P.J. O'Rourke on India – Hilarious Observations

PJ O’Rourke, one of the funniest writers alive (excerpts from Holidays in Hell), surprised me with a contribution in The Best American Travel Writing of 2000 on…India! I laughed out loud many a time while reading this essay in the Mumbai airport. I’ve seen all of this — not kidding. So I’ll let a more talented writer take over:

The road is straight and level and would be almost two lanes wide if there were such things as lanes in India. The asphalt paving — where it isn’t absent — isn’t bad. As roads go in the developing world, this is a good one. But Indians have their own uses for the main thoroughfare spanning their nation. It’s a place where friends and family can meet, where they can set up charpoy beds and have a nap and let the kids run around unsupervised. It’s a roadside cafe with no side — or tables, or chairs — where the street food is smack-dab on the street. It’s a rent-free function room for every local fete….

The road is also convenient for bullock cars, donkey gigs, horse wagons, pack camels, and the occasional laden elephant — not convenient for taking them anywhere, just convenient. There they stand, along with sheep, goats, water buffalo, and the innumerable cows sent to graze on the Grand Trunk. I watched several cows gobbling cardboard boxes and chewing plastic bags. There may be reasons besides sanctity that the Indians don’t eat them…

India really is magical. How can they drive like this without killing people? They can’t. Jeeps bust scooters, scooters plow into bicycles, bicycles cover the hoods of jeeps. Cars run into trees. Buses run into ditches, rolling over their old-fashioned rounded tops until they’re mashed into chapatis of carnage. And everyone runs into pedestrians. A speed bump is called a “sleeping policeman” in England. I don’t know what it’s called in India. “Dead person lying in the road” is a guess. The animals get clobbered, too, including the sacred cows, in accidents notable for the unswerving behavior of all participants. Late in our trip, in Bihar state, the car in front of us hit a cow — no change in speed or direction from the car, no change in posture or expression from the cow….

In one day of travel, going about 265 miles from Varanasi to the border of west Bengal, I recorded 25 horrendous Tata wrecks. And I was scrupulous in my tallying. Fender benders didn’t score; neither did old, abandoned wrecks or broken-down Tatas. Probable loss of life was needed to make the list. If you saw one of these pile-ups on I-95, you’d pull into the next rest stop — clutch foot shivering, hand palsied upon the shift knob — saying, “Next time, we fly.” In India, you shout to your car-mates, “That’s number nineteen! I’m winning the truck-wreck pool for today!” …

Getting out of Pakistan was a normal THird World procedure. A customs official explained the entire system of Pakistani tariff regulation and passport control by running his thumb against his forefinger. “Fifty dollars,” he said. I opened my wallet, foolishly revealing two fifty-dollar bills. “One hundred dollars,” he said.

Experiencing Bollywood Up Close

Bollywood is the world’s largest film industry — larger than hollywood.

If you’re not familiar with Bollywood you haven’t visited your local video store recently. It’s huge. A Bollywood film’s distinguishing characteristic is a lot of song or dance. There will be drama, drama, dialogue, action, and then suddenly, a three minute music video. All the characters will start singing and dancing. And then they return to the plot development.

It’s a hoot.

Bombay is Bollywood. One afternoon I went to see the big Bollywood hit "Don" with a blog reader. I really liked it, even though 75% of the lines were in Hindi. Good music, good action, and a twists and turns plot that reminded me of the tv show 24.

The most interesting part of being in Bollywood while watching a Bollywood hit:

a) Old and New — Globalization and the export of promiscuous western culture is affecting keep-your-clothes on societies like India. Don had a lot of raunchy images with women showing way more skin than is generally accepted in Indian society. And yet there were 60+ years old men and women in the theater watching it. When I asked my blog reader companion how they reconciled the value clash in the movie and their own practices she said people just watch the stuff and then automatically bounce back to the old-style culture. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure. You watch in the darkness of the theater and then forget about it.

b) Tech vs Poverty — Nice, nice theater in the middle of a mall. Huge screen, sound, seats, etc. Posh mall. You step outside the air conditioned mall and you face once again the dire poverty. What a clash.

Days 30+: Bombay, India

My four nights in Bombay (Mumbai) introduced me to the developing world is a most real way. I did not stay in a five star hotel, or even any hotel at all. I stayed with a reader of my blog and lived with his family. They showed enormous kindness and hospitality in an inspiring kind of way. For example, they gave me one whole bedroom, leaving three others to make do in the living room. I felt guilty for assuming such a presence but I knew they genuinely wanted to show me the warmest environment they could.Img_streetsss_copy

Almost every single one of my hosts overseas apologizes for something not being as big as it is in America. "I know this car isn’t as big as the cars you drive in America" or "I’m sure this house isn’t as big as your houses in America." Sometimes this is true, sometimes it isn’t, but in the end it doesn’t matter.

I feel proud that in Mumbai I think I got an authentic Indian experience. My bathroom didn’t have toilet paper. The power in the house went out once or twice a day as part of rotating brownouts. I gained some experience eating with my hands. I saw a mini-altar for Ganesh in the kitchen. I watched the kids outside play cricket in the dusty heat. I saw glimpses of the technology wealth and had some meetings in an incredible five star hotel, but more often saw depressing poverty. (The rich getting richer / poor getting poorer trend seems ubiquitous around the world.)Img_2003

On my first full day in Bombay I walked the streets a bit with my host, and then via a combination of auto-rickshaw, taxi, and train, made ourselves to Bombay city limits (I lived in the suburbs). Riding an Indian train is an experience in itself. Like all public transit in Bombay, it’s always packed. Packed to the brink. No room to move. The trains are old and rickety. I rode the line that blew up three months in the Mumbai train bombings. After we arrived in Bombay we wandered around the beautiful victorian buildings built when the British occupied India. Then we took a 1.5 hr boat to Elephanta Island, the only getaway destination from Bombay. Some amazing caves and carvings into rock which are thousands of years old. The tranquil island is home to hundreds of monkeys. They don’t harm humans — unless you’re holding a water bottle in whic case they’ll snatch it out of your hands, open the top, and start drinking.Img_1999Img_2006

After Elephanta Island I snuck into a super nice hotel to use their johnson and requisite toilet paper, but constipation from initial repulsion at using my hands to wipe the ass prevented me from a complete bowel movement.

Then I had my first of many excellent dinners. My host’s wife returned home early from work each night to cook something special and low in spices (since I’m really sensitive to spicy food). They asked me, repeatedly, if I liked the food and each time I answered a genuine yes. Most Indians are vegetarian but it’s much more creative than American vegetarianism.

My second full day was devoted to business. I met two interesting young entrepreneurs at the JW Mariott Hotel (incredible luxury amidst utter poverty), bought a power adapter, and snuck into the Mariott’s hotel gym and spa to workout and take a shower (I also stole their toilet paper from the bathroom to keep in my stash). I hired a driver to take me around — a change of pace from the rickshaw the day before. I’m glad I had a driver. It took 2 hours to get home after my workout. The traffic here is atrocious at all hours of the day. Car lanes don’t seem to exist, the roads have tons of potholes, and the mix of motorcycles, cars, auto-rickshaws, and the occasional bike, produce havoc. My air conditioned car proved a nice reprise from the madness, though I must admit some guilt as I looked out my window up to the bus next to us and all the people squished so tightly looking so miserable.Img_2011

Bombay is a cosmopolitan city that supposedly generates the most pride from its residents. It’s not free of poverty, even though it’s one of the most urban settings. It has its share of basic tourist places and mega hotels, so if you want to visit India in luxury you can do it in Bombay. I didn’t. I stayed with a family and had multi hour conversations with my hosts on topics ranging from politics to America’s role in the world to religion to culture to parenting styles to software outsourcing. Keeping such close quarters provided a rich glimpse into Indian life.


Thanks KM and family for such wonderful hospitality in Bombay!

India's Democracy Prevents It from Doing What China Can

China displaced more than a million people to build three gorges dam. The government basically said, “Get up. Move. We’re destroying your villages and local culture because this is a national interest.”

In India a politician proposed to move a slum out from beside a freeway and try to develop the area a little bit. Outrage ensued and the people exercised their voice and vote. The slums remain. The freeway is still a joke.

China wanted to develop Shanghai at the cost of moving some current residents. Residents protested. Government: “Fuck you.” 10 years later Shanghai is one the most developed skylines in the world.

China’s authoritarian rule allows it to affect change quickly. One reason they’ve been growing so much.

In India, a democracy of a billion people slows decision making to a crawl. Meanwhile, the infrastructure here is still a joke.

In the long run India’s political system is more sustainable, I think, but in the short term — if you view people as numbers and GDP as God — it’s clear which system is working better.

When the Head Rocks Back and Forth

At first I thought the guy was mocking me or laughing at me.

He rocked his head back left to right on a vertical axis. It wasn’t a nod up/down or a shake left/right, it was rocking the head back and forth on vertical axis.

Then I realized that’s the head signal for understanding and affirmation in India. They don’t have “yes” or “no” head signals. It’s this ambiguous confirmation thing.

So many cultural nuggets. You think someone is being kind and they’re laughing at you. You think they’re an asshole and they’re really showing the utmost respect.