I don’t understand India. I don’t think I ever will. (I’m not even sure that’s a possible thing to do.) But in the same way that you never really feel like an adult, you just get better at faking it, now that I’ve been in India for a couple of months, I’m able to talk to in-country noobz and come across like an old hand.
In Orchha, I got chatting to a German tourist who’d been in India for just a few days. I had breakfast with him, but he had to rush off to a pre-arranged meeting with a local man who’d aggressively befriended him in the way that any traveller in India will be familiar with. He was still trying to work out whether this apparent hospitality was genuine, or whether the entire forced relationship was ultimately aimed at financial gain. He asked me, “so what’s the deal? Is there always a catch? Are Indians always after money, either directly or indirectly?”
My answer was, emphatically, no. A great many people are after money, and I’ve done a lot of complaining about the grinding chore of dealing with them, but I’ve also encountered genuine, selfless hospitality and generosity in many places. The ratio at which you encounter the two depends on where you are: in more touristic places like the cities of Rajasthan, people’s motivations will tend towards the commercial, and somewhere like Khajuraho or Orchha, which are small settlements on the edge of hugely popular tourist sites, it will approach 100%. Conversely, it’s been in places that no tourist has ever heard of – Milak, Bhujiya Ghat, Dhuri – in which I’ve been overwhelmed by generosity and kindness.
Thinking about this reminded me that all of those places were in the first month of the trip, and since I’ve been backpacking, I’ve been taking trains and buses from tourist spot to tourist spot, and haven’t experienced anything like it since. So when SK, my host in Gwalior, asked if I’d like to spend a couple of days visiting his brother’s family in Sultanpur, a small city utterly devoid of any significance, I jumped at the offer.
Both the manager of the Agra hotel, as I was checking out, and a couple of people on the platform while I was waiting for train, expressed surprise when I said where I was going to next. “Sultanpur? But there is nothing for you to see there,” they said. I knew I was on the right track.
The train was terminating in Varanasi so the AC sleeper coaches were filled mostly with tourists. I met an American couple, John and Sandy, and when I discovered that “Jonny” (as Sandy called him) was a banker, I couldn’t help laughing, and then had to explain The Room. We were due to arrive in Sultanpur at 0530, but due to a long, inexplicable stop near a place called Sindurwa, we were over 3 hours late. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to sit on an Indian train and enjoy watching the dawn and the early morning countryside slide past, as every 100m there’s a man squatting on the embankment, facing the train, dick and balls out, doing a poo. I waved to a few of the ones who looked up.
We finally arrived in Sultanpur, where my host, J, met me and drove me back to his house. Another CS surfer, D from Lithuania, was already there, having arrived the previous night. It was immediately obvious that she had an eating disorder and possibly other mental health issues: she was skin-on-bone thin, sat huddled in on herself and gave sullen, reluctant responses to questions.
Normally I don’t like to write much about the people I meet, because I don’t want to intrude on their privacy, but to describe my experience of Sultanpur, I have to. It’s the story of the irresistable force of Indian generosity meeting the immoveable object of Lithuanian anorexia. I’ll refer to everyone only by initials, in order to protect their anonymity.
The first sign of trouble was at breakfast, which was vegetables and paranthas, cooked by J’s wife, and some jalebi (coils of batter, deep-fried then soaked in syrup) picked up from a street stall. They’re as sickly as they sound. I had my veg and parantha, and ate a couple of jalebi coils. D picked at the veg, nibbled the tiniest piece of jalebi, and complained about how unhealthy it was.
After breakfast, J drove us to his family’s ancestral village, a few miles outside of town. We visited his brother’s house, and his sister-in-law served us chai. D wouldn’t drink hers as it contained sugar, and it was tipped down a drain before I had a chance to say I’d happily add it to mine.
J then showed us around the village, where the peasants were busy constructing a house and boring a well with a tractor engine. We walked around the fields and he showed us various crops and explained the methods of processing. He also picked a few to take with us: as the landowner, he’s entitled to a share of the tenant farmers’ harvest. Other peasants respectfully brought him more crops, without asking; one time we were away from the car for a few minutes and when we came back, a bag of spinach was sitting on the floor next to it as tribute.
We stopped at a peasant house to watch the women separating rice grains from the straw by beating it on a slatted wooden table. The head peasant came out and invited us to sit. With no sense of tact, he immediately pointed at D, made pinching gestures on his own arm and said, “bohot halki hai” (she’s very thin). As if the meaning wasn’t obvious enough, J translated. D came up with a few standard anorexic responses: it was her body’s natural build, she had a fast metabolism, she had no health problems, etc, etc. The peasant wouldn’t leave it alone and kept commenting. I wonder what he’d have said if I’d pointed to his disgusting red tobacco and paan stained mouth with its three or four rotting teeth sticking out from receded gums at all angles.
We were brought a handful of chickpea leaves and instructed to insert a peck of crushed garlic and salt into it and eat. D tried a little. I said, “no thanks”. We were then invited to drink water and eat gur, a toffee-like block of unrefined brown sugar. D obviously wouldn’t touch it, and I also politely declined. I wasn’t going to eat anything uncooked and handled by peasants, and I certainly wasn’t going to drink their water. Afterwards, J said I’d offended them by not accepting anything they’d offered. I told him I didn’t mean to cause insult, but I had been very ill about a month ago, and a doctor in Delhi had told me to be very careful what I ate, and drink only bottled water, not even filtered water. It wasn’t even a lie. But to be honest, I didn’t care about offending them. Why am I not allowed to be offended to be given a cupful of germs and expected to drink it? Maybe if I go around causing memorable offence to peasants, they’ll learn that there’s something wrong with their food and drink, and notice that the people who don’t touch it are considerably healthier than them. As long as they don’t meet too many people like D, of course. However, I wasn’t even thinking any of this or trying to Encourage Best Practice; I was just thinking, “I have a week left in India, and I don’t want to spend it on the toilet, so I’m not taking any risks.”
As if to validate my policy, we next visited the house of a man who’d recently died. “An old man?” I asked. “No, not old,” J replied. We met his family. The mother looked impossibly ancient, shrivelled and tiny, squatting in the dust, like a raisin in a sari. The man’s brother looked 40+, so he was probably in his 30s, or even late 20s. He was in a traditional mourning state, during which he lived outside, cooked and ate his own food and stayed away from the rest of the family for thirteen days. J explained that the brother had been responsible for handling the body for cremation, and the traditional belief was that some of the responsibility for the death rubbed off on him, so he had to remain in penance. I suggested it was a form of quarantine: if the dead person had died of a disease, the person who handled the body might have caught it too, so he had to stay away from everyone else until he was clear. I don’t think J understood my explanation, as he said, “yes, they believe he is responsible, but they are simple people, they don’t understand that only god is responsible.” No, germs are responsible, and for once, traditional practice is right, without knowing the reason why.
While talking about traditional and religious beliefs, I couldn’t tell which of them J agreed with himself or didn’t, as he kept saying things like “this is only people’s beliefs” and “beliefs is in the head”. At one point he said, “we should not insult their beliefs”. Well, they’re not just in the head, because belief causes action, and actions can be dangerous if they’re based on falsehood, so if telling someone his beliefs are false causes insult, then brace yourself for insult.
We returned to Sultanpur for lunch at J’s house, where his two children (a boy, N, and a girl, K) were now home from school. Both of them were desperately helpful with the serving of lunch, and making sure that both D and I were comfortable and had everything we wanted. I’d already started to notice how rude D was in the village, where she’d asked for the chai, then rejected it, and had shown a surly lack of interest in everything J was showing us. It was even more pronounced over lunch, and I could kind of see why. The aggressive generosity, fussing and questioning by J and the others was typically Indian and overwhelming. I took a while to get used to it when I first arrived in India, but eventually settled on a policy of polite but firm refusal of anything I didn’t want. D had a lot less confidence in declining, so continued to receive it, and she was obviously fed up, especially as an anorexic, with having food constantly forced on her, and no fewer than half a dozen repeated “no”s being taken for an answer. But as a guest, there are ways to be polite and grateful while saying no, and D wasn’t achieving that: she was quiet, sullen and then snappy. Her attitude, as an adult, was that of a grumpy teenager, and contrasted markedly with the wonderfully sweet and attentive manners of the actual teens, who were trying to look after us. Though she probably wasn’t trying to, at times D came across like quite a little bitch.
After lunch, J took us sightseeing around Sultanpur, which meant visiting a very old tree called ‘parijaat’, which was having surgery performed on it as two huge branches had snapped. It was supposed to have some kind of religious significance, of course. We also saw a statue of Kush, son of Rama, who had some link to Sultanpur. And that was it. J was very apologetic and embarrassed that Sultanpur had so little of tourist interest. I tried to assure him that I’d chosen to visit for that very reason, because I’d found that the friendliest people were in the non-tourist places, and I was happy just to meet him and his family, and spend a couple of days relaxing.
J took us to the main market square, to his friend’s coffee shop, where we had a local speciality snack, baati chokha: a pastry patty containing ground chickpeas, served with a spicy mush of potato, tomato and onion. Then, after the town’s electricity had come on for the night, we went to an internet shop, and I quickly checked my email. The connection was a bit flaky, and when the shopkeeper asked if we wanted chai, D snapped, “No! I want to use the internet but it’s not working!” By this time, J was taking her petulant demands and complaints humorously, but I wasn’t sure if he was just laughing to cover his annoyance, or if he was blissfully unaware of D’s rudeness to him. I’d checked my mail and said yes to the chai, which a boy was sent out for and came back with in little plastic bags, one without sugar for D. Everyone was going to great lengths to accommodate her, yet she showed no gratitude at all.
Earlier in the day, we’d been asked what we wanted for dinner. J suggested palak paneer (spinach and cheese, usually called ‘sag paneer’ on Indian restaurant menus in the UK), and we’d repeatedly said “yes” to it every time he’d asked. This was another of the times D had snapped at him: “How many times do I have to answer? You’ve already asked me five or six times and I’ve said yes every time”. The palak was taken from the villagers’ tribute pile, and D’s wife had gone out to get paneer especially. It was served at about 8 or 9pm that night, and was delicious. And yet, ironically (because she’d said she’d wanted it so many times she’d even commented on it) and unbelievably (because of the effort that had gone into preparing it), D refused to eat anything at all, saying that it was too late to eat now, and she wasn’t hungry after the tiny baati chokha several hours earlier. Fast metabolism, my arse.
No-one believed that she could really be too full to eat, and kept insisting that she try some of the dinner, or at least have something else instead. While she was out of the room, I tried to explain eating disorders to J and N. I said that there were different attitudes to food in India and Europe: in India, where food is sometimes scarce, and many people still don’t have enough of it, the attitude is simple, if you have food, you eat it, but in Europe, for about 50-60 years, everyone has had enough food, there’s never a shortage, and in fact we have too much of it, there’s more available than we need, and people have got into the habit of eating too much, and now we have problems with obesity and health and [miming] heart attacks, because everyone eats too much food, too much fat and salt and sugar, but now some people are realising this and trying to eat less and avoid the bad foods with the fat and the sugar, but some people go too far and get strange ideas, and they go a bit mad in the way they think about food, and that D was one of those people, and she had a mental problem, there was a problem in her head which meant that she couldn’t eat food properly, but if you tried to force food on her it might make it worse, so they shouldn’t keep insisting on her eating things all the time, and offering food to her after she’d said no. N seemed to understand but I wasn’t sure about J.
The next day, things were uneventful while J was at work and we relaxed around the house. When he returned at midday, we had lunch of vegetables and daal, served with chapattis. When the plates were brought out, D immediately refused the chapattis and asked for rice. Either she hadn’t yet learned the standard Indian meal sequence (which starts with chapattis, and then the rice, which is still cooking, comes out a few minutes later) or she didn’t care.
That led to a discussion of the kind of bread we have in Europe, an explanation of rye (which D claimed to eat in Lithuania), and yeast and leavening, other foods and customs, weather and climate and finally politics and history. By this time, the entire family, and the domestic servants (which N described as “the rented people”) had come out to listen to me lecture on both British and (because D wasn’t very co-operative) Lithuanian history and government. After I’d explained constitutional monarchy and the union of the English and Scottish crowns, J asked D who the first king of her country was and she responded, “why do you want to know the name? You will not have heard of it,” and I had to tell her that actually, they were interested to find out and wanted her to tell them so they would learn something new… introducing her to concept of ‘conversation’.
In the discussion of climate and seasons, another question was about the lengthening and shortening of days. I explained how, closer to the poles, the difference in daytime length between the seasons became more exaggerated, and how the polar regions themselves had 24 hour daylight in the summer and 24 hour darkness in winter, for months at a time. This blew everyone’s minds, and one of the servants, no longer sure what basic assumptions he could trust, asked if in other parts of the world the sun still rose in the east and set in the west. I reassured him that this was universal and he relaxed again.
The servants went back to work and J and D discussed the details of her onward transport the next day. J suggested a train leaving Sultanpur for Allahabad at 0600 but D didn’t fancy getting up that early, and wanted to catch a bus later in the morning. J kept insisting on the train and D got more pissed off with him; I kept out of it, though it was difficult not to laugh at one point. D thought they were talking about whether it was necessary to book a “bus” but J was saying “berth” and was still going on about the 0600 train. I really hoped the conversation would end with the ambiguity still unresolved but unfortunately J got the message and agreed to take D to the bus station in the morning.
In the afternoon, J took us out again, and the first stop was a bakery, where we watched the workers making jeera biscuits, small sticks of flaky pastry meant for dipping in chai. Indeed, chai was produced and we were invited to try the biscuits with it. D reluctantly had one, then J was given a couple of packets as a gift to take with him.
We stopped again to see the village market, where J showed us more types of street food being prepared on stalls. He showed us how the jalebi was deep fried in the oil, then dipped in the liquid sugar, and asked if D wanted to try some. No, she’d already tried it yesterday morning. Did I want to try some? No thanks, I’d already tried it yesterday morning too. This sort of questioning occurred with every new bit of junk food we came across, and although I tried to catch J’s eye, nod towards D and remind him of the previous night’s conversation, he didn’t catch on.
While J and D were watching rice being puffed by cooking it in sand then sieving it out again, I stepped out from under the little shack in which this was happening, because the smoke from the fire was stinging my eyes a little, and I’d grasped the process by then. At this point I was approached by two teenage boys. One of them gestured to his camera phone and asked, “please can I have one picture?” (ie, a trophy photo of me). I swept him up in an alternative version of the conversation so quickly that he never had a chance to get it back to the meaning he wanted. “Yes, of course,” I said, grabbing the phone off him and lining him up for a photo, “you want me to take your photo, no problem…” “No,” he embarrassedly tried to protest, pointing to his friend, trying to say, “I want him to take a photo of you and me,” but I overrode him again with, “oh, both of you, yes, move together then and I’ll get the two of you in the photo.” They smiled awkwardly, I clicked them, returned the camera with a breezy “there you go!” and strode off. Textbook.
As J continued going around the market, finding more food items to offer to us, I was in a dilemma over how to deal with the awkward clash of attitudes between him and D. On the one hand, I wanted to keep out of it, and distance myself from D, as I didn’t want to be associated with her terrible manners (especially around strangers, who would naturally assume we were together). On the other, sometimes I couldn’t help stepping in, partly to protect D from the food hassling, and partly to prevent her from having to respond herself, because every time she did, the rudeness was so awkward and embarrassing it made me hate her a little more. Driving away from the market, I thought I might get some peace for a while, when J spotted a samosa stall, and asked if I knew samosas and wanted to try one (“Yes, I know samosas, I don’t want a samosa, thank you”) and did D know about samosas and want to try one (“Yes! I’m sure D has seen samosas before, samosas are everywhere in India! She doesn’t want a samosa.”)
We went back to the village a second time to collect a bag of flour, and this time J’s eldest brother was home, so we went to meet him. He asked if we’d like chai, and I said yes. We sat and talked for about half an hour and watched the life of the village: children planting seedlings in the garden, a stray mother dog suckling her puppies, a couple of boys riding off on a motorbike. We started to wonder why the chai was taking so long. After another quarter of an hour, the boys returned on the motorbike, and we discovered why. There’d been no milk, so they’d been sent to fetch chai from a neighbouring village. It’s typical of India: the great lengths people will go to, to provide you something, even if it’s not immediately available. Often this ends up inconveniencing you more than if they’d just admitted in the first place that they couldn’t help. It’s a cultural difference, to do with hospitality, and the necessity of saving face for the host. However, it implies a value-judgment: the guest’s comfort and the satisfaction of his desire for chai is the important thing; his time is of no value. But I do value time, especially when travelling, and I’d rather someone say, “I’m sorry, we have no milk,” than keep me waiting almost an hour while they search the entire district for some (and I’d equally rather not be responsible for putting them to that trouble). Oh well. On that particular day, I wasn’t in a rush, so it didn’t matter.
It mattered to D though, because to save face while the tea was being collected, our host, J’s brother, had brought out a tray of peanuts, biscuits and nibble mix to add to the jeera biscuits already laid on. D quickly got annoyed, because she’d only agreed to one more jeera and even that was an imposition as it would spoil her appetite for dinner in three hours’ time, and now she was having a whole meal of snacks forced on her, and when she refused everything, the host’s interpretation was that he hadn’t yet managed to offer her the food she actually wanted, so did she want some bread? which almost blew her fuse. Meanwhile, I conspicuously ate a few peanuts to keep everyone happy.
J must have got a taste for peanuts from the snack-meal at his brother’s house, and stopped to get some more on the way home. And I mean he literally stopped the car next to the peanut stall, honked the horn, and waited until the peanut man came to the window and obsequiously handed him a bag. At home, it was about 6pm, so halfway between lunch and dinner, and the peanuts were put out on the table as a snack. This wasn’t your normal-sized peanut packet tipped into a little tray, however. This was a half-kilogram sack, upturned onto the table to form a huge mound, which J and the family proceeded to plough through. “You don’t like peanuts?” J had asked D, after she refused to join in. “No, they have too much fat,” she replied. “What! Peanuts do not have fat!” everyone scoffed at her preposterous idea. “Only meat from animals has fat.” I had to back D up on this one, and when I was asked if that meant we didn’t eat peanuts in England either, I said we did, but – and I scooped a tiny fraction of peanuts from the pile and set it aside – it would be this many peanuts put in a bowl, and everyone would have a few only. J nodded, interested to hear about our bizarre culture where guests aren’t offered an elephant’s portion of peanuts as pre-meal nibbles. D said nothing.
Dinner came a couple of hours later, and once again, D refused to eat any at all, declaring that she was already full (from the two insubstantial jeera biscuits she’d had mid-afternoon). She went and sat in the other room while I was served food alongside the rest of the family. J’s daughter K took some food through to her anyway, and I could hear her insisting D eat something. I reminded J and N of the previous night’s conversation, and while J still didn’t understand, N got it immediately and rushed through to drag K away so that D wouldn’t be hassled any more.
I left that night, so I don’t know what became of D after I was gone – whether she continued to have food forced on her with best intentions – but N had certainly grasped the idea of a mental illness affecting her desire for food. I thought J hadn’t, but when he dropped me off at the station and we were standing waiting for the train, he asked me if I really thought D had an illness in the head which was why she wouldn’t eat, and I said yes, and I think it finally sunk in.
God knows why D decided to travel alone around India, a country in which food is so important, and the rules of hospitality mean it’s forced on you constantly and insistently, if she didn’t want to eat anything. She’s obviously come up with a coping strategy for it, and that strategy is to be a rude, ungrateful bitch to the people hosting her. I, on the other hand, had a wonderful time in Sultanpur, not just because I got to be a spectator to the fascinating battle of wills between J and D. The hosting, especially from J but also from the whole family and even the town was incredible. The baati chowkha, the chai and biscuits, even the time in the internet shop, were all given to us for free – perhaps partly because big boss J was with us, but also because, according to him, we were regarded by everyone as guests in Sultanpur. You certainly don’t get that in Agra.