Having just married into an Indian family and being somewhat acquainted (or shall we say, fascinated beyond words) with the culture through exposure to Bollywood etc. for many years since college, one would think that my first Diwali as an “Indian” bride would be a smooth and surprise-free experience. In reality, it was a trip full of unexpected surprises and a real eye-opener to the beauties of India and its culture. We as foreigners sometimes tend to focus too much on the negatives in countries based on what we see on BBC about India nowadays.
In all honesty, who can blame us? The recent December Delhi gang-rape and increasing stories of violence against women has conditioned most foreigners like myself to develop a skeptical approach to traveling to India in recent years. It wasn’t always so – at least not for me. When I first visited India back in 2005, I traveled through Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur and finally Bombay (Mumbai). Before my visit, nobody told me to dress modestly, to avoid crowds and especially young men, or to make sure I would be accompanied by a male friend when going out alone after dark in New Delhi.Surely, being a big-city girl, I practiced common sense and avoided strangers that tried to strike a conversation. But as a woman, besides occasional staring of local men, I was not physically groped or touched inappropriately by anyone at any step of my trip. I had read that Indian culture had worshipped the female as a goddess so my naive understanding was that women were quite respected in this country.
After a guided tour in Rajasthan with my Indian friend from Bombay, I experienced a very different India than what most people see in documentaries or BBC: in the south of Bombay where my friend lived, girls could dress in miniskirts, go to clubs and bars freely till after midnight, and we even once walked around by the sea in Bombay on New Year’s Eve completely alone (just us two) without any fear of sexual harassment. My first experience was a positive one. If anything, India had felt safer than many other countries I had visited before.
8 years after my first trip – and after 7-8 additional trips to New Delhi, Agra, Goa and other towns – I finally visited India during Diwali 2013 for two weeks to spend this festive period with my husband’s family. This trip was unlike many others I had taken before: for the first time, I would experience what it’s like to be “an Indian bride (bahu)” and see how the locals celebrated Diwali in true Indian fashion.
My husband’s family comes from a small industrial town in North India and during the 10 days we were there, me and my mother experienced the best of Indian hospitality, love and affection. We remembered the good old days when even in our home country of Azerbaijan people maintained good relations with their neighbors and everyone would know each other’s name. I had never felt such a nostalgia before – I have always been pretty happy with my 21st century big-city life where we made few lasting friendships and our neighbors did not know that we existed. Observing first-hand how some cultural norms have still remained intact really impressed me about India. The bond between families and even neighbors was so strong that my husband’s fathers friends even lent him their personal cars and drivers during the 4-5 days of our wedding festivities – something I cannot imagine with anybody I know in the West today.
During Diwali, my friends back home asked me this question upon my return: were there any annoying moments or cultural adjustments we had to make? Yes. It sometimes got annoying to have strangers drop into my husband’s house at 10 pm (without informing us in advance) “to see the new bride”, and we were required to spend time with them no matter how sleepy we got. Social obligation is very important in India, and people care a lot about “what will people say/think about us if we…?” Unlike the metropolitan cities, where everyone leads their own life and hardly interferes into lives of others, small towns in India are a different reality. I sometimes felt like I was in an alternate universe where my own feminist rules and convictions did not apply at all. I was a complete stranger in this world – and I had just begun learning their ways as if learning a foreign language all over again.
Now on to a lighter topic: FOOD! Those who have Indians friends would know that dinners in India NEVER start on time as everyone shows up minimum 1 hour AFTER they are invited i.e. if you call people over at 8 pm, “too early for dinner” according to my mother-in-law, people will not show up before 9 pm. So during those 2 weeks, we barely sat down to eat before 9 pm – a HUGE adjustment me and my health freak doctor mother had to make. As a family who always eats their dinner 3-4 hours before sleeping, we had to change our routine quite a lot during that period.
More important than timings, being the bride in an Indian household means that you have to feed ALL the guests that come over for dinner or lunch, before you can eat anything yourself. We have similar customs in Azerbaijan and Turkey, but that is the reason people hire maids: so that once the cooking is done by the hostess, they can relax and enjoy chatting with their guests. This is how I was raised and I thought interrupting a guest’s intense discussion with me would mean I am being rude.
Apparently not… Not helping my mother-in-law or sister-in-law enough in the kitchen apparently looks worse and will get the neighbors’ tongues wagging.
Being a bit of a spoilt European brat who was only used to serving food for a maximum of 4-6 people at our own house, it overwhelmed me that 30 people would come over and I would be required to continue serving them for the next 3-4 hours (Yes, Indian dinners first start with snacks and drinks, and then gradually dinner is served. Husband explained that in India, if you do not serve people snacks first, it is considered very rude. “But I am hungry too baby. Can’t the maids serve?” “NO! You are the bride baby, just oblige for tonight please…” Gulp… But I am hungry!!!)
Despite all these minor issues, I experienced a lot of pleasant surprises during Diwali. When the bride visits a relative or neighbor’s house for the first time, they give her a nice colorful envelope which contains some money as a gift for the bride. This is an Indian custom I had seen on TV before but to be on the receiving side for the first time was a pleasant surprise. Initially I felt embarrassed: why should people who have never seen me in their life before give me sums of cash as a gift? I was very shy and tried my best to refuse them. Then my husband and MIL explained that this is a custom so I cannot say no. How sweet & thoughtful… I will save all my rupees and buy something nice for myself next time I visit India.
The festival of lights was celebrated with less pomp this year compared to previous years as we had just experienced a very close relative’s death in my husband’s family. But next year we will hopefully visit again and I look forward to going back to a warm & welcoming home and taking amazing photographs of other North Indian towns like Nainital and Amritsar.
Travel tips: If traveling to India during Diwali, (end of October, beginning of November this year), book your flight in advance and get your visas on time to avoid disappointment. It is the busiest period as travelers from all over the globe go to India to experience this special festival.
New Delhi and other states like UP (Uttar Pradesh) can get VERY cold at night – as low as 10-12 degrees Celsius – and no house in North India has any heating unless they invested in electrical heaters. So bring warm clothes like cashmere/wool sweaters and maybe a light jacket. If sensitive like me, avoid morning showers – many people got sick during our trip – even the Indians who claim they are used to the cold winters!
SPECIAL ADVICE TO FOREIGNERS: Avoid any food that has not been cooked properly and ALWAYS ask for water/milk to be BOILED in restaurants and homes alike. Nowadays people get lazy and just want to microwave it but trust me, if you are a foreigner and a first-time traveler to India, AND you have a sensitive tummy, you will want to be strict with this – I had an unpleasant experience 3 years ago at one of the best restaurants in New Delhi. After drinking the water I specifically ordered as “Sir, I need boiling water, not just heated hot water, so please boil it”, I experienced a bad stomach pain all day and swore never to have tea outside the house again.
Till the next entry – take care and keep yourself warm, happy and full of joie de vivre!
Bisous from France, Caspian Bird