Tag Archives: etiquette

Book Bits of India

A couple of friends asked me last fall if I were reading about India in preparation for traveling here, and I had to admit that I wasn’t. I’ve always been like this, before school field trips or grownup camping trips, unable to focus in an academic way on a future and therefore theoretical event with its vast possibilities. It seems to me to be putting the answers ahead of the questions that I haven’t yet been stimulated to ask; the likelihood is high that I would have wasted my time reading material that would turn out to be irrelevant to my personal experience.

I did try a little. First I started in on Midnight’s Children by Salmon Rushdie, but I couldn’t get interested. And through Great Courses I listened to a professor of Indian history lecture tediously for some hours, until I couldn’t bear him any longer. Just before my trip, I began to listen to Michael Wood’s The Story of India, and he was very engaging and promising.

But once I arrived and had several days’ worth of experiences under my belt, I started reading lots of articles online, and delving into the many books on the subject of India that are in this house. I’m sure I won’t finish reading any of them, but they have all contributed to my understanding and made my stay here richer. I’ll share somewhat random quotes from a few of them in my list below.

Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower edited by McKinsey & Company     This collection of essays by dozens of writers, mostly Indian, ranges from hard-core economic and trade issues to a discussion of how India became the world leader in the game of cricket. I will probably refer to some of the articles in future posts.

Eyewitness Travel: India     “Consisting of seven swampy islands when the Portuguese acquired it in 1534, Bombay (from the Portuguese Bom Bahia or ‘Good Bay’) came to the British Crown in 1661 as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II. Finding little use for the islands, the British leased them to the East India Company, which quickly realized their potential as an excellent natural harbour in the Arabian Sea. The rise of Bombay began in the late 1600’s, when the company relocated its headquarters here. By the 18th century, Bombay had become the major city and shipbuilding yard on the western coast, and by the 19th century, land reclamations had joined the islands into the narrow promontory that it is today.”

Culture Shock! India by Gitanjali Kolanad c. 1994    “You may meet with the invitation to ‘drop by anytime.’ In E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Mrs. Moore meets with a situation where she tries to pin down a specific time with a Mrs. Bhattacharya, who is gracious but vague. In the end Mrs. Moore settles with her on the coming Thursday, only to find that the Bhattacharyas are leaving for Calcutta the following morning.

“Mrs. Moore is bewildered by the exchange, but one Indian friend to whom I told the story understood the situation perfectly. She said, ‘The guest is blessing you, doing you a great honor by visiting you. How can you be so rude as to try to restrict them to a certain time?'”

The Story of India by Michael Wood (frontispiece above)     Quoting Sir William Jones: “‘The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing on both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philosopher could examine them all three without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.'”

“The question is very complex, but there is one thing on which all competent linguists agree: Jones was right — the languages are connected; and the time depth of the ‘family tree’ of the Indo-European languages precludes the idea of India as the place of origin. The Sanskrit language must have originated outside India. But how far back? And from where? Was it brought by invaders or travelers, by elites or mass migration?

“This is now one of the hottest arguments in modern India, where the battle over history that began under the British in the nineteenth century is now at the heart of politics and education because it bears on central questions of identity.”

India: The Cultural Companion by Richard Waterston     This book focuses on the history and tradition of India’s many indigenous religions.

“[It is] common to read in Hindu texts of attempts to ‘cheat’ or ‘vanquish’ time. A verse from the Mahabharata advises that ‘time “cooks” all beings’ and ‘destroys all creatures;’ when everything else sleeps ‘time is awake, time is hard to overcome.'”…. “The present age (Kali Yuga) is the last in the cycle and marks the point at which spiritual intelligence and morality have reached their lowest ebb.”

“The most striking aspect of Jain karma is that it is perceived as a material entity, like a subtle dust that clogs the soul, binding it to the body. Many lifetimes are required to rid the soul of karmic dust and so liberate it.”

Indian Nationalism: A History by Jim Masselos     I enjoyed this book for its thorough overview of the people and events by which the first stirrings of the will to independence multiplied in various places around the subcontinent and overcame the many differences of culture and religion to become a unified force strong enough to oust the British.

Indian Breads by G. Padma Vijay     This was a Christmas present from Kate and Tom. How did they know I would love the Indian flatbreads of which there are enough varieties to fill a book? Just last night we ate garlic or lassoon paratha, one of many paratha recipes that are joined by instructions for naan, chapattis, rotis and many breads you’ve probably never heard of even if you love to eat Indian food. The smoke alarm always goes off here when Kareena makes her wonderful chapattis, so when I go home I may have to limit my experiments to days of open windows.

Flowers of India by Helmut Wolf      A board book on this subject is just about my speed. I found it in a fancy shop that sells children’s clothes, and I will put it in my suitcase as one concrete item among all the intangible smidgens of knowledge I have collected from books.

Compliance at the front door.

When my doorbell rang the other morning I whipped off my apron and dutifully went to open the door, hoping to find a neighbor with a plate of cookies or even a request for help, and not a salesman or proselytizer. Alas, it was a complete stranger, a man, holding some flyers.

He extended his hand for me to shake, and told me his name. I did not take his hand, because I don’t know a thing about him yet and we are not entering into an agreement or a social relationship. I am often this non-compliant at the front door, because I’m defensive about protecting my home territory. The threshold of our house is one place it seems important to resist those who want to be what seems to me over-familiar. I can be friendly without touching, can’t I?

Most people, on seeing that you do not want to shake their hand, will put theirs down. Not this man. He kept sticking his hand out at me, for what seemed like a minute but was in any case long enough to be very pushy and rude. Being a compliant person in all the wrong situations, I gave in and shook his hand. I was angry enough with myself afterward that it’s caused me to rehash the event and probably over-analyze it.

What do you think he wanted to sell me? He is starting a lending agency in town, and wants me to know about it and tell all my friends so that if we have to go into debt, he can be our creditor. This raises more questions about why he put so much importance on shaking hands – Was he unconsciously saying, “Shaking hands is what men of honor do, and I want you to believe I am trustworthy.” ? I would never borrow money from someone who is so unmannerly or obtuse that he would not defer to a woman at her own doorstep.

There is a point of etiquette I learned from Miss Manners some years ago about hand-shaking. Perhaps it doesn’t apply in business situations where women want in many ways to be treated just like men, but I don’t live in that world. The rule is, if a man and a woman are meeting, it is up to the woman to extend her hand first, if she wants to shake hands. The man should wait to see if she offers her hand; if she doesn’t, they don’t shake. It’s doubtful Mr. Moneylender reads Miss Manners, but really, even if a man extended his hand to another man, and he didn’t take it, would any sensible guy keep his out there waiting?

After my visitor departed, with me wishing him a friendly, “Good luck!” — See how compliant I am? — it occurred to me that with someone who is that bold, I should have been bold as well. I might have taken a moment to give him some tips on the proper and courteous way to behave if one is selling oneself door-to-door. Well, maybe next time…but I hope I never have the opportunity.