Trying Really Hard To Like India

Step 5: Actually Liking Stuff
June 1996 - June 2006.
Oct. 1 2004 2:27 PM

Trying Really Hard To Like India

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Cricket practice
Cricket practice
Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

In the mid-1970s, famed author V.S. Naipaul (of Indian descent but raised in Trinidad) came to India to survey the land and record his impressions. The result is a hilariously grouchy book titled India: A Wounded Civilization. Really, he should have just titled it India: Allow Me To Bitch at You for 161 Pages.

I hear you, V.S.—this place has its problems. As you point out, many of them result from the ravages of colonialism … and some are just India's own damn fault. Still, I've found a lot to love about this place. For instance:

1) I love cricket. The passion for cricket is infectious. When I first got here, the sport was an utter mystery to me, but now I've hopped on the cricket bandwagon, big time. I've got the rules down, I've become a discerning spectator, and I've settled on a favorite player (spin bowler Harbhajan Singh, known as "The Turbanator"—because he wears a turban). I've even eaten twice at Tendulkar's, a Mumbai restaurant owned by legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. Fun fact: Sachin Tendulkar's nicknames include "The Master Blaster" (honoring his prowess as a batsman), "The Maestro of Mumbai" (he's a native), and "The Little Champion" (he's wicked short). His restaurant here looks exactly like a reverse-engineered Michael Jordan's Steak House. Instead of a glass case with autographed Air Jordans, there is a glass case with an autographed cricket bat.

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And in what could turn out to be a dangerous habit, I've begun going to Mumbai sports bars to watch all-day cricket matches. These last like seven hours. That is a frightening amount of beer and chicken wings.

2) I love the Indian head waggle. It's a fantastic bit of body language, and I'm trying to add it to my repertoire. The head waggle says, in a uniquely unenthusiastic way, "OK, that's fine." In terms of Western gestures, its meaning is somewhere between the nod (though less affirmative) and the shrug (though not quite as neutral).

To perform the head waggle, keep your shoulders perfectly still, hold your face completely expressionless, and tilt your head side-to-side, metronome style. Make it smooth—like you're a bobble-head doll. It's not easy. Believe me, I've been practicing.

3) I love how Indians are unflappable. Nothing—I mean nothing—seems to faze them in the least. If you live here, I suppose you've seen your fair share of crazy/horrid/miraculous/incomprehensible/mind-blowing stuff, and it's impractical to get too worked up over anything, good or bad.

(This is a trait I admire in the Dutch, as well. They don't blink when some college kid tripping on mushrooms decides to leap naked into an Amsterdam canal. Likewise, were there a dead, limbless child in the canal … an Indian person might not blink. Though he might offer a head waggle.)

4) I love how they dote on children here. (I'm not talking about dead, limbless children anymore, I'm being serious now.) At our beach resort in Goa, there were all these bourgeois Indian folks down from Mumbai on vacation. These parents spoiled their children rotten in a manner that was quite charming to see. In no other country have I seen kids so obviously cherished, indulged, and loved. It's fantastic. Perhaps my favorite thing on television (other than cricket matches) has been a quiz show called India's Smartest Child, because I can tell the entire country derives great joy from putting these terrifyingly erudite children on display.

5) I love that this is a billion-person democracy. That is insane. Somehow the Tibetan Buddhists of Ladakh, the IT workers of Bangalore, the downtrodden poor of Bihar, and the Bollywood stars of Mumbai all fit together under this single, ramshackle umbrella. It's astonishing and commendable that anyone would even attempt to pull this off.

6) I love the chaos (when I don't hate it). Mumbai is a city of 18 million people—all of whom appear to be on the same block of sidewalk as you. If you enjoy the stimulation overload of a Manhattan or a Tokyo but prefer much less wealth and infrastructure … this is your spot. (Our friend Rishi, who we've been traveling with, has a related but slightly different take: "It's like New York, if everyone in New York was Indian! How great is that!") And whatever else you may feel, Mumbai will force you to consider your tiny place within humanity and the universe. That's healthy.

There's more good stuff I'm forgetting, but enough love for now. Let's not go overboard. As they say in really lame travel writing: India is a land of contradictions. A lot of things to like and a lot of things (perhaps two to three times as many things) to hate.

It's the spinach of travel destinations—you may not always (or ever) enjoy it, but it's probably good for you. In the final reckoning, am I glad that I came here? Oh, absolutely. It's been humbling. It's been edifying. It's been, on several occasions, quite wondrous. It's even been fun, when it hasn't been miserable.

That said, am I ready to leave? Sweet mercy, yes.

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