India is, hands down, the most culturally complex country I have ever been at. With a population of 1.3 billion people (this represents one seventh of the entire world!), the variety of religions, social strata, beliefs, customs and even languages spoken is mind blowing!
If a person could only take one trip in their entire lives, this is the country I would recommend as destination. Traveling in India can be life changing. You’ll feel lost when you realize how small you are in the big picture, you’ll go back to basics, reconnect with what’s truly important and, as you do so, find your place.
These are some more of the things that make this country to unique, so intense. Read about others in Surviving Delhi: the beginning part 1.
Castes and Social Strata
Although the caste system does’t signify as much as it used to be, it is still a reality. If you are born within a certain caste, chances are you will get married with someone within the same caste (or at least from the same state). If you marry someone through an arranged marriage, you will seek a partner (let me rephrase: your parents will seek a partner) that is compatible with you in terms of traditions, beliefs, religion and financial background.
Now-a-days, there are job reservations and other measures into place, to guarantee that lower caste individuals can get certain kinds of jobs. But the reality is that, if you are born into a lower caste, you won’t probably have money to go to school, therefore you won’t be able to go to college, or perform certain jobs to begin with.
The caste system applies to Hinduism only, but Hindus are the vast majority in India. When Muslim and Christian influences entered the country, some people from lower castes ended up converting to these alternative religions not necessarily because of pure belief as such, but to escape the caste system and the prejudice and limitations associated with it.
The Caste System is certainly more complex than what I have managed to grasp so far. There are basically 4 different kinds of castes but, within those, there are many “sub-castes” that sort of dictate the kind of people you’ll end up reproducing with or even the job you perform. Today during lunch we were talking about the dhobi, the lady that presses clothes in our building. Turns out her husband is also a dhobi, so in all my foreign naivety I asked “so they met doing this job?”, to what Ashray’s Mom replied: “Not as such! They are from the caste of Dhobis”.
Apart from caste, I think that now-a-days, what truly makes a difference is the financial gap. There are filthy rich people and there are truly poor ones – and there is obviously a world in between those extremes. Some people’s exposure to other realities rather than the one they live in their daily existence, can be really limited as you’ll only end up mixing up to a certain point.
Ashray’s parents used to employ a fellow who had come to Delhi from the village, to work. The first time he saw spread cheese he flipped out! “Amma: what is this?” They told him “cheese”! But the hilarious thing is that the word for “cheese” and “thing” in Hindi is the same! So talking in Hindi, to the question “what is this thing?”, they replied “it’s thing!” This is the same fellow that went to some building with Ashray and as they entered the elevator he sat down thinking it was a waiting room – he had no idea that room could take them up and down the floors! I guess that must have felt like a sci-fi movie to him!
Viramutu is another beloved guy who used to work for Ashray’s parents while they were living in the South of the country. As much as India is a tea country (but truth be told the South loves coffee as much or even more…), Viramutu had never seen a tea bag and was amazed at it the first time he saw one. So amazed that he actually asked Ashray’s Mom if he could take it home to show the family! In India, making tea with leaves is much more common than with bags – and it’s definitely a superior method when it comes to obtaining the best flavor and aroma!
Being a women in India can easily suck. Probably less for higher income families, but in general, women are not at the same level as men. This is actually quite awkward, considering there are many female politicians in high positions and one would think this empowers other women. It probably does empower them – I haven’t been around that long to comment on this – but I guess there is a long way to go.
The more I observe, the more I understand that most women live as an attachment to men. First, you are someone’s daughter, later on you’re someone wife, and up to a certain extent as well, you’re someone’s mother one day. When exactly are you supposed to live for yourself, do what you want to do, be who you want to be?
I hear women in India complaining about this. But I’m still to find out how many are educating their kids any differently. I know Ashray’s acquaintances and how in some families boys have certain freedoms and women do not. Moms will teach their daughter how to cook (and considering Indian cuisine, I can tell you those classes are going to take years!!) – but do they expect their males to learn how to make Indian delicacies too? If any Indian boy out there is reading this and had his Mom (or even better: Dad!) teaching him how to cook, please leave me a comment – I would absolutely adore to hear from you!
One of the things that determines the fate of an Indian woman the most is getting an arranged marriage. Traditionally (although not in all families), when an arranged union is set up by two families, the bride’s family is supposed to pay a dowry to the groom’s parents. Dowry is illegal since the 60s but it’s still a reality for many families around the country. Parents sometimes end up in debt to be able to marry off their daughters and there are many parallel issues with this dowry situation. If you’re already paying to marry your daughter, you don’t need to send her to school – her husband will pay for her things and she’ll work at home. Let’s keep it simple! And as ladies are dependent on their males, they will end up being submissive, for the sake of survival. Literacy and women’s participation in the national work force are lower compared to their male counterparts. South India is an exception – there, women study more and work outside the house more too. But the worst thing when it comes to women and dowry is the violence associated with it. Once having a girl means an exceptional financial burden when she reaches marrying age, some families end up performing female infanticide. Ecographies to find out the baby’s sex are now illegal, but still many girls are killed once they are born or will end up dying when families won’t care about feeding them or giving them basic health care, or at least not in as much detail as compared to their brothers. I am not saying here this happens for everyone, of course not, but it’s not that rare either, particularly in the rural areas of the country. No wonder that, to the contrary of the world’s tendency, India has more males than females.
I have always felt safe traveling in India. People are warm, welcoming, extremely camera friendly (the most compared to anywhere else I’ve attempted to click photos at) and, in general, you do not feel any threat.
Yet, in Delhi, safety after dark seems to be an issue. The truth is that I have only been out at night inside our own car, not roaming the streets, or even by myself. Recently, the famous case of a girl’s gang rape that took place inside a moving bus in the city, has brought the issue of women’s safety to the headlines of the papers.
From an outsider’s perspective, allow me to give my two cents when it comes to ladies’ safety in the capital of India: things are not as straight forward as “I am a woman… must protect myself from rapists!” First of all: there are many rapes, yes, but numbers are relative – this country has more than 1 billion people. Not every man is looking to stick it in wherever they can as the media is almost making it out to be – that’s called sensationalism. There might have been 24.000 registered rapes in 2011 but as disgraceful as this is, we’re talking amongst 1 billion people – although I know that there must be way more cases that are not reported for fear, shame or because some women are simply uneducated and take it as “normal” or don’t know they can actually say NO to men and they should respect that. This is obviously still disgusting and shouldn’t happen at all, anywhere, but this does not happen only in India.
I firmly believe that sexual and domestic violence against women in India are not only men’s fault – it is a product of society and society is made of men + women. Women might feel the need to protect themselves (special car in the metro network, special parking lot, etc..) but by promoting this segregation between genres, even on the tiniest thing, they are promoting exactly this: SEGREGATION. And segregation will always end up in awkwardness between sexes and a lack of naturality when guys and girls interact and, only in some the extremes cases, rape.
Men and women don’t mix that much in India. Maybe in the urban centers yes, maybe between the higher classes, but in general the youth is still repressed in this country. Their sexuality is bound to burst out at some point – we’re all human in the same way. But when boys and girls aren’t brought up to interact with each other as equals, things are bound to end up going wrong at some point.
Also on the safety note, it’s quite notorious the safety measures and check points that one finds across the city of Delhi, due to the threat of terrorist attacks. You get checked in malls, movie halls, entering the metro stations, sometimes in the streets as you drive by… The truth is that all of these metal detectors and X-ray machines are quite imposing at first, but one can go out and about hassle free in the daily life. It’s about precaution – nothing to feel worried about in general.
Living in India, or at least in Delhi, could sometimes be described as “a struggle”. The level of struggle would obviously depend on your social status and financial solvency – money makes things easier no matter where in the world. This obviously depends on the kind of things you are used to, your standards of “normality”. Someone who has been born and raised in Delhi might find everything as normal as it gets, and that makes sense. But for someone coming from abroad, like myself, there are some things that can wrack your nerves.
Things that would regularly be easy to achieve in other parts of the world, become difficult in this city. Even something as silly as getting a phone connection, a SIM card, can take days! You need to present an address proof, they have to verify it and all that jazz.
Driving from place A to place B can be a struggle in the long rush hours. Going by bus, can be quite eventful too. Even getting water and electricity 24/7 is not always a reality, even in a good building or neighborhood. Once there are so many people living in Delhi, the power requirements are huge! And that’s why power cuts are so common, because the load is more than the power lines can take. If you live in a good building, when the electricity goes off, generators come on automatically providing a basic supply that should be enough at least for lighting, but not much more. This is something I have always taken for granted and that people in Delhi grow up to be used to.
Finding a good paying job and making a decent living might be the best example of the struggles of living in India. Then again, the ever growing number of people means constant competition. Kids are brought up to be ultra competitive with each other in school – parents expect their children to top their class and study a degree that will guarantee them not only financial solvency but also social recognition. If you are a girl, you should be a doctor. If you are a boy, engineer it is. Law is also highly regarded. And so are military and government related jobs that give you long term prospects. And this kind of pressure takes me to the next topic…
For Indians, or at least Hindus, Family ties are an integral part of existence. At the same time as in the West people tend to become more and more individualistic and focused on their personal goals, here in India things tend towards the other extreme. Family is so important that, not only your relatives will have a decisive opinion on how you should live your life, kids sometimes make their parents dreams their goals to reach! When it comes to arranged marriage, your parents will be the ones finding someone suitable for you, so I guess families that do this are as involved as it gets.
As an Indian kid, you succeed when you accomplish what your family (and society) expect of you – and this idea is exploited even on advertising. This would mainly refer to a good job, a complying wife or giving husband, and your own family that shall be raised based on the same principles.
I love the fact that Indians like to nurture the family ties and be there for each other, but I really don’t subscribe to the whole “you must respect your elders” principle. Elders aren’t always right. They might have existed for a longer time than young people, but that does’t mean that they are always more exposed or fully aware of whatever topic might be the centre of discussion. But in some families, under the pretext of elders being respected, young people will say and do one thing on the surface, and then act in opposite ways when their family is not around.
I believe that a healthy family is the one you can be yourself with, say whatever you think without it necessarily being offensive. I don’t think that having an opinion of your own means being disruptive. But I know traditional families wouldn’t agree with me.
The Gora Experience
Right now, we’re in Delhi preparing our wedding. The whole thing is a massive experience for me. How could I ever think I’d be in India one day, getting married in a saree, doing Hindu rituals and touching my elder’s feet as a sign of respect? For me, until not so long ago, this was something out of a Bollywood movie.
We’re still in the very beginning of all the preparations, but I can already feel the Indian ways coming towards me: the clothes, the rituals, the tradition, the pressure, the excitement. It’s a big vortex of emotions I am going through over here. I am not Indian, so for me this is a wedding, plus a very big anthropology and sociology lesson. I shall be telling you more as we go.
With all the obvious cultural differences, living as a gora in Delhi has plenty of funny moments. Goras tend to complain that people in India stare too much at them. It’s true, people do stare, BUT: neither their intention is bad (it’s mostly curiosity and nothing further) neither they’re necessarily used to your looks. In Rome, do like Romans – if you wouldn’t want people to stare, you might not want to wear tank tops and stretchy clothes. It’s just a cultural difference. Further more, we come here as travelers: we observe, we photograph, we “steal” people’s images because we find them exotic. This is the exact same thing for them: if you can take their photo, they should also be allowed to look at you and analyze you their own way. Try not to find it uncomfortable, because as I said, it’s mostly curiosity.
Instead of getting bothered with people that stare at you, save that energy to bargain with those that will apply to you what I like to call “the gora surcharge” – if you are a foreigner, monuments and official entry tickets are more expensive than for locals. This is not to make the foreigner prices too high, it’s basically to make the prices for locals accessible, to encourage them to visit their own national treasures. But then there’s also the unofficial foreign charge, that applies to autos, services, goods in markets. etc. Bargain, bargain, bargain. Pay a fair price to the vendor, be kind, of course, but don’t allow yourself to be extorted either.
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Some points that I talked about on both posts entitled “Surviving Delhi: the beginning” might come across as negative, I am aware. But these are my initial thoughts about Delhi (and a bit of India, in general); these are those things that have attracted my attention the most since my arrival. They are indeed the most obvious too, but as I explore and attempt to understand the Indian ways, I shall keep on sharing with you.