Our ability to adapt other cuisines to our tastes: Hot and Sour Chinese soup has desi tadka. Sandwiches aren’t thinly sliced and lightly buttered slices of bread with slivers of cucumber. We add green chutney and sliced aloo and beetroot. We invented Chicken and Veg Manchurian, developed Udipi pizzas, concocted onion omelettes, created veg kheema, de-Japanesed Japanese food by cooking up gajjar-ka-sushi, and now are well on the way to Indianising the seafood diet of penguins in Antarctica just in case that becomes the hot new phoren cuisine of 2010.
Faith and spirituality: Tell someone you don’t believe in God. Go on. You’ll find yourself arguing so vehemently to make your case that you could well be accused of having a severe case of faith – faith in no God in this case. Because that’s what we do – believe. Hard. With passion. In anything we want to believe. Which is why practically every faith known to God is right here in India, and we’re not above inventing several more if we think we haven’t enough.
The way we are so flexible: Checked anyone’s filofax lately? Know anyone who has a filofax? We may set off in the morning expecting to follow a strict schedule of assignments and appointments, but we are always happy to chuck all our plans at a moment’s notice, particularly if the alternative involves partying.
Our many and varied stories: Our history goes back 5,000 years – and so do our epics that contain every emotion, possibility and philosophy that humans have ever managed to come up with. Not to mention a frightening amount of maths, if we’re considering the ages that make up the four yugas. Add to that the epics of Islam and Christianity, local folk traditions and tales that simply emerge from our fertile brains, and we’re wondering why our TV channels need to import bad reality shows from phoren and inflict them on us.
Chai: It’s raining. We need chai. It’s cold. We need chai. It’s hot and sweaty and miserable. We need chai. Yes chai, not tea. The over-boiled, over-milked and over-sweetened stuff that could rot our teeth and turn our insides into shoe leather, yet never fails to put life back into our tired frames. Then there’s also tea. Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, Kangra... Mmmm, the fragrance.
Monsoon mania: Who needs marijuana or Ecstasy? The monsoon is what we get high on. After a long summer spent gazing up at the sky through a magnifying glass looking for the merest hint of a cloud (and in imminent danger of setting our eyebrows on fire), we see the sky begin to darken, then the first drops of rain hit the earth, then we breathe deep and our nostrils fill with the delicious scent of wet earth... and then we complain bitterly about floods.
Weddings and family occasions: Our weddings are attended by family, relatives, friends, past and present neighbours, people who invited you to their or their siblings’ weddings, past and present colleagues, random strangers because we had 300 wedding cards extra and didn’t want to waste them, plus gatecrashers – a guestlist so long it rivals the population of the whole of Africa. If however, our homes are filled with the population of only one small country, like Bangladesh, we’re just having a family dinner.
Bollywood jhatkas: Hips swirl in one direction while the torso twists in another and the shoulders go somewhere else entirely even as the head moves so violently, it could spin off the neck entirely. We’d make excellent weather vanes, only no one would know where the wind was actually coming from.
Autos: Germany had its cute little Volkswagen Beetle, we have our cute little autos – three-wheelers packed with hi-tech music systems and disco lights that would put nightclubs to shame, which trundle up and down roads as their drivers overcharge everyone in sight, including themselves by mistake.
Bargaining: Worry about being cheated, who us? It’s the people we’re buying from who are tense. That’s because we don’t see bargaining only as a legitimate means of lowering prices. We see it as a sport. So we will not move an inch from the thelawalla even if the sun is blazing down at 53 degrees. We want that 30 paise off our kilo of apples and that is that.
Desi hospitality: Atithi devo bhava… and we will be devo-ed till our stomachs burst. (Perhaps because our hosts bargained so hard with the thelawalla that the apples were practically free?) When we step into anyone’s house we are fed, watered and pampered so much, we’d never believe there was a single nasty person on this planet. The only difficulty is getting away – if they could, our hosts would adopt us on the spot.
Tel maalish: Even as we read the stories by our lifestyle journalists on the joys of spa massages, we are getting our hair cut in full anticipation of the head massage that will follow. It’s hard to fathom why the phoren people get so excited about massages. Haven’t we been tel-maalished from the second we were born?
We’re child-friendly: Aside from the fact that we love children so much that we’re soon going to produce enough to populate the entire world, everything in our lives is geared towards their happiness. So much so that our parents never want us to leave home.
So many newspapers and magazines: Whatever the rest of the world may think about reading, we have so much respect for knowledge that many of us literally worship our books (i.e., take them to temples to be blessed, instead of actually opening them). This may explain why new newspapers and magazines are constantly being launched even as marketing people complain that nobody reads any more.
We survived the recession: That’s because even though we are clambering up the conspicuous consumption ladder just like those phoren people who drove their economies to the brink of extinction, unlike them we have a culture of caution and saving that pulled us through when entire countries had to declare bankruptcy. That’s why. Our stash of black money certainly had nothing to do with it.
We’re a democracy, thank God!: You say, I say, she says… we all can say. And many of us do say – very, very loudly. Ideas and arguments are alive and though some of us (call them Party A) feel a great desire to clonk some others (call them Party B) over the head for having foolish opinions, we’re lucky because still others (call them Party C) are just as thrilled by the idea of clonking some of us (Party A) over the head for their ideas, as meanwhile, Party D lurks about, thinking hard thoughts about Party C. So a balance is maintained at all times.
We’re miserly and extravagant at the same time: We spend approximately the amount required for a new house on a new handbag, but we turn purple with rage and start throwing things about (though not our new handbag) when the auto driver suggests Rs. 25 as a fair fare.
Raddiwalas: When those phoren people start making noises about our carbon credits – ours, for heaven’s sake, when we are the most frugal people on this planet always trying to save 10 paise here and 20 paise there, never mind that there are actually no coins in those denominations any more – we can tell them that we are green without even trying because ours is a country where recycling has always been a business, thanks to the raddiwalla.
Jugaad: Nothing in India need only be what it was originally meant to be. A motorcycle can be attached to a cart and become a bael-gaadi, a tangle of wires could become a satellite dish, and when prissy parents refuse to serve alcohol at weddings, the boot of a car is a bar.
The sheer number of holidays: There’s a New Year’s Day practically every month, not to mention some festival or the other courtesy one community or the other. And if we don’t take the holiday, we are nasty exclusionists who do not believe in unity in diversity. So there is a minimum of three holidays every month not counting weekends and if we live in Kolkata, we also have bandhs.
Our values are still (mostly) intact: Family – check (see the millions who turn up for our weddings). Friends – check (see movies like 3 Idiots). Frugality – check (ask the thelawalla if you need proof). Hospitality – check (look at the size of our stomachs and we haven’t been home for weeks). Modesty – uh oh. What’s that we keep telling ourselves about Asian tigers?
Our patriotic songs: They can be truly heart-rending. Just the first few bars of Saare Jahaan Se Achcha can make us weep – and not only because our neighbour sings it so badly that we’re convinced she’s a Pakistani terrorist. And they are also so rousing that it takes just one hearing of Hum Hindustani to make us grab anything at home that might serve as a weapon and queue up at the Defence HQ, ready to sign up for the Army.
Amazing diversity of food taboos: We have vegetarians who won’t touch anything that once had the potential to move (though we don’t understand this too well – don’t palak leaves flutter in the breeze?), we have vegetarians who will eat all vegetables but won’t touch garlic or onion, we have eggetarians who will only eat vegetables and eggs, we have chickenatarians who only eat vegetables and chicken but not eggs, we have fishitarians who will not touch dairy with a bargepole and non-vegetarians who think green veggies are a form of mould. We have so many people with so many dietary problems that it’s a wonder we get to eat anything at all.
Amazing diversity of food: Food taboos, shood taboos! When we set off for school or the office clutching our tiffin boxes, we know very well we’re not going to eat anything that’s in them. Because the second it’s time for lunch, tiffins are exchanged for what our classmates or colleagues have brought. Which is why, in one day, we could find we have eaten anything from akoori (Parsi) to aloo poshto (Bengal), to sai bhaji (Sindh), to bisi bele bhaath (Karnataka), to aloo-bhaji (UP), to tandoori chicken (Punjabi), to biryani (Muslim) to de-Japanesed Japanese like gajjar-ka-sushi (wholly Indian, mera Bharat mahaan).
Amazing diversity of us!: For a people who have so much in common, we come from a wide variety of races. Across the world, we are mistaken for Chinese (anyone from the North-East), Caucasian (Parsis and Sindhis), Italian and Spanish (Goan people, especially with curly hair)... You name it, we’ve got the gene.
Amazing belief that anything worthwhile could have originated only in india: We don’t care what anyone says about Africa being the cradle of civilisation, we know for a fact that we invented everything in the world – including the world’s genes, so there! We’re responsible for shampoo (champi), bungalow (bangla), thug (thugee), chicken tikka masala... Err... Well, we’re responsible for the chicken tikka and the masala and since the combination is so ghastly, we’re fine if the Brits take the credit for that.
We’re a nation of ideas: Tired of the sheer boringness of branded shoes? Someone will paint your keds for you. Want a poem for a loved one but can’t rhyme anything but moon and loon? Call the poet-for-hire. Ordered 3,00,000 wedding cards and find you actually know only 2,50,000 potential invitees for the wedding (oh, the shame of it)? Call the rent-a-baraati company in Ambala. We are short of many things in our lives, but we’ll never run out of ideas.
Our wealth of healing plants: If there’s one tree we cannot do without, it’s neem – and it’s here. It takes care of almost every ailment known to human and animal kind – and it gets rid of pests. Then there’s haldi, there’s cloves, we even have soap growing on trees, there are a host of plants that are ours – and if phoren people use their convoluted legal language to patent these and take them away from us, we’re going to sing Hum Hindustani, pick up our frying pans and clonk them over their heads.
Singing: What do you get when two of us, even if we’re perfect strangers or deadly enemies, are hanging around with nothing to do? A sing-song, that’s what. Because we luuurrrve singing. We sing everywhere and anywhere, we have contests for bathroom singers and enormous national-level singing contests called antakshari – whether we can actually sing or not.
Indian English: So here we are, writing in the phoren language our one-time colonisers bequeathed to us, and here you are, reading it. But let’s not get all chauvinistic about this. Because just as we have de-Japanesed Japanese food and come up with gajjar-ka-sushi, we have de-Englished the English language and now only speak Indian. Indian is only superficially English. That’s because we translate phrases directly from our local languages into Indian so it’s no wonder that at times we feel there’s someone eating our heads. And if we’re in too much of a hurry to translate anything, we just bung in words from all over the place, so there are five separate languages in a single sentence. And come to think of it, do we really need that poet-for-hire? Don’t we rhyme-shyme everything in sight-shight all the time-shime?
Yoga: While the phoren people are doing horrible things to their abs with sit-ups and crunches, we are standing on one hand with one leg wrapped around our heads, experiencing an inner, spiritual glow, because – aha! Yoga isn’t just a workout for the body, it’s also a workout for the mind and soul.
We’re a hardworking bunch: (Except at our government offices.) Out there in the West, everything shuts at 7 pm, so if you need bread or a life, you have to go to an Indian shop. Here, you lose your key at 2 am and the chabiwalla is by your side at 2.03 am.
Mahatma Gandhi: One frail old man took on an entire imperial empire. And he did it in such an inspired manner – non-violent non-cooperation, brilliant! – that we’re still seen as the most moral country on the planet.
Thelawallas selling cut cucumber, peanuts, chuski, bhel etc: Because as we all know, food provides fuel and without fuel we can’t function, so never mind the tiffin boxes from home, if we don’t have a small snack every 20 minutes or so, we will simply collapse in a heap.
Mangoes: Mumbaikars will kill for Alphonso. Northerners swear by Dussheri and Langda. The ones down Vindhya way will die for Begum Palli. Goans will eat any mangoes that ripen in their backyards. There are also Rajapuri, Kesar and a hundred other varieties of this best of our summer fruits. If, after all that, you don’t like mangoes, we might consider you anti-national.
Indian stretchable time: What time do we need to report for work? 9.30 am? Ah, that explains why we phone the trade union when we arrive at the office at 1.30 pm and learn we’ve been docked half a day’s pay. Indian Stretchable Time is in a zone of its own – and no one can understand it but Indians.
Our child-like enthusiasm: The Nano finally hits the roads? You can be sure that everyone on the road – including the world-traveller in his BMW will be tailing the Nano, just to look at it. We win the T-20 World Cup? Everyone will abandon work to line the streets to look at the team – everyone including the bosses.
Drinking water: Everywhere else in the world, we’ve got to pay roughly the sum of a two-bedroom flat in Mumbai for a bottle of water, but in Indian restaurants, waiters will swoop down on you and refill your glass even if you take so much as a sip.
Domestic help: By which we mean servants. One to cook the food. One to wash the dishes. One to sweep and swab the floor. One to dust. One to wash the clothes. One to clean the toilet. One to make chappatis. One to watch each baby. One to man the gate and run the errands. One driver per car. One to wash the cars. One to cut vegetables. One to massage the baby. One to water the plants. Why do we have so many? Since we obviously can’t complain about household chores, we’ve got to complain about something, no?
Indian Railways: From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Jhansi to Jhumritalaya, there are only a few places in the country we can’t reach by train. And while the journey is not always what we might call comfortable, we can’t deny that it presents us with a magnificent tableau of everything that makes India India.
The way mobiles have taken over everything: Need veggies? Phone the veggie man. Burning desire for panipuri? Phone the chaatwalla. Practically no one in the country doesn’t have a mobile phone any more – even the beggars on the streets (and we do want to know how their phones are so much fancier than ours).
Superb scenery: We’ve got ice deserts in Ladakh and actual deserts in Rajasthan. We’ve got the Himalayas – the highest mountains in the world! We have the Ghats on either side of our peninsula, islands, stunning beaches, the seas, the lakes, the jungles, the wildlife, the rivers, the waterfalls… we’ve got the whole planet, right here. Who needs a passport, for heaven’s sake? (Though, because it says Republic of India, we’re very proud of ours.)
BPO power: We are not concerned ourselves about minor things like getting to work on time, but if people around the world need traffic movements for their commutes, they have to phone us. We’ve become so good at fixing their things from a distance, doing their homework from a distance and even reminding them about their anniversaries from a distance, we’re wondering how the world turns without us.
The riot of activity in every household every morning: It’s chaos till 11 am – even if there are only two people in the house. People being dragged out of bed, people queuing for the loo, people rushing about looking for shoes, people eating breakfast on the run, the domestic help switching off fans and sweeping us literally off our feet – you’d imagine no one had ever woken up in the morning before.
Nothing is beyond repair: When your computer man tells you that your machine has died, call the raddiwalla – if he can’t tell you how to fix it, he’ll certainly show you how to convert it to another purpose altogether. This is India. Nothing is ever so broken that it’ll never work again.
The way we have a name for every single person we may be even remotely related to: Ma, baap, dada, dadi, nana, nani, taya, tayi, chacha, chachi, bua, phupha, mama, mami, beta, beti, potaa, naati, poti, naatin, behan, jija, bhanja, bhanji, bhai, bhabhi, bhatija, bhatiji, pati, patni, saas, sasur, damaad, bahu, jeth, jethani, nanad, nandoii, devar, devarani, saali, salaa, samdhan… And that’s only in Hindi. Need we say more?
Indian movies: Bollywood, Tollywood, Mollywood, any wood – but the films that we make are definitely not Hollywood. Our films are our films – wherever in the country they’re made, in whatever language, there will be laughter, tears, songs, dances, action, family values, principles (and even principals) – all in three hours. Talk about paisa vasool.
The way we force MNCs to Indianise: McDonald’s had to invent the McAloo Tikki, the Paneer Wrap and the chicken burger. Pepsi came up with Masala Lays. Coke never used celebrities in their ads abroad till they came here. Whatever the MNCs are famous for in phoren, when they’re here, they’ve got be us.
Our need for heroes: We love people who achieve things – even if what they achieve is notoriety. Hey, as all PR people know, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Galli sports: Sports arenas, sphrorts arenas, who needs them when we have gallis, bits of crate and an aged tennis ball? While we hate it that our kids have little opportunity for organised sport, our kids calmly play on the streets – and then walk straight into international arenas.
Every occasion is a celebration: Complete with cards, clothing, eating out opportunities, gifting options, holiday options – nothing is safe from this relentless need to party – including this. Happy Republic Day!
Mukhwaas: You wouldn’t notice it in public, given how we have to skip lightly from garbage heap to garbage heap, but we like everything about us to be fresh. Which is why we’re such big fans of supari. We can’t avoid body odour, but we can eliminate bad breath.
Pet names: In Bangkok, Tuk-Tuk is an autorickshaw. In Bengal, it is the name of a person. Or in Punjab, we could be called Sweety, Cutey, Happy, Jolly, Pinky or Frooti (just add Sneezy or Dopey and we’ve got the seven dwarves). Our parents take great pains to name us in such a way that we are ensured safe and happy lives – and the second our names are registered, they call us Goldie or Pappu.
We can stay with our parents for life: Indian parents never, ever want their kids to leave home. So it doesn’t matter how old we are, we are at liberty to sail through the door at all hours every night, expect to be served, have our chores taken care of, pay almost no bills, and enjoy all the comforts of home. Because Indian parents never, ever want their kids to grow up.
Saris: What’s sexy, modest, graceful, classic, cool, hot, well-ventilated and gorgeous all at the same time? One word: the sari.
The Republic Day parade: It is the biggest national PR exercise ever, but we either long to be there or tune in on TV to see everything that makes our Bharat mahaan – our Armed forces, the different cultures of all our states, even cultural events that normally have us running screaming into the nearest cinema for a pop-culture fix. And at the end, we sing the national anthem and burst into tears.
The tiger and the peacock: And the lion and the crocodile and the Ganges dolphin and the elephant and the rhino and the hornbill and every single creature of the natural world that makes our country so special.
Paanwallas: Because it doesn’t matter what household need we run out of and when – need a toothbrush at 3 am? Go to the paanwalla.
Our wacky record holders: We aim to have the longest hair, be the person who wrote the most letters to the editor, the man who can take the most kicks in the crotch (really). We are determined to be the first at anything wacko – and if we can’t achieve that, we are the nation that tried its hardest to be No. 1 in the Guinness Book of Records.
Just because: We don’t need 60 reasons to love India. We just need one. It’s home. It’s saare jahaan se achcha.