I’ve lived in Mumbai a year now, and I’d like to think India and I have become fairly well-acquainted. To wit, I’m ready to share 10 of my rules for India.
Rule Number 1: All life is here: In the west meat sits in a vacuum-sealed pack, the dead are tucked neatly into boxes, and grandparents move to greyscale nursing homes to live out their days. The ugly parts of life are kept at arm’s length from the beautiful parts. Not so in India. Someone once said to me of the holy city of Varanasi: “All life is there.” But, really, that could describe all of India. Upside-down chickens hang, terrified, from the handlebars of speeding bikes. Firecrackers go off, for no discernible reason, at 7 pm on a Tuesday evening. Brides sparkle with gold. Grooms arrive on horseback. Lepers hold out their ruined hands on the sidewalk. And in time, you start to love all of it. Even the ugly bits. Because all this is life.
Rule Number 2: Don’t mess with the aunties. An auntie is an Indian woman who is older than you. She often has sharp elbows and an even sharper tongue. She is lethal in airports, on trains, and in the supermarket. She will shamelessly steal your spot in the queue or your taxi from the corner. So watch your step. She is not to be trifled with.
Rule Number 3: Come to think of it, don’t mess with the uncles either. An uncle is always ready to dole out an (often longwinded) verbal smack-down. And the power of a righteous uncle can only be stopped by an equal and opposite force: the righteousness of another uncle. Is there an uncle dominating your panel discussion? Too bad. Unless you’re also a man of a certain age, or an auntie of unusual forcefulness, this guy’s going to keep going until he’s had his say. And only he knows when that will be.
Rule Number 4: Get used to new economics. In a city that runs on small change, nine 10-rupee notes are worth more than one 100-rupee note. And a 1000-rupee note is effectively the most useless of all bills.
Rule Number 5: Walk in the street. You’re still walking on the sidewalk? You must be new here.
Rule Number 6: Happiness is relative. I have never been happier than I have living in India. As a Californian, I have blossomed in Mumbai’s year-round sunshine. But I also think it’s because happiness is relative. I read online that: “1. happiness results from comparison; 2. standards of comparison adjust.” In India, if you’re pretty well off, it’s hard to feel unhappy when you’re so damn lucky compared to everyone else.
Rule Number 7: No bullock carts on the Sea Link. Yeah, you can take your bullock-cart in four lanes of traffic. But don’t even think about taking it on the Sea Link, buddy.
Rule Number 8: Keep your swagger. I read an interview recently on how to have swagger:“Walk and strut your stuff, and be proud of who you are…When you’re on the street, never look down.” Never look down? I was told when I came here that women shouldn’t make eye contact with men on the street, because here only prostitutes do that. It’s hard to feel good and strut your stuff even a little when, if you do, you feel the oppression of a constant male gaze. And I mean constant. The staring, and the comments, are a massive feature of my life here. Men take pictures of me on their phones. Smiling and friendliness are often seen as a come-on. A knee-length skirt? Forget it. Many men here are unaccustomed to a confident, independent woman. And it pisses me off. So hold on to that swagger, girls. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
Rule Number 9: People can eat well without eating animals. I’m a vegetarian and here, vegetarian food is delicious, varied and plentiful. There is hope yet for the planet, and all those poor little chickens.
Rule Number 10: Just let go. I know the drycleaner ruined your brand-new jacket. I know the repairman is four hours late. I know there’s no reason for you to fill out that form. I know you got caught in the rain. But let it all go. You’ll be much happier if you do.
And a bonus - Rule Number 11: You’ll never understand it. I thought after a year I’d basically “get” India, the way I could suddenly participate in pub quizzes and understand Private Eye in England after 12 months were up. But India is still a total mystery in so many ways. Many of the signifiers of class, community, religion, taste, are lost on me, even if I can tell my Kakas and Banerjees from my Makhijanis, Singhs and Krishnamurthys.
On a nearly daily basis I think: “What the hell is going on right now?” And I guess that’s what keeps it interesting.