Unordered Thoughts from India

Pune, India
By Taylor Davidson | January 22nd, 2008

Rather than waiting for the unlikely essay that captures all of my thoughts, experiences and observations in one grand, defining swoop, instead I offer a list of unordered, unstructured and hopefully somewhat insightful observations from 52 days in India:

  • I harbour the idea that Westerners (or at least, Americans) think of India as “India”, a homogeneous collection of people and societal artifacts that constitutes culture. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
  • As mentioned previously, it’s impossible to be alone in India. Sitting alone is an open invitation for someone to approach and start a conversation. Most often it is just simple and benign interest in a traveler, an outsider, a curiosity.
  • Closely associated with the above, the willingness to help a stranger, Indian or foreigner, is simply amazing to a westerner.
  • Everything is incomplete, or at least appears to be. Everything in the process of being constructed has piles of material standing nearby, making you wonder if the materials are going to be used, just leftovers yet to be removed, or rubble that has not been removed. Chances are it is all of the above.
  • This is often manifested by the inability to determine where construction and destruction begins. Sidewalks end at pile of rubble, to be picked up again and dropped at seemingly random intervals. Roads collect potholes, barriers, boulders, abandoned piles of dirt, bricks and trash, all acting as naturally created speed bumps.
  • At the same time, everything works, smooth or not. The Indian train system is a massive, archaic institution that somehow transports millions of people despite great inefficiency. But at the same time, you can book tickets online, print out an electronic ticket from home, check your wait list status online, and while at the station check train status, routes, and reservation status and seat assignment at networked kiosks.
  • An unwillingness to make change is most often disguised as an inability. If you walk away from a merchant because they say they can not make change, somehow those missing notes or coins magically appears.
  • The Indian head side-to-side nod that accompanies or replaces a verbal yes and no is a big point of confusion and comment from most westerners I meet. My hint is to ignore what the person says, ignore the direction of the head shakes, and pay attention to the eyes.
  • A corollary to the above: the more confident a person is in their advice, the more likely they are wrong.
  • Everything you look at or take interest in will undoubtedly be closely followed by five people taking a similar interest, looking over your shoulder, looking to see what you are doing. Just carrying a camera is an invitation for ten people to want to look at what you last took a picture of.
  • Or more commonly, carrying a camera is an open invitation for someone to request that you take a picture or them, and for them to see themselves on the little digital screen. Did people make the same requests in the days of film? Does everyone just want to give the gift of their likeness to strangers? Or does everyone just want to be recognized, a star, in some way?
  • There is an abundance of goods sold in small quantities, for small amounts, in small shops, by small kids.
  • Labour is inexpensive, and it shapes all interactions, expectations, decisions. For example, why mechanize when a person can do it? What is saved? What is replaced?
  • Thus a corollary: everything is done through middlemen, sometimes a chore, but most often a necessity to get anything done. Efficiency has a very different meaning.
  • If can be fixed, mended, adapted, or reused, just ask, and someone will figure out how.
  • Small things I notice by their abundance: gates, security guards, log books, the need for photos for all sorts of applications, hand-painted signs, the extra three to ten waiters at every restaurant.
  • Small things I notice by their absence: napkins that actually work, vending machines, “health” food, women cooks, waitresses.

More observations, hopefully more meaningful, to come later…