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India

In this space, I shall present a quick guide to a different country every other week. If you would like to share your culture with us or send us feedback, please write to me at smitapkothari@gmail.com.

Namaste (greetings from India!) When we join our palms facing each other at chest level we offer our reverence to you believing that God resides in the heart of every human being. We are the country where a rainy day is a reason to rejoice. We are the country which has given the world concepts ranging from ostentatious weddings to yoga.

We are the country where festivals are celebrated at every opportunity, from harvest to birthdays of innumerable gods representing different faiths. We are the country which spans Himalayas in the north to serene beaches in the south, desserts and palaces in the west, to untouched natural beauty in the east. We are the country which has simmered in the heat of greed of various internal and international forces in the journey from its “golden sparrow” title to have again emerged as “Incredible India”. If you are visiting India for work or pleasure, let the following help make your experience comprehensive, smooth, and fun!

Food
Every region has a different cuisine based on what is locally grown there and on the climate. Do not miss Chaat (savory snacks) in Delhi, paneer (cottage cheese) preparations and kali daal (lentil) with variety of naans (breads) in North India finished with lassi (sweet butter-milk). Also relish dosas and uttapams with an array of chutneys (accompaniments) in South India. Delicacies in West include dhoklas/khamans in Gujarat and rich Rajasthani food and sweets.

There are not enough healthy/organic foods in the general markets or restaurants. If you aren’t prepared to eat a bit unhealthy you will have plenty of spices with which to improve your culinary skills. Food in India is a lot spicier than its western counterparts. If you have the option, ask for mild spice level. Be aware that tap water is not drinkable. There are no water-fountain facilities. Buy mineral water and be sure that it has not been opened previously.

Culture
Be sure not to address senior/elder by their first name. Prefix last name with Mr. /Ms. when meeting somebody for the first few times. Then as you get comfortable, you may change it to what the person suggests. People tend to talk louder and more. Gossip is a way of life, be it at airports or at offices. Do not expect courtesies like please, sorry and thank you while entering shops or in daily course with general people. Do not indulge in PDA (Public Display of Affection) unless you want to be featured in next day’s newspapers or be gawked at! Even if it is a sunny day (which is mostly the case in India), dress adequately. Do not wear too short or too little clothes. Be ready to push and be pushed by people. Literally. If you are interested in learning more about Indian culture, watching Bollywood movies like Namastey London, Rang De Basanti, Chak De India, Border and Lagaan are a few good options.

Festivals
The festival that is celebrated the longest and with most grandeur in India is Diwali; which is the festival of lights. People light numerous oil-lamps to illuminate their houses. Diwali is a five day celebration that generally falls in the month of October or November. Decorations for Diwali are to India what Christmas/New year adornment is to the west. Fire-crackers on the last night of Diwali mark the beginning of New Year according to Hindu calendar.

Holi, the festival of colors; generally falls in March and is an experience worth bearing the heat. People splash powder colors or colored water on each other. There are no rules except for having fun. If you are visiting in the more temperate winter you will be able to catch the Kite Festival, Uttarayan; in Gujarat which takes place on the 14th of January every year.

Accommodation
B&Bs, motels and service apartments are not very popular options, but world class hotel chains catering to both business and luxury segments are available. Some local names in hospitality industry are Taj, Oberoi, and ITC.

Security
From the dry state (prohibition on public use of alcohol) of Gujarat where women can be out alone even at 2 AM, to Delhi where women generally do not go out alone after it gets dark; safety varies in India as in any other country. Mumbai is relatively safer than Delhi. However, avoid going to isolated places at night.

Traffic
The traffic is mind-boggling. People generally do not follow traffic rules and stop signs unless there is a traffic policeman in sight. The concept of “right of way” and stopping automobiles for pedestrian are alien. Exercise your own caution. Cars change lanes very closely and seldom with notice. Relax though; there is no need to be on the edge of your seat. You’ll also be amazed at the large number of two-wheelers plying down Indian roads. Honking is very common and is not considered rude, just an indication of the driver’s impatience/urgency. The street names are not so easily pronounced. Best way to get to places is to ask people (live GPS : ).

Infrastructure
There is no central downtown area in any Indian city. The commercial, hospitality and residential areas interspersed throughout the cities. Public transportation is inconvenient to use for non-locals. The only exception is the Delhi Metro. Public toilets may not always be clean and you may rarely find toilet papers in public facilities. At any point in time, there could be on-going construction of roads or buildings.

Work
If you are coming to work in India, most chances are that you’ll end up in Mumbai or in India’s own Silicon Valley- Bengaluru (Bangalore) if you’re a techie. Recently, the trend has shifted to Delhi. If you have lived in New York city or are familiar with it, you won’t have any major problems adjusting to Mumbai. Bangalore is characterized by pleasant climate all year through, but bad traffic. Delhi is more laid-back than Mumbai. Some levels of corruption, bureaucracy, or procrastination are unfortunately to be assumed.

Language
Hindi is the national language being spoken by wide majority of Indians. However, each region has its own dialect. If you don’t speak or understand Hindi, don’t panic. Most chances are that people you’ll be dealing with speak and comprehend at least basic English and numbers. Indians from different parts of the country speak English in their own accents even if it is broken English.

Shopping
India is one country where you can shop for $2 on the streets to $10000 for bridal lehenga (wedding skirt). If you like Indian food, buy some authentic Indian spices. You’ll never regret buying Indian handicrafts and ethnic wear (from mirror-work to full-on sequins). And of course, don’t forget to take back with you loads of memories captured in pictures.

Funny but it’s true
Stray dogs and cows have the right to be anywhere on Indian roads. Even domesticated ones do not have a specific location and can be found anywhere around the house. People will stare at you if your skin is non-brown. It’s common. Enjoy the attention!

Beware
Take care of your personal belongings at all times. Watch out for pick-pockets. Unorganized/roadside shop-keepers may try to quote unusually high prices seeing foreigners. Take a local person with you while going shopping to such venues or take some time out to research the price by asking various people and at places. Learn the art of bargaining.

Quick Facts
– Median age: 26 years
– Capital: New Delhi
– Year of Independence: 1947
– Number of states: 28
– GDP Per Capita: $1016
– Recommended Period for Visiting:
– October-February (winter)
– National animal: Tiger
– National Bird: Peacock
– Form of Government: Democracy
– Average 5-star hotel room tariff: $300
– Meal on the street: less than $1

Check out this column for information about Brazil on September 24, 2010!

Author’s Biography
Smita Pranav Kothari, a proud Indian, is an EC partner. She likes to help new partners adjust to life at the B-school as the HBS International Partners Club Co-chair. She is taking Journalism classes at the Harvard Extension School. Besides learning about different cultures and learning international languages; she loves traveling, cooking, dancing, and watching movies.

September 7, 2010
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