Deciphering Indian Courtesies

Slide1The last time I visited my Kolkata home, there was a large crowd of people bidding goodbye to one person at the airport. Goodbyes are significant events and often extended families and even neighbours will come to see people off at airports and railway stations.

I thought of writing this post about deciphering Indian courtesies because of several recent conversations on Cultural Intelligence that I have had with colleagues. It will be interesting to learn which other cultures around the world follow similar practices. Since India is so culturally diverse, its amazing to see how some courtesies and traditions are the same across India.

For example, guests are highly valued in all Indian contexts. “Athithi devo bhava” meaning guest is god is accepted seriously across all people groups in India. As a result, guests are often not allowed to do anything that could count as a chore. Hosts will insist on serving something to everyone who visits their home, even if it’s just water. If you’re the guest, be polite and take a few sips even if you are not thirsty.

Guests can show up unannounced, sometimes during mid afternoon nap hours (nap times exist in several Indian cities) or even late at night. Hosts will demonstrate warm hospitality and serve snacks and beverages. Indian homes will keep sweets and snacks available for such surprise visits. If a guest ever showed up unannounced and our fridge wasn’t well stocked, it would cause some serious stress at home. But as an unannounced guest, your job is to convince your host not to worry about serving anything. “Just water is fine. I just ate”, is a well accepted excuse.

It is good manners to take something for your host – whether you were invited or showing up unannounced. Something simple like a box of good quality sweets or a bag of fruits is a good gift.

It is considered polite to arrive a little late when you are invited to a meal. Being late by 5 or 10 minutes is a good idea but try to keep it less than 15 minutes. Being a little late implies that although you are excited about the invitation, you are not desperate to eat and have some self-esteem.

Most Indian hosts will wait till all guests have eaten before they sit down to eat. Sometimes, hosts will wait till after the guests have left. This can feel uncomfortable if you’re unfamiliar with having a host wait on you and serve you multiple portions without themselves sitting down to eat. As a guest you can try convincing them to eat with you but it’s hard for people to change this belief.

Slide3After a meal, the host may pack some of the leftovers for guests. Its important that any reusable container is returned to the host as soon as possible. It is impolite to return an empty container. People will typically add some special sweets before returning it. I love this tradition – you never what delicacy you will find.

Some of my family members are left handed but since it’s improper to use your left hand to eat, they eat using their right hand, at least in public. The left hand is considered unclean and is therefore not used to give or accept anything. I have had vendors decline payment if I mistakenly extended it with my left hand.

This one applies not just to guests: Most Indians will offer the last leftovers from a delicacy to someone else. It’s a strange mindset but if there’s only one sweet left, families will split it or they will offer it to a visitor. I guess we have all heard this and believe it to be true that“the last bite carries the most blessing”. 

Unless you invite someone in person or over the phone (if you live in different cities), an invitation card has no meaning. In fact, mailing an invitation without following it up with a phone call is considered as rude as not inviting someone at all. Personal connections are highly valued and emphasized.

Slide2This is almost the funniest thing about Indian families but goodbyes can be a lengthy affair…even when you will meet the person again the very next day. You can spend hours at someone’s house but when it’s time to leave, it’s natural to stand at the door and talk for a looong time! Some goodbye conversations at our house have lasted 45 minutes. Maybe it is our way of saying. I enjoy your company so much that it’s hard to leave. 

 

What are some other Indian courtesies that I missed highlighting? Do you know if any of these are practiced in other world cultures?

Leave a comment below or write to editor@theoverseasmagazine.com. We would love to hear from you!

 

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“Wrong” party attires make better stories

This is just a lighthearted post but do you remember showing up to a party dressed in the ‘wrong’ dress code? It shouldn’t be hard to recall. It’s one of those memories that remain pretty fresh in our minds.

If you know anything about India, you know that Indians are known for their colorful and often OTT dress sense.

When I moved to Atlanta, I was invited to a party at a friend’s house. At that time, they were ‘new’ friends and whenever I had been over to their house, they were very casually dressed. In fact I would feel overdressed whenever we met. So when they invited me to the new year’s eve party at their house and said it was a casual party, I decided to show up dressed casually.

My husband had to work that evening and I decided to try to connect with my new community. I put on my new ninja hoodie and jeans and showed up. You guessed right if you are thinking that was the wrong dress code for the evening.

Everyone at the party was dressed up. Since it was a house party, there weren’t many options of hiding this one out. Most of the people at the party were complete strangers that night but I knew I would meet most of them again. They also had a lot of questions about India. I tried to stay at the top of my conversation game to compensate for the incorrect attire. It is funny to look back on it now but it was an awkward evening.

When my husband lived in India, he had a similar incident (made for each other you see), except that he was overdressed in Indian attire at a wedding lunch party. Everyone else at the party, including the groom had shown up in a casual day suit or just a formal shirt and jeans and my husband showed up in an Indian kurta. Needless to say, every one at the wedding commented on his attire which made for a really funny story.

So when you live in a new culture, how do you decide what the right party attire is, especially, when you aren’t surrounded by friends who can advice you? I guess you can just make the best assumption. Next time I am planning to take the middle road – nothing too casual and not overly dressy. If it still makes for a funny story, just remember it for the laughs.


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For the love of Bollywood music!

I have intentionally listened to more Bollywood songs during my two and a half years living in Atlanta than ever before. I have actually searched for Bollywood hits on YouTube and looked up a few fun songs that are commonly heard during every puja festival in Kolkata. I have even watched Bollywood movies on Netflix.

I know many of you enjoy Bollywood music. I have a few favorites too and I obviously listened to a few of them while writing this post. Some of them even got my husband dancing.

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In India, you can hear Bollywood songs playing all the time. That’s one reason why I didn’t need to search for them on YouTube. You can hear them on TV, during auto rides homes, even at some tea stalls over their small radios while you sipped tea. I could hear them playing in the neighbor’s house in the evenings and of course during the many local festivals.

Somehow the scandalous clothing in the song videos do not draw many protests from families as long as the music is catchy. But when the music is slow with less scandalous outfits and dance steps – you can’t really watch those with your family without feeling slightly uncomfortable. I believe that the upbeat music and often hilarious dance steps blinds us to everything else.

Years ago my family and I had visited Mumbai (or Bombay as it called then). We visited Film City and watched the shooting of a Bollywood movie scene. That was an exciting trip! We were star struck even though we didn’t really meet any of the popular stars. We also hoped to run into superstar Shahrukh Khan during that trip but all we managed to see was the boundary walls of his house.

yadoon ki baratBollywood music has evolved through the decades. I read recently that the first Hindi sound film, Alam Ara released in 1931 featured seven songs. One movie from those earlier times had 42 song sequences! Some songs that were produced during the times of our grandparents are still cherished today. You may have watched the 5 minute video about the evolution of Bollywood music but watch it again. It’s worth your time: Evolution of Bollywood Music – Penn Masala. I bet you know all the songs that Penn Masala captures in this video. zoobi doobi

I don’t quite have the patience to watch some Bollywood movies because of the movie length and number of songs but there are definitely movies that are worth spending 3 hours over. Thanks to Netflix for featuring a few good ones these days. Hopefully better ones will be added to the list.

In case you’re wondering, these are some of the songs that I listened to while writing this: Chammak Challo (Ra One), Zoobi-Doobi (3 Idiots), Dhoom Tana (Om Shanti Om), Aaj ki raat (SRK’s Don). The featured photo on this post is SRK’s Chammak Challo – the movie wasn’t that great but the song is super catchy! You must have heard them all and some of you even played them in your head as you read the titles.

I think this post calls for a Bollywood movie weekend!


Send your stories to editor@theoverseasmagazine.com. We would love to hear from you!

Public transportation in India

Planning to live in India without a personal car? No problem! The variety of public transport options that are available for you will take you wherever you need to go!

Buses

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Local buses with the conductor at the gate

Buses are the most common form of public transportation in cities and are most busy during rush hour. This means that you will most likely not get a chance to board it unless you make it to the starting bus stops or are comfortable pushing your way in. Routes typically cover as many stops as possible and they can take the longest time to get somewhere. Since the routes are pretty fixed, plan your travel with enough time to accommodate waiting in traffic snarls.

Fares are typically low, even on air conditioned buses and tickets can be purchased from the bus conductor using cash only after you board. Be prepared to pay for the tickets in exact change for a smooth transaction and watch out for pickpockets.

Some buses have separate seats assigned for men and women and designated seats for people with disabilities. 

Local Trains

Similar to buses, trains are packed to maximum capacity during rush hour depending on the direction of travel but are usually empty through the rest of the day. Local trains connect the city with it’s surrounding suburbs. Trains are usually on time but be prepared for last minute reschedules. 

Purchase your tickets using cash at the railway station ticketing counter. You can buy several trips at once if you need to use it regularly. Crowded trains also invite pickpockets so stay alert and keep your belongings secure at all times.

Local trains have a few compartments assigned just for women. Men are not allowed on these compartments but women are allowed on all compartments. 

Also read: Train travel in India for first time travelers

Metro rail

All major cities enjoy metro rail service. These trains are super fast, generally on time and connect all major destinations in the cities.

Low fares and convenient connections all around the city also mean that they are overcrowded to the point of discomfort during rush hour. They are usually also quite crowded throughout the day.  You can purchase your ticket at the ticketing counters at any metro station within the city.

Priority seats are marked and other seats are available for everyone else. 

Taxis

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Yellow taxis

Yellow cabs are still one of the most common taxis found in Kolkata and Mumbai. Other cities also have regular taxis that are usually not yellow in color. Taxis can usually be hired from taxi stands. In Kolkata and Mumbai, empty running taxis can be hailed from anywhere.

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Taxi meter

Fares are generated by the meter reading inside taxis. Payment is generally made by cash after you reach your destination and most of the time, if you can’t pay the exact fare amount, then you can forget about getting the balance change amount! Taxi drivers are also known to decline rides as often as they wish and often quote a fixed fare amount instead of using the meter. You can negotiate a deal that works for you. You can book the taxi all to yourself or use one as a shuttle service open to others as well. 

Uber

Replacing the monopoly of taxis in most Indian cities are uber cars. You can expect polite drivers who issue a printed receipt at the end of your ride. Uber services work pretty much the same everywhere – get the app and book your ride. In India you can pay for the ride at the end of the trip by cash. Uber services usually charge a little higher than other public transportation but they are fairly reliable and not fussy.

You can call the emergency number to resolve any disputes you have with an uber driver. The emergency number will connect you to your local police station where you can register a complaint and uber will call you back with a solution.

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Ola

This cab service is similar to Uber but for some routes they are a little less expensive. They are available in most Indian cities. Ola rides can be booked through an app or you can hail and board an empty Ola ride without booking on the app. You can pay for your ride through your registered card or by cash at the end of the journey.

For any disputes, call the emergency number and fare errors can be adjusted during your next ride.

Ferry Launch

Some cities, like Kochi and Kolkata offer ferry launches to travel across rivers.

Tickets can be purchased at ticketing counters at designated zones along the river banks. Fares are low and you can escape terrible traffic snarls by using these water routes. Routes are limited to destinations close to the water bodies. People board and disembark in an orderly queue and you can watch the beautiful city lights as you escape the smoky streets. 

Auto rickshaws

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The notorious auto rickshaws

These are probably the craziest ride in every city. Autos are small vehicles that are open on two sides. They are ideal for short distances but some cities offer longer connections. In some cities the routes are fixed and some cities you can book them to take you anywhere within their permitted zones. You can board them from their stops and hold on firmly so that you don’t fly out. 

Fares are low and you will do well to pay in exact cash when you reach your destination.

Cycle rickshaws

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Cycle rickshaw

Need to get somewhere within a few kilometers but don’t want to walk by yourself?  Use the services of a cycle rickshaw. They are suited for narrow lanes within residential localities. They are especially useful when the sun is scorching hot or if the rains cause the streets to flood. 

Payment is made in cash after you reach your destination.

Also read: Living Overseas: Reflections about India

Tram

Kolkata is the only city that still has a functioning tram network and connects a few iconic places. Even though it is used as public transport, they are slow moving and ideal for a touristy ride of the city.

You can buy tickets after boarding the tram and before getting off at your destination. The tram conductor will come to you during the ride for your tickets.

Safe travels in and around India!

Which of these rides are you planning to use during your visit? Share with us in the comments below! 

Interested in featuring your city on TOM, email your article to editor@theoverseasmagazine.com

In Shimla for two days

Shimla – with its majestic mountains and beauty is a popular tourist destination. The routes were closed in January 2017 because of heavy snowfall. So when we decided to visit it in February, we did not expect it to be packed with tourists since it was off season. We were still trying to pick a hotel a week before we had to travel and before we were ready to make our choice, all hotels around Shimla were sold out! Thanks to Valentines’ day!

We were left with just one hotel option – Shimla Havens – luxurious but outside the city. We booked it and kept our expectations low.

Getting to Shimla

To travel to Shimla, we picked a route with minimal road travel. We decided to fly to Chandigarh, spend an evening there and then rent a car to drive us to Shimla the next morning. The drive up the scenic mountains would be four hours long.

Tourists in Chandigarh

Chandigarh is a beautiful city – clean, planned and with friendly residents. We arrived at Chandigarh around 4 pm and sadly did not get a chance to visit the famous rock garden. We used uber cabs to get around and managed to visit Sukhna lake, which was beautiful! 

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Sukhna Lake, Chandigarh
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Sukhna Lake, Chandigarh

We also made time to visit the market to buy some sweaters. Chandigarh did not disappoint! We enjoyed the evening shopping and were able to find great deals. One thing that surprised us was the lack of chai-stands even at the market place. We did manage to find a few but it took a lot of asking around and surprised responses from shopkeepers. The chai that we found was milky and warmed us up on that cold evening.

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We had planned to try some local lassi (a savoury yogurt drink) but were advised not to since it was still cold and lassi would most likely make us fall sick. Thanks to the uber driver for the advice!

Drive to Shimla

The drive to Shimla was scheduled to start at around 9 am the following morning. Our hosts at Chandigarh served an amazing breakfast and we were ready to be on our way. So grateful for families – near and distant! 🙂

We stopped at Pinjore garden on the way to Shimla. 

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Pinjore gardens
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Pinjore gardens

There were roadside vendors selling fresh fruits and we couldn’t help but stop to buy some oranges. We made it to Shimla around 1 pm and stopped for lunch at a dhaba. The himachal thali that we enjoyed was delicious and vegetarian. That was another thing we would need to get used to during our time there – more vegetarian options and less varieties of meat. But every dal and sabji was delicious!

Tourists in Shimla

The drive down the hill to our hotel was a little steep but Shimla Havens is luxurious with great staff and service. We enjoyed complimentary breakfast and dinner there, which were large buffet spreads. What we were most pleased with was their unlimited chai option along with meals. It’s possible that chai was not meant to be unlimited but we were not billed for any of our drinks. The rooms were comfortable and fitted with all modern amenities. They would turn wifi off during the night but that did not bother us much.

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Shimla Havens

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Caught a glimpse of the tandoor flames.

The views outside our windows were majestic. We were surrounded by mountains and the cold air was refreshing. Temperatures stayed between 3 – 14 degrees Celsius. 

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We were warned about monkeys roaming around freely in Shimla and we saw many! Most of them populated areas where food vendors were set up. We managed to stay out of their way and they stayed away from us.

In Shimla, budget enough time to visit the Rashtrapati Niwas (Indian Institute of Advanced Studies). The history of the location is rich and the mountains that surround it are breathtaking. It’s a great location for photography. Photography inside the niwas is not permitted. 

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Rashtrapati Niwas, Shimla
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Rashtrapati Niwas, Shimla

Mall road is another place you need to make time for. It’s essentially a market street but it has other attractions as well. To go up to Mall Road, we had our car drop us at the entrance and we would take a lift to go up to the destination. Each lift ride cost Rs. 10 for each person.

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Mall Road, Shimla

Mall road is filled with small and branded stores offering sweaters, wooden items and food.

A little walk upwards and you can visit Christ Church, which is the second oldest church in North India that’s still open for services. The church is located near the Ridge and was surrounded by snow-capped mountains. 

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Our driver decided to drive us to a spot up the mountains that had options for adventure sports that we were not interested in trying with our parents. Since it was expensive to enter and we did not want to spend the afternoon there, we turned around and headed to Kufri instead.

Horse ride at Kufri

In Kufri we were encouraged to try their horse rides up the mountain. We were apprehensive at first but then decided to give it a try. The horses were small and very muddy. We picked the ‘cleanest’ horses and climbed on. The ride felt unsteady at first but soon we got used to the rhythm. The road led to a steep, muddy narrow path crowded with other horses and tourists. We stopped enjoying the scenery and began worrying about our safety. The horses were being pushed and pulled around and as feared, one of the horses got excited and started running haywire, thus jeopardizing the ride for everyone. The narrow path had no boundaries on the sides and the horses were tied together in pairs. If one horse fell down the hill, it would take several others down with it. We decided that the ride was more dangerous than exciting and asked to turn around to return to our starting point. We don’t recommend the ride to anyone unless other safety measures are established. 

We were also encouraged to visit the zoo next to the horse riding place. The zoo had four animals and some snow on the ground. It was not worth the time. We decided to head back to Shimla for the rest of the evening. 

Dry fruits and sweets from Himachal

The next morning we left Shimla Havens after a fantastic breakfast. We drove up and down the mountains and dozed most of the way. We stopped at a store (Haveli) to buy some dry fruits and sweets from Himachal and made it back to the airport in time to board our flight. Since the Chandigarh airport is small, we made it through security in a matter of minutes.

We made it back to Calcutta with new memories and some great photographs!


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Meals every Indian should try in the US

When you visit the US, you have to try these!

Barbecued meat! Whether you prefer chicken or pork, find a restaurant that serves barbecue platters. The mildly sweet and smoky melt-in-your-mouth options are a must have when you’re in the US!

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Mouthwatering barbecued meat. Give us a side of naan and we are set!

Burgers and hotdogs come in all sizes and varieties. The type of burgers and hotdogs you find in India don’t quite compare to the ones available in the US. Opt for beef if you eat beef or try the cheese burger. Amazingness! Hotdogs can vary in quality so maybe try just one.

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We need bigger mouths for that burger!

Soups and stews are both comfort food and an entire hot meal in a bowl. Try the  Brunswick stew, with it’s rich taste of tomatoes and meat, or try gumbo! Find out what the traditional soup is and enjoy it with a side of bread sticks or rice.

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Doesn’t that look wholesome? Yummy soup!

Although India offers a variety of bread options, when Indians hear bread, we usually think of the common sliced white bread but if you enjoy bread, you will love meals in the US! Bagels, buns, dinner rolls, biscuits, corn bread, baguette are a few among many other varieties. They all differ in texture and taste and if you can’t differentiate, it’s alright. It’s probably the same reason why Americans identify the variety of Indian flatbread as naan 🙂

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We love garlic bread!

Mexican food is extremely popular so enjoy the delicious tacos and burritos. In addition to that, you can find fusion food everywhere. Korean, Thai, Japanese – all offer fusion options and Indian taste buds will love them. American Chinese food is not as spicy as Indian Chinese food and Indian food is mostly limited to North Indian food options.

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Tacos are perfect for any meal.

If you want to try fast food, try Chick-fil-A! The fried chicken burgers will win over your heart and stomach instantly.

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Spicy Deluxe Sandwich offers the perfect amount of spice and flavors.

Finally to satisfy your sweet tooth, try the cheesecakes, donuts, pies, a wide range or cookies and muffins. There are tons of other options obviously but you can’t visit the US and not try these!

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Give them all to us!!! Donuts for days!

Have a great trip and enjoy your meals!


 

 

How to bargain when shopping at markets – tips that really work

Shopping at flea markets and wholesale markets require more skills than shopping at malls and ‘fixed price’ stores. These shopping experiences also add to the joy of shopping, especially if you enjoy shopping. I learnt a lot of bargaining tips from my aunt, who is an expert! To make the most of markets around the world, here are some tips to get the best value for your money!

Lesson 1: Don’t reveal a price range right away unless you know exactly the kind of value that range will buy. If you’re unsure about what to expect, some vendors will not hesitate to display items of lesser value and sell them at your estimated higher price. Especially when buying from a flea market or wholesale market, ask the vendor to show some items and tell you the price of those items. Once you have an idea of what to expect, you can narrow your search.

Lesson 2: When browsing through items, don’t reveal your top preferences right away. In addition to your preferred items, bargain for a few other items. Vendors might quote a higher price if you reveal your favorite too soon. Feel free to negotiate prices to drive them down further. Sometimes buying several items from a single vendor can encourage them to provide additional discounts. Once you’re convinced that you are not getting cheated, return the favor and don’t cheat the vendor.

Lesson 3: If you see an item you like right away and don’t have time to browse through a whole section, quote a bargain price at half the quoted price. Then scale upwards slowly based on the vendor’s reaction. Even though this is not a set rule, it gives you a comfortable room for bargain. An exception to the rule: Once my aunt had quoted 1/10th of the price listed for an item when we were out shopping one afternoon. I looked at her trying hard to mask my surprise at what seemed like a outrageous bargain. The vendor protested only a little and then accepted the offer with a smile.

Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid to walk away. Most vendors will want some return on the time invested on the customer and more often than not, they will accept your offer as soon as you begin to walk away. If they don’t, chances are that the market offers other alternatives that you can pursue or you can accept the final price quoted by the vendor (it’s okay to let them smirk a little – getting the product that you wanted should make up for it.)

Lesson 5: During payment, since most of these markets prefer cash over cards, don’t pay in large denominations. If the vendor refuses to return exact change, claiming that they doesn’t have any, you could end up paying more than you bargained for.

Lesson 6: Be polite and respectful. People respond favorably to well behaved customers. Be cautious when your vendor is overly polite and respectful or you will respond favorably even to higher prices 🙂

It’s also important to know the the language of the place or have a trusted translator along. Tourists end up paying a little more during shopping anyway but don’t let that discourage you from enjoying the experience.

Do you have other tips? Please share them in the comments below.