The Indian enigma

Sari fabrics

Indian experiences and observations

India is a strange but lovely place. I refer to it as the Indian enigma. It’s beautiful. The people are very friendly, polite, talkative and above all interested. A lot of them speak very good, if a tad antiquated, english. English you might have heard in the 1940s or 1950s. Clothes are referred to as “dress”, which in its way is correct. He was in formal dress. But in english english we don’t really use it any more. I am instructed to “get my dress for washing”. It makes me smile. I have tried to explain that we would use the word “clothes” now, and that dress is really only used as a verb or as a woman’s article of clothing. She looked nice in her new dress. Or I dress myself in the morning. (We wont go into dressing wounds here, or how one can give someone a dressing down.)

I am staying in a village. A village of predominantly rubber tappers and associated types of agricultural work. I am the odd man out. Many of these people have never seen a “white man” in the flesh before. Some necks crane so much that I fear the individual will fall off his motorbike. I’m a source of interest and gossip. Sometimes I find it a bit intimidating or off-putting but on the whole I don’t mind. I like the way young children stare or hide behind mummy’s sari. When the realise I’m not going to eat them they are usually the friendliest.

Everyone, or nearly everyone, asks “what country?“. What do I tell them? I have an english passport, I feel more Irish than English, I was born in Kenya and I live in Spain. Maybe a bit too much on the first meeting? A lot of the younger people want to know how they can go and work in Europe. I ask them “why would you want to leave a country where a cup of tea is 10 rupees” (about £0.12p or €0.14¢)? When I tell them that in the UK you’d be lucky to get a cuppa for under £1.50 or to them 125+ rupees they are shocked. Naturally I have to then explain that to catch a bus or train is absurdly expensive compared to here. Rents – well forget it if there aren’t a few of you. And yes the wages are higher but the cost of living is exorbitantly high. In general you’re better off here.

Smoking kills – so does life

Gold Flake cigarettes in India
Gold Flake – still in 10s
A pack of 20 ciggies here are about £2.50 where as they are knocking the £10 pound mark in UK and Ireland – in Spain they are a bit cheaper but still twice the price of here. Mostly they are sold here in 10s or singly from the stall. And here you have the other India enigma, the beedis, the funny little Indian cigarettes rolled in a leaf that actually have some flavour (yes I had a lapse – but I’ve stopped again). They come out at between 19/-INR and 25/-INR for 20 – 25 depending on brand. To us that’s less than £0.30p. Up until recently the beedi wasn’t taxed but now the packs appear with the same anti-smoking photos to which we in Europe are well used and tax has been levied.

The India enigma – the beedi

Europe in the 18th century

The culture is so different – again an Indian enigma! It’s probably akin to Europe in the 18th century. Aside from the towns, women do not wear short skirts, they still wear traditional saris and the salwaar kameez. Even in the towns you don’t really see women in shorts or mini-skirts. Yes the younger girls will wear jeans and T-shirts, but nary a leg is seen, and they usually have a “scarf” that is draped across both shoulders and hangs down the front. Why? I think it’s to hide their breasts. The boys mostly wear long trousers, long sleeved shirts and a vest. (I haven’t seen a vest in years.) In the south the men wear lungis, which are sarongs to you and I. Guys in shorts are seen but they are the more “hip” of the crowd. And you don’t go out anywhere without getting dressed up. That buggers me up – hey? 🙂

Girls still wear saris, the salwaar kameez, churidaar and lehenga choli (skirt and blouse), and a few variants with odd (to me) sounding names. Wikipedia has a good entry. Ok, the examples I have picked as the images illustrating these fashions are particularly beautiful and some are wedding apparel, but they are a riot of colours and I’m going to miss this when I return to Europe.

Gagging for a beer

There are no bars. Well that’s not strictly true. In the towns there are but women don’t frequent them (few women smoke either). The women that do go to the bars are probably not the women you want to meet. On second thoughts – maybe they are? In the village where I am staying there is no bar and the closest one is a short drive away. It’s mainly full of men having a beer or rum after work or getting pissed up. Rum is the most popular spirit but you do see Indian whisky or maybe it’s whiskey – who knows? The normal beer is fierce strong at about 8% but I mentioned that in this post. I have been told, but I have no proof, that normal beer is brewed and then ethanol is added to bring it up to sledge hammer strength. They do brew a “light beer” which weighs in at 4·5% or “normal strength” in Europe.

So, what this is leading up to, is that social interaction is effectively nil. There is no “popping down the boozer for a swift half” and getting to meet the locals. Result is that I’m glad I have this blog to write and my uke, or I’d be bored out of my tree or be getting into trouble. I’ve tried 4 Indian beers, the first mentioned here called:

  • White Rhino – nothing special.
  • Hawards 5000 – silly strong.
  • Kingfisher – easy to find. The normal one is 8% and the Premium 4·5%.
  • UB Export – I had the weak one, 4·5%

And don’t even think of trying to chat up a woman. You’ll be run out of town or knifed. Go to a club or disco, that’s your best bet for girls. But you’ll find that it’s mainly boys dancing together from what I’ve seen.

Women’s lib – another Indian enigma

When I’m in the house I’m told off for doing chores that I take for granted in the EU. I’m not supposed to take my plates to the kitchen after a meal. I get scolded if I sweep the floor. I sweep the floor because this part of the world is a bare-foot community in the house and I hate walking on crunchy floors. This is still women’s work. The local village people say I’m a good man. Luckily I have earned a good “reputation” largely because I’m polite and considerate (something with which my daughter would probably violently disagree) and try and greet everyone with the correct “namaste”. And why not? We may be different colours but we bleed, cry and laugh the same.

So where does that leave us? In a beautiful Indian enigma, with its 21st century trappings of LEDs, mobile phones and the selfie, crap internet, auto-rickshaws or the tuk-tuk, and daily power cuts 😐 but firmly planted in a different century culturally and socially. This is the Indian enigma. Yes the towns are more cosmopolitan but, for example, I can not sit in the same row of seats on the bus as my hostess – just not done. I can sit with her daughter and son though. Tongues wag just the same as tongues wag in any country – especially about the white man.

Isn’t gossip a wonderful world wide phenomenon?