TEN FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF INDIA
1. IT’S WARM. Right off the plane, I felt it: it is warm in January--85 degrees warm. This is India’s coolest month. Kolkata (this is its official Bengali spelling now) has been sunny and about 80 degrees each day, dipping down to about 65 at night. In summer months the temperatures soar much higher. Even at 80 degrees most men were long sleeves and most women don saris (the material is quite lightweight).
2. DELIBERATE PACE. India is a slower yet more deliberate pace of life than America. Make no mistake, I have observed little idleness in India; people busy themselves. But there is little frantic, frivolous, fashion-driven behavior. Small things matter and on-timeness takes a back seat to duty and kindness. Here, people take time for tea (chai) each mid-morning and mid-afternoon; it’s a left-over British tradition that seems to fit well.
3. IF IT FUNCTIONS, REPAIR IT. My first impression was that there is nothing less than fifty years old in Kolkata--buildings, vehicles, equipment. I was mistaken. The new and relatively-new is ever-present, it is just overwhelmed by what is old, frayed, and scarred but functional. Old things are worth repairing and caring for if they are functional, regardless of the introduction of surpassing technologies. This “distressed look” is complemented by dress that seems to come from Bible times. In addition, building exteriors are dulled and stained from nearly continuous rain from July through September each year. This society, for whatever reason, seems to keep it running and serving purposefully generations after Americans would have abandoned it, torn it down, imploded it, replaced it and/or discarded it.
4. WORLD OF WHEELS. If it has wheels, it’s viable transportation. I’ve seen just about everything on the streets and roadways: trucks, cars, auto-rickshaws, pedaled rickshaws, man-pulled rickshaws, motorcycles, motor scooters, bicycles, bicycle carts, and four-wheeled carts being pulled by men. What I haven’t seen: tractor-trailer trucks. At least half of the vehicles show scars of sideswiping and lots of bumps and nicks. They are just “broken in.”
5. FAMILY ON A MOTORCYCLE. You can put an entire family on a motorcycle. Numerous times I have observed a man riding a motorcycle, his sari-clad wife seated side saddle on the back, a youngster seated in front of the man and a baby in the arms of the mom. Few wear helmets. Cycle of choice is a Hero Honda (apparently a cooperative effort between Honda and a native Indian cycle maker).
6. TRAFFIC FLOWS. Traffic literally flows: from one side of the road to the other, in and out, squeezing in behind and inching through a gap. Tailgating is essential and daring to turn in the face of oncoming traffic--standard. Horn honking is non-stop, the horn being used for to signal everything from “I’m passing you” to “get out of the way.” At first I thought it was all just one big game of chicken. But folks manage (miraculously, it seems to me) without much incident and certainly with no sign of road rage. Joe James and I had a great time with a phrase painted on the back of a bus: “Distance creates love.”
7. CULTURAL POTPOURRI. India takes the global trophy on racial, ethnic, language, and religious diversity. It is not so much the diversity of people who come to India, it is the incredible diversity of Indians themselves. There are no less than 19 official languages, but more than 80 languages are spoken throughout the country. And while India is 80% Hindu (a native-born religion with an infinite range of belief within Hinduism), many other religions, including Christianity (currently estimated at 2.4% of the population), flourish. This has got to be the most pluralistic place on the planet.
8. HOUSING MATERIAL. Apparently, dwellings can be made of almost any combination of scavenged materials. The shelters that line the roadways around Kolkata are built of bamboo, corrugated steel, cardboard, lattice, branches, leaves, whatever. Some are covered with mud or dried cow dung (which helps keep insects out). It is irony to see such a series of dwellings underneath huge billboards advertising new high-rise condominium developments.
9. HAND ME THE FOOD. Most Indians eat with their right hand (no utensils) quite efficiently. This occurs at every level of Indian society. Of course Americans eat with our hands, too. I do every time I go for fast food or eat pizza, chicken, etc. But digging your fingers into a pile of rice curry--that takes skill. No one uses their left hand at the table; it is used for other necessary duties.
10. CLEAN IS RELATIVE. At first I just thought no one cared much about cleanliness. But, after a week, I think it’s that Indians are just not fanatical or obsessive-compulsive as the West is regarding cleanliness. It’s just a different standard for a different culture. And even within India there is apparently a range of tolerance for dirt.