India: spiffiness is next to godliness

This was originally posted on tinyletter.com/Terhys on February 26th, 2015.

During the past few weeks people’s continued polite kindness has been the grease that keeps me going, as most of my days look like this:

1. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
2.????????
3. #%#%@
4.¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Peep the most recent highlights below.

Lookin’ Good, Feelin’ Great
Sometimes as I’m walking down the street, I stop and ask myself, ‘Did I wander into a Fabulous Sari Parade?’ The designs, patterns and colors range infinitely: floral patterns, swirls, stripes, curlicues, dazzling saris with bits of mirror in them that reflect the sunlight and turn their wearers into sparkling swans, saris made of the finest silk, saris with gold and silver brocade, saris as blue as the deep ocean, as pink as hibiscus flowers, bright green saris with accents of pale salmon…

Those who don’t wear saris can be seen in slacks and button down shirts so crisp, I swear you could cut glass on the creases. In India spiffiness is next to godliness, and sharp dressing begins early on. It’s common to see schoolchildren in sweater vests and ties, pressed salwar kameezes, and blazers. You see, India is quite a formal place. I’ve never been called ‘madame’ so much in my life, and I was interested to observe that even the scruffiest backpacker usually gets a perfunctory ‘sir’. Everything is prefaced with a dignified ‘excuse me please’, and attention to decorum seems like second nature.

Museums in Mumbai
In the Prince Albert Museum I watched a group of little sirs and mesdames struggle to contain themselves in the quiet, orderly line demanded by teacher. As soon as her back was turned, kids with droopy socks erupted into giggles which they tried, but utterly failed, to stifle. Bows popped off braids. The knobby-kneed prefects at the front of the line would turn and glare, only to be soundly ignored. Kids were bumped out of line, and then yanked back in. Grins with missing teeth flashed about and little anklets and bracelets jingled merrily as pupils engaged in semi-silent poking wars which would set off another round of furious giggling. When it was time to go they zigzagged behind the teacher, off to the next gallery where the cycle would no doubt repeat. After watching the kids, I wandered into another museum where I learned about Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil, and was arrested by her paintings Gypsy Girl and Three Girls; I recommend perusing more of her work.

Three Indian Girls sit facing their right, looking down. One wears a mint green sari, one a red-orange sari, and one a blood red sari.
Group of Three Girls by Amrita Sher-Gil. Image from datesinwomensart.org.

Transportation
As I head further south, it feels like the number of palm trees rivals the number people. The train rides in this region are beautiful; lush landscapes, rolling hills, and running rivers provide sorely needed entertainment on 8+ hour journeys. In Goa, I passed by colonial style buildings that were painted in such a riot of bright colors that they looked like flocks of tropical, stately birds. On an overnight trip from Gokarna to Hampi, I thought what I always think while in transit in India: ‘Is this how I die?’ The overnight bus (with no AC and a strong undercurrent of eau de foot) kept leaning precariously to one side and we swerved so much to avoid potholes and other vehicles* that I got dizzy. The upside was that my top bunk seat allowed me to see the stars; it looked like someone had spilled a container of glitter onto black velvet.

Dirty white stairs set in a mountainside; big brown boulders are on either side The sky is deep, bright blue.
Stairs to Hanuman’s Temple, Anegundi across the river from Hampi.

*Cars, auto-rickshaws, cows, horses, bicyclists, bikers, cycle-rickshaws, buses, trucks, dogs, pedestrians, invented vehicles for which I have no name…the list goes on.

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