Back in the day, when we were a bunch of ambitious kids in undergrad, pinning to grow our wings and fly westwards to the land of opportunity, the world was only starting to grow flat ( Thomas Friedman’s declaration ‘The World of Flat’ was also doing the rounds around the time). That is to say, that when my friends from school and I were plotting our exits from India and cramming a millions words into our vocabulary to clear the first entry point- the GRE, our knowledge of America was based on street-talk( which was second-hand information received from seniors already studying/working in the USA) or it was based on the projections of sitcoms like Friends or the exaggerated American Pie movies (besides the plethora of campus American Desi movies that were flooding the industry, but teaching the FOBs very little). At the time, someone suggested we read a book called ‘The Inscrutable Americans’ by Anurag Mathur and we immediately took the idea of learning as much about the country we were so eager to make our own. If you have ever seen the size of this book, it could easily pass of for a guidbook to America than a work of fiction. I remember vaguely that the book was about a small town boy from India that goes to a university in the mid-west and is astonished at the peculiar ways of the Americans. At the time of course, I would have found it hilarious, in the absence of a first hand opinion.
But if have ever lived abroad, or have friends who have done so, you would notice that more than we talk about the inscrutable and illogical ways of the others, we find equally amusing (and sometimes annoying) some of our own cultivated habits. I know a lot of people part of the reverse brain-drain, who have recently returned from various parts of the world and our topics of conversation have shifted from ‘ the inscrutable them’ to the ‘what the heck is up with us?’! To keep this post lighter than the previous ones, here are a few of my favorite ‘Indian’ things which amuse and befuddle me, and after lengthy stabs at trying to wrap my head around them, I figured, it is the way we are!
We don’t believe in Plans!
Now, this one might seem overtly simplistic given the state of our family planning affairs, and the infrastructure of our sprawling cities, but it goes much deeper and funnier than that! We never ever make appointments!? Whether we are making plans of meeting friends or trying to eat out at busy restaurants on weekends or planning holidays. I used to be amused at the American obsession with planning their calenders a year in advance, right to the detil of when they were going to have lunch with a certain friend or take a plan a Christmas holiday in January, let alone make the mistake of going to a restaurant without reservations! And they aren’t even that many people in that country for this sort of rat-race to eating out, in comparison to how many we are ( 1.22 billion people on last count!) So planning ahead should come intuitively to us, yet it does not. I still show up the busiest restaurants in the city, willing to wait an hour outside, yet never making that reservation call!( because chances are that you and your friend agreed to dinner only an hour ago before you decided to drive to the eatery!) So clearly, in some part of our DNAs we haven’t been wired to plan.
We love to talk about appearances
How many times have you met someone after long and told them they looked thin or they looked healthy/nicer(thinking very conveniently in your head that you just paid them a compliment). We love to start our conversations with the weight talk (maybe picking up from the English, who love to talk about the weather). It is our quintessential ice-breaker or whatever. But we seldom realize that in most cultures, talking about appearances is rude and none of our business ( but of course, we know little about that too!) I have had friends meet batch-mates in malls some years after they got married and remarked how their 2-minute conversation only revolved around weight and how people tend to put on some after marriage! Out of all the things you could have caught up on!
The art of fitting
If you thought hatchbacks were for 5 people and there was a ‘designed’ capacity to elevators, metro seats, railway boogies etc., we can show you otherwise. We know how to squeeze our personal bubble to zero(sometimes negative) and accommodate people in the ways westerners think impossible. This extends to other areas of course in how we accommodate public nuisance, corruption, and sub-standard services. But since Aamir Khan has taken up the job to deal with that, I am going to let my post remain breezy!
For us the world is split in two!
Yes, for us the world is neatly split into two- those who are married and those who aren’t! You are either settled in holy matrimony or THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOU. If you are single, you will agree that I am not exaggerating. SO no matter how well we know someone, or how many times we have met before, we will take it upon ourselves, the marital status of every person on the planet. So much so that, aunties travelling with us on train compartments will not hesitate to ask you the one question you least expect to be asked by strangers. ( because again, we think it is our business to know and slot the world in two) Of course, the drill doesn’t end at being married, because then the world will await impatiently for you to be a parent because ‘you have already been married two years!’ (yeah and then you know how the rest of the story unfolds)
We STILL believe in arranged marriages!
Of course we have travelled the world, produced more engineers/doctor/scientists than some countries have citizens. We advice some of the most powerful economies of the world, win the Man Booker prize and all those great things you read us do in the newspapers. But most of us ‘urban’ forward looking twenty-somethings still believe that matches are made in coffee shops under the scrutinizing eyes of our family members than bothering to take responsibility of this one choice in our lives! Of course not ALL of us are counting on it, but it still amazes me how many still are! No matter how our divorce rates are trending, yet more and more are falling in line to trust their parents’ formula to marital bliss. SO to answer once and for all the perpetual question every American friend might have asked me – Yes, some of us do have arranged marriages, but NO, we don’t don’t really appreciate snake charmers that much.
Like it is nobody’s business!
And of course, last but not the least, when we do manage to ‘arrange’ people into a lifelong commitment, we make up for our lack of planning in other areas by planning the grandest weddings on the planet. ( so you see why the obsession with people’s marital status?) So much so that, if someone from the West was to land in an India wedding without much background from the Lonely Planet, he might well believe that India had still not recovered from its Princely past, where king and pauper out-spend their pockets to put up the best show of their lives for about a 1000 plus strangers.
There are so many things that we do and say and are so inherent to our cultural DNA that we never notice anything amiss until we step out to the world of the ‘inscrutable’ only to realize how crazy we must appear to the world. But yes, these differences, these little quirks make us unique, special and keep the stand-up comedians acts running into eternity.
Do you have some desi quirks that crack you up? Drop in a line for some laughs. After all there is nothing better than some self-deprecating humor!
P.S: Also, though I did not time it like that, yet- Happy Independence Day! As you might have guessed, I have much love and acceptance for our ways.