The world’s second-most populous and seventh-largest country is also absolutely fascinating with holy cows, red forts, snowy mountains, tropics, public cremations, elephants, the Taj Mahal, vultures, nuclear bombs, gods galore, arranged marriages and a million other things, including these:
1. Roadside dentists and ear cleaners
A common sight is the ever-present street-side economy, with people who will sell or serve you in all kinds of ways. Broken an umbrella? There’s a man who’ll fix it. Need your shoes re-heeled? Get a haircut from a kerbside cutter? Then there’s the serious stuff – the roadside bone setters, who will repair fractures, plus the ear cleaners, the corn and bunion removal men and dentists. What’s remarkable is how these centuries-old traditions are still going strong. Some fear these traditions are under threat, with future generations choosing to pursue an education and a different path rather than follow the family business, and because some authorities are trying to move them off the pavements.
2. Read all about it
While Western newspapers are on the wane in the face of online news, India’s print industry is booming. A growing literacy rate, relatively low internet use and the large number of languages mean more people want to pick up their daily Times of India, The Hindu, Mumbai Mirror and many more. And they are very cheap, which widens readershipamong all social classes. Smaller, community newspapers are also on the rise in the growing economy, which attracts more classified ads, helping to fund publications. Roadside stalls buy second-hand newspapers and magazines for resale. Plenty of people are happy to catch up on news they might have missed.
3. Hardly anyone pays income tax
Only 3% of Indians pay income tax in a population of 1.2 billion. Agriculture is exempt and two-thirds of Indians live in rural areas, so that helps explain why. Much of the economy is also informal, unorganised labour, for which it’s harder to collect taxes. Many argue that some of the country’s financial problems would be solved instantly if this massive tax hole could be filled.
4. The scourge of spit
Many people spit after they’ve had paan (a mix of betel nut and areca, and sometimes tobacco, which is chewed but not swallowed). This produces red mouths and a red stain that can be seen on walls and pavements. It’s common to see “do not spit” signs in taxis, on the back of rickshaws and on the front of buildings. But there’s concern the falling phlegm is responsible for the spread of tuberculosis. An anti-spit campaign has begun; for instance Mumbai has introduced a “spit inspector” to fine those who share their saliva in public.
5. The rise of the ‘wedding detective’
A friend revealed that, before his arranged marriage, he had a hunch his prospective in-laws had hired a private detective to check whether he’d had a girlfriend in the past. The answer was that he had but the snoop (thankfully for my friend) failed to find out and the wedding went ahead. The growth in companies offering the service is huge, with 15,000 operating. “It’s not spying,” says one woman who’d used the service to check out a prospective bridegroom for her sister. “He told us he was from a good family but we needed to ensure he was telling the truth.”
Painted on the back of almost all lorries is “Horn OK, please”. Honking is encouraged in India for drivers who are coming up behind another vehicle. The problem is that they’re not used sparingly. One rickshaw driver said he honked his horn at least 150 times a day, a fairly conservative estimate, given that in heavy traffic they can be sounded at least once every 30 seconds. The average rickshaw horn produces a sound of around 93 decibels (almost the same as a pneumatic drill), with the general sound of traffic equivalent to a jumbo jet taking off. A deafening sound, quite literally.
7. It’s a young country
India is a young nation. More than 50% of its 1.2 billion people are aged below 25 and 66% below 35. Many no longer look to the West and they are feeling a sense of self-confidence about their nation. Mumbai has a hipster scene to rival any and home-grown musical talent is flourishing, with many more shunning traditional professions and taking up a career in the arts. A music festival circuit has gigs held in fields and deserts, while major cities such as Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai are becoming hubs for live concerts.
8. They’re piling on the pounds
“Oh, you’ve put on weight,” said the bank manager with a smile. It’s not rude: adding a few kilogrammes is considered a sign that you’re looking healthy. However, India is on the brink of an obesity epidemic. While large swathes of the country still battle malnourishment, with millions starving every day, there is a general widening of waists in the cities. Queues of Indians gorge on McDonald’s or other processed foods. The older Indian man often sports a fat tummy (known lovingly as a paunch).
9. Don’t wear new clothes on a Saturday
India might be home to some of the world’s best scientists and engineers, but a lot of that rational thinking can go straight out of the window when it comes to observing ancient superstitions. Different people observe different things, such as – don’t wear new clothes on a Saturday, don’t clean the house at night for fear of scaring away the Goddess Lakshmi, it’s bad luck to give or accept anything with your left hand. For so many in India – rich and poor – observing these customs is still part of today’s society. Brand-new cars have a floral garland hanging on the bonnet because it’s considered good luck to get your new vehicle blessed before you drive it. Chili and limes hang in cars or above front doors to ward off evil. Many planes don’t have a row 13.
10. The Budapest Times is off to Calcutta in August, and we’ll be writing about it