Today marks a month since I’ve entered India. It’s a long time, to be sure, but as most western travelers say when I tell them, “Really? Only a month?” Apparently, the “thing to do” is to get a six month visa and spend the entirety of it traveling around this huge, varied country. And with so many different places to go, different culture, food, even languages, it’s something I’d love to do. But for now, I’ll be content with my six weeks. Even in that amount of time, India has already left a unique mark on me.
Not a day goes by in India without three distinct things happening: 1) Almost getting killed by crazy drivers, 2) Seeing an Indian wobble his head, 3) Having someone ask you if you’re married. Let me explain.
The stereotypes we maintain in the west about crazy taxi drivers really snaps itself into focus after you come here. I can’t speak for the crazy taxi drivers from the middle east, but for Indians, as it was for the Chinese when I visited a few years back, the lines in the road are merely suggestions. The normal way to make a turn is to drive heedlessly into the path of oncoming traffic while honking your horn incessantly. These other drivers, rather than getting mad like their western counterparts undoubtedly would, merely swerve around you on either side, those who can make it in front of you going in front, those who you’re likely to cut off going behind, like water parting around a rock. There might be seven or eight vehicles (rickshaws, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, cars, trucks, pedestrians, elephant riders, and horsemen) facing different directions in any one intersection, all weaving around one another and the crowd of cows grazing on rotten fruit. Hardly anyone stops and there are almost no accidents and no gridlock. Somehow, the chaos works. And New York City traffic just got a whole lot clearer.
The head-wobble is a distinctly Indian movement. The nonverbal communication here is unique and varied, and it takes a while to get used to. A sharp, diagonal nod of the head means “yes”, and it’s sometimes given with the word “yes” and sometimes without. A shaking of the head side to side (a Western “no”) can mean either yes or no, depending on their facial expression. Many times, if I’m asking someone about the rules of cricket (which I do often, since there are so many and I’m still learning how it all works), they’ll shake their head throughout my explanation. When I finish, they don’t say anything. This invariably leads me to ask, “So, is that right?” Then I’ll get a diagonal nod, like “Duh, didn’t you see me agreeing with you?”
But the head wobble is the best of all. Side to side, up and down, and around in a circle all at the same time, it’s the same motion that a bobble-head doll makes when you flick it in its oversized noggin. People have explained to me that this means, “I understand,” or “ok,” or that they agree with you. Sometimes I say agreeable things just to watch them do it. It’s fascinating.
If countries had national questions, India would have two. The first would be, “Which country?” This heinous fragment tacitly passes as a sentence in India, and is usually asked after some typical intrusive Indian activities like:
A) Five minutes of staring at you
B) Holding their camera up to take pictures of you from six feet away and then actually posing when you do the same to try to make them uneasy. Everyone ends up smiling.
C) Sending each member of a 25-member family up to your side to take the same picture of you with every single person in the family in front of either a blank wall or the Taj Mahal or a pile of samosas.
D) Staring over your shoulder as you read a book, check your email, eat a mango, or the most interesting activity of all, look around at stuff.
E) Giving you directions like “straight” even if they have no idea where the hotel/restaurant/river/tea stall you inquired about is located. Indians are so polite, that rather than saying, “I don’t know,” they’ll send you all over town looking for a hotel that is twenty feet around the corner from the shop they’ve owned for thirty-five years, but still don’t know about.
The second, and I think, most popular question in India is, “Are you married?” When I answer that no, I’m not married, and furthermore I’m 28 and don’t have a girlfriend either, they look at me with what can only be described as something akin to anaphylactic shock.
Marriage is a serious business in India, with the newspaper the Hindustan Times even containing a “Matrimonials” section that looks like any old Classified section that you’ve ever seen. Ads run like “23 yr f, pretty, dark eyes, thin, Brahmin, Hindu, working for computer company Mumbai, seeks man from good family with steady job in business/law.” The stranger thing? Far more arranged marriages end up working out than “love marriages.” Many Indians I’ve talked to, even young, English-speaking, western-dressed ones, say that they want to have an arranged marriage. Many others say they want a love marriage, of course, but I’ve heard so many times that they trust their parents, that their older sibling had a love marriage end in divorce, that they just don’t want to deal with the hassle and uncertainty, so they’ll get an arranged marriage and it will work out.
They are even more mystified by the fact that men and women can live together without being married. This is a big no-no in India, despite being a near requirement of western couples to see if things can work out. In India, they say they just learn to adjust and it will work out in the end. And for the most part, they’re right.
I could go on and on about India – I’ve had so many interesting encounters here. I’ve met a gypsy musician, a three-toed, blind sadhu, a fifteen-year-old savant tabla player, a Kashmiri horseman, an overweight man who owns a bakery (but apparently not shoes) that only makes gulab jamun, and countless others whose lives differ in so many ways from our own.
This trip has been solely in northern India: Kashmir, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh. Someday, I definitely am coming back to the south. And sure, India is exactly as you think it will be: dirty, crowded, hot, chaotic, dazzlingly colorful, naturally beautiful, kind, religious, traditional with modern western influence, culturally diverse, and delicious. In short, it’s just too interesting a place not to.