Saturday, February 1, 2014

10 things about Small Town India

My Western friends often ask me what India is like.

The bits of India that the west gets to see are not quite all the bits ( I suppose you could say this of the States as well- for when I describe the small towns where DH and I have lived - its just impossibly different than the New York, LA etc that the east sees in "Friends")

India is impossible to describe as its a land of contradictions - so let me just give you a flavor.

My parents have retired and live in the small town that my mother was born in.

My mother grew up in a 100 year old house where 2 brothers lived. One brother had 11 children ( one of whom is my mother) and the other brother had 1.
This house had walls so thick ( a feet at least ). 

Each summer vacation for 2 months , we would make a trek to Purulia and my mother would be a girl again – while my father mostly would stay in station ( he is a doctor and was in the Army ) 

I was a studious child who loved school and long summer vacations were a huge burden on me.

Besides my parents’ generation was not obsessed about not letting the kids be bored. I think of all the things we come armed for with R ( his iPADS, books, internet , Wii ) and its so different from when I was a child.

My mother says her parents were even less concerned about the kids not getting bored ( with 11 you can imagine ). 

Their toys were usually discarded household objects  - a particularly memorable one was a discarded tire – that my uncle ( now a retired anaesthologist) would chase with a stick.

As usual, I digress.

This is all to say that I have a long relationship with Purulia

Progress has made its inexorable marks too and there are cars on the roads along with the traditional cycles. 

Every house has a mobile phone.

But there is still the very small town feeling because the people are still small town

1. Bad Spelling and Creative Marketing

Any of you who have seen the “English Whirled Wide” will be familiar with the spelling liberties that the rest of the world takes with the English language. 

Words are spelled phonetically – that too according to the way it sounds in Indian and it leads to some very creative marketing.
 It is the product of a simple and creative mind and many shops assert simply “you like” See "You like tailor shop" below

Actors endorsements are used whether or not they agree :-). You see Hrithik Roshan ( famous Bollywood star endorsing the salon below). Its probably 1000% sure that he has never heard of this parlour 


2. The evil eye

 There is great belief in the evil eye – ie someone can cause you ill simply by looking at you with bad thoughts or simply with envy. There are many practices to take off the evil eye ( called Nazar Utaarna ) and man recipes based on the part of the India you are from.

Cause and effect relationships are frequently inferred. 

Suppose you visit someone’s house and they say something nice to you – and you fall ill soon after – it will be  assumed that put the envious eye on you. Even in highly educated families people these beliefs are prevalent

3. The trains

Trains may have become obsolete in much of the West but in India they are still the way in which most of the people travel.

R loves the overnight train travels. He gets on the "Second Floor" and instantly transfixed.

The railway stations are  teeming centers of activity- 

Here is R and my aunt trying to attract this goat

The journey in trains is an adventure in itself - there is always amazing food that people bring in these carts.

None of the vendors wear gloves. The food is delicious and you never get sick from it. 

Lemon tea is an addiction for me and my dad and we drink several cups in our small journeys between Kolkata and Purulia .
Also you make friends -with co-passengers. Its perfectly okay and expected that you will chat and ask each other personal questions

Most of my Western friends have "horror stories" of a person they sat next to in a plan who would not stop talking. I see their point - oh  the people I have found on Indian trains!

Such  missed opportunities  from this approach of protecting your time instead of exploring what is around us.

 For instance this guy I meet
1. Has 4 smartphones - he compartmentalizes his life this way. 
2. Has 10 year old twins who are taking part in the "Dance Dance competition" 
3. His twins don't even look like sisters let alone twins as they are as far apart as chalk and cheese
4 He is hiding the fact that he has lost his iPhone from his wife as he will never hear the end of it.


OMG I cannot tell you what a huge part of life this is.

Usually the maids are the source of "what is happening". Sadly my mum's daily is a discreet and reserved lady.

While this makes her a bit boring - my mum does appreciate that gossip from our house does not get carried everywhere 

But my mom will frequently be interrupted in cooking to come outside to chat. - here she is called out by her neighbor


In addition to the charity organizations, small town people look out for the poor in their own way.

The beggar community of Purulia comes on each day to a neighborhood.

On that day, they stop at each house and people donate things like rice, lentils, vegetables and clothes

My parents are great animal lovers and animals come daily to be fed as well.

R waits eagerly to watch the cows


Like small town America, small town India too centers around religion. But while Hinduism is benign and accepting- the dieties can be fierce.

The other day I went to the Ma Kali Temple -I wore the red border sari of traditional Bengali women with a red Bindi.

 I love this goddess - she is a warrior deity - created to fight demons - wears a necklace of severed heads of demons. Her other incarnation - Durga - rides a tiger

They both have 8 arms

I looked at her and I felt strength and courage flow into me.

I have felt so buffeted by life this past year - I want strength and resilience more than anything

I pray for a long time for strength - for Crohns to release its grip on this most precious child
Well I suppose they do this in the West too - when someone leaves the house - we always says things like "be careful" or "drive safely".

But in the East the warnings are far more dramatic
A typical thing my mom would say is "be careful ... your scarf is flowing .. it will get trapped in the wheels of the rickshaw.. you will fall down and a speeding car will come and crush you".
It is very charming and I look forward to these imaginative vignettes each time I leave the house.
Although I am 39 years old, at my parents house I am still a baby and my parents often say things like "you wont be able to do this"(this can be anything from turning off the switch to going by myself a short distance- "you might get kidnapped.. because there is an alcohol store on the way) .
I also become childish - annoyed when my mom does not make my favorite things to eat and sulk.
This one - I think you guys do know - you bargain bargain bargain for everything.
 Here is my mom bargaining with a rickshaw- puller. This is a serious sport and no matter what items I buy at what price - when I return home and show my great deals -
 my mom and MIL make a point of telling me that I was "robbed blind"
Wintertime Sunbathing
Ahhh this is one of the true pleasures of winters in India - most houses have flat roves ( since there is no snow you do not need sloping roves) .

On these flat terraces - beds and mats will be laid out - so that you can have an afternoon siesta in the sun.

R LOVED these
A story everywhere
In these small towns - everyone knows everyone and there is a story everywhere.

This cobbler used to sit for years under a large Banyan tree which was cut down to make way for a motorbike showroom.
The cobbler undeterred sits there still - no doubt the showroom owners want him to move but he will not.
All the locals silently support him and he makes his living under the hot sun - proud and strong.
Oftentimes, I see his wife come and sit and give him company in the afternoons- true love in those without youth or money.
My dear friends - I have been so lax in blogging - this half written post has been sitting in my draft for ages, and so lax in reading blogs.
I am finishing this post from rainy Seattle - finally finding the time as DH has taken R off to social skills class and I am all alone.
R has had  relapse of Crohns, finally under control now and getting back to work has been hectic as well
Promise to come see u soon


Sophie's Trains said...

I love your stories- so magical. I see a lot of parallels in polish culture if you can believe it- evil eye, overprotective parents, gossip... more alike than different. Poor R with the crohn's- I do hope the spell passes soon :(

Kim said...

I loved reading this, thank you for writing it! I especially love the warnings you are given when you leave the house--I would look forward to hearing them as well. Poor R-I hope he is feeling better.

jazzygal said...

Oh I love this post! Such a wonderful flavour of your India. I love it all, the dramatic warnings, the evil eye, the misspellings etc.

I too love lemon tea but I would love to taste the Indian version.
Trains are not totally obsolete in the West. Definitely not on Europe where you can travel great distances between different countries easily.

Thanks for this post, I too am struggling to get blog posts out. Glad your R is recovering and things getting back to normal for you all :-)

xx Jazzy

Looking for Blue Sky said...

Wonderful as usual - you paint such amazing pictures, that I can see it all, even without the great photos - I love the one with the goat in the railway station and you look beautiful in that sari xx

robin said...

I always really love reading about your trips back home to India and your relatives! Your descriptions are so much better than any author could describe especially when you add a picture (although I'd love them a 'lil bit bigger.) Sorry about R's recent bout but hope it doesn't stay around for long! Missed you!

Yuji said...

You paint a very descriptive picture of India... so interesting to read! I hope things are going better with R and his Crohns especially. Take care!

Bright Side of Life said...

I laughed and smiled throughout this post (although not when you mentioned the need to pray hard and also about the Crohn's). What a beautiful example of life in a small town in India. Some of it parallels with life in Africa. We have Witch Doctors and all sorts of crazy medication (yes, it is true that body parts are used for some of it!). I live in a city with a huge Indian population and have Hindu and Muslim friends. I love our multi racial community. One day I will get to visit India, one day!

Anonymous said...

I love these pictures you paint for us each year of your trip! It is so very interesting and I love it! I am sorry to hear that R is suffering. I hope things get better for him soon. poor boy.

Shirin's Art said...

Love the post about india..its been 11 years since my last visit there..

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