What makes India so special

by Tabitha Kidwell

When people heard I was coming to India, they often said things like “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to India – the colorful saris, the delicious food, such a holy place!”

Well, yeah, I guess that is all here. Most older women do wear saris everyday, and they range from the sari equivalent of sweatpants to stunningly ornate works of art worn for special occasions.

All dressed up for the Annual Day Celebration

All dressed up for the Annual Day Celebration

Younger women often wear saris too, but for everyday, they are just as likely to wear a kurta-shalwar-scarf combo, or just jeans and a tunic.

See?

See?

And they do have amazing food. America’s take on Indian food that seems to be fairly accurate, unlike “Mexican” food, which is basically unlike any food eaten in Mexico. In nice restaurants, and at fancy occasions, you can find chicken tikka masala, mutton biryana, palak paneer, butter garlic naan, and all the other the delicious dishes you might find in the “international” hot food bar at Whole Foods.

Thali - a sampler dish of amizingness!

Thali – a sampler dish of amizingness!

But, for everyday fare, at least in Maharashtra, there is an unending parade of rice, dal (similar to a lentil soup), and chapati (basically whole wheat tortillas), with a different vegetable thrown in everyday. A cucumber and some tomatoes might make a cameo as a “salad.” It got pretty boring for me, especially when I spent weeks out at City of Child, and was basically eating “camp food.”

Surprise! Rice, chapati and dal... again...

Surprise! Rice, chapati and dal… again…

Lunch was a challenge, too. People take tiffins (lunch boxes, but really nice, utilitarian lunch boxes) to school or work, and typically have 2-4 chapatis and a serving of vegetable in there. Sometimes, the vegetable would be something closer to bean soup, and I would spend lunch time trying to scoop it up with a flimsy chapatti. Hard at first, but I got pretty good at it:

Take 1

Take 1

Take 2

Take 2

Take 3 - note the  "chapati cone" technique

Take 3 – note the
“chapati cone” technique

Take 4 - success!

Take 4 – success!

And lastly, how about India’s renowned holiness? Yes, there is something to it. Two of the world’s great religious were founded here. People have beautiful altars in their homes, and you’re likely to get a blessing and turmeric on the forehead if you stop in for tea. There are plenty of ashrams and meditation centers scattered around, and you pass beautiful temples all over the place.

P1050568

But people also do mundane, un-holy things like go to work, go to school, go to the mall, do laundry, do homework, do exercise, show off their motorcycles, show off their mobile phones, throw trash on the ground, etc.

The common thread of a lot of my blogs recently has been the fact that I am just living normal life here – that I’m not heading out to be the tourist. Maybe you’ve noticed that I’ve felt a little guilt over this. I think it comes back to this expectation that people have of INDIA: The clothes! The food! The religion! This view, seeing the entire sub-continent as one big fabric bazaar/spice market/meditation center, focuses on India’s otherness. You can find those things if you’re interested in seeing what makes India different . But what has made India special to me are the things that are the same: the relationships with people, the everyday experiences, and the many ways it’s come to feel like home.

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