Friday, June 1, 2012

lessons from India

I'm savoring a little quiet time now, to finally write after the many thoughts and emotions are now settling down, like residual tea leaves on the bottom of a teacup.  I thought I'd list some of my observations about this new place that I've learned about...

Lesson #1: Personal space does not exist. And it's nothing personal.

We arrived in Mumbai, India late in the evening of May 5th. We took a car to the hotel we had booked for a little respite (and much-needed shower) so that we could feel a bit more refreshed before our next flight early the next morning. After having experienced  the relatively more orderly roads and highways in the US, driving in India to me felt like absolute mayhem. I thought I wouldn't be surprised by it given the traffic conditions I was used to growing up in Manila. But this was an entirely different beast. Given my anxious tendencies, I don't think I would have it in me to drive here. I don't think the video below fully captures it (this was not in Mumbai but in a smaller city) but you'll hear lots of honking. I think this shows the traffic conditions on a good (unusual) day. I wish I took a video in Mumbai... but I was so overwhelmed coming out of the airport after a long-haul flight.

But somehow, it works. Even if only a mosquito could fit between your car and the pedestrian, or the rickshaw, or motorcycle, or the other car. Somehow, people get to where they need to be. It means though that you hear someone honking his horn probably every 1.32 seconds. Which is why this truck - like many I saw on the road - has a sign that reads "BLOW HORN" - to let them know you are near.

Also, when lining up for anything (e.g. security checks at the airport) you are left with very little space between your backside and the person behind you. But again - somehow, it just works.

Lesson #2: Everything starts with a cup of tea.

Chai, as they call it. Not "chai tea," by the way because chai = tea. (One of the things A. explained to me years ago, in my first immersion into Indian culture when I met - and made friends with - Indians at U.C.)

The day starts with chai in the morning. And again in the afternoon. And maybe even sometime before or after dinner. And if a guest drops by, that warrants another cup. Indians can have chai even on the hottest summer day.

Oh, and it's not in supersized cups mugs bowls as we have gotten used to in coffee shops around here. They are in small, demitasse-size cups, like the one above.

Even when we shopped for saris, the shopkeeper offered us some chai.

My mother-in-law makes chai with black tea, fresh milk (delivered every morning!), sugar, and a little grated ginger.

Lesson #3: The many ways to make Indian bread, given an addition of an ingredient or two and a change in the rolling technique or cooking method.

Roti. Naan. Paratha. Puri.

roti dough resting before being rolled out

If it's cooked over the stove - dry - then it's roti.

roti cooked in a tawa (flat pan)

They also put the roti directly over the fire so that it gets nice deep brown marks. Then it puffs up and then flattens again.

If it's rolled with ghee (clarified butter), folded, then rolled again (usually into a triangle shape, but they also make other interesting shapes like spiral ones), and then cooked over the stove with ghee - then it's paratha. Paratha can also be stuffed with a variety of ingredients like spiced potatoes, paneer (homemade cheese), or methi (fenugreek). Plain parathas with sauteed vegetables is the typical breakfast.


(Oh, and when I offered my first paratha to my father-in-law, he gave me 100 rupees as a little gift, as is their tradition. :) )

If it's deep fried, then it's puri.

If it's cooked in a clay oven, it's naan. And most interesting of all:

If it's mixed with ghee, shaped into a mound (instead of rolled flat), cooked in boiling water and then cooked on the ambers of dried cow dung, it's called bafla.

bafla, in the center of the plate

Lesson #4: Rolling round rotis

This requires an artful technique of being able to respond to the dough with just the right touch, pressure, and weight on the rolling pin. Knowing what side of the rolling pin on which to put more weight - ever so slightly - so that the dough, slowly becoming flatter and thinner, almost moves in a circle as you roll.

 Mine would never come out perfectly round, but my mother-in-law's and sister-in-law's rotis always do (as you can see above). Then again, they do make this every single day.

Lesson #5: Slow food.

It seemed like there was something going on in the kitchen ALL the time. Everything was made from scratch. Without a recipe, just by feel.

My mother-in-law takes the cream that settles on the top of the container of fresh milk that they get delivered every morning. She collects the cream for 14 days until she has enough, then she makes butter out of it. Then she clarifies it to make ghee. I wasn't there long enough to see the process happen... maybe next time.

They also make their own chutneys, crunchy snacks for the kids, fruit drinks, addition to 3 meals and a tea time snack.

Lesson #6: Seeing my husband play with his niece and nephew, and hearing him change his voice to a child-like voice to talk to them - it makes my heart skip a beat.

Not that I was all that surprised.

(This is not the sweetest photo I have of A. playing with his nephew and niece, but he's a bit iffy about having his pictures posted here - unless it's a not-so-in-your-face angle like this one)

Lesson #7: Quote from A.: "Indians live for 3 things. Weddings, Bollywood, and cricket."

Our wedding #3 was an amazing experience. There were 700 people! Which, believe it or not, is small by Indian standards; A.'s older brother had over 2,000 people.

No, that is not a Bollywood set or concert stage that we happened to stumble upon and re-purpose for our wedding. It's an actual "wedding stage" - in which the couple greets the 700 (or 3,000, as the case may be) guests who come up to the stage to extend their wishes and offer presents.

And - the brighter the better. The more colorful, the better. 

Lesson #8: Bring on the bling.

Married women have to have a number of things on them to signify that they are married. The bhindi (on the forehead), the bangles on both arms, the mangal sutra (necklace with black beads), paayal (ankle bracelets) and the toe rings. Whew! Quite a departure from my usual minimal accessorizing.

Not just for a wedding...

thank goodness these are not real diamonds

 But even on a regular day.

glass bangles

Lesson #9: Learning Hindi

Hindi is a pretty complex language to me. Like French and Spanish, a "gender" is assigned to things and that changes how the word is spoken/written. Also, names for respect (Chachi/Chacha for aunt and uncle, respectively) are different depending on whether they are from your mother's side of the family or your father's side of the family.  If they are from the father's side, then they are "Kaki/Kaka." And the "Chachi" is spoken after the name. Unlike in English, in which I would be "Aunt Mia", or in Filipino "Tita Mia" - in India, I am "Mia Chachi".

I did well with food names though. Those were easy for me to learn, as I had known them since I started eating out at Indian restaurants in the US, and cooking Indian food at home with A.

Also, the sounds are so different. Some sounds are very nasal in nature, some come from touching the tongue to your upper palate a certain way, some require letting out an almost-exhale, for example when an /h/ follows a consonant. I'm not doing the best job at explaining this. But my sister-in-law, who I call Bhabi (respect for older sister), gets amused at how I attempt to make these sounds. She studied linguistics though, so she was an excellent teacher. Oh, and "Bhabi" is an example - the /bh/ sound is not like a regular /b/. You also somehow pronounce the /h/ next to it, in a subtle way.

And the word kadhi, for example, which is a yogurt-based dish that I like. I can't ever say it right. The /dh/ sound seems to be a pretty common one in their language, so it's a sound I've been practicing even before going to India - much to A.'s amusement. It's the one where you roll your tongue gently against your upper palate.

I think I did an ok job learning Hindi, for a visit that was under 2 weeks. Talking to the kids helped. I brought some (English) picture books for them, and I learned some animal names as a result of listening to them label the pictures in Hindi.

I love it when A.'s 2-year-old nephew warmed up to me and started talking to me like we were having an actual conversation. "Mia-Chachi, Mia-Chachi!!! ..........................(insert a whole string of words I can't understand).............hai na? (isn't it?) -- to which I would say, "accha" (ok) or "ha" (yes). He would tell me whole stories like this, in the cutest little voice ever.

The problem is, the early childhood educator in me would come out and feel regret about not being able to facilitate conversation, expand on his developing language, etc etc etc... Oh well.

Oh, wait - I'm the one trying to develop language here.

I need to start practicing those sounds more. A little trivia: we are actually born with the potential in our brains to make all these sounds; it's just that we only make the synaptic connections to make the sounds we hear in our native language. Which is why children can learn 2 languages simultaneously - because their brains are getting wired early on to be able to recognize the nuances of sounds in different languages and make the sounds to form words and eventually sentences. The infant brain is an amazing, amazing thing. I hope our future children learn all 3 languages (English, Filipino, Hindi).

After 33 years, I hope I can make more synaptic connections...

Lesson #10: Quote from Dadi, A's grandmother: "A human being is a human being."

I feel so incredibly grateful for being warmly accepted by his family, despite the fact that I am the first foreign person in not just his immediate family, but extended family as well.

What Dadi said above (which she of course spoke in Hindi, and A. translated), is something she told him long ago when he first told her about me - a non-Indian of a different culture, religion, and language.

I remember crying upon hearing this, touched by what she said.

Prior to meeting Dadi in person, I actually met her on a Skype video call - in which she blew me a kiss. So sweet.

During my visit, she talked to me in Hindi all the time, and I could only nod, smile, and say "ha" (yes) or "accha" (ok). I think she was giving me advice. All I know for sure is that it was said in a kind, loving voice, as she always touched my cheek or gently or gave me a sincere squeeze with each hug.

Here she is with my Mom...

A petite powerhouse, just like my Mom, wouldn't you think?

More details on the food and wedding #3 next time!

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krishwala said...

very well said. I completely agree about the chai tea saying. It is one of my pet peeves when someone says chai tea. Glad you clarified.

Mia said...

I know! Seeing "chai tea" or "chai tea latte" in coffee shops or tea shops has become one of my pet peeves now too ;-)

I hope I represented the food/culture accurately :)

Sharon Tessandori said...

love love love love love...
more more more more. ;)

Dianne Khu said...

oh i love this post! i would love to visit india myself... happy for you.

Mia said...

Dianne, you should go! We didn't do much touring, but my parents did (Mumbai, New Delhi, Agra/Taj Mahal) and they really enjoyed it.

But just FYI - don't do what we did and go there in May. It was really hot! October through March is the best time.

cyberlaundry said...

This was such a fun, witty, awww post! Love and food. Food and love. You're so Mia. Because you're Mia! I'm so glad you had fun! More more more!

DebraLynn said...

Such a lovely treat to read. I especially liked your heart skipping a beat at the image of Amit with children....Mine almost did, too. His is such a gentle soul. I loved the photos, especially the sari drooping the ground, and the jewels. I love the details about the bread and how you make ghee. And if I weren't macro, I'd go make some of that ginger cream tea, now! I also liked the things indians like and my favorite: A human being is a human being. You are blessed, and a blessing. PS My son's best friend is Indian. I know some about the culture. It's lovely to get an even deeper view. Love to you.

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