A country of 1.5 billion people, millions of different cultures, 845 languages and 8 religions, India is a bewildering place to be. Even for an Indian. Cross-cultural communication is a challenge, even more so when the preconceived notions of one culture are pointedly – and hilariously – different from those of another. These beliefs have always been a part of my life – especially with my extended family.
I come from a Kutchi family (a part of the Western state of Gujarat, but starkly different from “traditional” Gujaratis) and my wife’s family is Tamil, from the deep Southern state of Tamil Nadu. The two cultures couldn’t be more different. Over the years, the comical faux pas and skewed opinions have made for an often amusing and always interesting life.
Take for example a seemingly innocuous caffeine-laden morning beverage. Tamilians, as a general rule of thumb, will give you look of immense gratitude if you give them a cup of “Madras filter coffee“, complete with foam. Gujaratis, on the other hand, prefer their “chai“, and personally, I like my tea with a truckload of sugar, more than a spot of milk and touch of masala. So last month in Chennai, when my wife asked the new cook to make me a “masala tea with lots of milk and sugar”, I felt a vague tremor of apprehension. When the cup of steaming chai was brought before me, I eyed it with a growing sense of alarm; it looked orangish with a healthy layer of foam floating in it. After surreptitiously checking my wallet for my health insurance card, I gingerly (pun intended) took a sip. Here’s a nearly faithful reproduction of what ensued:
Me: (hands fly to my throat, eyes pop out of my head, massive fit of coughing, running around the room like a headless chicken, screaming obscenities)
Wife: (barely looks up) “What, what?”
Me: (brandishing the cup) “What in the name of all that’s holy is this?”
Wife: “Tea… why? Did she (the new cook) give you my coffee instead?” (her face takes on an ominous look)
(Here I should point out that anyone who swipes my wife’s morning coffee is asking for trouble. People have been beheaded for smaller transgressions)
Me: “I wish! What did you ask her to make? What did she put in here?”
Wife: “Tea, I tell you! Just the way you like it, with lots of milk, sugar and masala”
Me: “Yes, but I meant a pinch of masala, not the 450,000 tons of spices that were transported on the silk route in the fifteenth century!”
Wife: “Oh stop being so melodramatic! Drama queen! Let me ask her how she made it”Â (She asks the cook)
Cook: “5 spoons of sugar…”
(I’m thinking “Diabetes”)
“… 1 teaspoon of pepper…”
(my eyes widen in alarm)
“… 1 teaspoon of red chilli powder…”
(my mouth falls open – I’m thinking, “I’d better take a fat book with me to the loo”)
“… one teaspoon of turmeric…”
(less turmeric has gone into making Vicco)
“… one stick of cinnamon…”
(I’ve never “cinnamon” drink tea with so many spices)
“… 1 inch of ginger…”
(I begin to swoon)
(she thinks for a bit, then brightens)
“… and 5 pods of cardamom!”
Wife: (looks at me calmly) “Well? Isn’t that your Gujju tea?
At this point I gave up and covertly tucked the lethal concoction behind some potted geraniums.
I admit I may have embellished the details a bit, but the spirit of the encounter remains unchanged. What was “Gujju masala chai” to a Tamilian could’ve dealt a fatal blow to any cancer growing inside me and inside 5 generations on both sides of my ancestors and descendants.
Such cultural fallacies are rampant across India. My Kutchi family thinks that all South Indians speak “andu gundu”. My Tamilian family thinks that all North Indians speak Hindi. My Kutchi family thinks that all South Indians wearÂ “lungis” instead of the traditionally formal Â – and correct – “dhotis” or “veshtis“. My Tamilian family thinks that all North Indians wear salwar kameezes. My Tamilian family thinks that Gujjus put sugar in everything. My Kutchi family thinks that South Indians eat nothing but different kinds of rice. The misconceptions get increasingly more absurd and ludicrous, often funny, and sometimes – though rarely – offensive. From the first moment I watched in amazement as my wife – then my girlfriend – slurp traditional Tamilian rice and rasam off a plate, I knew I was in for a lifetime of laughter.
Oh yes, and the geraniums are coming along nicely.