As I speak with Indians and spend more time in their country, I start to get under the skin of their way of life and increasingly appreciate the positives.
Three of us ate in the famous Connaught Place in Delhi last Wednesday. Paul – also from England – had to take a phone call with an American client. So I was left with half-an-hour to speak with Alok, a quiet, sincere young man who was Paul’s Indian colleague and our driver for the evening.
Alok explained that we were in the same restaurant where he had first met his wife. This was not a case of their eyes meeting across a crowded meal table, nor had Alok asked her on a date. He had been spared that teenage trauma. Rather, their parents knew each other and had arranged this first meeting – step one towards an arranged marriage. They met several more times over a 3 or 4 month period, before confirming their parents’ choice.
They could have decided not to marry each other, in which case another arrangement would have been found. But they went ahead and now they had two young sons. They live, as is the custom, with Alok’s parents in their house in the suburbs of Delhi. The grandparents look after the children whilst Alok and his wife commute daily into the city Delhi.
I tried to probe the pros and cons of this set up, diplomatically. Did he and his wife make all the decisions about the children? Yes they did, although they would consult his parents as they were older and wiser. He found that his children sometimes preferred to spend time with their grandparents even when Alok and his wife were home. This was becoming a bit of a problem. This domestic arrangement would continue until the parents passed away. Whilst the wife could theoretically be some distance from her own parents, with an arranged marriage between families who probably lived in the same city, this was less likely. All in all a seemingly successful arrangement.
I contrasted with how marriage worked in the UK. How married couples so often lose daily contact with our parents, sisters and brothers – especially if we met someone who lived far away, like I did. This is the risk of leaving marriage to the vagaries of love and location.
Food and the non-Vegetarian
The starters arrived – a delicious platter of Indian flavours and textures. We tucked in without waiting for Paul to finish his call – it was too tempting. Alok is a vegetarian, along with half of India – mainly for religious reasons. In most cases they eat no meat or fish and many eat no eggs. Protein is derived frequently from lentils, paneer or nuts and menus are at least half vegetarian. Alok looked very well and healthy. Vegetarianism is a far more cost-effective way to feed a population, and, of course, eliminates the need to kill living creatures, humanely or otherwise. Every menu had at least half its dishes as vegetarian. I smiled as I recalled taking my sister out for dinner at our local pub in England, where only one dish among several dozen was vegetarian. In fact, in India, they don’t talk about vegetarians, they talk about non-vegetarians, as if they are the exception. I liked that. Paul returned and we tucked into our chicken and fish main courses.
Feet, Souls and Serenity
On the Tuesday we visited the huge Akshardham Hindu Temple just outside Delhi. I am a Christian not a Hindu – so did not enter into the the religious symbolism or intent. But there were many positives in the experience for me. Two things struck me right away.
Firstly we were not allowed to take our cameras or phones inside the grounds. Once I got over my initial reaction of annoyance and loss, I found this liberating beyond belief. Visit any major tourist attraction or any great sporting event today – and people are so busy digitalising it that they don’t really see it – never mind feel, smell, taste or touch it. We can be more concerned about recording or ticking off the ‘experience’ that entering into it. More concerned about taking the perfect shot or texting our friends than enjoying the deeper meaning, symbolism, history or significance.
None of that here – we actually looked, touched and appreciated the art and architecture without the aid of small electronic devices. And we talked to each other about it, in a rash display of inter-personal communication.
The sculptured elephants were magnificent. You will have to take my word for it. And no photograph would have been big enough anyway.
Secondly we were asked to take off our shoes before walking in. Again this has no religious significance for me – but the feel of warm marble under my soles was strangely soothing. It put us all into personal and sensual contact with the earth beneath us, so that we literally felt the experience. It reminded me of the most ecstatic feeling of walking on wet sand at the edge of the sea on a late summer’s evening. The calming sensation rose by capillary action up through my body and into my mind and feelings. From the soles of my feet to the soul of my being.
In a mysterous way it also connected us together. It brought us down to the same primitive earth – no heels or thick souls to boost our own exaltation. And we were all in direct fleshy contact with the same piece of ground, like children holding hands with the same mother.
At the end of the walk around the temple; we sat and rested with hundreds of others to watch a fabulous ballet of fountains, illuminated with rainbow colours, dancing to soothing eastern music. The display told the story of conception, birth, life, marriage and death.
So here are some of the values of Indian society – arranged marriage, the extended family, vegetarianism, art and architecture and a dispensation, at least for a while, with material trappings. Bare feet on a bare earth.
These values and ways of life carry them through endless cycles of conception to death, persisting through the generations. They bring stability, calm and certainty in their over-crowded, noisy, uncertain world, where so many are simply trying to make ends meet. In our richer, more materialistic western world, we are poorer than they are in so many ways.