Same Same – But Different

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A week or so before the April 15 tax-filing deadline, I was on the phone with some financial planner guy who was trying to help me out with tax filings and the like. When I mentioned that he couldn?t courier something to me because I was living in India, he paused and said, ?That must be really different.? I replied, ?Yeah?it is?but after a while it?s just like anywhere else.?

I?m still a bit shocked by my admission. Not even a year into living in Bombay, and I?ve kind of figured out its rhythm. The buildings I once looked at with disdain because of their crackling or nonexistent paint now just blend into the cityscape. Weekend trips to Chor Bazaar, a veritable souk-like market lined with rows of vintage furniture and appliances and teeming with people, is much less daunting now ? almost enjoyable, despite the vicious bargaining that goes on. And, for better or for worse (mostly worse), I am used to seeing kids under 10 hawking flowers in the middle of the street; packs of stray dogs lying near dumpsters; and the sea depositing mounds of trash on the shore as the tide goes out. Yeah, India has some kinks to work out. But for the most part, I?m enjoying it here.

I suppose I haven?t been keeping up with the blog because much of what I see, hear, and experience now seems everyday to me now. Yet there are still some things that baffle me, too. There?s a different kind of common sense here; it?s not wrong, just different.

For example, there?s the issue with rubbish. Not too long ago, I was speaking to an American friend whose friend?s family is Indian. We were lamenting the lack of trash bins and the excess of trash on the street, when he told me his story about being on a road trip with his friend?s family. He was eating a bag of chips in the car, and when he finished, held onto the bag until he was able to find a garbage can to put it in. The friend?s mother urged him to toss the bag out the window of the moving car rather than keep the trash in the car with them. I can definitely see the mother?s point-of-view as a matter of personal space, but the idea of space for the public good doesn?t seem to have caught on here. To me, it seems to resemble the time in the U.S. just before that Native American litter campaign began airing on television.

Before coming to India, perhaps the only time I ever went barefoot was in yoga class or on the beach. Showing a little toe at the office was frowned upon for the most part, too. But, here I?ve seen men work construction sites wearing flip-flops. And recently I watched a man sawing a long piece of wood that he was holding in place with his bare feet. I suppose being barefoot gives you a modicum of agility, and going shoeless is one way to keep cool during the sweltering day. But, I don?t get it. I?ve also seen sari-clad women coming out of construction sites wearing hard-hats but thonged shoes. No doubt, there isn?t the worry of workman?s compensation or litigation if a worker gets hurt or if a billowy sari gets caught in the cement mixer. Conversely, in this land of a billion people, the employer will find another worker (too bad for the injured one).

Sort of combining the above two, I often see waiters wearing sandals ? even at nice restaurants. This isn?t a landmark observation, but I remember that when I was waiting tables, arriving for your shift without shoes AND socks were grounds to send you home to change. Here, I think it?s assumed that whatever you bring in on your ?outside shoes? is far more disgusting than seeing a bare foot while you dine. This bit of ?common sense? doesn?t really phase me that much now. But I would still love to take a health inspector out to eat here.

Speaking of eating, I am fascinated that some people here still prefer to eat with their hands. I?m not talking about sandwiches. It isn?t uncommon to go to a lunch counter or moderately-priced restaurant and see people scooping up rice and daal with their hands: pushing lumps of food together, squeezing it between their fingers, and cupping it to their mouths. It?s completely the opposite from what is done in Italy, where even eating a Big Mac without holding it in a napkin is considered very gauche. I find the whole idea of eating with one?s hands a bit unappetizing. But knowing that it isn?t a social faux pas has been good for me on those occasions when I?ve gotten to work and realized that I forgot to pack a fork with my lunch.

Yes, I realize these observations are somewhat asinine and maybe even insensitive. But I?m just putting my thoughts out there. By the way, can anyone tell me what the deal is with putting mothballs in the bathroom? They are in every bathroom no matter where you go. I think I?m going to make my fortune by exporting Glade air fresheners to the Indian market.


  1. me thinks mothballs = inexpensive air freshner …

    interesting observations … eating with your fingers has its own joys … its just habit for most people. while i grew up … i never ever used a fork or a knife … just spoons and that too only for anything that could “flow” (think dal, yoghurt, curry etc). but for everything else like rotis, samosas, sandwiches, salad even … fingers work best. only when i came here, did i start using forks and knives.

    thats another big difference i noticed … indians can never ever have any kind of meal and not want to wash their hands. (ofcourse there are those yucky people everywhere that’ll never see the need to wash their hands but i’m talking about the average hygenic person) out here often most people never let their food touch their skin. something i’m still getting used to.

  2. Mothballs in bathrooms are meant to be a deterrent for cockroaches!. I saw them all the time when travelling through Indonesia – mothballs that is. Saw heaps of rather large roaches too.

  3. Thanks, Barrie! I knew there had to be a logical reason. I had even seen mothballs in bathrooms of people that didn’t necessarily need to save money. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen too many roaches – or moths, actually.

  4. guess i stand corrected about my mothball theory then. now that sounds like a possible book/movie name – “the mothball theory” 🙂

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