In a fantastic tribute to India, my longtime friend, Dr. Ashit Dey, who works for the Foreign Service, pays homage to the visceral reality of living in the country, and the rules which must be followed to “fit in” with the overwhelming majority of those on the streets.
I have been asking him for four months to let him share this literary treat with the world, and the has finally agree to publish this poignant, hilarious, and ultimately timeless observations about living in India in the 21st Century.
The Unwritten Rules for Fitting-In in India:
1. Ignore Lines. Pretend they don’t exist, or the people standing in them. In situations where you cannot ignore a line, stand as close as possible to the person ahead of you. If you cannot smell their hair you are too far away. Press your bag or cart into their back to let them know you are there, and the line is working.
2. Walk in the road. What appear to be sidewalks are actually multi-functional spaces that serve as toilets, dog toilets, open-air homeless shelters, and pop-up shopping malls. So, walk on the road – don’t worry, cars and buses will avoid you, most of the time.
3. When traveling be sure to carry lots of stuff: multiple bags, as large as you can carry. (If you like Indian food, be sure to take dry lentils, spices and uncooked rice and a small jar of spicy pickle with you when you travel–its possible that wherever you are going will not have your preferred comestibles available.) When you get on a train/plane, shove your stuff into the first empty spaces/overhead bins you encounter, irrespective of where your seat is.
4. Talk on the cell phone as much as you can, as long as you can. Talk loudly, so others can hear you too. If you are waiting for a train, bus, or plane, call everyone you know to tell them where you are, and ask them where they are. If you are walking in the road, stop in the road and have your conversation. If you are moving, find a call buddy and map out all the strong and weak signal spots along your route by repeating loudly, “can you hear me? I can hear you!” If you have a radio function on your cell, keep it audible without headphones. A little background music in your life and those around you is a good thing – just like in the movies.
5. Stare at people in your vicinity. Stare long and hard. Figure them out by sight alone. Try to imagine what they had for lunch. Divine their darkest compulsions and deepest fears. Make mental note of their fashion choices. You can do this also while talking on the phone. And if you need to pick your nose or adjust yourself while staring at a stranger directly in the eye, thats cool too.
6. If someone you are staring at is reading something or using an iPad, try to see what they are reading or doing. It could be relevant to you, or just interesting! Just walk over and position yourself behind their shoulder. If the other person is polite they might adjust the book/device so you can see it better too.
7. Roll with a posse, if you have one. Going anywhere alone makes you look like a loser. If you are female, it’s likely a friendly male volunteer may appear to accompany you and show you around. If you are a guy and you see a solitary female (who is not a grandmother) you should find out where she is going and if she needs your help to get there, her phone number, and if she is married or not. If you are a guy, hold hands with your buddy, so everyone knows you are not alone. If you are going to the toilet, take a conversation buddy. If you are going to a restaurant, you should have at least three generations present, including at least one child under the age of seven. When in a restaurant, don’t expect your group of six people to get more than one or two menus. (One of which will be the cocktail/drinks menu.) The waiters don’t want anyone who is illiterate in your party to feel self-conscious.
8. If you are at a beach or pool it is appropriate to act like you are five years old, irrespective of your actual age. Jump in the water with your clothes on. (Males can strip down to their undies… Rupa brand preferable. Women can wear any non-white colored sari or salwar.) Splash others with abandon. Even if you can’t swim, go out out as deep as you can before drowning. If you get bored of that, grab your posse and try to find some white-skinned people to stare at. Try to figure out the mystery of the swimming costume, and bikini. Take pictures with your cell phone, to explain your theories to your friends who are not immediately present.
9. Cinema/cultural performance etiquette: Never show up on time. Coming in before the show begins reveals how unimportant you are. If you are in a movie, be sure to answer every call you get, and let the caller know what movie you are in, and your opinions of it thus far. Set your ringtone to something bright and recognizable, your favorite Bollywood song perhaps. If a cultural show or talk, either leave before it is done, or rush the speaker/artist at the end of the program to exchange business cards and get your picture taken with them.
10. Driving rules. Right of way is determined by a complex game of “chicken.” Generally, the larger and faster moving vehicle has right of way. Exception: cows. Livestock have right of way when moving, or even when stationary. YOU MUST STOP OR DRIVE AROUND THEM. When at a crossroads, look all ways, when you are confident that you have been spotted, pull out in front of the car. As you merge into the Traffic, slow down and check to see if you have any text messages. In crowded areas, pedestrians may also have right of way. This is because if you hit a pedestrian (see rule 2) a spontaneous mob will form to beat you and everyone in your car. Turns signals are optional. Sometimes they mean a vehicle is turning, sometimes they mean it is OK to overtake on the designated side. Use the horn liberally. A short toot means, “Hi, I’m here. Hope you are having a good day.” A long toot means, “Hey, look out!” A series of short honks means, “Please move aside, I’m in a but of hurry, thank you.” A long incessant horn means, “If you don’t get out of the way, I’m going to cut you off, pull you out of your car and beat you with my shoe…” It is important to learn the horn communication language if you plan on driving in India.