Westernisation and prosperity

I mentioned in my first post (I think) from India that there were various changes that I noticed.  Funnily enough, towards the end of the holiday Geeta asked me (and Wink, separately) about our impressions from just that point of view.  Another friend, Jill, who is English and lives in London, hadn’t noticed these differences, but then she visits India frequently – the last time was in December – so they’d have crept up on her.

I suspect it’s all connected with India’s increased prosperity and success as a nation.  I should start by saying that I’m sure that in many areas, particularly rural villages and slums in the larger and more crowded cities, that deep poverty is as grinding as ever, but what I saw in Chennai in particular was a generally higher standard of living.

I’ve already mentioned that there are much fewer bicycles and more motorbikes.  Also that cars are modern ones rather than the old Ambassadors.  It’s noticeable that cars are in beautiful condition and look new.  They’re nearly all imported – and that’s notable too, because there was a time only a few years ago when Indians took pride in making what they used and now it’s more fashionable to buy imported goods. The roads are incredibly crowded and busy, even more than they used to be.  It all looks chaotic, but actually people drive very well.  They need to be very alert.  As a general rule, the larger vehicle is held to be responsible for an accent* – so if a motorbike hit a pedestrian it’d be the biker’s fault and if a car hit a bike it’d be the driver’s.  There was an incident where a bus hit a lorry it was overtaking – witnesses said that the lorry swerved into the path of the bus, but it was the bus driver who was arrested.  He was overtaking, therefore the anus of responsibility (sorry, family expression started by Weeza some 20 years ago) was on him, although checks were being done on the lorry’s steering.

Wink and I also felt that there were far fewer people living on the street.  We weren’t approached by a single beggar or street seller in Chennai.  There aren’t many of the woven huts left where, remarkably, a whole family would emerge dressed in immaculate, freshly laundered and ironed clothes, the man in crisp white shirt, the children in school uniforms and the woman in a sari.  I suppose that a lot of new flats have been built for those people to live in.  Regarding clothes, the sari is still traditional in South India, but less so now.  Young people are far more likely to wear casual Western clothes – my younger friends used to at home but not go out in them, but this is gradually changing.  If they do wear Indian clothes it’s likely to be a shalwar kameez or trousers and tunic rather than a sari.  The dhoti has all but disappeared (I didn’t see a single one) although a few men still wear a lungi – the difference between them is that a dhoti is wrapped around the waist and passed between the legs, whereas the lungi is worn more as a sarong; that is, it goes around the waist but not between the legs.  It’s convenient in that it can be flipped up to waist length to walk in the street and the lower half released to make a long skirt to wear indoors.  A dhoti is nearly always white but a lungi is usually coloured or checked.

Another difference on the streets is that now there are overhead signs giving directions!  This is a real innovation within the past 18 months or so, apparently.  Just of major roads, but it’s certainly a start.  One thing about motorcyclists, by the way – the rider often wears a crash helmet, but I’ve never seen a single passenger wearing one.  Most car drivers and front seat passengers wear a seat belt, a rarity in the past.

I didn’t see a single person being given instructions doing a head waggle.  This is a real change – it’s sort of the equivalent of a nod of comprehension, although there was often a fair degree of subservience in it.  The few times I saw it were ‘equal to equal’ – that is, it was simply comprehension – and it seems remarkable that there has been such a change so quickly.  Tips are as readily and gladly received as ever, but there’s no indication that anyone feels demeaned by a tip and it’s graciously received and quite often a handshake is exchanged afterwards which would never have happened a few years ago.

The water is much more likely to be safe to drink.  Previously, I’d never have drunk water unless it was from a previously sealed mineral water bottle, but now many more places buy in sufficiently pure water that Westerners and non-acclimatised people can drink it safely.  I’m always careful – in four visits I’ve never had a stomach upset (rather the opposite, if you see what I mean) but I was able to feel a lot more relaxed this time.  Oh, and you can order black tea without fearing that the roof of your mouth will be removed by tannin.  And I’d never previously had anything but disgusting coffee, but now it’s far better, usually filtered although modern coffee shops have espresso machines.

*As Sir Bruin wittily put it when correcting my typo – “grave or acute?”  So good that I’m leaving the mistake as it stands.

14 comments on “Westernisation and prosperity

  1. Sir Bruin

    I rather like the thinking behind the responsibility for an “accent”. Presumably, the outcome could be either grave or acute? Apologies – I don’t usually make a thing about typos, but I particularly liked that one. Maybe my pedant gland is working overtime?
    On reflection, I think that a “Biker is always right” approach would be better.

  2. Rog

    It’s a bit of an eye-opener that you encountered no beggars in Chennai but are quite likely to trip over a dog-on-a-string in Norwich

  3. Z

    Not only was it a funny typo, but a brilliant comment. Thank you, Sir B. I don’t think I can bear to correct it now.

    (‘Bear’ – see what I did there?)

    Indeed, Rog. That’s quite sobering.

  4. Mike and Ann

    Welcome home Z. Been enjoying your blog from India. We’ve just got home ourselves, but only from a few days in London. Trying to catch up now. Warm regards, Mike and Ann.

  5. Gledwood

    Did you see any supermarkets at all when you were out there? I went in 2000-2001 and thinking back there were no phone boxes at ALL… no lifeguards or lifeboats on the beach (fishermen performed that service… IF you were lucky)… no access to a doctor ~ you just had to go to the pharmacy, describe your symptoms and they’d dish out whatever you wanted, which was brilliant for Valium and sleeping pills… I never saw Mumbai, which I kind of regret now… we flew straight into Goa. The only Indian cities I saw were Bangalore (for about an hour) and Madras (for one evening)… Madras is nowadays known as Chennai anyway I trawled and trawled the local takeaways looking for chicken Madras or chicken Chennai and would you believe it the dish doesn’t even exist in the town it was named after!

  6. Zig

    I’d love to go, had a long conversaton with a chap in India the other day care of my Apple Care Package – he was brilliant, knew exactly what he was talking about, cuteous, witty, expert, fixed my laptop and gave me a very interesting and informative view of India and it’s expansion, povety, wealth, customs and weather! All that an it was 3am for him. So different from the Indian call centres that other companies use – what do you think makes the difference? Pay perhaps. or pride in the company they work for (or for whom they work – pedant watch)?

  7. Z

    Tim, more proof that the comments make the blog. You lot are so quick- witted!

    I don’t think that a newcomer to India would know, it’s all still really Indian! I only notice the differences because it’s been several years, but a lot of changes, some quite subtle, have happened.

    Thanks, Mike and Ann, hope you enjoyed London. I’m nowhere near catching up with blogs yet, it’ll take all next week, but I’ll be along soon.

    Maja, lovely to hear from you. I hope you and Marina had a good flight back. It was a pleasure to meet you both, hope you didn’t mind being mothered a bit and we’ll keep in touch.

    Gledwood, I first went there in 2000 too. I haven’t been to Goa, though I’ve been to Kerala which I liked very much. I spent a day and night in Bangalore and have visited Chennai/Madras several times as we’ve friends there – that was where the wedding took place. There was one big supermarket we went to, quite modern which certainly used not to exist.

    One funny thing was that at one of the parties chicken tikka masala was being served, which of course is an English invention!

    Enthusiasm for the product perhaps, Zig – as Nandini put it “oh, we all have iPhones.”

  8. mig

    I went to Delhi in 1975 and two of our group were involved in accidents. The roads were terrifying. Then Barney and I went there about six years ago and it was so different. Even in a coach you could see that the traffic was less frenetic. And I noticed that staff in the hotels rarely did the head waggle. I missed it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.