The Behavioural Change You’ll Need To Make In Order to Survive India
Do these things if you want your India stay to be smooth and hassle-free as possible.
You’ve travelled to India alright. May be for work, for tourism, for love, for business, for a personal project, or for spirituality. May be you’re not even here for the long haul but for just a temporary visit like for a few weeks or months. But for whatever reason you find yourself in the noisy cities immersed in the madness of it all, engaging in first-world black and white behaviours is a sureshot way to frustration and disappointment, which will make your daily life a living hell.
So why “put up” with stuff, when you can just switch modes? Change your mode, and you change your mental disposition towards the country and it’s people. Life just becomes so much easier for you and everyone around.
India is an extremely overpopulated country. It’s the second most populated country in the world, to be precise. So getting around can be a bit tough. The locals have their own conventions of daily living to get around the overcrowding problem. Hence, you’ll need to imbibe the very same qualities in yourself if you want your stay to be smooth and hassle-free as possible.
In India, everythings grey. It’s as grey as it can get. There’s no absolutes. If you think in absolutes while you’re in India, you will be let down every single time.
You’ll lose your bearings in a jiffy if you don’t acclimate to the different nerve setting, and different tolerance level for daily encounters you’ll have with the general public in routine life. Unless you’re a C-level executive who’s going to be Chauffeured around everywhere, you better pucker up like the rest of us and do as the Romans do.
Sometimes you follow the signals. Sometimes you don’t. It’s just how it is.
Adherence to rules is subject to the time of day, the season, rush hour, the presence of traffic cops and cameras, how much of a hurry you personally are in, and a ton of other factors. If you see the cops standing ahead, then you put first-world mode on and patiently wait for the signal to turn green with your vehicle standing behind the Zebra crossing. If you look up and see cameras installed at that particular junction and still jump the signal, sometimes you may receive a ticket in the mail, and sometimes you may not.
Sometimes you start moving your vehicle a few seconds before the signal turns Green because the junctions already clear. And sometimes you continue driving a few seconds after red, because there’s no one else coming from the side where it did turn green. (or because you’re running late for work on that particular day)
Sometimes you just jump the signal right somewhere in the middle of that 1 minute countdown because there’s an eerie silence at the junction and no vehicles are crossing it from any direction.
And lastly, sometimes you move your scooter to the side to give way to an impatient honker from behind who’s desperate to be somewhere and has to jump the signal no matter the cost.
It’s just how it is.
Lesson learned: If you’re renting and driving a vehicle in India, do not stop the moment the signal turns red. You’ll get rear-ended. And likewise, expect to be honked at if you don’t move when the countdown timer still has 5 seconds to go before the signal turns green. Both are socially acceptable.
Inside the cities, speed limit signs make little sense but to act as a deterrent for overspeeders and save face of the road engineers in a court of law in case of an accident. Who on earth would want to drive at 40 kms during the off peak hours of the day or during the ungodly hours of the night when there isn’t even an insect on the road? Even during the rush hours itself, no one follows these unscientific and illogical speed limits.
Because duh! It’s “rush” hour!
But on the highways, where they do actually make sense, people tend to ignore them just the same. This tends to have life-threatening consequences as you might have guessed, and scores of people die every year just because drivers don’t adhere to highway speed limits. There’s a big difference between driving at the legal 80km/h and a furious 120 km/h. But since the authorities are so lax in implementing the rules inside the city itself, people tend to take them for granted on the highways too.
So yes, you can overspeed all you want in the cities, or on the highways. Sometimes the interceptor vehicle is there and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you will get a ticket, and sometimes you won’t.
It’s just how it is.
Lesson learned: Do not drive the speed limit inside cities. You’ll get honked and yelled at or even abused. Or even rear-ended. Always keep a keen eye for the interceptor vehicle on the third lane/emergency lane, and only then lower your speed to adhere to the speed limit.
Just the other day I was out on a grocery run on a breezy summer evening, when I witnessed a foreigner experience her very first culture shock of Indian shopping. It was an older lady, much older than me perhaps, and she was right behind me in line to bill her items. She looked American, but she could have been from any of the European cities. My city, being the Silicon Valley of India, is home to a ton of multinational tech companies, and there’s always a bunch of foreigners in the city at any given time of the year.
She was visibly irritated when an older gentleman had barged his way in between her and myself. He had swiftly placed his (single) item on the billing counter with total and utter disregard for either me, who was still busy billing my items on the tray, or the lady behind.
Having lived in multiple developed cities, I knew how much of a rude culture shock it must have been for her the moment he did that. I didn’t have to make much of a guess at it. Her immediate reaction to his gesture confirmed my apprehensions then and there. She furiously told him off, and stomped off to another counter that the supermarket staff had themselves ushered her towards on noticing her annoyance and discontent.
It did not matter that it was just a single item. In most you developed countries around the world, you DO NOT cut the line. Period. What the middle-aged gentleman just committed was akin to etiquette blasphemy in the West.
So here’s your wake up call if you’re in India: People can and will cut queues all the time. Of course, it isn’t “cutting” the queue if they’re “in a hurry” or have “just a single item” to bill. This is Indian logic. 😉
Lesson learned: Don’t go shopping if you’re expecting first world service and treatment. Expect to be cut off, especially by the “only 1 item” fans, and allow them do it. You’re just going to create unnecessary trouble for yourself, and drama where none was required, in case you start questioning them. Also, expect the billing line to move as slowly as possible. Lightning fast billing isn’t our strongsuit.
You’ve all seen that one video on YouTube. You know what I’m talking about. That viral one that epitomises Indias rush hour on the Mumbai local. Women are seen shoving, pushing, and getting on top of each other just to get inside the train and arrive on time at work. But since you’re a foreigner with money, you’re almost a 100% not likely to get into any of the locals (as suburban trains are called) in any of the cities during rush hours. So let’s talk about something you’re much likelier to face.
Actually, let’s go back to the grocery store from my first point.
Because we have such a huge and burgeoning population, people try to be as close to each other wherever they are. Whether you’re waiting in a grocery line, or at a ticket booking counter, personal space is something that just doesn’t exist in our dictionary. In fact, you don’t even have to be standing in a queue to experience it. You could just be waiting for your train on a platform, or at a departure gate at an airport and people will come as close to you as possible, not displaying the slightest hint of hesitation or discomfort in doing so.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a crowded city or the spacious countryside because it’s more of a cultural thing. A culture thats deeply entrenched among the people. So even if you’re inside some isolated remote village in the ghats waiting to buy a bus ticket, you will feel someone standing ridiculously close to you from behind, almost touching you. Don’t be creeped out. This is perfectly normal.
Social distancing during covid was probably the first time in their lives Indians experienced what it was like to maintain the right distance from another human being. 😉
Lesson learned: Don’t expect your personal space to be respected while in India if you want to enjoy your stay here. If you try to move ahead to increase the distance between you and the person waiting behind, they will immediately cover the gap. So there’s no point doing that too. A backpack would be helpful in this case, I reckon.
India is the physical manifestation of a migraine.
Honking is an everyday activity. People will cough, sneeze, chew with their mouths open, burp, and belch as loudly and openly as possible. They will spit right next to you as you’re walking on the road. They will also talk loudly on their phones or to their loved ones in the quietest of train compartments or on even the most peaceful flight cabins. Their kids will run all around the place, like wildlife run amok, and create a ruckus. People will watch videos or play music on their phones without any earphones. Entire families will put their daily review meeting on full display, creating a commotion for all to see and hear in the train compartment. It’s totally normal to holler loudly at your friend or family member in a public place to grab their attention.
And there’s nothing you can do about it. All of this is culturally acceptable. Yes, all of it.
Even on night buses and trains, people will talk as loudly as they possibly can on their phones. Furthermore, like I mentioned in the point about personal space, they will do all the above mentioned things standing or sitting in very close proximity to you.
Lesson learned: Come here with the expectation that people will honk at you to get out of their way when you’re a pedestrian. Vehicles will come so close as to almost hit you, and only then put on their brakes. There is no concept of maintaining a “safe distance” from either vehicles or humans here. Carry the most effective earbuds you can find on your way to India if you want to sleep peacefully on trains, buses, and hotels. Don’t expect a quiet peaceful atmosphere during the train ride where you can read a book to the melodious tune of the train chugging on the rails. Unless you’ve booked one of those coupe rooms on the train, expect to have noise and drama accompany you for the entirety of the journey.
Punctuality — IST (Indian Standard Time)
The biggest mistake you can make while here in India is turning up on time for an official or unofficial meeting with friends, colleagues, or even for a seminar. Like I said in the introduction, this country is heavily populated, and we have new road surprises every single day. So people are very much used to cutting each other some slack with regards to punctuality and timing.
When I first moved here, I was hit like a train by the culture shock of being the first one to arrive everywhere I went. I was awfully used to first-world behaviours and always believed I’d be reprimanded for arriving late. It’s an extremely difficult habit to shake off, I know. But when you’re in India, you just don’t aim to arrive on time everywhere you go. And neither do you expect the same from others. If they tell you 5.15, the probably mean 5.45. If they tell you 5.45, it can be anything from 6.15 to 6.30. You just have to adjust.
If your tour guide tells you he’ll meet you at the lobby of your hotel at 6, he most probably means something around 6, or “6-ish” as we locals fondly call it. So don’t dress yourself to the nines, expecting him to be there ready and waiting for you.
In fact, once you start living here, you’ll begin to understand why it’s so ridiculuously hard to follow timing to the letter. Sometimes, it starts raining as you’re on your way to meet someone. Sometimes, your cab driver messes up the destination. Sometimes, the road’s blocked for VIP movement. Sometimes, there’s a vehicle breakdown on the main road. Sometimes, you’re stopped by the cops for checking. And just like that, there an infinite number of reasons you could be delayed on Indian roads.
Again, like everything else in India, this isn’t black and white and there are situations where you must unconditionally be on time. Like catching a train, for example.
Lesson learned: Do not set an exact time to meet someone, rather set a time slot, which is much more practical and maintains healthy nerves for all. More importantly, do not berate someone for being late. Do not display your annoyance that something that was scheduled to begin at one particular time, started 15 or 20 minutes late. They’re just running on Indian Standard Time.
It would be much better to turn off an internal expectation switch, than being disappointed and frustrated every single day with the way things work in India, wouldn’t it?
You are anyways going to be staying here for only a short period of time.
So why not make the best of it?
To know about more such culture shocks you could possibly expect to experience during your stay in India, check out Ivana’s YouTube channel, where she has an entire series on just the topic.
P.S. I have mentioned only the worst possible scenarios so that you come prepared for it. You may never face any of these during your stay here.
P.P.S. I am in no way being racist, stereotyping, or ridiculing any of the above mentioned behaviours. I’m just stating the facts as they are. This article is mainly intended to people from developed countries who are used to extremely sanitized and noiseless settings, so they know what to expect once they set foot in India.