Reflections on a month in India
When I told family members of my plans to embark on this six-month Spice Odyssey, the country they were most concerned about was India. My mother warned me to brush my teeth only with bottled water and bought me a stash of anti-diarrheal pills to take daily, even if I didn’t have any stomach troubles. My grandfather pulled me aside and said I could trust the people of Malaysia and Indonesia, but Indians would surely cheat me. Then he mimed a knife with his finger and drew it across his throat.
I still don’t know what my grandfather meant by that gesture, if I risked a violent death at the hands of a knife-wielding mugger, or something a little less sinister. And he was wrong about Malaysia by the way. In Penang, Bama and I were both swindled out of 20 ringgit just to enter a fort with nothing inside.
At this point I want to address the perception that India is filthy. Yes, men can regularly be spotted urinating in the street, but India is not an unhygienic wasteland where hapless travellers die of dysentery by the truckload. And the filthiness, like the distribution of wealth, is not evenly spread around the country. This statement applies right down to a pedestrian’s experience at street level. Although the seafront promenade at Pondicherry is dutifully swept on a regular basis, its northern end has a low wall that provides relief for men who cannot wait. I do not know if they go in front of the French consulate to give their former masters the finger.
This leg of the Spice Odyssey has taken Bama and I on an unforgettable journey through the southernmost portion of India, across four states and one union territory (with a brief stop in Kolkata on the way out). While I am aware of the vast differences between north and south, I’d like to share a few things I have learned about this complex, infuriating and awe-inspiring country.
India is deeply spiritual
Considering that their homeland is the bastion of Hinduism and the setting for much of Buddha’s life, it’s no wonder that many Indians take their faith very seriously. Hindus occasionally invite holy men to perform ceremonies (puja) to bless the household, ward off sickness, make sure the car or elevator works properly… for every need or circumstance, there is a puja.
I was also struck by the reverence that Indians have for their religious sanctuaries. Visitors are generally expected to remove their shoes not just in Hindu temples, but also before entering churches and synagogues. At San Thome Basilica in Chennai – built over the tomb of the Apostle St. Thomas – we went barefoot to visit the crypt chapel, where mass was being held in the most beautiful, poetic Tamil. We stood in awe as the sound of melodious hymns and the priest’s booming voice echoed off the walls of the brightly-lit chapel. Something stirred deep in my consciousness; I couldn’t help tearing up in an atmosphere of such genuine devotion.
India has some of the best vegetarian food on earth
And this is sometimes found in the unlikeliest of places. Bama and I ate two heaps of lip-smacking biryani at a restaurant in Karnataka, just off the highway between Chitradurga and Bangalore. I loved the bold flavours, the complex blend of spices, and the fact that it could be so filling without any meat. In Madurai, we sampled a ten-dish vegetarian thali for 100 rupees (about $1.50 US), including papadum, white rice, biryani, curried okra, yoghurt, dessert, and masala curry with paneer so chunky you might mistake it for chicken.
It was one of our favourite bloggers, Madhu of The Urge to Wander, who introduced us to a variety of North Indian vegetarian snacks called chaat. Together we feasted on platters of deep fried goodies reminiscent of dim sum back home. I loved the combination of savoury, tangy and sweet notes on my palate – there was jaggery, tamarind, red onion and yoghurt, along with the freshness of diced tomatoes. Most of the chaat we tried also had toppings of crispy, deep-fried strands of chickpea flour. In my native Hong Kong, traditional vegetarian food uses copious amounts of tofu to mimic the texture and look of meat, but Indian cuisine does not resort to mimicry to make a vegetarian dish great.
India can be raw, pushy and in your face
While riding air-conditioned sleeper class on Indian Railways, you may swipe little roaches off your backpack and catch sight of a jet-black mouse scurrying beneath the seats. Outside a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a beggar may reach out and grab your arm for money. Upon leaving your hotel in a Tamil temple town, you might be accosted by two women holding thick folders and laminated photos. They’ll repeat the words “handicapped children, handicapped children” and threaten you in Tamil with raised voices. When you say “no” and walk away, one may even hit you on the shoulder with her folder (it happened to Bama).
Kochi, or Cochin as it is known to locals, is quite different to the serene, laid-back Kerala marketed in magazines and travel brochures. If you do end up going, expect to meet pushy rickshaw drivers and rude shop assistants. The drivers will suddenly turn hostile and insist on taking you to five or six upscale emporiums, even if you make it clear that you have no intention of buying any souvenirs. And when you gently decline the offer of a shop assistant and say “I will think about it,” they might ask you angrily, “WHY? WHY DO YOU NEED TO THINK?”
Indians speak English, just not necessarily the kind you know
Hindi speakers mix English words into their native tongue to form Hinglish, as shown by the TV commercials. One may sell a glossy blue motorbike with the tagline “Feel the Josh”, josh being Hindi for “vigour”. In another commercial, a pale, ageless mother tells her handsome and equally pale son to use a certain branded deodorant because it is “kuch special” (kuch means “something”).
A hotel in vernacular Indian English is not really a hotel but a restaurant, which explains why they are often advertised with posters of food. There are also remnants of strange, old-fashioned vocabulary from the days of the British Raj: bus stations are called ‘bus stands’; menus may have a category named ‘breakfast tiffin’ for morning snacks; a pharmacy is often labelled ‘chemist and druggist’; while a warehouse is a ‘godown’.
India likes it complicated
In the decades since independence, India has embarked on a nationwide renaming spree. The largest city, Mumbai, is a case in point. It was renamed from ‘Bombay’ in 1995, and its main railway station, Victoria Terminus, was reincarnated as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. While the new names have been adopted on an official basis, the old ones are still in widespread use. For instance, Mumbaikars still call their grand old station ‘VT’.
On this trip, Bama and I stayed in eight places that had their names changed. Let’s see if you can match the new names (left column) with their old equivalents (right column) below:
It isn’t just place names that are confusing. Imagine walking into your hotel or guesthouse and seeing a panel of up to 10 switches for one single room. Eventually you figure out that one is for the fan, another for the A/C (before you switch it on with the remote), still another for the TV, and so on. Bathrooms always have at least two switches: one for the water heater and one for the light. Sometimes you will even come across something completely random like a switch that bathes your room in an eerie green glow.
After spending the night in your alien green room, let’s say you want to hire a long-distance taxi to take you 150 kilometres to your next destination, which probably had its name changed in the last two decades. The staff at your guesthouse may ask you to pay one third up front, and then another third to the driver for fuel. You’ll also have to pay for the tolls, unless it’s been specified that they are already included in the fare. And it costs extra to cross from one state to the next, but then it might also be included too. When you ask for clarification, your driver might not have the patience or vocabulary to answer in detail.
But when it comes to talking, Indians can get straight to the point
After travelling for several months in Southeast Asia, I found the Indian manner of speech extremely direct and terse. In Thanjavur, we decided to splurge and pay to have the hotel do our laundry. The housekeeper came back with the bags of folded clothes, uttering only three words in the space of a minute. The first was “Laundry.” Then “Check”, after which we dumped the clothes on my bed to make sure they were all accounted for. The housekeeper pointed to a slip, did a classic Indian headshake and said, “Sign.” It was a very efficient use of language. I thought this way of talking would correspond to lower levels of English fluency, but even the owner of our guesthouse in Goa was surprisingly curt. When we asked him about the nearest convenience store, he took it very badly.
“Why?” The owner snapped.
Bama and I were taken aback. “Um, in case we want to buy a bottle of water, or shampoo…”
He became indignant. “But you can get water here! You have soap in your room!”
Eventually the owner relented and told us exactly where it was.
India is like a box of chocolates
Because, as Forrest Gump so famously said, you never know what you’re gonna get. The accommodation itself was an adventure from start to finish. We went from staying in a bamboo shack near Munnar, with flying cockroaches and no hot water, to the brand new InterContinental Resort in Mahabalipuram. The latter was a last-minute arrangement that came about thanks to Madhu’s ingenuity.
After getting used to homestays with paper-thin towels and cheap hotels that did not have soap or toilet paper (we brought our own), the InterContinental was pure bliss. Our room had a sophisticated lighting system, the softest toilet paper I’d touched in half a year, a freestanding bathtub, soap and shampoo from L’Occitane, all the cable TV channels we could ever wish for and plush bedding. A welcome present had been carefully left on the desk: two sets of chocolates in edible pink boxes made from icing sugar and fondant. The chocolates were crafted with a playful Indian twist, yielding flavours of rose, curry leaf, cardamom, nutmeg and star anise.
To top it all off, Madhu and her husband Ravi (the mysterious ‘R’ who occasionally crops up in her blog posts) graciously invited us to stay at their home, and even before our arrival in Chennai they showed us unparalleled Indian hospitality. Without us asking, they sent their driver to pick us up in Pondicherry and whisked us to Mahabalipuram, around 100 kilometres away.
After we settled in at the InterContinental, Ravi drove us all into town for lunch, which was a large grilled fish coated in masala; garlic and butter prawns; and an enormous portion of fried rice. Madhu and Ravi paid for our admission tickets at the Shore Temple and Chennai’s government museum (even though the foreigners’ fee is 15 times the domestic fare), took us out to try local dishes from Tamil Nadu, and cooked curries and other delicacies from their native Mangalore.
When Madhu found out that we both shared her fondness for dessert, she asked Ravi to buy chocolate cake and two tubs of ice cream after work – one of luscious sitaphal (sugar-apple) and the other exquisite chikku (sapodilla). To be honest, I don’t know how I could ever match the warm welcome and the kindness that was shown to us. Spending five days with Madhu and Ravi was the ultimate highlight of our time in India, and reason enough to return. ◊