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Perspectives from Pune (Part 2): A city of quirks and colour

Published:Saturday | October 30, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Some of the colourful trucks which characterise Pune, India.
Buses in Pune, India, can be so overloaded that passengers find creative ways to hitch a ride. Note the word 'stop' by the brake light.

Luis Jimenez, Contributor

So five weeks later, I have been back to Canada for five days and am now returning to the land of the roaming street cow to begin my second tour of duty.

I return laden with gifts for my new-found friends. Actually, other than my own luggage, I have become an international courier - or perhaps mule would be a better term - for transporting chocolate. Yes, chocolate. Indians have a fondness for chocolate that goes beyond rational comprehension.

In one grocery store, I saw an entire aisle dedicated to chocolate, and then a few feet further, an entire freezer display for the delectable delight. The freezer section, much to my amazement, contained exactly the same chocolates that were in the room-temperature shelf section.

I guess it would be fair to say that the Indian population seems to be in possession of a massive national sweet tooth. This is by no means a bad thing, provided that you can afford to brush and floss every day.

On my trip home, I had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences, and I have realised that the Indian people, just like all other ethnicities the world over, have their own set of idiosyncrasies and quirks that help to define them as a people.

The one that jumps out and grabs you by the sensibilities and leaves you with a distinct feeling of uncertainty regarding your ability to communicate clearly is their unique ability to move their heads from left to right, as if saying no when, in fact, they are agreeing with you or saying yes.

Although this has nothing to do with your ability to communicate or the clarity of your message, and goes against the norm of every other culture in the world, you are still left feeling somewhat inadequate after every exchange. This is one of those things that requires a bit of getting used to, because it leaves you in perpetual doubt and uncertainty after every conversation.

Culture clash

In the west, we signify yes with an up-and-down nod, and no with a side-to-side shake of the head. In India, the side-to-side shake of the head occurs whenever someone is agreeing with you, supporting you, saying yes or generally being amiable.

This tendency makes the average Indian engaged in a conversation look like a bobble-headed figure and leaves the Westerner at a loss as to what message was actually received by the Indian.

I have sat in meetings and looked at an entire roomful of men wobble their heads from side to side as they agree with their boss. This is totally unnerving.

My colleague Jeff Thibert and I have attempted to imitate this head wobble with abject failure. We have come to the conclusion that to pull it off successfully requires at the minimum Indian citizenship obtained by birth, not subsequent naturalisation.

I was not aware of the potential ramifications of this until one morning, I went down to the restaurant to get breakfast and the chef asked me if I wanted my usual scrambled eggs. I shook my head and said, "No, thank you, I am fine."

As usual, the head bob left me in doubt, so to make sure that he understood, I reaffirmed the no and shook my head in the North American way of indicating no: "No eggs."

With that being clearly settled, off I went along the buffet line to retrieve what I wanted. After getting it, I sat with my colleague and about five minutes later, the waiter appeared with a large smile ... and my scrambled eggs - the ones that I did not order.

After a minute of staring at the eggs and pondering what had gone wrong, we realised that my vehement headshake of no and saying I was fine was taken as an enthusiastic "Yes, eggs would be fine." And to that end, he had scrambled what looked like at least eight eggs with all the fixings. Not wanting to be rude, I had them packed up and I ate eggs for the rest of the day.

Another quirk is the Indian fixation with skin lightening and bleaching products. I am not sure how much of a quirk it really is because, ultimately, it's really no different than any number of countries in the world where people foolishly and ignorantly inculcate and perpetuate the mindset and behaviour that accords lighter-coloured people a higher social status.

India, however, is India, and in true Indian style, they bring it right out into the open. The Indian population, as I have already said, simply comes out and says what's on their mind. It is very common to see television advertisements for handsome lightening cremes for men, beautifying lightening lotions for women, and my favourite is the Dove advertisement for an underarm deodorant for women that provides the added benefit of lightening the armpits.

Needless to say, I had never really considered or paid attention to the skin tone of my armpits, or anyone else's for that matter, so I left my comfortable couch in front of the television and hightailed it to the bathroom to examine my armpits. I am pleased to report that the tone matches the rest of body.

In retrospect, when I look at Bollywood productions and the people and stars who have made it big in India, there is something to be said for having a lighter complexion. Maybe Michael Jackson was light years ahead of us all.

Another curious quirk that I have observed is that Indian truck drivers have a compulsive penchant to paint and decorate their trucks in the wildest array of colours imaginable. I think I can honestly say that if there was a testing ground for vehicle colouring, India would be it. There is simply no colour or combination of colours that is not visible on the roads.

They also hang decorative chains from their front bumpers and use coloured reflective tint - similar to that of Jamaican buses - in ways that most in the West have yet to discover. I shudder to think what an Indian version of Pimp My Ride would produce when the average trucker has decorative tastes reflective of what is pictured below.

Penchant for Signs

Indian truck drivers also have a strange need to tell you where the stop light on their vehicle is. They will place signs that say 'stop light' right under one of their brake lights. I still have not figured this one out yet, perhaps it's because only one brake light might be working at any given time, and they feel obligated to tell you which one it is. Who knows?

In addition to the aforementioned signage, many of the trucks loudly and proudly display a sign that says 'goods carrier' across the top of the driver's cab. This makes sense because many of these vehicles can often be seen packed not only with goods, but also with a goodly number of people squeezed in for good measure.

To their credit, Indian truck drivers are second to none when it comes to testing the ability of a truck to carry loads that are simply too large, and too much for the stated capacity, tonnage and vintage of the vehicles.

We in the West could learn a thing or two from them. If we could pack trucks and buses the way they do, we could probably take enough vehicles off the road to put an instant stop to global warming.

The bright and varied colours of the trucks, along with the ever-present 'goods carrier', 'Horn OK Please' and 'stop light' signage on the vehicles create a kaleidoscopic convoy along the roads and, undoubtedly, when you think you have seen it all, along comes another truck more garishly garnished than the last.

If I did not know better, I would say that the decorating of trucks is the Indian man's way of trying to compete with the bright and beautiful array of colours and patterns so clearly evident in the saris elegantly worn by the women as they go about their daily activities. The trucks and their owners are losing this one.

Yet another quirk that is clearly evident is the importance of titles. Hence, we have a junior assistant to the senior door opener and greeter at one of the restaurants we frequent.

This one is directly attributable to the legacy of the British and their overwrought sense of decorum, structure and titular importance.

In the same way that the British held titles and positions (meaningless or not) in high esteem - the royal family jumps to mind - the Indians still, with the stiff upper lip of British gentlemen, see titles as being very important to their status among their peers and colleagues.

Along with the use of titles is the ever-present 'sir' or ma'am'. Regardless of where one goes and what the circumstances are, the preferred way to address a person is sir or ma'am.

I have been able to see this at the hotel, in the workplace, at the grocery, and even at the bar, where the bouncers address people politely as sir before booting them out. I believe that this is again a holdover from the days of colonialism where the lowly Indian was required and expected to use sir or ma'am to address their colonial masters, anyone in authority or anyone with a title. Over the years, this has become ingrained and is now part of the culture.

Look for Part Three next week.

Luis Jimenez is a Trinidad-born Canadian who is currently on an extended work assignment in Pune, India.

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