A little over a year ago I was working out of a beach shack in Goa and hastily decided to dash back to Australia to ride out the emerging pandemic. Sure, I’m a bit of a risk taker, but it just wasn’t practical to risk staying there on the visa I had. I had to leave and come back within a couple of months, but who would take me, and would India let me back in? Some thought I was too hasty and should stay.
I don’t know why, but for the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about writing this article pondering death. I think it is the flippancy around COVID19 deaths bandied around by some leaders in the media but for whatever reason it has been niggling away. This can be a traumatic subject, so please take care when reading.
For foreigners, food in India is a revelation. For Indians, THEIR food is an addiction; it is as necessary as the air they breathe to sustain their lives. Growing up in Australia we would occasionally go out to Indian restaurants. Back in the 90s and 00s it would appear the only Indians in Australia, and certainly Brisbane where I grew up, who opened restaurants were from the Punjab region. Their rogan joshes, kormas, butter chickens, and all of those lovely, rich ‘curries’ with naan breads were delicious, spicy treats. If we were feeling really adventurous (and my parents were not) we might go for a vidaloo. Your Mum might have some Madras curry powder in the spice cupboard which was rolled out occasionally for an ‘exotic’ dish. That was Indian food, wasn’t it?
I sat in a friend’s apartment discussing the logistics of apartment hunting, and a number of bizarre differences in the selection process came to light. In the West, usually the higher up in the building the apartment is, the more desirable and likely more expensive it is. These higher apartments usually offer a better view and hence more prestige. In Chennai, she told me, the ground floor is the more desirable and expensive. The reasoning? Firstly, it is very hot in Chennai for most of the year, so it is cooler towards the bottom of the building. Next, because things have a way of breaking down regularly, one can’t rely on the elevators to always be working, so being towards the bottom of the building means you are not faced with an arduous climb when that inevitably happens.
Privacy does not exist in India unless an extreme amount of money changes hands, and even then, you might be lucky. In Lesson 3 we discussed the collectivist nature of Indian culture, how your life is not your own, and the nation’s insatiable penchant for gossip. If you layer the high density population over those complete lack of personal boundaries, you start to see how there could be a nation where there is no chance of personal privacy ever.
In India, from the moment a baby pops their head out of their mother’s womb, the judgement starts. It begins with how fair or dark the baby is perceived to be. Of course their parents will fall in love regardless and likely think about it rather than verbalizing it, but inevitably there will be a grandmother, aunt, and/or family friend, on one or both sides of the family, who will make the proclamation on whether the shade, shape, and/or size of the baby measures up. This is something the parents and child will be told until they are no more, regardless of how the child’s features or skin colouring change as they grow up.
In the late 1990s I studied at University in Japan when the world was fascinated by Toyota’s low car defect rates compared to every other brand on the market. It was driving the proud American, car hungry consumer insane! Their efficiency and reliability was so inexplicable, intoxicating, and seemingly unobtainably magical, they termed it ‘X-Efficiency’ and people came from the world over to study this new manufacturing witchcraft. What does this have to do with India?
Surprisingly but most definitely, this innate gift of hospitality does not translate into a culture of customer service. At all. Something happens to the Indian the moment they step out of their front gate. All of that generosity and ‘mi casa sou casa’ mentality switches off, and in that instant, the instinct to screw over anyone and everything in their path moves into overdrive. The same person who just offered you (read pressured you into) your third plate of mangos and icecream while pouring you a glass of their finest brandy, will now be screaming at a poor street vendor to reduce the price of an item by the equivalent of a few cents. They will ruthlessly cut off other people in traffic and push people out of the way in queues. There is a very real understanding that life outside the home is every man for themselves, so take what you can from whoever is stupid enough to let you get away with it.
Ever since the video of George Floyd’s death and the rapid amplification of the #BlackLivesMatter movement the world over, I have been pondering the privileged whiteys who don’t believe in white privilege. NEWS FLASH! Everyone is racist. Everyone is judgemental. I don’t care who you are. I have been asked about whether Australia is a racist country when I have travelled in India, the Middle East, and Asia and my answer is always the same.