God forbid that I would ever utter the words, “I understand India.”
Because I don’t, and I never will. India is far too vast and wonderful, and I am far too small and limited.
I’ve heard people – other foreigners – talk about India like they understand it. They’ve been here for a couple weeks and they’ve suddenly become experts on Indian culture, traditions and religion. I cringe. These people say things about Indians in sweeping generalizations. It makes me laugh, or it turns my stomach. Of course, I’ve probably made similar mistakes in the not so distant past, so I can’t be too hard on their arrogance.
I will simply say that I love India in all its grit and glory. And I have loved it ever since I first visited here almost twenty years ago. There’s a lot to love. Of course, it’s impossible to define India, and it’s hard to describe it, let alone understand its complexity. If anything is typical in India, it’s the diversity. But India’s brilliance is more than that too, it’s the chaos, the craziness, and the unexpected twists and turns that make most days here an adventure.
I just returned to our home in Delhi from a short trip to Varanasi and Patna, and I was reminded in a couple specific ways about the wonder of India. I flew roundtrip to Varanasi and then took the train roundtrip to Patna from there. In Varanasi, I had some business with a couple of the carpet suppliers that I work with, and in Patna I had the privilege to attend the wedding of a young friend of mine who lives in Delhi but comes from state of Bihar, of which Patna is the capital.
For those reading this who are maybe thinking about trying to live in India, here is perhaps a little taste of what you can expect.
On my first day in Varanasi, I spent the day with a carpet supplier that I had met in Delhi a few years ago. I had never really had the chance to work with him previously and so I did not really know him personally. But I really enjoyed our time together on this trip. He’s much more than a businessman and I found him to be a very likeable and interesting person. He picked me up from the airport and then drove me to his office and production facilities in Mirzapur. We drove a lot that day, but the conversation was always rich, so I didn’t mind. At one point, we were talking about India and he was sharing some of his perspective on areas in need of improvement, such as basic infrastructure and development especially for rural areas. As he was talking, we came to the Grand Trunk Road, a famous road in India that serves as an interstate highway across North India. In most places now it is a grand four-lane highway with a median dividing the two sides. At this particular junction, it looked impressive, especially in relation to the bumpy side road that we had just been driving on. However, there was no intersection at the junction, and so the median was preventing us from making a right turn, the direction we needed to go. But instead of going left with the flow of traffic and finding the first turnaround, my associate turned right without hesitation and proceeded down the Grand Trunk Road going the wrong way. He did so boldly, not along the side of the road but hugging the median and subsequently pushing all the oncoming traffic to the side, including big cargo trucks ten times the size of the little car we were in. He also barely missed a beat in our conversation and was explaining how big roads like this really needed lamps to light the way. I agreed that the lamps would make the road safer at night as I cringed at the sight of another cargo truck bearing down on us with flashing headlights and horn honking. It was exhilarating, but really not that surprising. It wasn’t long before we found an opening in the median that allowed us to cross over to the right side and join the traffic that was (mostly) going the same direction as us.
The beauty of that experience is hard to describe. I appreciate my associate’s hunger for certain types of progress in India, but I also love the fact that he is not bound by rules and not only breaks them for convenience sake but readily expects others also to understand what he’s doing. I could be critical of the apparent disconnect in his thinking, but instead I chose to enjoy it and to appreciate a mental synthesis that is perhaps not as easy for me to achieve. It’s all part of the cross-cultural experience.
As I took the train to Patna the very next day, I wondered what to expect for the wedding ceremony of my friend. This was just one event in the week-long affair, but I was happy to be able to attend this much. I already knew that this particular part of the Indian wedding happens at night, and Amy, my wife, had reminded me that I should be prepared to be up until 2 or 3 in the morning. Well, I showed up for the ceremony at about 10 pm and it was just getting started. This time, it wasn’t over until after 4 am and I only got to bed by about 5 am. Crazy? Absolutely. I’ve got photos of people crashed on the floor less than ten feet away from where the ceremony was taking place. I saw the father of the groom totally kicked back in his chair at one point snoring loudly with his mouth wide open. Even the groom was yawning and rolling his eyes.
The next day, my train, boldly bearing the name, the Rajendra Nagar Superfast Express, was three hours late out of Patna. I rolled with it, and caught some extra sleep while I waited. To get bent out of shape with this kind of thing is just not worth it. In India, you have to get used to it. I called the carpet supplier in Varanasi who was waiting for me and we adjusted our plans accordingly. He understood completely. One of the things I love about Indians is their flexibility, especially when it comes to scheduling.
Another thing I love about Indians – if I can make some sweeping generalizations – is that, in addition to being flexible, and they’re really good at laughing.
One good laugh that I had with some new friends at about 3 am during the wedding ceremony was about a saying that was emblazoned on the back of the photographer’s shirt. It read: “Love is the game… Do can play and bought win.” Yes, read it slowly. This is classic. If you still can’t understand it, then try it with an Indian accent. Eventually, it comes out as, “two can play and both can win.” It’s beautiful, especially at a wedding.
So, after almost six years of calling India home, I think we’ve learned a few things and come to understand at least some of what India is about. I know I’m better for it. Generally, I think I’m better at cross-cultural interaction. I’ve also learned to be more flexible and to laugh more. Hopefully, I’m also a little less arrogant.