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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

More musings on Indialand

INDIA | Sunday, 21 November 2010 | Views [395]

About India, society, religion and language

It's hard to make sense, or draw one coherent narrative out of such an enormous country, with such a large and diverse population. We moved through 10 out of 25 states, and saw the landscape change from paddy fields to jungle to desert, from open plains to mountains, and saw the people change from dark skinned Tamils to turbanned Sikhs and red cheeked Darjeeling-ers.  That said, for all the differences, India is uniquely Indian - yes, it's a conglomeration of states, with different characters and languages, but all those places and faces remain quintessentially Indian.

India has 16 official languages, and many others are spoken. The states are divided along language lines, Tamil spoken in Tamil Nadu, Marathi spoken in Maharastra and Malayala spoken in Kerala. Hindi and English are used to bridge communication gaps, but this is also political; in the South people prefer to use English and may not speak Hindi even if they can.  Hindi is the state language but only 30% of the population have a working knowledge of it, compared to a quarter who have a working knowledge of English.  In the literate population, those figures are reversed.  It's unclear quite why Hindi is promoted as the state language, using English would be much more useful.  Our guess is that it's political and connected to issues of colonialism.  In many, many ways English is the most useful language anyone can speak in India, unless you stick to a specific area such as Tamil Nadu.  English and Hindi are often mixed, people answering questions with one line of English then one of Hindi.  The English used can be wonderfully antiquated, with "retiring rooms" in the stations, signs asking us to "please kindly" do things, "chaps", "blighters", "thrashings" etc.  More structural tics included "and all" and asking themselves questions.  Of the hindi, we got used to ...yaar which is used as an emphasis all the time.  Non-verbal communication is important too - especially the famous head-waggle that means yes, no, maybe, hello, bye and many other things besides.

It's not just the language that divides the country, it's religion too, more than anything. Hinduism is the dominant religion in India, with Muslims, Christians and Sikhs making up the other major groups.  Hindus' temples vary from elegant southern towers to almost fruitlike structures in the north, but the religion hangs together as a more-or-less coherent body of belief.  Hindus, like their sons the Bhuddists, are big on fatalism and the abdication of responsibility.  Thus beggars are recognised as having committed sins, the rich are lauded, and no-one wants to do too much to upset the balance of things.  There is a fiercely right wing group of Hindus vying for power, the BJP.  Their poster-boy, the Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, was instrumental in inciting riots in 2005 that lead to the deaths of hundreds.  This sort of religious violence is euphemistically termed 'communal tensions' and often reaches serious levels.  The history of Partition is so bloody and tragic, yet it invariably leads to more tension rather than an acceptance never to return to that state of affairs.  Traditions are very strong, usually linked to religion and superstition, in India, as is the culture.  This provides for many good points - women bedecked in golden finery and tonnes of jewellery over their elegant saris, no stigma applied to traditional clothing (or to smart Western clothing), the absence of restaurants serving anything but Indian food, etc.  It also provides many of the problems facing India - position of women, dowry, caste, religious tensions, familial obligations etc.  Laws fall into two categories, which may or may not coincide with the actual law of the land, Indian Tradition which is paramount and Indian Joke Law which is ignored.  Joke Laws are things like driving on the left, not discriminating on caste lines and not spitting.  Traditions include killing your daughter for loving someone you don't like, promoting your son to ministerial positions or creaming off money from building projects. 

The food is a long way from English Indian food. Especially in the south, where Tikka Masala is nowhere to be found in the mainly vegetarian menus dominated by wonderful dhosas, dhals and 30p banana leaf thalis! The thalis are not hugely nutritious with huge servings of rice topped with watery sambar, a few vegetables and spicy pickles, but at 30p, we can't complain. As we moved North, there was more meat, more choice and matching price tags. In Delhi, we found we often paid UK prices for fairly mediocre fare, potentially paying more for the surroundings than the food itself. The Punjab is home to wonderful kebabs, samosa and lassi.  Everything comes with ladles of butter.  Bengalis favour fish, and so do the Keralans, both being situated on the sea.  Gujarat has exquisite vegetarian thalis too and bread is the order of the day throughout the north - giant naans, paratha and roti.  Alcohol also becomes more freely available as we move North - Ghandi's prohibitionist ideals really took root in India - especially in the Sikh Punjab.  Many things are available in tiny packets or single servings - cigarettes, coffee packets, even mouthfuls of water.  It's a typically resourceful solution to a huge problem - that of poverty.

In such a big country, it's hardly surprising that so much takes place at state level rather than a governmental one. The Chief Ministers of each state wield huge political power, and act at a national level for their own local (and personal) interests. Mamata Bannerjee is the railways minister, running for chief ministership of West Bengal as we go to press.  She's often accused of ignoring the railways in favour of campaigning at home, making politically expedient speeches in favour of Naxalite rebels.  It's a little like a Northern Irish Transport Minister in England supporting the IRA.Then there's the environment minister who is willing to implement difficult environmental protection measures in all states apart from his own! The rivalries between the states cannot be underestimated - we were speaking to someone in Tamil Nadu about the water shortages, and they said it would be easier to co-operate with Pakistan than to get water from Kerala next door, even though Kerala has more water than it knows what to do with. A few years ago, there had been an agreement for Kerala to give them water, which had to be scrapped because of huge public outcry, so big he had to change numberplates to drive over the state line for fear of being attacked.

For all the differences, everywhere is unmistakably Indian! From the sounds of 'chai, chai, chai' on the trains, the strange mix of arrogance and humility, the yes-no head waggling, the loud music, the lack of privacy, the cows in the street. Another small example was the way that everywhere, people wanted pictures of us. Sometimes they would ask politely, sometimes shove a camera in our faces, sometimes surreptitiously follow us round, but everywhere, every day, we would grace yet more people's foreigner collection. Sometimes we'd be with them, sometimes just on our own.  Babies would often be shoved screaming into our hands for pictures too.  Whatever region you are in, India assails your senses - the smells, shouting, touching - you couldn't be anywhere else, and wouldn't want to be!

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