Tuesday, May 2, 2017

So Your Character is From India ... Featuring Shanti @ Virtually Read & Rachna @ Rachna's Scriptorium

It's time for this week's So Your Character is ... Post! This is a weekly segment where I interview lovely volunteers from around the world to give you a firsthand account of being a citizen of their respective country or having a disability. I'm hoping to encourage international diversity, break stereotypes, and give writers a crash course on how to write a character from these different places on our planet. If you haven't checked out last week's  So Your Character Has Autism ... be sure to hop on over there and give it a read!

Disclaimer: The content below may be culturally shocking to some. Each of these posts are as uncensored as possible to preserve the authenticity of the cultures of each of the interviewees.

(None of the Images are Mine)

Shanti is a blogger and high school student. She lives in India and never quite knows how to respond when people ask her where she’s from. She loves reading and writing YA, and spends her spare time, editing her high school newspaper, cooking, running, and hanging out with her family. 

My name is Rachna Chhabria. I live in Bangalore (India). I’m a children’s author (The Lion Who Wanted to Sing, Bunny in Search of a Name, Lazy Worm Goes on a Journey). I’ve published over fifty short stories in the children’s supplement of two English newspapers. I taught creative writing in a college for several years. I freelance for four Indian newspapers, writing features and book reviews. I’m a book monster. I need to read every day. I’m also obsessed with writing and working-out. Food, namely ice-creams, cakes, cookies, and chocolates are my weakness.
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What do you feel is unique to your country? Landmarks? Celebrations?
Shanti: India is a country of over a billion people, and it’s huge, so there are a lot of unique things. One I can mention is its religious diversity—I live in a pretty small town, but within half an hour’s walk I can find a Buddhist stupa, Hindu, and Jain temples, a mosque, and churches of a variety of denominations. 

In terms of landmarks:
  • India Gate in Delhi
  • The Red Fort (or Lal Qila) in Delhi
  • The Taj Mahal
  • The palaces of Rajastan, including Jaisalmer and Menagrah fort in Jodhpur
  • The Gateway to India in Mumbai
  • The Ganga and Jamuna/Yamuna rivers
  • The Bara and Chota Imambara in Lucknow (though these are mostly North Indian because I know them best; however, there are lots more across India)
As for celebrations, the two major Hindu ones are Diwali in late October/Early November, the festival of lights (so fireworks and lamps), and Holi in springtime, which is about colour and vanquishing the demon kings. We also celebrate Independence day on August 15th and Republic Day on January 26th, as well as having holidays for Christmas, Easter, Eid etc.

Taj Mahal
The Gateway to India

Rachna: I would say Celebrations/Culture. We have so many quaint customs and rituals, so many celebrations and festivals spread throughout the year; be it Holi- the festival of colours, Diwali- the festival of lights and other smaller festivals. All these have links to the various Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Festivals bring entire families together and food forms a major part of our festivals. 

Indian food, replete with its spices and flavours is unmatched in taste and texture. There are traditional dishes from every part of the country, and there are also the festival dishes prepared just for the various festivals. Our temples, be it the ancient ones or the recent ones, are marvels of architecture. As is the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world.
Tell me about your country's environment. What are some of your favorite places?
Shanti: My family does a lot of hiking so I know the Indian Himalaya really well. I love the valley of Spiti and Lahaul, which borders Tibet and has a majority of Buddhists. I also love Kashmir, and the area of Gangotri which is super holy because it’s where the Ganga river starts. There are also some great national parks, like KeoLaDeo in Rajastan, Mudamalai in Tamil Nadu, and Rajaji in Uttarakhand. 

India is a huge country, so the environment is very diverse. Rajstan and Gujarat are very dry, while central North India is hot and medium precipitation, so good for growing wheat. All along the northern border with Tibet and Nepal and Bhuta run the Himalayan mountains. In the South it’s wetter and quite hot, so there’s more rice growing, but there’s lots of internal variation, obviously.

Indian Himalayas
Rice Fields

Rachna: Indians by and large are warm-hearted and friendly people. Bangalore, where I stay, is known for its cool climate, but from the past few years its getting warmer here. Some of my favourite places in Bangalore are the Botanical Gardens in Lalbagh (famous for its flower shows) and Cubbon Park (where I used to go jogging). I love the Brindavan Gardens in Mysore. 

I like the hill station of Kodaikanal and Munnar. Mumbai is one of my favourite Indian cities (my mom is from Mumbai, so I tend to visit that city often) Raipur (I have very fond memories of this city where I was born) and of course Bangalore (it was earlier called the Garden City of India and now it’s an IT hub.) I identify completely with this city where I grew up. I also like Mysore for its amazing weather. Kerala known as Gods’ Own Country is another favourite due to its greenery and backwaters.
 (Mumbai, Bangalore

Tell me about your country's food. What are some of your favorite dishes?
Shanti: I love Indian food. One staple is rice and dahl, or cooked lentils. There’s also rajma, my favourite thing to eat with rice, which is kind of like chili (with beans) but without meat. Roti and subzi (or flatbread and cooked vegetables) are also staples of the normal food, which is very good (if made well). 

I really like misti doi which is caramelized yoghurt and comes from Kolkata; pani puri, which are little fried orbs of flour that you crack and put potato in and then scoop up flavored curry water with and it’s super delicious; biriyani, which is fried rice and comes from Lucknow and Hyderabad (where there used to be small sultanates); and dosa, which is made from slightly fermented ground up rice and cooked so it’s like a big pancake, then potato is put in the middle and you eat it with sambar (dahl flavored with tamarind) and coconut chutney.

Misti Doi

Rice and Dahl
Pani Puri
Rachna: Nothing in this world can beat the wide range of Indian Cuisine. We have very spicy curries which require an acquired taste (though I don’t like spicy food, I just cannot handle it.) If I order a spicy dish in a restaurant I ask the chef to go easy on the spice element. Our traditional breads: the naans, kulchas and the rotis stuffed with all kinds of vegetables are a culinary marvel. 

Our street food : Samosas, Paani Puris, Vada Paav, Paav Bhajis and the bhajias (fried dumplings) are a national craze. Chicken tikka and Paneer tikka are my favourites. Indian sweet dishes can make anyone break their diets: the delicious Gulab Jamuns, the soft Rosgullas, Kheer Kadams and Rasmalais, the badam (Almond) and kaju (Cashew) katlis and the barfis, and of course the perennial favourite Gajar Ka Halwa (a sweet dish made from grated carrots, milk and sugar.)

Chicken Tikka
Kheer Dam


Tell me about any different speech patterns in your country. Slang? Idioms? Words for things such as “biscuits” instead of “cookies”?
Shanti: English and Hindi are the national languages of India, but there are a lot of other languages spoken too. The major ones are Kannada (in Karnataka), Tamil (in Tamil Nadu), Marathi (in Maharastra), Telegu ( in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), Malayalam (in Kerala), Oriya (in Orissa), Bengali (in West Bengal), and each North Eastern state has its own language too, as well as lots of dialects of Hindi. 

(By the way, there is no such language as Indian). Most people can read English letters, but don’t speak it, and more educated people might speak ‘Hinglish’ or Hindi mixed with English with their friends. When speaking English, the word yaar is used a lot, sort of how we use like, as in ‘are you going to the match, yaar?’ 

Some other common Hindi words are:
  • Bhai/behen (brother/sister, oft. Used as a term of endearment)
  • Kya/khon/kyoin/kahain/kaysay (what/who/why/where/how)
  • Aam/kela/tomatr (mango/banana/tomato)
  • Aare (exclamation of surprise)
  • Aacha (good,but can mean okay colloquially)
  • Teek hai (it’s fine, used in place of okay) I only know Hindi so I can’t provide any words from other languages. 
  • Bilkool: totally, means ‘for sure’.

Rachna: Though Hindi is our national language, we have several regional languages spoken in the various states. Indians are fond of using Hinglish (a mixture of Hindi and English). Even popular books have a liberal sprinkling of Hinglish. Many of our Hindi movies have Hinglish titles. One of my all-time-favourite movies is Jab We Met (translated as When We Met). There are some words native to us; like we say curds, Americans say yogurt, for us its petrol, for you all gas, for us its footpath, for the rest of the world its pavement/sidewalk. 

  Describe briefly a regular day in your country.
Shanti: It’s impossible to generalize, because each day is different for different people. But… there are a lot of people who are farmers and they have to get up early and milk the cows/buffaloes and tend to the fields. In Bangalore, which is like India’s Silicon Valley, there are lot of people who work weird hours because they communicate with the other side of the world. In all towns there are lots of small shop owners, so their days look unique too. But there is no set thing. I guess I would say that a lot of people are very religious, so that’s part of their daily lives. 

Rachna: A regular day in my country is different for different people. Life in the villages is very different from city life. Again it varies for people even in the cities as they work in  diverse professions. There is no one size fits all pattern of a regular day for Indians. People in call-centres work night shifts, as do the resident doctors in hospitals, so their days are unlike the rest of the professionals. 

  How does your country compare to others, especially the US since my audience is primarily American? Environmentally? Politically? Culturally?
Shanti: India is really diverse, but these are a couple of differences that I personally notice:
  • There are a lot of people who are vegetarian—many castes of Hinduism and all Jains and some Buddhists. There are towns where it’s illegal to eat meat!
  • A lot of people eat with their hands. Like, you can get cutlery but it’s not usual
  • The way that most people show hospitality to you is by offering you tea. This is called chai (not chai tea, that’s like saying tea tea, and there is no such thing as a chai latte, thanks Starbucks) and is usually very sweet and milky and has spices like aadrach (ginger) and chota elaichi (cardamom) in it. 
  • Lots of Indian cities have two names, their British era one and their new one, like Bangalore/Bengaluru, Madras/Chennai, Bombay/Mumbai, and Calcutta/Kolkata. 
  • India is (supposed to be) a secular country. This doesn’t mean that religion is totally uninvolved in public life, it means it’s a religious free for all. But there’s still a lot of communal violence, particularly between Muslims and Hindus, but also within Hindu castes.

  • India is a patriarchal society. This means that when you’re outside, about 70% of the people you see will be men. Women usually wear traditional dress, like sari’s and salwar kameez, and men are more likely to wear shirts and pants instead of traditional kurta, lungi, and dhoti. 
  • A lot of people use scooters, motorbikes, and bicycles to get around. It’s common to see lots of people crammed onto these. There are also rickshaws, which are like little covered three wheelers with a motorbike engine, and cycle rickshaws, where someone cycling pulls a little carriage. There are domestic flights, but the most common means of long-distance travel is by train. The train system covers the plains of India and holds approximately 1 million people at all times, and employs about the same number.
  • -India has another season, monsoon (which basically means weather), which is in the second half of summer, June-September, and there isn’t much of an autumn season here. 

Rachna: India, a democratic nation, is racing ahead in every way: science and technology (we are the fourth country to reach Mars, the first Asian nation to do so and also the first country to reach Mars on its first attempt). In the medical field our doctors have made great advances. India attracts a very healthy medical tourism. Peoples from all over the world come to India for heart surgeries, joint replacements and other delicate surgeries. Ayurveda and Yoga has placed India on top of the global map, as have our handicrafts. People all over the world visit India for spiritual solace.

Briefly describe three historical events of your country’s you feel are important
Shanti: 1.) Partition: When India got Independence from Britain in 1947, the nation that had been known as India under their administration was split into two countries: Modern day India, West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (Bangladesh since 1971). The division was done under religious lines, so that Muslim majorities more or less became Pakistan and Hindu majorities became India. 

This lead to one of the greatest mass migrations in history, where over a million people were forced to leave their homes and become refugees. There was a lot of violence, as the Sikh's petitioned for their own state and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. You can find out more here.

2.) 1984: This was when Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India ordered her soldiers to attack the Golden Temple, the most holy site of Sikhism. This was because there were rebels hiding there. It was a huge desecration to let violence enter this most holy of places. Some months later her Sikh bodyguards murdered her, prompting a spate of murders of Sikhs across India. This event shows some of the internal forces that did/can/are dividing India and how communalist violence happens.

  3) 1857: Some Indians call this the first war of Independence. The British called it the mutiny. Basically a bunch of soldiers in Central North India rebelled and killed the British, then got the last Mughal emperor (who basically had no power) involved, provoking a British siege of Delhi for several months. The rebellion spread across the country, sort of in succession, and horrible things were done on both sides, though not every Indian state rebelled. This led to India not becoming a colony but official becoming part of the British Empire, which is why Queen Victoria had the title of Empress of India--to prove her power.

Rachna: 1.The Quit India Movement on 8th August 1942.
2. Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. 
3. When India became a Republic on 26th January 1950.

  What are some stereotypes about your country that irk you? What media portrays your country badly be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?
Shanti: I once met someone who told me that he didn’t want to go to India because ‘it’s hot, dirty, disease ridden, and full of snakes.' Don’t be that person. A lot of people think that India is fairly homogenous; as I hope I’ve shown you, it’s not. There are thousands of different languages and people groups and states and cultures that have been largely independent for much of India’s history. Also that all Indians have arranged marriages, or that all of Indian politics is corrupt (it mostly is, but not all), or that India is rich. India has a huge amount of poverty, and also a lot of wealth, and a lot of disparity between them. There are snakes, but they aren’t usually in cities and they’re pretty cool. 

I had to read The White Tiger for my AP Lit class a few months ago and I really didn’t like it. It makes it seem like all Indians are depraved, corrupted, sex-obsessed and stupid. There was a lot of truth in it, but it shows none of India’s remarkable beauty. I watched a BBC documentary a while ago, called India on Four Wheels. It featured two people driving across India, and ended with statements like ‘Indian’s can’t drive!’ Like, who do you think drives taxi’s in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and so on?

Rachna: A few stereotypes that really irk me are about the great Indian rope trick, the elephant rides, and snake-charmers. There is definitely more to India than that. Another stereotype I loathe is that Indians aren’t proficient in English. Most Indians speak excellent English.  In fact, several Indian writers have won Booker prizes. I don’t recall a TV show or book or movie where India is placed in a bad light. There may have been a few Indian jokes in movies or T.V. shows or books, but at this point I’m unable to pinpoint it. 

What media portrays your country well be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?
Shanti: I really liked the film English Vinglish, which was about an Indian housewife being empowered through learning English. I also like the move The Hundred Foot Journey, which showed Indian family dynamics really well. As for media set within India, you can’t go wrong with Willam Darymple’s City of Jinns, which will develop an appreciation for Indian history and the city of Delhi and is very well written. I also like the YA novel in verse, A Time to Dance which is about a girl living in Chennai learning to dance after an amputation, and has beautifully complex families and relationship to religion, though it did annoy me how it feel prey to White Saviour Complex. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is fabulous, heartbreaking nonfiction about the reality of India’s poverty. 

As for the Jungle Book, I can say that the animals in the new movie look very realistic, but usually animals from all over India wouldn't be in the same forest. India does have a lot of species diversity (like the Indian Hornbill, or Indian Rhinoceros), but in urban areas you mostly just get monkeys that pick through trash, squirrels, crows, and carrion eaters like kites. The number of people leads to a lot of human animal conflict, meaning that there are all these tragedies where elephants or tigers get shot, because humans live in what used to be their land. 

As for the portrayal of Indians as mostly rural people who wear loincloths.... yeah, not so much. There are tribal people who live like the people shown in The Jungle Book do (not that wearing a loincloth makes you any less smart or anything...) and even when the original book was written, lots of Indians were being educated in London and traveling all over the world (Why do you think Fiji, Guyana, South Africa and the Caribbean has Indian origin people?) But even in 'modern', urban India, there's a lot of poverty and the caste system is still pervasive in all strata of society, even if the wildlife are mostly gone...

  Rachna: A. R.K. Narayan’s books portray India very well. His children’s book Swami and Friends is a wonderful portrait of life in the villages in the 1930’s. Autobiography of a Yogi is also a wonderful source for showing us how the ancient masters lived and meditated in the Himalayas. All these were genuine masters, unaffected by fame and glory.

Who are your top three favorite characters native to your country in books, movies, or shows?
Shanti: There aren’t enough of these in international popular media. I really like Julian from the View from Saturday, who is half Indian like myself. Sudasa from Five to One. Jasmine from Monsoon Summer. 

1.) My top three favourite characters would be Lata Mehra in the book A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth.
2.) Swami in the book Swami and friends by R.K Narayan.
3.) Munna Bhai from the movie Munna Bhai MBBS.

Thank you, Shanti and Rachna, for this very informative post! I hope everyone enjoyed reading it. Come back next week for So Your Character Has Asperger's ...!

Are you interested in participating in this project? Slots for Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, New Zealand, the Philippines, Liberia, Algeria, Thailand, Peru, China, Slovakia, Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, Finland, Wales, France, and India have been filled, but if you are from any other country, shoot me an email at howellvictoriagrace(a)gmail(dot)com.

Do you have any Indian characters? Did this inspire you to write a Indian character or set a book in India? Are from this or been to this country and you have further input? Feel free to share! Do you have any questions for Shanti and Rachna? Be sure to thank them!

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