Tag Archives: color

Cultural studies in a flurry.

I once read a definition of culture as “everything people make and do.” That’s the one I’m working from for this post, in which I want to briefly touch on many odds and ends that interest me about India, but which I don’t have time to research or think about extensively.

One writer said that India is so diverse in its history and culture that it is more like 60+ countries than it is a unified nation. I think that is one reason that I was really glad to have limits on my explorations. How can one person deal with that breadth of possibilities? I would rather have depth of knowledge about a few things, or lacking that, just more time being exposed to a type of food, or the sound of a neighborhood, or day after day chatting with a native.

It was a treat to be in India when Republic Day was being celebrated last month, and to watch the parade in Delhi on TV with Kate and Tom. The most colorful and impressive aspects of Indian culture and tradition were on display for the international guests sitting in the stands and anyone who tuned in.

I had never seen motorcycle stunt riders before, but they are a huge thing in the Indian Army, and we enjoyed their performance. Women teams performed as well that day, and since then I’ve read about how the Indians have set records for various motorcycle stunts like most men riding a motorcycle (58) and longest ride standing up, etc. On my first day in Mumbai, you may remember that the things that first caught my attention were the trees and the motorcycles. I haven’t stopped wondering.

On our road trip when I was riding in the back of the car and watching traffic behind me, I had the chance to do a lot of people-on-motorcycles-watching. One young family was riding down the freeway at 50 or 60 miles per hour and when I first saw them, the wife looked especially pretty in her colorful sari, because she was smiling so happily as she rode sidesaddle behind her husband. The whole family was obviously carefree and enjoying their ride, a five-year-old boy sitting in front of his smiling father. The father was wearing a helmet.

At least in some places in India, there are laws that say the driver of the motorcycle must wear a helmet. Kate knows this, because when they were in Goa they rented a bike and the rental company gave Tom a helmet because it was the law that he must wear one. Kate wanted a helmet as well, but the shop didn’t have enough for anyone but drivers.

Since I heard that story I’ve been noticing, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone other than a driver wearing a helmet, and often not the driver. Many women in traditional kurtas with scarves around their heads and sometimes faces will ride solo, and they don’t usually wear a helmet.

It seemed like dozens of marching bands streamed past in the Republic Day parade, and my favorite by far was this group from the Oxford Foundation School in Delhi, who changed my life in a minute, turning me into a woman who would do anything to get a pair of velvet Indian salwar pants in that exact shade of green!

Truly, if I were staying only a week longer, I might have bought a sari to wear to a wedding the family will attend. Indian weddings are huge and lavish affairs — one important expectation is that you invite everyone who is in your life in the remotest way. If you work for a large company, you invite everyone in the company, for example.

“We” received an expected invitation to Tom’s co-worker’s Hindu wedding, delivered to the door, a portfolio sort of presentation, accompanied by a shiny box holding a family-sized confection called a ladoo. We cut it into six wedges and finished it off for dessert that night, savoring its indescribable subtle flavors which we think included rose and fennel.

Since then we’ve shopped for the proper wedding attire for the whole family – you need one sort of outfit for the morning part of the event, and another for the evening.

Indian families normally don’t take their babies out until they are six months old, so we haven’t found formal wedding wear that Raj doesn’t swim in. He may have to go a little casual. Kate has a sari now, and another sort of Indian dress; she is very hopeful that they will get more wedding invitations during their stay here so she can make further use of these traditional and fancy outfits. Tom is making do without a pair of elf-like shoes that the sharpest dressers to wear to weddings.

The book Reimagining India that I’ve been browsing has a whole section devoted to Culture and Soft Power, in which various writers treat subjects like Bollywood, Indian food and restaurants, and the mindset of the privileged middle class. One of the writers was at the time of the book’s publication the reigning world chess champion, and he wrote an article on “Making Chess India’s Game.”

I don’t even play chess, but I liked his story, and found this paragraph helpful in my “studies”:

One of the things I bring to my play is my Indian identity — my ability to shrug off a loss as destiny and hope for a better tomorrow. I am often described as a “natural” or “intuitive” player. I agree there is something to that. I learned to play chess at high speed. At the Mikhail Tal Chess Club in Chennai, where I began playing chess, we used to play “blitz” — the shortest format of chess in which players use a timer and neither is allowed more than five minutes of total playing time. We embraced blitz to make playing fun; the club was crowded, and blitz was the best way to ensure that the maximum number of players got time on the board. The winner stayed and the loser had to go back in queue. It made the evening more exciting. We all loved it. I learned to play fast, without agonizing about strategy or overanalyzing individual moves. Maybe this is a form of Indian ingenuity: making the most of a situation in which there isn’t much structure.

~Viswanathan Anand 

It just now occurs to me that my India studies have been fast and intense in a similar way. Like the traffic flow on the city streets, it looks chaotic, but under the circumstances it’s the most efficient way to go. I can’t afford to stay here any longer — I would become hopelessly immersed in the Indian jumble, only coming up for air long enough to type a few feeble words on my laptop.

This is not my photo, but I did see many women carrying water in similar containers. People carry all kinds of bundles and baskets of things on their heads in India. Kate and I discussed the weight of water if the containers held three gallons each: two containers = 48 pounds. I hope they only hold two gallons, in which it would impress a mere 32 pounds on each head.

In India, I have seen men sleeping in public every time I go out, often in shops, and I imagine they are workers on break; everyone stays up late here, so they need a nap. But what do I know? Maybe they are drug dealers who work at night and sleep in their uncle’s shop in the day.

India is labor-rich. Kate and Tom explained to me that an economy is either rich in labor or in capital, and in India it is definitely labor. A rule of thumb is that if there is a job you expect one person to do in the U.S., four Indians will be doing it here, because they are available, and machines and technology are not as abundant so they are relatively expensive.

This can be a bit disconcerting when you shop, and two to four store staff hover about, not just waiting to help you but asking you to look at one thing after another you don’t want. In restaurants you have very attentive waiters, often standing a few feet away from your table watching to be sure they don’t miss a cue that you might need something. And just generally, people, people everywhere, walking and riding their motorbikes and carrying things.

Several months ago Kate had told me that many Indians have stopped using the all-purpose “Namaste” for every greeting, because a phrase like “Good morning,” for example, is more specific and useful, and they like it.

It also is essential for the latest fad that was pretty much started by Indians of my age group, a trend that caught the attention of Google and which you may have heard about because of that. As older people started getting hooked up to the Internet, they discovered the joys of wishing all their friends “Good morning!” about eight o’clock every day, by means of image-rich text messages. These texts were using up Indians’ digital storage three times faster than average and causing their smartphones to freeze up.

“Perhaps India’s most famous morning-message enthusiast is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He gets up at 5 a.m. to practice yoga and is known to fire off good-morning messages as the sun is rising. Last year, he admonished a group of lawmakers for not responding to his greetings.”

My son-in-law has been getting these kinds of texts from his Indian coworkers and has jumped on the bandwagon himself. I don’t have any Indian friends who might send me a cheery Good Morning message, but I figure some of you are still in the early part of the day as you read this, so I asked Tom to send an example in my direction. This way I can share a little upbeat and current Indian culture with you my readers and at the same time wish you my best. I hope that in the next several hours, morning or not, your life is rich but not chaotic. And if you ride a motorcycle, please wear a helmet!

Walking in an Indian neighborhood.

When we drive anywhere in the city, I glue my eyes to the window to watch the thousands of people and motorcycles, street vendors and fruit stands, human life and business energies streaming past. But I like best just walking here and there in the neighborhood, where I can stop at least my own motion for a moment and take a picture of the little things  I notice.

On a stretch of road a block away, we passed the man who always sits on the pavement at the corner sorting greens. Passing so close beside him at work, not pausing enough to know for sure if some part of me is encroaching on the airspace above his small piles of spinach, I feel a kind of intimacy that forbids my becoming an outsider and looking on him as a curiosity.

You probably noticed that most of my pictures of women in their lovely saris and kurtas are from behind, because I am too shy to stop everything and everyone and ask to take their pictures. Last week I felt the boldness to ask rise up in me, and then quickly fade, when we passed three middle-aged women sitting and chatting in a row on chairs in front of a shop, facing the street, each in a different and brilliant sari.

Many of the streets and sidewalks are constructed of the same sort of interlocking pavers, which are often broken, but sometimes they all look intact, even if one or another is a little wonky. Twice I walked carefully around a puddle of water on the sidewalk only to step on a dry paver that turned out to have water seeping under it, which squirted out all over my sandal and foot. Who knows where that water came from? This is not the monsoon season, and it hasn’t rained in the month I’ve been here. Ick.

One has to watch out for and walk around dog poop, and the dogs themselves that often sleep in the middle of the sidewalk or street… and the woman collecting trash, whose bag might spill right in front of you.

In the heat of the summer I’m sure more businesses close for a spell midday, but this is winter,  and about noon we all four went walking to the nearby market area where you can buy nearly anything you want from one of the shops tucked in next to each other, often in the tiniest spaces, such as the place where Kate bought eggs, which were packed loose and uncushioned by anything in a packet that might be called a bag, taped together from the newspaper ad page.

When we were having a pani puri snack at a stand on one side of the street, Kate pointed out to me the man sharpening scissors by means of bicycle power on the other side. I caught his picture from a distance, squeezed in between street and sidewalk traffic on his stationary vehicle.

Tom was looking for some charcoal to use in grilling kebabs, and was directed down an alley to “the first place on the right.” So we went down there but there were no shops, and we turned back, only to realize that the charcoal seller had only a very vague and trashy area from which to do his business, but it worked fine. We teased Tom that he bought really a bit more charcoal than he needed just so he could get that most beautiful 5-kilo bag.

Tom was wearing Raj in the sling, and my, my, did he get stared at! Maybe some people didn’t know what bulgy thing he was carrying? But more likely they were disturbed at the example he was setting, in this land where fathers do not generally do child care.

I went shopping with Kate for a sari that she will wear to an Indian wedding in a few weeks. The shop was in the pretty yellow building shown in my last post, with scaffolding around it, also down an alley but not so sketchy looking. So elegant inside, with the beautiful fabrics and dresses and evening bags… But technologically lacking; their credit card machine would not take any of three cards we tried.

This gave me the opportunity to see some sights, as we walked a couple of blocks to an ATM for cash. While we waited for something else, we enjoyed visiting with the soft-spoken and articulate owner of the shop who told us that she would love to visit her relatives in California but her business prevented her. She asked Kate to clarify her response to the offer of a glass of water: “I’m okay.” We Americans are used to this phrase now, that means, “I’m okay as I am, I don’t want _____ that you are offering me.” But ”okay” is an affirmative answer in itself, so it’s confusing to people who aren’t familiar with the current manner of speaking. This led to a discussion of phrases I don’t think I’ve even heard, “Yeah, no,” and “No, yeah.” Really?

School kids in uniforms! We are likely to see lots of handsome children looking sharp in their various styles and colors of uniforms as they leave the school grounds or pile into rickshaws. Khaki, blue, plaid… The girls of one school wear deep purple dresses.

Walking home from church the other night we stopped at a flower stand to buy large white dahlias for about 30 cents each, and as we were standing there I looked up to see something unexpected: the moon! We aren’t often out at night, and the city lights and high-rises hide much of the sky… But there he was, my dear friend.

Isak Dinesen amongst graves.


One of the books that I took off the shelf this month was Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, what looks to be a first edition that my grandfather received through the Book-of-the-Month club soon after it was published in 1938. I have read parts of this book many times over the years, but never the whole thing. It is one of those works that is compelling in many ways, though it “lacks narrative interest,” i.e., it is not a page-turner.

It was sitting on my desk and one day I opened it in the middle and enjoyed, as always, the voice of the writer through her vivid stories. I transcribed one for my edification, and I trust yours.


In the Reserve I have sometimes come upon the Iguana, the big lizards, as they were sunning themselves upon a flat stone in a river-bed. They are not pretty in shape, but nothing can be imagined more beautiful that their colouring. They shine like a heap of precious stones or like a pane cut out of an old church window. When, as you approach, they swish away, there is a flash of azure, green and purple over the stones, the colour seems to be standing behind them in the air, like a comet’s luminous tail.

Once I shot an Iguana. I thought that I should be able to make some pretty things from his skin. A strange thing happened then, that I have never afterwards forgotten. As I went up to him, where he was lying dead upon his stone, and actually while I was walking the few steps, he faded and grew pale, all the colour died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him he was grey and dull like a lump of concrete. It was the live impetuous blood pulsating within the animal, which had radiated out all that glow and splendour. Now that the flame was put out, and the soul had flown, the Iguana was as dead as a sandbag.

Often since I have, in some sort, shot an Iguana, and I have remembered the one of the Reserve. Up at Meru I saw a young Native girl with a bracelet on, a leather strap two inches wide, and embroidered all over with very small turquoise-coloured beads which varied a little in colour and played in green, light blue, and ultramarine. It was an extraordinarily live thing; it seemed to draw breath on her arm, so that I wanted it for myself, and made Farah buy it from her. No sooner had it come upon my own arm than it gave up the ghost. It was nothing now, a small, cheap, purchased article of finery. It had been the play of colours, the duet between the turquoise and the “nègre”, — that quick, sweet, brownish black, like peat and black pottery, of the Native’s skin, — that had created the life of the bracelet.

In the Zoological Museum of Pietermaritzburg, I have seen, in a stuffed deep-water fish in a showcase, the same combination of colouring, which there had survived death; it made me wonder what life can well be like, on the bottom of the sea, to send up something so live and airy. I stood in Meru and looked at my pale hand and the dead bracelet, it was as if an injustice had been done to a noble thing, as if truth had been suppressed. So sad did it seem that I remembered the saying of the hero in a book that I had read as a child: “I have conquered them all, but I am standing amongst graves.”

— Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa