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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

India: Surviving India

A sign selling horns
In India, horns aren't just for cars; they're a way of life

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when visiting a country like India is to try to apply your own set of values to society. Hard though it seems to be for some westerners to believe, Indians don't live by our rules, they live by their own, and this is probably responsible for the most discord between travellers and Indians.

Personal Habits

The difference in personal habits between India and the West can be quite obvious at times: there often seems to be no taboo about spitting, coughing, farting, burping, pissing, shitting, picking your nose or even dying in public, but if a woman even thinks about showing an ounce of bare flesh below the waist, it's the height of indecency. When some people eat in India, they make as much noise as is humanly possible with one pair of molars and one swallowing mechanism and nobody seems to bat an eyelid, but showing any kind of man-woman affection in public is unacceptable (though men can hug and kiss men, and women can hug and kiss women). It's quite a change from the West – in India, it's clear that different things are acceptable.

Personal Space

Personal space is a concept that has never been able to develop in India. When you have nearly one billion people rubbing shoulders in a country this size, you have two options. The first one, the western choice, is to bury yourself in your newspaper on the train, and to steadfastly ignore other humans when you're walking along the street, creating a concept of personal space that is sacred, unbreachable and almost solid enough to touch. The apocryphal story goes that a couple was having sex on a British train in a crowded carriage of six, but everybody pretended not to notice, looking away as the shrieks of joy throbbed round the train; but when the loving couple had finished and lit up a post-coital cigarette, one of the passengers leaned forward and said, 'Excuse me, would you mind putting that out? This is a no smoking coach.' True or untrue, the very fact that this story is an urban myth demonstrates that the concept of personal space is ingrained into western society, and particularly British society.

Searching for the Truth

A bottle of Thums Up
A bottle of Thums Up

In India, it often appears that 'truth' isn't absolute, it's analogue: 'Yes' and 'No' are just part of a whole family of truth values that include 'It's possible', 'If you like' and the famous head wobble. No wonder tourists get confused when they travel here; even the concept of basic communication has been altered by Indian society.

India is Loud

You might be forgiven for thinking that most Indians are deaf; everything is so loud that if deafness isn't the cause of the din, it'll soon enough be the effect.

A Different Taste

Indian taste is, well, different, and I'm not just talking about their pop music.

Roll With It

All these frustrations with personal habits, personal space, truth and so on are simply down to a difference in social values. Most people don't seem to mind the spitting, noisy eating, pissing and so on because they are not brought up with Victorian values being shoved down their throats: mothers don't scream, 'Don't eat with your mouth open and don't talk with your mouth full'; society doesn't turn up its nose if you cough up a greeny on the pavement; and policemen don't arrest you for urinating in the street. In the West we have managed to fill ourselves with values that, on the whole, I agree with, but this is a truism; I have no choice but to agree. I have been brought up to think that eating with your mouth open is rude, and as such seeing someone masticating with abandon can't help but annoy me; I sometimes feel jealous of the Indian who, not having been brought up with this imposed value, has no hang up about eating. The problem is mine, all mine, and it can only be isolated by going into a society where my values are all wrong.