Category Archives: India

India: A Reading List


A lot of the time, I prefer the company of books to that of real people. I’m not ashamed to admit it because I know I’m not the only one.

I especially like reading books about the places that I am in – its fun to see stuff that you read about in the book, or to have things that you did not understand explained to you by your friendly, non judgemental author.

Here are my favourite books about India:

1. Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)

I ‘discovered’  this guy by accident last year (in the way you discover someone who has a Fatwa on him, has won the Booker Prize at least once, been knighted by the Queen and generally stays in the limelight by trying to go visit Pakistan and India every couple of years.)

Salman is not the easiest author to read, and he has a tendency to  go off on a tangent that shows his absolute mastery of the English language but also leaves the reader hopelessly confused. But Midnight’s Children, I think, is one of his easiest books to read. (It’s also the one that won him the Booker Prize.)

It tells the story of India from Independence, covering India’s most important events after the British left.(But with a LOT of poetic licence.) Apart from vivid descriptions of Mumbai and Amritsar, the book gives a general understanding of India’s thorny issues (Looking at you, Pakistan…) This is how I learnt that Indira Ghandi is not related to Mahatma Ghandi decades after the rest of the world. And also why she was assassinated by her body guards.

He kept me laughing out loud through out the book by mercilessly poking fun at Indian cultural quirks and oddities.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure that ‘Heroes’ ripped off on his plot and characters.

2. Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts)

Lots of Westerners go to India to ‘find‘ themselves. Some of them end up writing nauseating, self indulgent books that are then adapted into embarrassingly clichéd movies.

Not Greg. He lands in Mumbai on a fake passport after breaking out of an Australian jail. When his money runs out and his visa expires, he moves into the slum with his Indian friends. Life happens to him and he finds himself working for the Mumbai Mafia, after almost dying in an Indian jail.

As a wanted man, Greg doesn’t have the time or the luxury to be condescending towards India.  You don’t get that weird attitude that spoils many books about the developing world by Westerners who have decided to settle there.

(Binyavanga explains this kind of rubbish very well here and  an Indian guy vents here.  Also this insane woman’s story.)

He is busy navigating the Indian underworld, and his book is full of interesting characters that smash the stereotype of Indians as peace loving zen masters who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Despite too many annoying bits of wisdom and pseudo-philosophy to justify his bad life decisions, I thought this book was a really clear view of Indian culture, language and society.

3. The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)

This one also won a Booker Prize. It’s based in Kerela, a state in the South of India.  It follows two kids growing up in the 1960s, their terrifyingly dysfunctional family and how rapidly their lives completely go to shit.

This book is pretty heavy – its set in the 1960s, and she really goes into how messed up and nasty the caste system was. It also deals with ‘inappropriate’ love. I was pretty depressed by the end of the book.

Apart from that, it was the first, and only book I have read that describes south Indian history, culture and politics. (Kerela has a communist government.)

4. The Liquid Refuses to Ignite (Dave Besseling)

Dave thought he wrote a book about spiritual enlightenment, but it’s really just a log of his life as a long-term traveller. (Yes, that’s a thing and I met one in real life too!)

He writes about sniffing coke in Japan, getting trashed in Budapest, bar hopping in Thailand (complete with a ladyboy story) and supposedly finding spiritual enlightenment and food poisoning in Varanasi, before supposedly having a life shattering epiphany in Kathmandu/Nepal.

It’s a terrible book, full of fake philosophy and a disappointing ‘climax’. But I included it in my list because his booze soaked journey appeals to the drunk in me, and it has one chapter about Indian ball scratching styles that had me weeping with laughter.

So there you have it. Nothing too strenuous on the mind. Any suggestions?

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India, I will be back!


I only have a few days left in India and I honestly do not want to go back home. Things were rough at some point, but every day had at least one moment when I would be like,

Wow, only in India!

Here is a random list of things I will not forget about in a hurry:

1. Indians and their theories: It’s not that I have been discriminated against. It’s just that these guys have the guts to say things that the rest of the world considers politically incorrect.

For example, there is this belief that the ‘real’ Indians come from the South. And the guys in the North are not real Indians because they are descendants of Alexander. From what I know, he did pass through India. But the superiority that the Northerners derive from this knowledge is what irks me just a little bit.

Then there is the obsession with skin color. The shops are packed with skin lightening creams, for both men and women. In fact, the ads and the labeling are pretty straightforward. It’s called whitening cream.

2. Indians and Hitler: Closely related to the above. You can buy a copy of Mein Kampf in waaay too many places. And a few too many street vendors stock tattered copies. And talk for just a bit too long about how he was a great leader.

3. Nightlife: I finally discovered Chandigarh’s nightlife. A well kept secret. Also, a gigantic sausage fest. They tried everything – free drinks for girls on Wednesdays. Couples only entry even into pubs. But good Punjabi girls have to be home before 10.00pm (even if they don’t live with their parents) so yeah, cheap Vodka cocktails and drunk, awkward Indian boys on the dance floor.

4. English is a fluid concept: I assumed that Indians are pretty good at English, based on their 200 years under British rule. I was wrong. So, in India you can have scrumbled eggs for breakfast, veg macheronni for lunch and you get warnings like these:

there are worse things that can happen to you than dying. [picture of broken arm]…Drive carefully!

I think that word play was totally lost on me.

5. The staring: This one deserves a post all on its own. Before I came to India, I asked one Miss Bree how she was finding life here. She said,

‘Everything is fine, except for all the stupid staring.’

I thought, yeah, whatever, how bad can it be? Well it seems that not being the right shade of brown in this country draws a lot of attention. I’ve had parents prod their children so that they can see the human anomaly walking in their midst. I’ve had groups of friends nudging each other and laughing at my freakish appearance. And families coming up to touch my strange hair and marvel at my bizarre countenance.

I’ve had so many pictures taken of me, with or without my permission, and been manipulated into impromptu photoshoots with every single member of the family. [I just hope none of them turn up on a weird Indo-African website somewhere on the internet..]

And no, this was not in a remote village without television and contact with the outside world.

I had many doubts about coming here and spending a precious (and now too short) four months of my life, working for some unknown start-up, instead of supposedly establishing myself in the grown up world.

So, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ in India? I don’t think so.

Still,  I’m glad I came. Yes, I learnt some yoga. And yes, I worked for an IT company. No, I did not get Delhi belly, and no, I did not find any spiritual enlightenment. And I might even have a little bit of an American accent by now. (Don’t ask why)

All I can say is that I loved every moment of my stay: short enough to be sweet but not long enough to become exhausting.

I will be back!!

Real India? No thanks, could I have mine airbrushed and airconditioned please?


The search for ‘Real India’ usually comes up when tourists and visitors see something that does not match their Googled images of India. Like tall buildings. And large stretches of smooth road with no traffic.

At this point, person A usually says something like,

‘This is not the image of India I expected. Let’s get away from the commercial areas, I want to see the real thing.’

Which, of course, is claustrophobic streets reeking of urine, dirty kids begging for money, cows  weaving in and out of traffic and lively market scenes that will later be Photoshopped into artistic black and white pictures that supposedly capture the beauty of Incredible India.

And then everyone goes home happy that they experienced the Real India, not like those fake ass tourists who lounge about in air conditioned coffee shops to complain about not being able to wear tiny shorts in public.

hey! let's travel  like the natives do!
hey! let’s travel like the natives do!

 

But even getting followed by drunk men in small towns, sampling whatever the locals eat at roadside restaurants with questionable hygiene and traveling in rickety, old buses is still not real India. That’s called budget traveling.

‘Real’ anything happens to you when you have to take on the systems of the country: It could be going to a hospital in the middle of nowhere, or having to file a report at the police station. (None of which have happened to me yet, touch wood)

Or it could be being given two days notice to find another place to live due to ‘cultural differences’ with your housemates. It could be having to negotiate with people so that you can keep your job after getting into a massive amount of shit.

Real India is when you start to realize that cultural differences are not ha ha, these people all use bidetsbut are more like,

Oh shit, I’m in trouble because I broke rules I never knew existed and how do I get these people to understand my perspective?

Let’s take the house example. Before, the other trainees had a list of somewhat reasonable complaints:

  • the washing machine looks funny
  • it’s too hot in here
  • the shower does not have enough water pressure
  • I can’t stream movies here because the internet is too slow
  • these guys are always scratching their balls when talking to us.

First world problems (source: http://imgace.com/pic/tag/rfirstworldproblems/)

And now, new housing options:

  • Creepy old female landladies hiding knives in the folds of their skirts
  • paying to live in a building with 20 other people and only sharing one toilet
  • opting to stay in a girls’ only prison ‘Paying Guesthouse’ with a 10.00pm curfew
  • Not being allowed to bring ‘non-veg’ food into the premises

Nothing like being downgraded to bring a little perspective into your life.

Chandigarh’s most famous trainee was a guy named Edward. On his birthday, he convinced a bunch of other trainees to go sleep at the train station, in order to experience ‘real India’.

A friend of AIESEC gave the cops a small bribe to keep an eye on these idiotic daring and adventurous youths. And so they got to experience ‘Real India’ in all its mosquito infested glory. And a feeling of accomplishment because they survived a night at a train station.

Congratulations! thanks for showing us how pointlessly hardcore you can be. (source; http://travelawait.blogspot.in/) )

Congratulations! You just showed us how pointlessly hardcore you can be. (source: http://travelawait.blogspot.in/)

My point? I rarely ever travel  with the explicit goal to make friends with the locals and experience ‘real‘ life in that country. I don’t want to because its difficult. And frustrating. And I would just rather have a good time and let things happen,  than going around smiling at the natives like an idiot, trying to show how well I can fit in.

And in any case, ‘Real country x’ will come around and smack you when you least expect it.

India: First Impressions


”You are just going so that you can avoid responsibility. If you want to go to a third world country, why not move back to Kenya?”

I had plenty of time to reflect on these sentiments during my long, long journey  to Chandigarh. And ask myself, why, as my friends were applying for jobs, I was hustling another traineeship. In India.

My well had been poisoned.

Once I got to New Delhi, India hit me so hard I had no more time for self doubt and emo angst. I was soon relieved of a good part of my stupid tourist money, and instantly began to pay more attention to my surroundings and less to  my existential questions.

It’s been four days or so and I think I can make my first list of wildly judgemental and probably inaccurate observations about this  my new home:

1. Traffic rules are for tools: Everyone knows that driving in this country is sheer madness. What they don’t tell you is that road anarchy is a way of life. A philosophy, even. Motorists frequently drive into oncoming traffic to avoid making detours, pedestrians casually saunter across the road wherever they feel like, and everyone hoots ALL the time. Throw in the occasional horse drawn carriage, chilled out water buffalo/cow, bikes and scooters with nonchalant women perched on the side all sharing the same space, and well, it can be a little overwhelming. Fortunately for me, my city is quite well planned, so I’ve never actually been caught in a traffic jam.

my city on a good day (meetravels.blogspot.com)

2. Cigarettes are Satan’s breath: I have never been to place where it is so socially unacceptable to light up. At most, I have seen ten people smoking. I think this is specific to my city, but there are threatening signs in both open air space and closed ones, curtly informing you that ”it is an offence to smoke here”. Come on, what happened to the neutral ”no smoking” sign? Even our little dusty neighbourhood market is thoroughly offended by these uncouth beings poisoning everyone else around them with their demonic sulphur and tar (or whatever).

3. East meets west…on our terms: In my hood, there is a Subway sandwich shop. Squeezed in between Happy Singh’s general supermarket and a burnt out parking lot. And all over the city, you can see McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Dominoes, KFC, United Colours of Benneton, Ralph Lauren, Polo and other over priced, pretentious clothing brands. You just have to find them, partially hidden by signs advertising ‘Spoken English lessons here ‘ , ‘Royal Real Estate Services’ and giant posters advertising skin lightening creams that will take all your problems away and help you find that perfect man.

4. The heat: I arrived in India during Summer. And my colleagues delight in telling me that I ain’t seen nothing yet, and that it will get hotter soon. Before it starts raining. And then they ask me, ”but it’s also hot in Kenya, right’?’

Well now, the glue in my wallet does not melt after four hours in a train in Kenya. My face does no glow in the dark from all the accumulated heat every evening in Kenya. I don’t feel the heat from the tarmac burning me while I’m on a bike in Kenya. I don’t sleep without sheets or a blanket at night in Kenya.

So no, it’s not the same weather in Kenya.

5. What are these chest appendages that you display?: I made the mistake of wearing a vest to the supermarket. There was a man standing behind me, looking all holy and guru-ish in his turban. We queued for about ten minutes, and in that time he must have caught up with ten years worth of ogling, as well as probably committing everything to memory to serve him for his remaining days, I don’t know. I was uncomfortable, but at the same time, did not want to make it worse by self consciously fiddling around with my clothes. So, yeah, kind of awkward.

So far so good, right? Well, I have to register myself at the government office in the next couple of days. And officially meet my boss  who is currently away on a very busy and important trip.