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.
It is sometimes difficult to appreciate that when you land in a new country, your own set of values is irrelevant and simply not applicable. If there is one reason why the British failed to turn India into a duplication of Victorian England, it's because Victorian values were just not relevant to India; you might as well try to get a cricket fan interested in the footy scores. In India the things you'll notice the most are the different personal habits, a complete lack of personal space, the flexibility of truth, the sheer volume of life, and a totally bizarre concept of taste... and after a while, you'll start to celebrate the fact that things are not the same as back home. It's all a part of what makes India so enduringly fascinating, but everyone who visits has to go through the confusion of throwing out their preconceptions and starting again.
It's absolutely worth the effort, though.
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.
Then there are the people who drop litter anywhere and everywhere, even if there is a bin nearby (in which case take a photo, because you won't see many bins in India). There are those who burp loudly in public, and again nobody seems to care. You see people blowing their noses straight onto the pavement, wiping their noses on their hands, and then wiping their hands on their clothes. People chew tobacco and betel nut mixtures, and spit the red goo anywhere they like. They cough and noisily bring up phlegm before spitting it out, wherever they are. But just because this is deemed rude in the West, it doesn't mean it's rude in India; it's just different.
If the strange personal habits get to you, consider this: how would you have turned out if you'd been brought up in a place like India? Probably exactly the same...
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.
But India seems to have no such concept. This manifests itself in a number of ways, but the two most obvious to the visitor are those of staring and conversation starting. Wherever you go you will be stared at, sometimes for hours, sometimes just for a short time, but each stare is penetrating, intense and profoundly unnerving. And as you sit there minding your own business, people will come right up to you, look over your shoulder and stare at what you are reading or writing, oblivious to any concerns for privacy you might have. Often they will come up and start a conversation, just like that, even if you are already talking; it's not uncommon in Anglo-Indian conversations for the local to interrupt when he loses interest in what you're saying, or has lost the thread through the language barrier.
You will encounter this sort of thing a lot if you're an obvious tourist and off the beaten track, but how surprising is this? Westerners are conditioned to know about the world from international TV and holidaying abroad, but this is far from the case in poverty-stricken India. I'm sure I'd stare if I saw something as strange as a differently coloured person if I hadn't been exposed to them through media, immigration and an ability to explore the world. Staring isn't rude, it's just the locals displaying an interest, but to those of us conditioned not to stare as kids, it takes some getting used to.
It's not just personal, though. India manages to shatter any concepts of generalised privacy by blaring music at high volumes on buses, by cramming you into a bus or train until the sides are splitting, or by forcing you to piss in public through a lack of public toilets (something which is far more of a problem for women than men). I once sat on a train for hours while one man played Hindi film music at full volume on his ghetto blaster; I was cringing and inserting the ear plugs, but nobody else batted an eyelid. If they hated it, they didn't show it, perhaps reflecting that if they'd wanted to play their own music, they could too, and criticising the young man would amount to an invasion of his privacy. Who knows? Whatever the logic, to the westerner this loud abuse of everyone else's personal space appears invasive and amazingly rude, but when there are this many people, what other solution is there? A nation this big, full of people with British reserve, would be too depressing to contemplate...
Searching for the Truth
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.
For example, in Ajanta, Ian tried to find a Pepsi, and despite constant claims by various vendors that they indeed had cold Pepsi, none of them actually managed to produce one that was chilled. 'We have Thums Up,' they invariably said once we'd parked ourselves in their café, but Thums Up wouldn't do for Ian; it had to be Pepsi, but just like the Indonesians and, to a lesser extent, the Thais, some Indians are more than flexible with the truth if they think they can make a sale.
This is just one example from millions. Ask for the time of a bus, and you'll get as many different answers as there are people. Ask if something is available in a restaurant, and the answer will be 'yes' until you actually try to order that something. And when I think of the number of times I've tried to get directions and have been told simultaneously by two people that the hotel is both in that direction and in totally the opposite direction...
But it's not that people seem to lie more than anyone else, it's that they want to please you by telling you what you want to hear. If you want a Pepsi, they will tell you that they have one, because that is what you want to hear. If you ask if that is the direction to so-and-so, they'll nod, because that's what you want to hear. If you need to get to somewhere, then 'it is possible', because that's what you want to hear. The fact that there's no Pepsi, you're going in totally the wrong way and there's no bus for two months because of the monsoon is quite irrelevant, at least as far as the head-wobbling masses are concerned; they have no idea that you'd be much happier if they told you the truth, because to them a negative answer will annoy you ('No, we don't have Pepsi, sir' 'Damn') so they don't tell the exact truth in order to avoid making you unhappy. It's their way of being kind.
So never ask, 'Do you have Pepsi?', instead ask, 'What soft drinks do you have?' Never say, 'Is this the right way to so-and-so?' say 'Where is so-and-so?' Don't try, 'Can I get to Indore from here?' try 'How do I get to Indore from here?' If your question expects a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer, beware, because the answer will almost always be 'yes', because that's what the Indians think you want to hear.
As another example, Ian was sitting in a café in Mamallapuram one day, and asked for 'one Pepsi' in his broad Yorkshire accent. The little man ran off without blinking an eyelid, and quite a time later he came back with a Pepsi bottle, wrapped up in a napkin. Ian felt the bottle and it was really quite hot, as if it had been standing in the sun all day; when he asked what it was, the little man replied, 'It is warm Pepsi, just like you asked.' In his eagerness to please, the waiter hadn't even considered the fact that nobody would ever drink warm Pepsi; he just did what he thought the tourist wanted.
On top of this, often you will ask a question that the non-English speaking Indian will not understand, and with you going, 'Is it there? Is it there?' and pointing, he'll just nod because he figures that that's what you want to hear. So what do you expect?
Of course there are plenty of dodgy salesmen around, especially in the heavily tourist-influenced areas. But are you telling me that there aren't people out to fleece you in the West? Of course not, and it's no different here.
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.
India has to be the noisiest country I have ever experienced. Stereos only have one volume setting – LOUD – and Hindi music without distortion simply doesn't exist. Horns don't just blare; they make your ears bleed. And as for the music itself, regardless of the singing, those string sections are designed to cut through any din, right to the base of the spine.
But despite the traffic noise, shouting, singing, expectorating, piercing music and out-of-tune motorcycle engines, you can't buy earplugs in India. Indian workers use pneumatic drills without ear protection, because ear protection costs more than a replacement worker. Indian voices manage to slice through conversation without needing to shout; the men selling chai on the trains can be heard advertising their wares from three carriages away, and they're guaranteed to wake you up every time you pull into a station. Horns don't just shake the earth; they come in a number of different tunes that will indelibly scar your eardrums. The buses come complete with deafening Hindi music played at full volume, drowning out even the grind of the gears and the smash of the ruined shock absorbers. And a traditional game played by travellers is 'I wonder what strange noise my room fan will make tonight?' It's not the best game in the world.
And asking anyone to turn the music down will earn you a look of incredulity, as if you've just asked the driver if he can stop using the brakes. You could say they turn a deaf ear...
A Different Taste
Indian taste is, well, different, and I'm not just talking about their pop music.
The clothes sported by so-called trendy Indians look amazingly out of date by western standards; even in the seventies these guys would have looked embarrassing. Indian role models are more like roly-poly models, with their porn-film moustaches and strangely phallic poses that they strike for the camera, and even the gods aren't allowed to get away with austerity; the shrines you see on the taxi dashboards have flashing lights and garish silver and gold borders, a homage not only to Ganesh and Co., but to the kitsch religion of tacky plastic. India can, at times, be an aesthete's nightmare.
But look at the women: they have impeccable taste. From gorgeous sarees and delightful hairstyles to simple but effective jewellery, Indian women shame westerners into simplicity, so perhaps it's just the men who are responsible for making India such a wonderfully tasteless place. Whatever, it's loads of fun; you might not want to decorate your London pad like India, but in India it somehow feels just right.
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.
Personal space is another huge frustration. I hate people staring at me; I cannot help but feel that it is rude. But here it isn't rude; it's totally acceptable to stare. Mothers don't chide children with 'It's rude to stare', often because they're too busy staring themselves. I sit there, silently fuming as yet another urchin sits down for his own private viewing of Traveller TV, and again it is my problem; I am imposing my values on a little boy who has a totally different outlook on life. He is not being rude, but I am being quite illogical.
It took me six months in India to develop this insight, and six months to develop the tolerance to accept it not as something designed to annoy me, but as an integral and fascinating part of the Indian psyche. The tourist spots are awash with foreigners who don't appreciate the concept of Indian values, and who flaunt their bare legs in public, hug each other outside temples and complain constantly at the habits, personal invasions and outright lies that they perceive. But that's the key word: 'perceive'. If your perception of India is through western eyes, you'll never, ever understand, and not only that, life on the road will be very, very hard.
Perhaps this is why I laughed when I met the young American in Mt Abu who wanted to psychoanalyse India. To really do that, you have to be born here and to have your own personal values developed within Indian society... otherwise you'll always be an outsider. And how can anyone expect to travel in a different culture without some culture clashes? Precisely. Celebrate the differences, rather than criticise, and you'll fall in love with India too.