Thursday, May 2, 2013

My Long-distance Love Affair with India

My Long-distance Love Affair with India

It started simply enough. I work in IT (Information Technology…computers).  Indian IT had exploded and my company took advantage of a shortage of workers in this field by supplementing the talent we had with ‘external associates’ – consultants.  It started as a trickle and soon became a flood.  New faces were appearing everywhere to the tune of ultimately around 3000 consultants to augment our own staff of around 5000.  Yes, it takes a lot of computer programmers to automate an industry giant.    The flood brought instant diversity to a predominantly white profession in a predominantly white Midwestern town. The Change didn’t just affect the walls inside my company.  Our city began to change, too.  Indian restaurants began appearing.  Indian grocery stores began appearing.  People played cricket in the parks. People began, for lack of a better term, strolling.  Strolling…walking about with no particular place to go and not in a fast walk intended for exercise. 

How did this affect me?  How did this one simple change within the walls of a company change my life? J 

At the same time the shift in work culture was happening, my daughter was signed up to take Spanish in school.  I love languages and know enough Spanish to get me by but wanted to refresh my knowledge so I could be a help with homework.  I sought out help on the internet and soon found a wealth of websites to teach me Spanish.  While I was there, I shopped around…what else could I learn?  I wanted more of a challenge.  Not that Spanish is easy, but I decided I wanted to learn something that didn’t use my same character set, something not based on the Roman alphabet.  Yep, as you will see as you read further, I am not normal.    Chinese and Japanese seemed unapproachable as art was never one of my skills and making the beautiful letters or figuring out how they fit together was out of reach of my patience.  At that point, a light bulb went on.  A light that is still burning brightly…brilliantly…(  HINDI!  I’ll learn Hindi!  The National Language of India!  Ideas formed as to how I would have so many teachers abounding for my new lessons.

And so I started….very, very slowly at first.  I signed up at some language-learning websites like (more of a social learning site), (social as well as content-based).  I made ‘friends’ who would be encouraging my language-learning and correct my written and spoken exams.  I printed off a map of India and put pins in the map indicating where my new friends lived.  I’ve always had a love of geography but India was just, well, India – a triangular-shaped country hanging off of Asia, dwarfed by China, and surrounded by ‘stan’s…Afghanistan and Pakistan.   Suddenly, printing off my map and sticking pins in it made me notice states.  India is made up of states.  And this is where I really got drawn in. India’s states are not like the states here in the United States.  It’s not as simple as crossing a border here where the people look the same, talk the same, and eat the same food.  As I would soon discover, crossing a state border in India changes things, namely, in a lot of cases, language.  You’re kidding me, right?  States have their own languages???  Oh, that was only the beginning.

 I progressed…finding verbs at the end of the sentence, direct objects at the beginning, and feminine vs masculine nouns, adjectives and even verbs.  I had to learn to use postpositions instead of prepositions.  Whew!  Was this more than I bargained for?  I was still, at this point, skipping actually learning the Devanagari script, instead using transliterated hindi (making the hindi words as they might appear in roman letters).  (क्या = kya). This made it easier to communicate in chat sessions.  Easier is a relative term, however.  Since transliterated hindi is however the speller might assume it to be in roman letters, it took on all kinds of appearances.

And then there was  It allowed me to learn in transliterated form, but I couldn’t pass level one without being able to read a passage written in Devanagari script for my teachers to correct.  And then my favorite Learning Hindi book, which had carried me using both Devanagari and transliterated forms, started forcing me at Chapter 5 to learn Devanagari.  Ugh.  It was time to start over and go to page one where all of the sqiggles were.  Lots of them look similar to an English speaker.  For example here are some of my troublesome look-alikes:  म भ थ स .


This isn’t all of them, and don’t get me started on conjunct consonants which are two ‘letters’ squished together usually using only parts of one of the ‘letters’ leaving a person like me to say….are you kidding me?    There are over 1000 of these amalgamations.   I decided to only concentrate on the common ones and guess at the rest.

All of this obsession with learning the language and meeting teachers from all over India opened my eyes to the myriad cultural differences within the country.  Have I mentioned I like learning new things?  In this one country, there is enough diversity to learn forever.  And because Indian culture was virtually unknown to me, I dug in in all areas at once.    Let’s start with Music.

I have a Masters Degree in Music – Voice and Conducting. No need to go back up to the top of the article when you say, I thought she said she was in IT?  I changed.   Music is a big part of my life.  Western Music, I should say.  In all my training, I was never EVER introduced to Indian music – classical or pop.    New things are like Christmas morning to me.  Everything is sparkly and new and a little bit breathless.  The Indian classical music is hard on the Western ear which relies on consonance.  Indian classical is frequently dissonant.  There is a drone instrument with limited pitches.  The tabla is an interesting mix between bongos and tiny kettle drums.  The singer, singular because Indian classical music is centered on the improvisational skills of a single voice within strict rules, uses quarter-tones and sliding making it uniquely different from music Western ears are used to.   There is an amazing mathematical beat cycle component to the music and those that are math-inclined as well as musically-inclined would find it a challenge worth listening for.  And then there is Bollywood music.   It now fills my iPod.  Although the movies tend to take on a bit of a corny side compared to Hollywood movies, the music is worth exploring.   I don’t want to offend Bollywood movie-watchers, but American musicals put off many viewers as well, as actors break into song and dance in the middle of the story line….this is Bollywood.  Large choreographed numbers appear in virtually all movies complete with herky-jerky dancing.  Movies are also much more wholesome than the language, nudity and violence that litters American theaters.

Hold on while I go and get a bite to eat before I start this next paragraph.  Just talking about food makes my mouth water.  I love to cook.  I am passionate about cooking and flavor. A big part about learning about culture is learning about their food.  So I tasted.  Hmmmmm.  Different. I tasted again.  Hmmmm.  Tomatoes, cilantro, onions… familiar.   What ARE these other flavors??   The quest for that answer increased my cookbook collection of already around 300 to dedicate a whole shelf to Indian cooking.  Every new recipe to try meant more trips to the Indian grocery.  That, in itself, was a little uncomfortable at first.  In supermarkets, one can blend in with a hundred other shoppers.  In the Indian grocery, that number is less than ten, and many times less than five.  And I guarantee you, I am the only blonde, blue-eyed shopper.  I had to get used to curious stares.  In American culture, staring is considered rude.  Indians, for the most part, will unabashedly stare. 

So trip after trip, my larder grew, and my confidence grew.  I finally had to rearrange my kitchen to allow one whole cabinet to Indian ingredients.  I have to confess that I sometimes just open it and stand there looking at it all. It makes me happy.  I have YouTube contributors I follow to get different perspectives…thanks Manjula for basic instructions (without much smiling!) and thanks Vah Chef for an overwhelming ebullience and passion for cooking.  And then Hetl and Anuja from Show me the  And I follow bloggers Sailu (Sailu's Indian Food & Andhra Recipes) and Nupur (One Hot Stove) where I also get ideas. 

I would prefer to cook Indian food every day. My son loves it.  My daughter doesn’t even want to be in the house if I’m cooking it.   I’ve always wanted to be a vegetarian but with American cuisine it is difficult.  American food is centered around A Meat, A Potato, and A Vegetable.  Coming from a country with a high percentage of vegetarians, Indian cuisine has a wealth of choices.  And not once do you feel like you’re missing something by leaving out the meat. 

The rumors and misinformation I like to dispel are….”I don’t like curry”.  “ Indian food is too spicy”  Curry is not a thing.  In American cooking, curry powder is something that you can buy along with your other spices of oregano, basil, garlic powder, cinnamon, etc.    In India, curry would be roughly translated for us as a gravy, or a sauce. Curries take on all kinds of personalities, especially depending on the area of the country you are eating from.  Saying “I don’t like curry” would be akin to saying…I don’t like chicken, or I don’t like pasta.  It’s a whole class of foods.

And for all of you saying you can’t handle spicy food…not everything is spicy!  And if you cook it yourself, you can leave out the green chilis or the dried red chilies or the chili powder.  An important distinction here….chili powder in Indian cooking is  ground-up dried cayenne peppers as opposed to the chili powder we know here which is a dark brown to orange and actually a spice blend of chili powder, cumin, garlic and oregano.

 So, we've covered food and music and language.  It's just the beginning of the differences and the fascination.  Let's move on to religion.  Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddism, Christianity...all present in India but dominated by Hinduism.  Coming from a predominantly Christian nation, I had never learned about anything else. I believe in God.  I also believe that religions all have a different way of worshipping the same God.  Different names, different traditions, different idols, different statues.  One God.  Hinduism is a fascinating world.  The stories are magnific.  Learning about other religions does not diminish your own.  I wish people understood that.  I visited a hindu temple when at the wedding of a friend's son. Weddings are not held in the temple as ours are held in the church.  Shoeless, I walked through the temple feeling awed, but confused and out of place.  Worshippers in the temple did not find me as an intruder.  I was welcome.  One woman introduced herself and took me around the temple explaining the gods and goddesses.  She even gave me her business card if I had any questions...and not in a proselytizing way as our overzealous Christians do.  Ganesh is my favorite of the gods.   I collect Ganesh items that I can find here.
I can't discuss all the things that make me gravitate toward India without talking about all of the people I have met.  In joining the language learning websites, I met people from all around the world.  I helped people with  English and corrected TOEFL practices (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and taught idioms and slang.  In the process, besides hindi, I learned some arabic, portuguese, more spanish and some other bits and pieces of languages and culture.  Nowhere in the world were the people I worked with nicer and more polite than in India.  I was safe friending Indians as opposed to a couple naked Greeks and supremely perverse Turks. (I ended up making a rule not to friend anyone in Turkey!)  I got marriage proposals, requests to get people into the United States, requests for money, and many other things.  But none of these things came from Indians.   As for my indian colleagues, they have made my work world richer.   And who can't like that lyrical accent and head bobble. 
So, I could go on and on and on (just ask my friends and co-workers) about why I find India a place worthy of my obsession, but for now, that is my story.  I'm not sure how this will all play out but I know that my world has grown tremendously since discovering the subcontinent is more than just a triangle on the map.





  1. What a great story! I look forward to hearing more about your experiences.

    I adore Hindi! I started learning about four years ago and I'm at basic conversation these days (and challenging myself by watching movies with the subtitles off!)

    I relate so much to Hinduism that ten years ago I declared myself a Hindu and I've been exploring the issues that go along with that on a daily blog. Blogging is a great exercise to help learn about yourself :)

    "Learning about other religions does not diminish your own." SO TRUE!

  2. Thanks, Ambaa! I bought 3 Idiots first because it is an incredible movie but also to help me listen in hindi. I need to get my brain up to the speed of my ear for conversation. :)

  3. A very beautiful article. I enjoyed every line of it. How i can subscribe to your blogs?

    1. Let me check on that, Sudheer. I thought I had a link on here.

    2. Sudheer - I tried to add an RSS feed to the page. Can you try it??

  4. I am very much going to enjoy this blog! I am intrigued! Can't wait for more! Thanks Kelly!