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Living Kerala Series: The Entertaining Side of India

While there are many shocking things here (see my last post), these are by far outweighed by the daily amusing experiences. Also, you may have noticed some slowness in posting in recent weeks - the past two months have been very busy with two large family projects. Regular posts will resume soon! Now, entertaining India... First off:

The Endless Curiosity:

It is lucky there is not a finite supply of certain words, as by now we would have used up our allotment of ‘United Kingdom’, ‘Staying in Kochi’ and ‘My husband’s family is from Ottapalam’. It is easier to remember who hasn’t asked us such questions than to keep track of the hundreds of times we’ve been asked. I can think of five taxi drivers and two waiters, for example, who haven’t asked. That’s in four months. You can make an educated guess at how many white Westerners are in Kochi from this routine!

Today I took afternoon tea in a local café; it was my first time there without Vien with me. The waitress was very happy to have my undivided attention and started asking who the man was that I always came in with. She was gobsmacked when I said he is my husband. “Husband? Madam, is he really your husband?” Vien with his thick black Kerala hair can pass for a local if not for his attire, which makes him look sort of local, but either upper caste (Brahmin) or NRI (Non-Resident Indian) which is quite useful...

Tea for One

Caption: My afternoon tea for one: The cups are too small to count as a full serving in my opinion. As are the samosas.

We had one Uber driver who happily interrogated me while Vien was buying something from a shop.

“Where from, Madam?”

“UK, but we stay in Kochi.” [That’s the correct verb in Indian English]

“Why have you come to India, Madam? All Indians want to leave, and then you decide to come stay.”

“We are here to help my husband’s family move. They are from Ottapalam.”

“Your husband is Indian? From Ottapalam??”

“Yes, Ottapalam. His family is Malayali.”

“Ottapalam?? Ottapalam? OTTAPALAM??” With every repetition, his voice rose an octave, and he only stopped repeating the word when his voice squeaked and no sound came out. “Oh my God.”

When Vien returned to the car, he quizzed Vien again, fact-checking. When Vien corroborated my tall-tale, he was flummoxed.

“Madam, you don’t understand. We do not want to be in India, and then you come here. You don’t understand.”

Ottapalam Rail Station

Caption: The station in the surprising town of Ottapalam, mid-monsoon.

Another recent example that bordered on the absurd was when I attempted to ring the British High Commission in New Delhi for clarification on an immigration question. Their listed number did not ring the BHC, but instead a police station in Delhi. After the officer worked out I didn’t speak Hindi, and I worked out it wasn’t the BHC, he said, “Why are you calling the BHC?”

“I have an immigration question. To confirm, you are not the British High Commission?”

“No Madam, we are a police station. Which country do you come from?”

“The UK but –”

“And why are you in India? Where are you staying Madam?”

My goodness – such curiosity! The same has happened with local civil servants, hotel staff, janitors, auto drivers, brokers, couriers, schoolchildren, train companions and every single person in-between. I wonder what would happen if we started to make up answers. Maybe next time I’ll say I’m an astronaut and see what happens.

(Fun fact, ‘High Commissions’ are British embassies in Commonwealth countries led by a High Commissioner, not an Ambassador. In non-Commonwealth countries they have embassies.)

The Selfies:

There is apparently something very valuable in having a white person in your photo. In New Delhi, for example, we visited the Baha’i Lotus Temple House of Worship, and while we were taking a selfie of ourselves three groups of people started taking photos of us. One of the groups then approached us and asked me to be in their photo. Later, when we were leaving the Temple, we saw a group of young American women run out of patience – four teenage boys were taking photos of them as they took their own selfies. One of the women ran straight at them shouting, “No, NO, NO! You are not taking photos of us!” They had clearly been sightseeing (and being sight-sawn) for too long.

Caption: I think I was the only one looking at their own camera - Vien's was clearly more intriguing.

I was recently out for a walk on the Marine Drive promenade and noticed a group of six adolescent girls looking at the water and taking photos. They were looking at me surreptitiously and giggling. With one mind, the gaggle of girls left their perch and surrounded me.

“Selfie, Madam?” said the bravest, holding up her phone.

“If you like,” I said. They all giggled and piled in, with me squished in the centre. One girl stood right under me, her head under my chin. They then took a bunch of selfies and, predictably, asked where I was from before scampering away. If you see me on some Snapchat post, please do let me know.

The Endless CVs:

Every single person seems to have multiple professions. For example, when we were hunting for a flat in June, our taxi driver found we were looking for a flat to rent. Turned out, he was also a real estate broker. He arranged viewings for us, and another broker was there. It turned out, she was also a tailor. Everyone is a broker.

It is not common to exclusively have a standard 9-5 job. Even higher paid people will still have multiple professions: one friend has an international manufacturing business, multiple farms, several rental properties and a tour business.

Another example: I texted our water delivery man to send a few more bottles. After asking all the requisite questions (Where from, job, why in India, job of husband, my ‘good’ name, etc.), I learned he is also a chartered accountant. He is also looking to start a new business serving the American market. And I bet, if we asked, he would also be happy to find us a flat…

The Endless Parades:

We only just realised that we have become completely inured to parades. This epiphany had two parts: First, during a visit from Vien's aunt, she heard drums and ran to the balcony, then shouted for us to join her so we could see a parade. We didn't budge. Another parade? Second, on a Skype call with my parents, we mentioned that a four-hour journey might be that, or may be six hours depending on how many parades might be encountered en route. Only by the surprised reaction of my parents did I suddenly hear how absurd that sounds. But after several months living here, it is a cold hard fact that multiple parades pass by our building every day, ranging from a full-blown march of a few thousand people to the most minimal of productions with three people holding signs and speaking in raised voices.

Caption: Dedicated parade participants as viewed from our balcony.

The parades / demos / marches / processions cover all sorts of events: protests against or for government decisions, celebrations of a religious events (Muslim, Christian, or Hindu) or rallies for political parties of candidates, with Communist marches being the most common. I think this is due to the vast amount of remittances being sent home from the Middle East, so that there is a lot of free time to parades supporting Communist ideals as supported by oil money...

The Ketchup and Jam:

When we arrived in India, we expected many things. We expected humidity, dust, rain, delicious food, curiosity, bright colours and coconuts. We did not expect ketchup and jam to be sold by weight.

Please understand, most shops still sell them in the standard glass jar arrangement. However, it is also possible to visit a deli counter and request 100 grams of ketchup, or half a kilo of marmalade. It is served in plastic containers, just like anything else. You can also get your pickles, yogurts and chutneys served by weight. Oh, and there is a range of ketchups! My God – how is this not a thing in the UK or America? I’ll take 50 grams of the garlic ketchup and 100 grams of the strawberry preserve please.

The Incredible Desire to Help:

Although the US sometimes bills itself as the place where Service is King, India trumps it (no pun intended). Every shop, hotel (the word for restaurant), hotel (the word for hotel), office and grocery store has employees who are very dedicated to giving THE BEST SERVICE EVER to me. (Being an international couple seems to inspire sky-high levels of care…)

For example, two weeks ago we went to our local bank to change our £20 of Thai baht and our $80 of USD into rupees. The bank manager told us that unfortunately they don’t exchange Thai baht, but they could help us with exchanging our dollars. A local Bureau de Change could do the baht, though. While the dollars were being handled, another employee had a long phone call and asked to see our Thai notes, then said, “Madam, we can now exchange baht for you. Come back in 15 minutes.” He had rung the local exchange stand and they came over to collect the baht and leave rupee.

Or take last weekend: We were in the family village outside Ottapalam (OTTAPALAM!?) for the bicentenary of the birth of Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith. We needed to get the sound and projector system set up in the local rented hall but couldn’t find the right cable to connect our phones to the massive speakers. Not to worry – the wonderful owner of the electricals shop came to the rescue. He drove 10 miles to another town to get the cable, managed to secure a projector at short notice and, when we learned the screen wasn’t included, even loaned a dhoti to be used as the screen! So much goodness and kindness in every interaction, with even the most pressing curiosity bearing no hint of ill will.

Caption: The wonderful people who leapt in to help with the event.

These examples are not rare examples, its constant. It’s part of the culture. Everyone can do anything, or knows someone who does. This is how the economy and society functions (it’s not just us, Indian friends and family just see it as normal!) and at the core of it are drivers. If we didn’t know how to open a bank account, an auto or Uber driver would gladly walk us into the nearest bank and talk with the bank manager in order to tell us how, in exchange for a small tip that is never openly requested. Any shop that has run out of anything will simply pop down the road to buy another of whatever we need and just add a very small amount to the bill. What is simply required is at the end there will be some sort of tip (unspoken), but it’s a tip affordable to fellow Indians. It’s just service on another level. There are another few dozen examples of drivers going out of their way to help, it’s almost like having an army of assistants. Drivers will regularly be given a grocery list and tasked with the shopping, or are responsible for picking up children from school, or for collecting food parcels (Indian English for take-away meals). There is nothing a driver can’t do.

Sometimes Indian service is so extremely friendly, I almost wish for the traditional dismissive interactions typical of British shopkeepers. But wait - I said almost, I’m not there yet.

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