Boom! And Away

15 Sep

For a long time, I’ve seen it on the news and wondered. A natural disaster, a hostage situation, New York city on 9/11, the 2008 Mumbai attacks – I’ve always wondered how it must feel to be in the thick of it, to be in the moment, away from home, and have absolutely no control over what’s happening. At least on TV, you’re safe at home watching what’s going on; you can change the channel if you want. But when it happens and you’re there, what then?

I’m lucky, though, because at least the July bombings in India occurred in Mumbai, and our group was away in another city. But as I watched the news, saw the chaos and confusion that ran rampant in the city streets, I was reminded that had the attacks happened 24 hours later, we would have been in the thick of it. That’s an unsettling feeling – and it was made worse by being in a foreign country where there were no reassurances such as a common language or recognizable surroundings. This type of thing does something to you, besides making you appreciate home more than ever; it teaches you resilience forces you to examine your courage and collectedness. Are you going to lose your head, or are you going to be vigilant and calm and use your wits and trust your gut feelings to safely navigate yourself out of this situation? And, in a group, what role do you play? Do you become the quiet one, the pillar of reassurance, the worried one, the angry one? Many times, you are all of these and none of these, many times you have a private self and the mask you wear out of necessity for the good of the group.

Needless to say, we made it out, and I was glad to be back. Yes, we were not in the epicenter of the event – but it still shook some of us up. Others felt we could’ve continued and been just fine. There was no right/wrong answer here. But the fact that there were bombings did not surprise me. I knew it was a likely possibility during our trip, which made me wonder why we were going all the way to India when this was such a real possibility in the first place. Yes, it can happen anywhere these days, but some locations are more likely than others. So did I enjoy the trip: absolutely. Would I want to go back: thank you, no. There’s more of the world I’ve got left to see. But thanks, India, for your hospitality during our stay.


The Dating Game

15 Sep

In India, we had more than a few conversations about the custom of arranged marriages. It was a hot topic of the trip. And you could tell that its prominence in Indian society was very high. As Bijapurkar writes, marriage is “an institution considered to be a pillar of Indian society.” Yet, after all we heard regarding this old tradition, it seems that it’s changing in Indian culture; in fact, from all that I was told, it seems to me that the new form of arranged marriages closely resembles the US online dating practice.

This tradition is entering modernity. No longer, it seems, is it the case that men and women are forced together (however, this does remain true in outlying small villages that still struggle economically). For the most part, there is freedom in how these people get to choose their husband/wife – with the families that arrange the meetings acting more like a dating service than a blacksmith handcuffing a pair together for life. As Desai writes, the custom of arranged marriage has an elastic nature “which allows it to expand its definition to accommodate the needs of modernity.” So it seems that as in many things, India is continually evolving.

The Contradictions of India

15 Sep

In “We Are Like That Only,” the author states that the country of India “is a confusing market because it harbors far too many contradictions.” Indeed, spend some time in this country, and you too can see a society that often times does contradict itself.

Take, for example, my experience while driving through the streets of New Delhi. While going past an area of slums, we slowed down enough to where I was able to glance inside one of the slum homes. There, surrounded by scenes of poverty – garbage, dirt floors, metal roofs – was a satellite dish. Now, what people do with their income is none of my business, but it just struck me as odd (or just culturally different) that amid all this poverty, there were signs of technology. What I found odd is where the income was chosen to be allocated.

However, as I said before, it may just be a cultural oddity that I’m not used to. It is another nation, which plays by its own rules. The reason for the need to have a satellite dish may be due to the high levels of brand consciousness that exist in India, as Prahalad says in “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” – and this brand consciousness may be connected to TV, which creates the desire to watch more TV, which creates more brand consciousness. And round and round we go.


14 Sep

In “Ethnography for Marketers,” cultural beliefs and values are said to be “standards of truth for everyday life. They provide legitimacy to personal behavior and help you tell right from wrong.” This idea was most powerful for me on the day we visited Gandhi’s home.

Some experiences take you by surprise. You think you know what’s coming, and they end up being the type of experience that has the power to change you. My favorite experience from India was the elephant ride, but the trip to Gandhi’s home is the one which will have the most lasting impact. If ever a place existed that stood for standards of truth for everyday life, it was this house. Walking around, I got the sense of just how much Gandhi was in tune with truth. He lived it through simplicity. It takes a different sort of person to dedicate themselves to this belief. And it’s not easy. But I’ll take lessons from this man, and having visited his home, perhaps I can try living a little closer to some of his ideas about right and wrong. The point is, after being at his home, you’re inspired to try – and that might just be enough to help make this world a little better for everyone.

Gastric Acrobatics

14 Sep

“Street food is a performance of gastric misdemeanour, an indecorous act of biological defiance.” So says Santosh Desai in “Mother Pious Lady” – and I would have to agree with this statement.

Very early into our trip, we were advised to stay clear of street food, for we did not have the internal fortifications (which people in India develop from birth, it seems) to withstand the onslaught that Indian street food could unleash within us. Should we feel brave and nibble on the food sold in the streets, we may, as my title states, become engaged in gastric acrobatics.

I confess that I’m a chicken when it comes to spicy food. Not until I was twelve or thirteen did I finally develop a liking for pepperoni on my pizza. And yet, knowing how I am, I felt I gave Indian food a fair try. I didn’t like it, and I wouldn’t have it again if given the option, but I tried it nonetheless. So I’m content now to say, “I gave it a shot.” And I’m ever thankful I never had to endure the dreaded “Delhi Belly.”

The Snake Charmer

12 Sep

Like a scene from a movie, here was this man playing the traditional flute-like instrument, and emerging from a basket came a cobra. I watched as it swayed to and fro, seeming to dance to the rhythm of the man’s instrument. The man played on, stopping at intervals to tap the snake on its nose. For its part, the serpent remained still, so entranced by the song that it seemed to not mind being touched. This man was crazy, not only for touching the snake, but for even having it in a basket which he carried around. Was he immune to its bite? Was the cobra de-fanged (is that even a real thing?)? What a sight!

I watched on, entranced just as much as the snake. This was the epitome of what I imagined an Indian experience to be. You see it in movies but you don’t imagine you’ll ever come across the genuine article. I honestly didn’t think people still did this sort of thing.

So like any tourist, I immediately pulled out my camera and snapped a photo. And like any tourist, I was completely ignorant of an unspoken rule – but I was quickly educated: if one takes a photo of this man, that person is expected to pay him for it. This was news to me. However, when I thought about it, it made sense. This was his job, and not paying him would be the same as taking off without paying for your dinner at a restaurant. I got to thinking, not paying him is akin to ignoring that he’s even there. In the book entitled “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” it says that people at the bottom of the pyramid often times struggle with lacking any sort of identity. I could see how that’s true, which made unknowingly depriving him of payment for his song and pet snake a grave injustice. With this new knowledge, I quickly went and made sure I provided payment, not wanting to offer any disrespect.

Yet I know he’s not completely without identity, for he’ll always be remembered by me when I recall my time in India, and the sight of that dancing cobra, slowly rising out of a basket.

History in a Thread

11 Sep

Of the three artistic places we visited (jewelry, marble and textiles) the last was my personal favorite. Having the opportunity to watch these men and women at work was perhaps one of the best Indian experiences of the trip. Stamping the fabrics with the dye, seeing the patterns emerge, watching their concentration as they perform well-practiced movements – absolutely fantastic. This was where I did a lot of my souvenir shopping, and wished I had funds for more.

We were ushered into the carpet showroom, given some cold, much-needed drinks, and even got a show. One after the other, carpets and rugs were rolled out for our entertainment and admiration – literally rolled out. It looked like they were preparing for the Oscars. Then we couldn’t believe it: they invited us to walk on these pieces of art, to put our dusty feet on months of careful work. This felt almost sinful!

Sometime in the middle of this show, I got to talking to one of the employees, who showed me another rug I was looking at. He proceeded to show me one of their finest rugs – a rather small one, compared to the others, and I was surprised to learn this small thing could cost up to $22,000!

Yet, not really that much when you find out what it takes to create these masterpieces. One of these rugs can take maybe 6 months to a year to create, using such a high thread count that it gives the surface a silk-like feel. And the beautiful designs are made up as it’s created. Unplanned does not mean sloppy here.

Taking a closer look, I got to admiring the design as well as the execution. I noticed the history that’s held in these thread designs, the images of gods and temples – the high number of threads proportionate to the massive amount of history that’s contained in India. There’s so much history in this country, a multitude of myths and legends and stories that stretch back thousands of years. Leaving the textile factory, I was struck by just how incredibly these workers have been able to capture all that history and place it into so many amazing rugs with baffling detail.