India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Travel
August 11, 2013

How Are You Like This?

Text by Neha Gupta. Illustration by Farzana Cooper.

An Estonian visits Mumbai city and her Indian host discovers that much of what we take for granted, leaves visitors goggle-eyed and open-mouthed

When my friend visited India from Estonia, it was her premier trip to a tropical destination. And so the visit was fuelled by questions, unabated enthusiasm and a fat guidebook.

Her first real meal was dal chawal – staple Indian food as requested. Out of politeness, she asked if we would feel offended if she used a spoon instead of fingers and the roti was stared at with much consternation. It didn’t take long for her to discover Indians’ penchant for stuffing people with food. That’s when she wondered why the nation doesn’t suffer from American troubles of obesity – especially with so much flavour! The meal ended with fennel seeds, an Indian mouth-freshener heaped on her palm. Apparently this manner of eating is not usual. Not knowing how to consume them, she simply stuck her tongue out to lift a cluster.

The next day we made our way to Mumbai’s sea-front. Shanties lining the streets begged a question. The explanation of them being financially bereft didn’t seem to convince her. “They don’t look very poor. They all have clothes, shoes and mobile phones.” Fair enough.

Finally we reached Chowpatty. She kicked off her shoes to feel the sand. The next minute she was all set to undress and fling herself into the sea. A shriek from me saved her modesty. Unable to process ideas of a conservative culture, she just had to ask, innocently, “Is it because you think you can’t be more tanned?”

We finished the day of basking by the ocean – fully clad of course, and drove towards a temple. The closer we go got, the more crowded the streets became. Sudden volumes of bodies around our car baffled her to a point where she wondered if I had dared to manoeuvre on the footpath to avoid signals. And when I honked at a strolling bovine, she jumped at me, appalled. Apparently my rudeness could have offended someone. She immediately joined her palms and asked the holy cow for forgiveness.

At last we walked into the venerated temple. The number of idols puzzled her to remark, “So many Hindu Gods? Learning your holy book must’ve been stupefying!” I shrugged, mentioning Sunday television’s dramatic depiction of our mythology. She deemed it an advanced method of studying. Her first impression on the idols was that they emulated modern superheroes. Multiple arms holding weapons or objects of supremacy – it must be all about superpowers because each deity rode a well-trained ferocious animal too. But when she saw Lord Ganesha, her heart melted in gushing sighs. She couldn’t move on from the fact that while most held weapons, this cute, round God held a ladoo and was friends with a mouse.

Our next destination was a sweet shop where she planned to devour everything in sight; so we started with the typical chaat. Expectantly she bit into her paani puri instead of taking it all in a bite. It burst like a water balloon. Five days later it was time for her to leave. She admitted it had been like stepping into a parallel universe that she thoroughly enjoyed. Ruminating cows at busy junctions, treating her taste-buds to new flavours, and the happiest trips were those to temples – it was never enough. Apart from the bindis and bright-patterned scarfs for friends and family, three idols of Ganesha were perfect souvenirs for her bedside, office desk and handbag.

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