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?


Meerut header image

Road trip to Meerut

Mickey decided that a visit to his home town was in order. So I packed a few bits and pieces and stuck them in the car and off we went. Meerut is approached from Satya Dhaam Farm on the main roads either by Garhmukteshwar or Hapur, but Mickey chooses to go cross country. We followed a canal which I understand is fed by the Ganges, along whose sides are acres of mango orchards and monkeys who aren’t keen on being photographed. I saw my first snake, from a distance, no chance of photographing it as it crossed the road, but well over a metre in length.

After about an hour and a half driving we reached Meerut. Meerut is a city of about 1.3 million people. It is also a garrison town and the home to many regiments. The air is way cleaner than the air of Delhi but the noise is on par. That said, it does quieten down at night, unlike Delhi.

Janmashtami in Meerut

janmashtami in meerut
Janmashtami celebrations. The birth of Krishna.
I happened to be there during Janmashtami and independence day, so Meerut was ramping up for the festivities. The streets were being lined with stalls, bouncy castles and much the same panoply as in Europe, but from twenty years ago. The only difference was the use of LEDs everywhere. Janmashtami is the birth celebration of Krishna, so that would make it similar to Christmas for us in the west.

kingfisher beer in meerut
Kingfisher beer. Silly strong at 8% by volume.
Mickey and I went out for a beer in the evening. We picked up a friend of his called Pepe, a nice guy with a good command of english. The government alcohol shops are open at the front but heavily barred. You shout your order through the grill and the booze is passed out. Two beers and a small bottle of rum for us. Mickey opted for an import, I wanted to try a local beer so I had Kingfisher. It seems that beer in India is absurdly strong. This was a 750ml bottle at 8% by volume. Twice as strong as Guinness. I had one bottle and a 500ml can and was rewarded with serious motor-coordination problems.

It also seems that you either stand by the side of the road and drink, or you drive and drink? We did the latter. We went up to the Meerut army cantonment. This area covers a huge area, no photos, and, from what i could understand, is the biggest garrison town in India. It was a neatly kept area with captured Pakistani tanks and the likes on display.

Potato snack in Meerut
Potato snack in Meerut
The next day Mickey was hungover 🙂 I was ok 😀 it was also Janmashtami so there was music in the streets and final preparations being made. Mickey and I popped out in the evening to have a look and take some photos. We also ate a potato snack, I’ve no idea what it was called, that was delicious. We decided not to stop out late as he had planned to take his sons to the Independence day festivities the next day. During the day I took the opportunity of sending photos to the web and trying to catch up a bit with the blog. It’s so frustrating not having the speeds to upload anything but text.

Janmashtami display on the road side
Janmashtami display on the road side
Independence day evening we headed off up the road with Mickey’s boys to the street fair. It was already getting dark and taking photos was becoming difficult with available light (I hate flash photography). So I used the video camera set on “low light” and filmed a lot. Again it’s difficult sending this stuff to the net with no speeds but I finally managed and you can see it here. All over there are little displays and shrines to Krishna depicting his birth and points in his life. They are very similar to the Christian nativity scene or crib figures that are displayed at Christmas. This is a photo of a little display on the side of the road, made by an individual that lives in the room behind the display.

I did manage to video two dances. One for a Shiva and one for Krishna. I’ve no idea what the lyrics of the songs say but I presume that they tell a story. These two dances seemed to be put on by school kids. The rest of the video is really street scenes and the colours of the LEDs strung over the road.

Meerut is a nice city, I like it as much as I disliked Delhi.

Photos of Meerut on Janmashtami and Independence day

The Horn

white rhino varieties

The beer with the horn

white rhino beer the beer with the hornI went out with another CouchSurfer called Imran last night. Imran is the same age as my son (27) and a super-nice guy. He works advising tourists what to do in Delhi (he also works with his dad in the spare time – or maybe that’s the other way about). How lucky is that? He likes advising backpackers and helps out as in tonight where a Canadian guy has lost all his travel documents.

We went to the local market square and had a couple of beers in a bar. Unfortunately for me the bar was pretty westernised and was playing boom chick music that you hear in any bar in UK or Spain and probably the rest of Europe too. I tried a White Rhino beer. The beer with the horn? It was ok but nothing to write home about. 4% by volume makes it average. They tried to sell me Coronita. Why would I want that? You can get it anywhere.

Use your horn.

Walking up the road was an experience. You walk in the road. The pavement or footpath either is nonexistent or has traders on it. There is a little man outside the hotel with his sewing machine. Tomorrow I’ll try and get some photos of him. Lights on bicycles and rickshaws are optional as are crash helmets. No one worries too much about parking diagonally across the on-coming lane of traffic and it seems that the use of the horn is mandatory. Vans, tuk-tuks and the like have signs on the back saying PLEASE USE HORN.

Crossing the road junctions: well you are a vehicle too so just do it. Don’t bother looking, they don’t. But they do seem to have a knack of avoiding you. Motorcyclists and bicycles ride the wrong way down the lane of traffic.

Back to Imran. He has invited me over to eat curry with him when I’ve got my feet under the table. Tomorrow was suggested but I declined as I’m not sure what’s going on yet. I did buy 1 litre of water for 30 rupees which translates to £0.36 or €0,40. I’ve been advised to drink bottled water 🙂 When I’m ready Imran will send a taxi down to me that will cost me about €15 or £13.50 for the day to take me round the sites and drop me back at the hotel. He also invited me to go up to the Himalayas in the middle of August to a friend’s wedding that will last 3 days.

Like most youngsters Imran is addicted to his phone. But he apologised frequently for it 🙂 He also explained that he was phoning his brother to get a chicken for supper as they don’t do frozen supermarket stuff here.

When we split up he offered to get me a rickshaw to take me home. It would have cost about 20 rupees (24p or 27¢). I felt like the walk after the flight. I was tempted to buy a barbecued corn on the cob but decided against it tonight, plenty of time for that tomorrow.