Camels Walking on City Streets

(Essay)

(Author’s Note: This essay was published in the September 14, 2012 issue of India Abroad.)

“Kripiya dhyan deejiye. Hum ub Mumbai ke Hawaii udde per pohonch gaye hai. Baher kaa taap man …..” (May we have your attention please? We have just landed at the Mumbai Airport. The outside temperature is….). An announcement like this, or some version of it, from the airline stewardess confirms that our much anticipated vacation in India is finally beginning. Although my wife Bharati and I spent our childhood in India during the sixties and seventies, there is always a sense of excitement and anticipation at what we may discover in the new India. The amount of time elapsed from our prior visit (typically over six years) is enough to notice the advancement in the lifestyle, availability of new goods such as computers and cellphones, and evolution of large shopping malls in cities like Mumbai. While we are focusing on these changes, my son Sachin and daughter Sukanya, both born and raised in America, are more interested in things that they do not see in the USA. This fact became evident during review of the photos we took on our trip a few years ago.

During the trip we took pictures of a wedding we attended, people we met, and places we visited — Mumbai, Pune, Jaipur, and Kolhapur. I don’t remember how many people and places we captured in these pictures, but there were a lot. Upon our return, we uploaded the pictures to our computer and emailed them to our relatives in India and in the USA. As we were going through the responses we received, I noticed that Sachin kept asking for some specific ones that I had forgotten to send to him. These were not pictures of relatives he had met. These were pictures of vegetable vendors hawking their wares on carts and sidewalks, Zopad Patties (slums), elephants and camels walking on the streets, monkeys on rooftops, barbers cutting their customers’ hair on the sidewalk, and crowded city streets where pedestrians competed for space alongside cars, buses, rickshaws, and taxis. These were images that he was fascinated with. These images represented a lifestyle that is not normally witnessed day to day in America. I’m sure description of these images was the topic of many conversations Sachin had with his friends when describing his India trip.

American visitors to India are not the only ones who experience this type of cultural divide. The locals in India are also prone to similar experiences upon witnessing the behavior of foreign visitors. Take for instance my uncle, whom I call Nana Mama. There is one story Nana Mama lovingly tells me every time I visit India. He has told me the story countless times before, but each time he tells it with a relish and enthusiasm as if he were telling it for the first time.

“Aré, Acchu”, he starts, calling me by my nickname, speaking as if he just came across an incident that he just has to tell me about. “Do you know the time this American lady visited Appa?” Appa was Nana’s brother’s father-in-law and a respected member of the upper class society in Hyderabad. Appa was a principal of the local medical school and would often receive foreign visitors.

Appa had invited a lady visitor from America for dinner at his residence.

“As you know, in those days in India we traditionally used to sit for dinner on the floor on a paat (a small wooden seat placed on the floor).” Nana Mama would say. Upon realizing that it would not be practical for the American lady to sit like Indians, Appa asked her if he could fetch a table and chair. The lady was determined to sit like her host. She insisted that she would sit on the paat, just like the others.

Now the problem was this lady was wearing a skirt and it was going to be difficult for her to sit on the floor. Being a good host, Appa handed her a large towel to fold it over the lap.

The meal was served in the traditional Indian way: Multiple assorted food and condiments placed on a big round plate. One of the items on the plate was a small bowl of lentil soup, aamti, that was to be poured over white rice.

“Now, you tell me Acchu,” Nana Mama would ask me, “Who in the world would just drink the aamti by itself?”

I would answer something to the effect of “I don’t know” or “Who?”

“This American lady, that’s who,” Nana Mama would say, shaking his head. “She drank full two bowls of it and then said she was full and could not eat anything else.”

Nana Mama could not get over the idea of how the American lady had such an eating habit. It was so different from the Indian habit of mixing food on the plate before eating. Nana Mama knew that it was the American way to drink the soup first, but remembers the incident for its novelty from the everyday Indian life, just like seeing animals on the city street was a novelty to Sachin.

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