India in movies: All the clichés are true

Movies are usually exploiting our prejudices to the extreme to create comical situations. Except movies about India in which all the clichés are true. My claim is based on my thorough analysis of movies like Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Million Dollar Arm.

Coincidentally I watched the last one on the flight back from our annual Kerala holiday so I could relate to every little detail in it. If you’re planning your first trip to the Asian subcontinent, this movie is a good test whether you’re ready for India or not. As long as you can picture yourself in any of the funny situations in the movie, and still laugh about them you’re ok to go. If you laugh because you think it’s all an exaggeration for the purpose of comedy (and you secretly hope the real life is different), then perhaps it’s time to change your travel plans. Let’s see just a few examples:

Maddening traffic: Honking, congestion and total lack of good judgment

Indian drivers are born with honking reflex but are at the same time totally immune to it. The “please, sound horn” on the back of every truck or bus stands for “sound horn to let me know you’re trying to overtake me and I will move aside if I feel like it.” But they are also using horns when they are:

  • approaching / exiting a bend,
  • driving in an empty street approaching a person /cow / dog not obstructing the traffic,
  • approaching another vehicle on a narrow road,
  • being stuck in a traffic jam or a roadblock,
  • just trying to create a melody.

Honking is the constant background noise of traffic so it doesn’t really serve its purpose anymore. If you are coming from a country where sounding the horn is considered slightly insulting you will need a while to get accustomed to it and not jump every time someone honks at you for no reason. It probably wasn’t meant for you anyway so just relax…

Relax if you can, that is. Participating in Indian traffic is one of the most stressful experiences I could imagine. If you think I’m exaggerating allow me to share some statistics: The Global status report on road safety 2013 estimates that more than 231 000 people are killed in road traffic crashes every year. Almost a third of those deaths occur on motorized two- or three-wheelers. So my gut instinct was right – driving in a rickshaw is not only pure horror but also downright life-threatening. Getting around on foot does not reduce your risks considerably (share of deaths by pedestrians: “only” 9 %). Sidewalks or zebra crossings are non-existent and crossing the road feels like a near-death experience.

Head wobble: What the hell does that mean?

Street seller

To all men out there, if you think women are sending you mixed signals, try deciphering the Indian head wobble for a change. It’s something between a “yes” and a “no” although it looks more like “no” but actually means “yes”. Combined with “hmmmm” which seems to be the common sound for “yes” in Kerala the head wobble has left us wondering countless times what the answer might be.

Now picture us during our first consultation with our ayurveda doctor, while still unaware of this unusual gesture. He was shaking his head so solemnly that I was sure I will soon be dying a horrible and slow death due to an unknown disease. In fact, he was just acknowledging that he understood my symptoms. I guess.

Bureaucracy: Is there a way to bypass the system?

Women getting into a taxi

India seems to have a ministry for silly procedures, inventing rules and practices just for the fun of it. No wonder everyone is trying to find a way to bypass the system. Visiting the country as a tourist one can only marvel at the ingenuity of the system finding ways to give work to as many people as possible. In a country with the population over 1.2 billion that’s kind of admirable.

It took us five years to finally master the visa application process without being rejected at the first try. Once you get your head around the odd logic of the forms (all fields must be completed and “not applicable” does not count as a legitimate answer) it’s actually quite easy if still a bit frustrating. The airport procedures, on the other hand, are a totally different story. Going through the arrival or departure process is an adventure of its own kind.

This year it was the ebola check. In the crowded immigration hall there was a tiny counter where a lady had to stamp one of the several forms, confirming that we are not suffering from any ebola-like symptoms. The fact that she didn’t even look at us made me a bit worried about the reliability of the examination or the real necessity of it for that matter. But the protective mask she was wearing made her look serious enough not to question her authority. The officer standing next to her without any protection whatsoever was probably off-duty at that moment and therefore not at risk of catching anything contagious. Yup, that’s the incredible India.