It's a quirky world
The Japanese are extremely punctual; the Aussies friendly and all-embracing; the Swiss are super-efficient and have a great sense of humour; the Brits feel an affinity with Indians because of their shared past... Gustasp & Jeroo Irani discover that the world is a stage and its countries are its different sets, each one with its own cast of characters and peculiarities.
Two man-mountains entered the circular ring in the middle of the sumo wrestling arena. After much stomping and patting of their enormous girths, they finally faced off in a crouch. At an invisible signal, they lunged at each other. Lards of flesh clashed in epic battle. Push, shove, slap, hoist, heave… And one of the wrestlers went flying out of the ring.
In most other sports, the winner would have celebrated the moment with a victory jig; high fiving his handlers and waving to the audience. Not so in sumo. The victor acknowledged the moment with a low bow. It was like he had achieved nothing of real significance. It was a portrait of understated dignity: a reflection of Japan and its people.
Language was definitely a problem, and we were lucky to have an English-speaking escort, but whenever we faced an uncertain situation, we quickly learned to deal with it like the Japanese do: smile and bow. Wherever we went — to the Shinto shrines in Kyoto, tea houses graced with the presence of elegant maikos or apprentice geishas, little villages in the Japanese Alps, the communal hot springs of traditional ryokans or Japanese inns — we encountered people bowing with deep respect to each other. Soon we found ourselves bowing in greeting too as we journeyed across the island-nation.
The conductor in a train that was running a minute late contorted his body several times in the deepest bows! That’s right: just a minute late! The crestfallen man apologised profusely for his country’s railway system as he stood in front of the compartment… looking like a little boy who had been caught playing truant and had been hauled away to the headmaster’s office!
Equally fussy about punctuality are the Swiss, the land of top brand watches and colourful cuckoo clocks. And did you know that the souvenir cowbells that are so quintessentially Swiss are made in India? The owner of one of the largest outlets in Interlaken let us into this little secret with a hearty laugh. Yes, the Swiss, who are often seen as grim and efficient, have a great sense of humour: often subtle. Like the scarecrows that protect the Lavaux vineyards near Geneva; all dressed up to go partying.
The Swiss are also very comfortable with Indians, thanks to Bollywood, Mollywood, Tollywood and the Indian film industry in general that has used the country’s spectacular mountain-scapes, sparkling blue lakes, mooing cows, geranium-filled windows of quaint chalets, flower-filled town squares, spanking clean villages… as a backdrop for their celluloid blockbusters. Indian cinema has marketed Switzerland so well that during peak Indian vacation season, Switzerland swarms with Indian tourists. According to the local Mt Titlis representative, Indians are the largest number of visitors to the mountain glacier (3,020 m), in the month of May, swinging up in the world’s first revolving cable car for panoramic views of snow-swathed massifs .
Typical scene in a Swiss train: an Indian couple shrills with excitement when they recognise a locale from a popular Bollywood song and dance sequence while their Swiss co-passengers smile indulgently.
Italy is another country where Indians feel welcome. “We are the Indians of Europe. You are the Italians of Asia. We are both loud and fun loving,” an Italian friend assured us in halting English, his hands flaying about as though he was plucking his words out of thin air. Gesticulation is part of the Italian language as it expresses feelings and emotions that mere words fail to convey.
A friendly people, Italians floor you with their undeniable charm. They are happy to pose for a photograph… and then try to sell you a souvenir or invite you to take a table at their sidewalk café. When we were well into a romantic meal in a canal-front café in Venice, a flower seller approached us with a bunch of roses in his hand. “No, thank you,” we exclaimed. He accepted the message with grace and placed a bloom on the table. “For the beautiful lady! No money.” And with a flirtatious wink, he was gone.
The Brit’s stiff-upper-lip humour is more subtle: often a play on words and a skewed look at a situation. Like the time we were waiting at a station and the train rolled in two minutes late. An impatient passenger in a bowler hat, standing next to us on the platform, exclaimed: “Oh blimey! Giraffes have fallen pregnant while we waited for this train!”
Many feel a special, almost mystical, connect with India. We have met numerous Brits who firmly believe that they were Indians in their past lives. A Brit friend confided in us that on landing at Mumbai airport for the first time, she felt that she had come home and that the sea of brown faces was the most welcoming sight that she had encountered in her travels around the world!
We have lost count of those who have told us that their father/ grandfather/ favourite uncle served in India. As a result, they grew up with stories of their adventures in the country rather than a bedtime diet of fairy tales. For them, the escapades of Mowgli in India’s Kiplingesque jungles are far more real than Snow White and Cinderella.
Americans are a friendly, all-embracing people, and love to explore and flaunt their roots. Like the man we ran into in Las Vegas. Upon learning that we were Indians, he welcomed us like members of his long-lost family. “I’m Indian too,” he declared. American-Indian, of course. He had blue eyes, blond hair, and was mighty proud of the 1/16th Cherokee blood that flowed through his veins.
On a long-distance journey on Amtrak, as we relaxed in the bar-lounge of our train, we met a country and western singer who embodied the freewheeling, easy-going, loose-limbed spirit of the country. He had a rich voice and was a showman; he was not shy about entertaining us with fragments of songs that he had written! For a month each year, he confided, he rides the national railway system, going nowhere in particular. The goal of his aimless travel was to source raw material for the songs he wrote and sang!
“G’day mate!” Pronounced ‘mite,’ the greeting captures the hail-fellow-well-met spirit of the Aussies. It’s a nation of sporty and open people. They love to indulge in banter with Indians about the cricketing rivalry between the two nations, and spike the conversation with good-natured jibes. The Aussies like to ham it up too: Like the time a stall owner in Melbourne Market stopped us from taking his photograph. He then asked us to wait while he pretended to brush his hair, Elvis Presley style, teasing a few locks of hair to fall on his forehead. He then made a show of sprucing himself up before posing for us with a self-mocking smirk smeared across his face.
The best surprises are tucked away in little known places. In Ethiopia, for instance, we encountered a gentle people with strikingly beautiful features. The Queen of Sheba came from these parts and it was her son who was believed to have brought the Tabernacle here for safekeeping while his father, King Solomon, built his Temple in Jerusalem. The ‘Lost Ark,’ Ethiopians believe, now resides in a church in Axum, Ethiopia.
Across the country we found echoes of India in underground churches — some five stories deep — that were akin to our cave temples. In fact, there were occasions when we felt we had travelled back in time to an India of 25 years ago. Probably the most striking aspect of our visit was the warmth with which we were greeted. Unlike many other African nations where Indian communities have flourished as traders and businessmen, the Indians who settled in Ethiopia were teachers, professors and doctors, and are highly respected. By the end of our stay, we found ourselves greeting people in typical Ethiopian fashion: leaning forward to tap shoulders at the end of a handshake. And a sharp intake of breath, which is very much a part of their language: an acknowledgement of a statement, fact, and person…
We shared equally delightful encounters with the Vietnamese on our visit to Halong Bay, dotted with limestone outcrops that spook the imagination. After a cruise through the bay, we browsed a street market when one of our travelling companions engaged a stall owner in a serious bargaining duel. The gap between the offer and selling price of the item in question narrowed and eventually hit an impasse that neither side was willing to bridge. We imagined that it was going to end in bad blood when our friend indicated that there was no deal. But to our surprise, the stall owner, a gentle Vietnamese woman, embraced her with affection: like two sportsmen acknowledging each other’s talent as they disengage from a keen contest that was unable to throw up a result.
Yes, the world is our stage and its countries are its different sets; each one with its own cast of characters that have their own peculiarities and stories to tell.