India is that one drives on the left side of the road. The steering wheel in four (or more) wheeled vehicles is on the right side of the car, truck, bus etc. In the case of two or three wheeled vehicles, the driver is centrally located. So far so good.

Although the driving on the left rule exists in India, it is regularly ignored.

Unless there is an un-crossable median barrier, turning right is often done as follows in India. The driver eases his or her vehicle into the stream of traffic on the right (I.e. wrong) side of the road into which the turn is being made. With a sea of vehicles approaching in the opposite direction, the driver drifts carefully towards the middle of the road, and then joins the lanes of traffic moving in the same direction as his or her vehicle. Sounds hazardous, does it not?

If you are travelling in an autorickshaw, your driver will often drive down a one way street in the wrong direction in order to make the trip shorter.

On the dual carriageway highway, things get more exciting. The highway provides an opportunity to speed up. But beware; it is not uncommon to come across trucks and other vehicles driving in the wrong direction towards the traffic speeding in the correct direction. Once, I asked a professional driver about this. He told me that it was quite normal for this to happen. By driving down the incorrect lane, a driver can avoid having to travel in the direction opposite to that in which he wishes to travel in order to make a U-turn. That seems quite reasonable but rather dangerous. It is just as dangerous as the herdsmen who choose to move flocks of goats and other animals along the traffic filled lanes of a highway.

Whereas a driver in the UK would be startled by any of the above, Indian drivers take these curious practices in their stride. They expect the unexpected and understand that the rules of the road are, like rules in general, made to be broken.

Seen girl bring ring

Arranged marriages where parents choose the bride and groom are still very common in India. Often the girl and boy hardly know each other, or may have never met, before the wedding ceremony.

In India when a marriage is not ‘arranged’ except by Cupid’s arrow, it is called a ‘love marriage ‘. My wife and I had a love marriage. When our daughter was very young she must have learned about arranged marriages from someone or at school because one day she said to us, assuming that we had had an arranged marriage :

“When I grow up, I am going to marry whoever I like unlike you.” We told her that we had chosen each other.

I am not qualified to discuss the relative merits of love and arranged marriages but both of them can be quite successful. To westerners, arranged marriages might seem strange. The reverse is true for many Indians, for whom the idea of love marriages often seem alien.

Once, I was talking to some young men in a bookshop in Bangalore. When I told them that my wife is Indian, one of them asked me if we had had a love marriage. I said we did have one. They asked me how I felt about love marriage. I told them that I can recommend it.

My in-laws, both Indians, married in India in the late 1940s. In those days, the majority of marriages were arranged. My in-laws were very unusual for that era because they had a love marriage. My father in law and his bride came from different communities. At first, the marriage could not occur because the bride’s family did not want their daughter to marry out of her community. After some time, they softened their views and a very successful married life began.

My wife and I come from different continents, but no objection to us marrying came from any quarter.

Recently, we were chatting with an elderly Indian gentleman, whose story illustrates how little say the participants in an arranged marriage might have. He told us that he had married in the late 1940s. He said that he did not meet his bride until the day he got married. He was working away from his home town when he received a telegram from his mother. It contained the words:

“SEEN GIRL BRING RING”

Bare your feet

In India, I prefer to wear sandals because in so many places it is necessary to remove footwear, and putting on and off sandals is so much easier than doing the same for lace up shoes.

Just in case you are wondering why there is the requirement to bare one’s feet, the reason is to prevent bringing dirt from outside into the place being entered. It is also a mark of respect when entering a religious place such as a mosque, church, temple, or gurdwara.

In some homes, footwear is left by the entrance. This is also the case for some homes that I have visited in the UK. When I went to a junior school in London’s Belsize Park, The Hall School, we left the shoes we had arrived in at the entrance and then replaced them by another pair reserved for use within the school.

When we visited Gulbarga (in North Karnataka, India) recently, we visited what purported to be an Arabic restaurant, Al Makki by name. Its floor was covered with carpets, and guests had to sit on cushions that surrounded very low tables. The owner took one look at my wife and me, and took pity on us. He provided us with a normal height table and chairs. The food was delicious. We ate a mutton “handi”, which is a pilaff flavoured with dried fruit, fried onions, nuts, and mild spices. By now, if you are still reading this, you might well be thinking that I have strayed from my topic. But, you are mistaken. We were not allowed to enter Al Makki until we had removed our footwear.

To conclude, my advice to people visiting India is: wear footwear that is easy to remove and replace.