At this point I’ve been here a little over a year. For those of you who are picky, I moved here August 1 of 2014 and it’s now November 21, 2015, so it’s been quite a bit more than a year. I have decided, however, to engage in my own special kind of “DiploMom Math”, and subtract the month I was out of the country in January and July, plus the two weeks of August I was gone, so it’s a year in my book. Makes more sense than the Common Core.
I was trying to come up with a top 10 list, but I really couldn’t. Top Ten Places to Visit? Done by Let’s Go, DK Guide, and so many other professional travel writers that I couldn’t see the point. Top 10 Places to Shop? I’m a shopper, but I’m not particularly great at it, so if you’re a shopper and reading this, I’ll pass you on to the best shopping advisor for Mumbai and ask you to go visit Kaho at Chuzai Living. http://www.chuzailiving.com/ . Top 10 Temples? Top 10 Events? It was getting ridiculous trying to nail something catchy down, and while I could come up quite easily with Top 10 Times the DiploBoys Did Something Amazing (or Dangerous, or Crazy, or Ridiculous – take your pick), I decided that what I was going to write about should be relevant to more than my mother and my in-laws.
So, I give you DiploMom’s Top 10 Crazy/Interesting/Fun/Different and Fabulous Things From My First Year in India:
- Traditional v. Love Marriage. DiploDad were recently interviewed for an Indian publication, and one of the questions in the pre-interview prep was this: “Are you in a traditional or love marriage?” I have to admit, I was not prepared for that question. One of my sorority sisters is in an arranged marriage, so the concept of an arranged marriage wasn’t one I’d never run into before moving to India. F’s parents, however, are from Pakistan, and she’d grown up with the idea being applied to her, so the heritage connection, at least for me, was made. I’m happy to report that she and her husband are blissfully married and have three daughters. It works; it really does, even in the U.S. But hearing someone ask me, an American of European descent, if I was in anything other than a “love marriage” really hit home how prevalent it is in Indian society, even among the educated and wealthy classes. My friend, S, is in an arranged marriage. Her husband is wonderful, she is happy, and her kids are great. It works. Her relationship is a little different than mine is, but the arrangement factor isn’t the only difference in a country where familial relationships are closer, more involved, and more influential in day-to-day life. My apartment compound is probably 80% Indian (as opposed to expat or Non-Resident Indian (NRI)), and I’d wager that 80% of that 80% are in a traditional, arranged marriage. It seems to work well. Sure, there is domestic violence in India. There’s the vast collection of Mother-In-Law Stories. But I see a lot of families that are happy, and a lot of women that are too – not just stay-at-home women, but educated, working women. Perhaps they, like my friend, F, retained “veto power” over their potential life mates. Perhaps our families, unlike ourselves, really do know us well enough to find someone who can complement us and build a relationship based on something other than the White Knight/Princess story that so often blinds us and clouds our judgment when choosing a mate. Perhaps they don’t. Either way, I don’t assume it’s sexist, anti-woman, or mean anymore.
- People Will Never Think You Live Here if You are a Foreigner. Nope. They won’t. It’s not just me either, with my fair coloring; it’s anyone who doesn’t have the Mumbaiker Vibe. I am used to being treated like a tourist in countries where I, um, stand out, but for some reason the common man (and woman) here doesn’t seem to be cognizant of the fact that India, especially big cities like Mumbai, has an expat community. In Hong Kong, there was a significant banking sector, so even if I don’t have Asian features, it was assumed I was part of that world (I was), and there was an awareness of a subset of non-native, long-term residents. Same thing in Ghana, where it was assumed that I was either an aid worker or a diplomat. Either way, the “tourist” label wasn’t the first label assigned to me, and it’s strange to have to dispel that assumption regularly.
- Toilets are Politics. Don’t skip over this category. It’s not going to be disgusting, I promise. There are two kinds of toilets in India, Indian toilets and “English” toilets. English toilets are the sit-down kind we experience in most of the Western world. Indian toilets are the porcelain-lined holes in the ground with the ridges where you put your feet so you don’t slip while you squat. Going into bathrooms where there may be both choices, the lines for the booths and the resultant flow for which one is “assigned” to you by nod or look, is fascinating. But beyond that, toilet discussions are part of everyday life. People are categorized and evaluated depending on their toilet situation. Do they have one in their apartment or house or do they share one with many other families that live in their chawl like freshman in a college dormitory? Is it Indian or English? If they don’t have a toilet in their house, do they use one of the many public (albeit paying – anywhere from R5- to R30 in my experience) toilets? Or do they just, um, use the streets? Use of toilets became such an issue in India that it began the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Initiative) in 2014, which largely focused on eliminating public pooping. (I personally like that word more than the scientific “defecating”, so I’m going to stick with that.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swachh_Bharat_Abhiyan Recently, the campaign’s officials have come out and stated that anyone who did not “use toilet” would not be hired to work for the campaign. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that hiring someone who didn’t have easy access to a toilet would (1) allow them to be educated on the importance of using toilets; and (2) ensure a flow of income that would permit them to regularly use their neighborhood public toilet or install one in their home. Within the same time period, I learned that in order to challenge the results of public elections, you have to actually have a toilet in your home. I wasn’t sure that I was reading the article correctly, so I asked my friend, P, and she assured me it was a “toilet, toilet” and not some odd secret reference that I hadn’t picked up on yet. So if you are poor, forget it – you don’t get to participate in politics the same way. Toilets separate the rich from the poor here, and in my personal opinion, that’s shite.
- Kids Stay Up Really Late. It’s rounding up on 8 p.m. on a school night, and the intercom rings. It’s the little boy downstairs, and he wants to know if the DBs can play. 99% of the time, I say no, because if I don’t, they won’t get to bed until 10 p.m. or so, and there will be Hell to pay the next morning. My kids get up at 6:30 a.m., and at 7:20 are boarding the bus for school. So, I would imagine, are all the Indian kids in our building if the crowd at the front of the building every morning is any indication. But unlike my kids, Indian kids eat dinner not at 6 p.m. as mine do, but around the time I’m insisting DB2 quit beat boxing in the bathtub and get OUT for cryingoutloud and I’m making sure DB1 passes tooth brushing inspection. I’m not sure what time they actually do go to bed, but every time I am out late on a weekday evening, I see families roaming the streets of Mumbai, kids in tow, and there’s no sign for the Land of Nod anywhere. Unlike the DBs, the Indian kids I meet in the elevator every morning on my way down to the car at 7:30 a.m. look none the worse for wear for the late hours they keep, and are generally pleasant – something neither of my kids are in the morning, unless they’ve just had a good 12 solid. I’ve come to the conclusion that Indian children have Special Nighttime Superpowers.
- Dogs Have Rights. Unless you are a “kept dog” like the DiploDog, dogs in India have rights. Dogs in India are like squirrels in the Atlantic Southeast of the United States: numerous, feral, omnipresent, and rapidly reproducing. Unlike the squirrels in my homeland that are chased by dogs (DiploDog), cursed for ruining gardens, and in some areas even made into pies (I’m from West Virginia, yo), dogs just sort of hang out and become part of the scenery. Feral dogs stake out territory, and no one can do anything about it. There are two dogs at the swimming club I call “Breach” and “Candy”, and they either ignore you, wait for you to give them a large portion of your dinner (no scraps – really, the indignity), or crawl up on the lounge chair next to you and bask in the sunshine. At the Consulate, we are “guarded” by a phalanx of canines the DBs call Cody, Brown Dog, Wishbone, and Tigress. Unfortunately, the Consulate Canine Corps have selected a few individuals to terrorize, and there was a call for their relocation, banning, and even, under muttered breaths, execution. The Management Officer tried everything – banning feeding them didn’t work. (Good luck with that when the CG’s wife is out front every morning with a giant bag of Alpo.) The idea of a Canine Relocation Program died as soon as people realized that new canines would move in or the CCC would pull an “Incredible Journey 2”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Incredible_Journey After the RSO (who was squarely in the CCC’s corner) announced that you couldn’t exclude them from the outside walkway but that you could exclude them from the parking lot because “dogs have rights”, Facilities installed chicken wire along the bottom of the parking lot fence and the victims of the CCC no longer had to run the gauntlet to get to their cars. Except for Cody. He’s a dog genius. He still manages to get in.
- Indians Do Crazy Things With Pulses. I grew up calling them dried beans, and it took me about a month to realize that Indians weren’t just obsessed with their physical statistics but were talking about dried chickpeas, lentils, and beans. Pulses, as they are commonly known here, are a major staple in the Indian kitchen. They are sold in probably 80% of all shops I’ve been in (including pharmacies but excluding clothing shops), and are eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Beyond the whole beans that are made into dal, stews, and salads, they are ground for flour and used a variety of other ways. Sometimes, it seems like a whole Hell of a lot of work. I was shopping with my friend, S, and she said that she had been told by her nutritionist to add this stuff you eat on the top of most chaat (snacks, street food) to her son’s meals for extra protein. I can’t remember the word, so I’ll describe it: it’s essentially chickpeas that are ground up into flour, mixed with water and maybe some spices and then pressed through a very, very thin press to make about 2mm thin “chickpea sprinkles”.
Honestly, I never realized until I started talking about food and cooking with S how complicated and how much utter work goes into all of these little garnishes I see on many dishes. A lot of it starts out as a dried pulse. For a moment, I went the Ultra-Feminist route and determined that the amount of work involved in that for such a brief period of enjoyment was just a plot to make things take longer so as to keep women in the kitchen and at home. Then, I just decided that someone was bored or crazy. I was feeling pretty good about my conclusion until I realized that next week is Thanksgiving and I’ll probably spend two days in the kitchen for a meal that will last 20 minutes and that I should probably just shut up.
- Division of Labor is Complicated. A year later, L and V are still locked in the Battle of the Windows. So the week before the DiploGrandparents arrived, DiploDad was leaning out of a seven-story window, trying not to spray water all over the place and annoy the Building Management Committee while trying to remove at least seven months of pigeon poop off the glass. Neither of V or L wants to do the windows. Every so often, V mentions that I should get a “Window Walla” to clean all the glass. For the first three months, DiploDad went crazy trying to get his shirts ironed, yet another duty that was traditionally performed by our household staff. V made a horrible mess of his shirts, he went postal, and we called a Press Walla. The Press Walla ironed well for about two weeks, then decided that he could no longer deliver the shirts on a hangar, so could he fold them in a box for delivery? Dude, we are trying to put creases out of shirts, not to have them put in. This is not my battle – I wear virtually nothing that must be ironed because I hate to iron and haven’t ironed in over 18 years unless it’s a tablecloth and an emergency. The solution was to pay the dry cleaners in our building to iron them every week and for L to take on shirt management duties so that DD always has a clean, ironed shirt. Do I sound spoiled? Fine if you think so – and someday I’ll write a post about why having help is not all it’s cracked up to be – but it drives me crazy that two women who are paid just short of double the statutory going rate for what they are doing won’t do things that in my view are two of the main reasons we hired them. In Ghana, G even identified things that should be done. In Hong Kong, M attacked dirt anywhere and everywhere and most other tasks she was assigned with vigor only the truly diligent possess. So when I hired not one, but TWO people for the house and was still confronted with the “you-need-to-hire-someone-who-specializes-in-this-because-this-is-SO-not-my job”, I was baffled. I’m not the only one who runs into this, and my local girlfriends are fine with this. Unlike me, they are paying the statutory (just raised) R9,000/month rate, so when they have to call in a Press Walla, a Window Walla, a Guy to Clean Pigeon Poop From the Planters, a Gardener (to water the plants), and a Who Knows What Else Walla, it’s not a bank-breaking proposition. The closest I can figure is that this phenomenon is something born of the caste system, a relic to days and classifications that are theoretically irrelevant today. But my helpers are Catholic, and have no caste. So again, I’m back to square one: just accept it for what it is and buy cotton/spandex blend.
- There are Indian Christians. You saw the Hindus attack the Muslims in Slumdog Millionaire. You heard about the Muslims charged with terrorism in India in bomb attacks, and terror and Muslim are spoken in the same sentence often, just as in the U.S. (If you don’t know anything about terror attacks in India, and specifically in Mumbai, shame on you – there is an Indian 9/11-type incident that is every bit as important as the NYC event. Read it – it was carried out via the same tactic used in Paris and in Mali. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Mumbai_attacks ). You might have read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Either way, if you are interested in India and not living under a rock, you know that there are Hindus and Muslims in India. What you might not know about is that there are Christians here too – mostly Catholics, largely descended from, and influenced by the Portuguese colonists. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_India The Catholics that I run into tend to be from Goa, although there are also notably large communities in Kerala. The Bandra area of Greater Mumbai is heavily Catholic, mostly of the Goan variety. They are discernable by their names. Instead of Priyanka, Deepika, or Sonam, they are Lydia, Assunta, and Melina. There’s not a Yussuf or Hussein in sight, but Kenneth and Milburn appear on the rosters of the Catholic schools that populate the suburb north of Mumbai. Bandra has several churches, sex-segregated schools, and colleges, and seeing a nun on the sidewalk is not a novelty. Catholics, at about 2.3% of the Indian population, are a distinct minority, and occupy a curious place in between the Muslim and Hindu populations. I may have visited more temples than churches in Mumbai, but I’ve only ever attended services in churches. I can assume certain things with them on the basis of shared religion (full disclosure: I’m Catholic) that I can’t when I speak to or visit Muslim or Hindu friends. It’s fine; it’s just that I’m going to have to alter the menu for tea depending on who is present. Some of the Catholics feel ignored or persecuted politically, and I have to say that I’d be hard-pressed to name a single Catholic/Christian politician in India, so maybe they have a point. One thing that I love, however, is how “Indian” the Catholic churches and traditions are. Where temples have marigold garlands on Ganeshas or Krishnas, the crucifixes that line the streets of Bandra are draped in the same. A small window into the religions via Bollywood is a movie that was actually boycotted by some here in India – PK, starring Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma. I loved it. And it could only be made here in India. I encourage you to rent it – it’s available on iTunes. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2338151/
- Indian Women Cheat at Scarves. They do. They really, really do. Most Indian women choose between three options: Western, sari or kurta for their daily dress. The easiest for most traditional, working, women is the kurta, which is paired with an approximately four-foot dupatta, a kind of scarf. The dupatta is draped over the neck area like so:
It can also be drawn across the face to keep smog, dust, and dirt out during bad winds or while riding on a motorbike, or wrapped on the head like a hijab to permit entry into certain religious buildings or areas or to protect one’s head and neck from the sun. The most common way, however, is draped over the neck. For an entire year, I’ve watched Indian women carry the dupatta gracefully, snaking through heavily trafficked sidewalks, pulling children alongside them, and balancing grocery bags with their dupattas firmly in place. Meanwhile, in DiploMom Land, no matter how elegant it looks when I finish adjusting it in the mirror, I wind up dragging one side in the mud, getting practically choked when someone steps on it at the market, or slamming it in a taxi door. Not everyone hides his or her laughter. Then, mid-dance at the Dandiya party this year, S said, “I’m surprised my dupatta is staying in place. I only used two pins.” Whaaaa????!!!
“You pin it??!!”
“You ALL pin it??!”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me??!”
- Cows Are Everywhere. This might seem like a completely obvious thing to point out, but I was really, really surprised at how often I ran into cows in Mumbai. I honestly didn’t expect to see cows on a daily basis. Mumbai is a BIG city. I’m talking over 22 million people in the Greater Mumbai area. That’s almost ten times the population of the state that I was born in. New York is a big city. So is Frankfurt. So is Accra. And I never saw cows in the city limits there. OK, maybe once in Accra. My universal truth has always been this: cows belong in fields where they can eat lots of grass and moo. When I saw cows near temples, I thought that was a little odd, but knowing that Indians believe that feeding the Temple Cow is like giving nourishment to 55 thousand gods at once, it made sense. So after the first two weeks of thinking how crazy it was to have cows in the city, I was fine with the Temple Cows. I often stop to feed or pet them. They are really quite sweet. In my opinion, Temple Cows are one of the things that make life here interesting and awesome.
Eventually, I noticed that there were a few very different categories of cows. In addition to the Temple Cows that are usually tied up and often attended, there were also free-range cows that roamed the streets. Some of them are Solitary Cows, and they wander up and down the street, usually on the sidewalk, with people parting like the Red Sea to let them by, cow smirks on their faces, and carrying themselves with the swagger that only Solitary Cows in India have. Solitary Cows are rarely accompanied by owners, who sometimes tie them to a post in a well-trafficked area, hoping that others will feed them so they can save Rupees on cow chow. If they are not otherwise eating from rubbish piles, that is. I remember the first time I saw a Solitary Cow tied up with no owner in sight. I looked around for the owner and finally asked someone where the owner was. I got a shrug. The cow bumped into me, looking for a treat, and I decided that if she was fine with it, I should be too. They are not as serene and cared-for as the Temple Cows are, but they are still nice cows.
The third type of cow is dangerous. They are Cow Posse Cows. Cow Posses are groups of three or more cows that roam around the streets of Mumbai, Crawford Market, and the beaches of Goa. If the Temple Cows are the Zen Golden Children, and the Solitary Cows the slackers of the cow world, the Cow Posses are the bad teenagers who hang out in the convenience store parking lot, smoking and trying to score beer. In the first year, DiploDad was gored by a Cow Posse Cow in Crawford Market (be careful of the Notorious Three when you shop there), DB2 was run down by one in Goa on the way to buy ice cream, and I was crushed up against the wall of a shop by one in Bandra. In short, if any bovine in a Cow Posse is eyeballing you, don’t try to stare it down – run.
I could probably go on and add a few more, but I really, really need to stick with the Top Ten format. I love India. I look forward to the Top Ten for my second year in Incredible India.