I had a friend recently tell me about his trip to Punjab.
He said it was a really amazing experience, unlike anything he had ever seen at home. He was there during Vaisakhi, and was amazed at the colors everywhere. It was a little difficult for him to get around since he didn’t know Hindi or Punjabi, but he was able to get by with a little English. He tried all sorts of new food and loved it, but after a while started craving food from home and finally found a small restaurant. He had never seen a Sikh gurudwara before and went on and on about the architecture. He was even invited to a wedding. He didn’t know what he was doing at first, but soon joined in the dancing and felt very much at home.
I was amazed at his stories, but not just because Punjab is a wonderful place to visit.
I was more amazed because my friend is Indian (from Tamil Nadu).
Diversity in India
There are so many different Indias in this country that you can travel down the street or 500 kilometers down the highway and feel like you are in a completely new world. As a country with 17 languages on its currency notes, India epitomizes diversity.
In fact, you can slice up India in many different ways: economically, linguistically, culinarily, religiously…the diversity is endless. You should be skeptical anytime someone says, “India is like this.”
Which India are you talking about: Marathis or Punjabis? Mallus or Bengalis? Hindus or Sikhs? Urban IT professionals or rural farmers?
It is not India, but Indias. It is a country of countries, a kingdom of interconnecting kingdoms, a nation of divided and united nations. Nothing could be more complex than trying to speak of any universal truth about India simply because there are so many Indias to speak of.
Winston Churchill once said India was no more a single country than the Equator. Many have suggested you should think of India more like the European Union than one united country. India has been an amalgamation of cultures from the very beginning of its existence.
“Is this your daughter?”
One of my favorite stories in India happened when I introduced my mother- in-law to a very successful businessman I knew well. We sat in his office and enjoyed some tea and small talk. The conversation shifted to children and the businessman started talking about his daughter at the same time one of the office helpers came in and started serving tea.
My mother-in-law is a classic American and comes from a part of the country where children often help out their parents who own businesses by doing random jobs around the office.
Only seeing the office help out of the corner of her eye, my mother-in-law said, “Oh, is this your daughter?”
My eyes lit up with shock. It would be extremely rude to assume that the daughter of a very successful businessman would be doing work done by a completely different segment of society. Those are two different Indias, and mixing the rules between the two can get you in trouble.
Thankfully, the businessman didn’t take offense and laughed off the situation, but it could have ended much worse.
Dealing with the Diversity
India is a highly segmented country, and foreigners should be aware that each group has different rules around how you should treat them. Muslims will not like it if you wish them a happy Diwali, but never say anything around Eid. Someone from Andhra Pradesh will not be impressed that you love chicken tikka masala (a British-Punjabi dish), but have never heard of biryani. A Bengali will not appreciate that you can name the top Bollywood stars, but have never read any Tagore.
Assuming that all Indians are the same is not only a display of ignorance, it can also lead to some fatal mistakes that aren’t easy to recover from. Spend some time learning about diversity in India and you will set yourself up for greater success.
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Photo Credit: Reverses on Flickr