Guest Post: A Passage to India, Lucknow (by Matt Faherty)

[We continue with Matt Faherty’s adventures in India. Last time (actually weeks ago in real time), he was in Calcutta. From Calcutta, he flew west to Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh. Here’s his report on Day 1 there, along with general anthropological musings about the peoples of Asia. –Irfan]

Lucknow – A Diamond in the Rough

If you haven’t heard of Lucknow, that’s OK. I hadn’t heard of it either until I looked at a map of cities near Nepal when I was trying to figure out where to travel. Lucknow is an Indian city with a population of 2 million not far from the border of Nepal. It is the capital of a somewhat obscure Indian province and was once a major colonial outpost during the British dominion.*

I chose to visit Lucknow instead of a better known Indian city (like Bangalore or Mumbai) for maybe three reasons. First, it was close to Nepal, my final destination for the trip. Second, I wanted to see a smaller Indian city rather than simply to jump from one massive metropolis to another. Finally, I googled Lucknow and the image results were stunning. Lucknow is barely known to tourists but has some of the most beautiful architectural achievements in all of India.

Chota Imambara (Wikipedia)

As expected, Lucknow does not have the big city feel I’ve grown accustomed to over the last two weeks. Even in the heart of the city, most buildings aren’t more than three feet tall. It’s still noisy, but vastly quieter than Calcutta or Dhaka. The relative lack of traffic is also a welcome relief from the overwhelming congestion and jams I’ve grown accustomed to having to dodge.

As also expected, Lucknow is filled to the brim with stunning buildings. In contrast to Calcutta, which looked like an old European city had been built in the middle of the jungle, Lucknow has more of a colonial feel. The predominant architectural style is a hybrid of Mughal and classical English, which oddly creates a sort of Hispanic colonial look, with lots of rounded edges and corners outlining solid marble facades. The main street especially looks like it could be from an Old Mexican town in Texas, with a single straight street lined on both sides by old colonial government buildings.

Because Lucknow gets so few tourists, I’m getting a lot of attention from the locals. Far more rickshaws are making unsolicited offers than in Calcutta. I’ve gotten plenty of smile-handshakes and one random teenager started talking to me about Obama and then asked for my phone number. I turned him down. My hotel manager is especially thrilled by my presence. He doesn’t speak English very well, and I’d bet money that he’s autistic, but that doesn’t stop him from stammering out broken sentences about how amazing America and especially Obama are. One of the attendants at the hotel told me the manager’s father had some sort of cancer which an American doctor operated on in New Delhi, and ever since then he has idolized the US.

Granted, there is somewhat of a caveat to that last paragraph. I’m still covered in pink paint and part of my hair is blue. I took a shower last night to get rid of what I could, but there is much progress yet to be made on my cheeks and forehead. I had totally forgotten that some pink people had dumped blue powder on my head until I stepped in the shower and saw blue water running off my head. This continued for five minutes until the water cleared up, but apparently I didn’t get all of that either because the front of my head is distinctly blue. When I was going through airport security this morning, an Indian TSA agent equivalent said “happy Holi” under his breath while wanding me. I replied in kind.

Lucknow Rail Station (Wikipedia)

It’s entirely possible that a fair number of the stares and attention I’m getting is because I look like an idiot, or alternatively, like I’ve been in a car accident and haven’t bothered cleaning the blood off my face yet. Certainly, the sideways glances, snickering, and occasional outright laughter are for the former reason alone.

Anyway, in the four hours I spent in Lucknow today, I visited a few major sites. First, I saw the Assembly Hall for the provincial government. It’s a massive classical style marble structure with a central rotunda which could easily find its place in Washington DC. I didn’t see any means of going inside, but it was the first of many architectural triumphs I saw in Lucknow. The Assembly was also nicely complemented by a nearby white clock tower I hope to enter tomorrow or the next day.

Second, I visited the Shah Najaf Imambara. I have no idea what that means and it took me a while to figure out what it is. It actually looks really cool from afar. I entered a large walled in field about the size of a football field, with a path running through the center towards the building itself. It looked like a mosque of some sort, and I had to take of my shoes to enter (it was too remote for me to worry about my shoes being stolen), but it turned out to not be a mosque. As I got closer, I noticed the building wasn’t made out of sandstone as it appeared, but was actually plaster over brick.

Eventually I found an inner room, which structurally resembled a mosque, but again, wasn’t one. It was filled with lots of tacky chandeliers hanging from the ceiling for no discernible reason. Lighting wise, they weren’t on and if they were, it would be overkill, but whatever.

Shah Najaf Imambara (Wikipedia: Syedfaraz 11)

A random guy approached me and started giving me a tour in broken English. He explained that the building was a recreation of a tomb in Iraq which housed some ruler and his two wives. He showed me the replica tombs and said some other stuff I didn’t understand. Five minutes later he asked for a tip for being my tour guide. I didn’t give him one.

I’m sounding too negative on the Imambara. It may be a cheap replica, but it’s pretty and makes for a nice place to take a pleasant walk.

Finally I briefly walked through Sikander Bagh, an old Mughal fort which had been repurposed by the British. During the Sepoy Rebellion, the rebels held the fort until the British launched an assault which killed hundreds of Sepoys. Supposedly the last Sepoy to die was a female sniper who picked off dozens of Brits from a tree until she was finally shot down. She got two pretty cool statues in return.

Sikandar Bagh: Ah, the good ol’ days

Not much is left of the fort but one gate and some walls. Still, another gem to look at and a great place for a walk.

A list of random things I will never get used to in India:

  •             Every vehicle on the road honking its horn every three seconds
  •             Seeing communist flags and posters everywhere
  •             Seeing swastikas everywhere (it’s a symbol of prosperity throughout Asia)
  •             Being targeted by random people for money
  •             Impossible to navigate roads
  •             Exploitative pricing
  •             Squat toilets (though I’ve dodged them all so far this trip)

I really hate tipping. It’s bad in America but it’s ten time worse here. I hate the idea that my payment for a service is only 90% agreed upon, and the other 10% is this tightrope where being too generous means wasting money and not being generous enough means being an asshole. I vastly prefer that both parties just know what they are getting upfront so we don’t have to worry about this insane world of non-mandatory but extremely expected gift giving.

And it really is insane. There’s a reason Larry David has written dozens of episodes between Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm about tipping. Even in the US where there are pretty well established parameters for when, where, how, and how much to tip, it’s still a massive minefield where so much can go wrong and so little can go right. Whatever negative things can be said about Chinese culture, I am eternally grateful to the country for driving tipping to the point of nonexistence (and it’s even illegal in some industries).

Tipping in India is somehow even worse than in the US, even if the expected rates are lower. The problem is that tipping norms are arbitrary and ill defined. A quick Google search reveals dozens of different suggested strategies and standards for tipping ranging from US levels all the way down to not tipping at all. Do taxi drivers get tipped? If so, how much? What about hotel clerks? Hotel owners? Random uninvited tour guides? Who knows?

A huge confounding issue is that rules are de facto different for foreigners and locals. I’m pretty sure, but not totally sure, that most locals don’t tip at all or at least tip rarely. The exception is probably wealthy locals, but that’s just speculation. Regardless, foreigners are constantly asked for tips. I’ve been asked by taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers, bellhops, hotels owners, airport attendants, unofficial tour guides, and waiters. I was weak early on, but my firm policy now is no tipping, with the exception of rounding up for taxi drivers when meters price to the cent (which no one has in rupees anyway).

But my problem with tipping isn’t just that no one knows the conventions in India, it’s that the locals prey on this fact. Just as the local merchants prey upon Western standards of politeness, they prey on Western standards of tipping and charity. It isn’t easy to say “no” to tossing 50 extra cents to some rickshaw driver who probably makes $5 per day. They know this fact, so they do everything they can to pressure Westerners. The weaker locals will widen their eyes, hold out their hands, and say “tip” even if they don’t know another word in the entire English language. The more aggressive locals will refuse to give you change for a payment and repeat “tip” over and over again while smiling.

Ambedkar Park, Lucknow (Wikipedia)

Of course, if anyone in the US used the latter tactic, he would at best be called a massive asshole, and at worst be punched in the face. But the Indians know that most westerners feel sorry for them and that our cultural relativism is great enough to make us endure an enormous amount of emotional abuse.

What especially angers me about this issue is that Westerners are so much nicer to locals than thee locals are too each other. I don’t think I have seen a single Bangladeshi or Indian say “please” or “thank you” to each other. Whenever I perform these common courtesies, the locals light up like I’ve bestowed some great honor upon them. Granted, it is usually not the same people receiving my courtesies and trying to pry money from my reluctant hands, but still, it is terrible custom for a segment of the population to attempt to exploit the only people who treat them kindly (not to mention pump significant foreign wealth into their economy).

I have one more observation. Actually, I’ve been thinking about this since I made my way through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam over the course of a month during last summer. China is doing great.

I don’t just mean that China is experiencing superb economic growth (of course it is), I mean that China has a vastly better culture than its poor neighbors, at least in regards to its treatment of Westerners. I don’t know if this is a development that coincided with China’s growth in GDP over the last twenty years, or if China has always been this way, but in my experiences with China, Southeast Asia, Bangladesh, and India, Chinese people are by far the most honest and upfront with their dealings, both socially and financially.

Granted, that isn’t exactly the case at every level. Chinese businesses are notoriously fraudulent and bad at book keeping, but the average Chinese merchant never pulled half the shit I have to deal with here in India or especially down in Thailand and Cambodia. I never had someone give me back the wrong change on purpose, I’ve never had a taxi driver blatantly over charge me or lie about how far away my destination is (I’ve had Chinese drivers attempt to overcharge me, but not to the same degree, and they were basically upfront in their negotiations, with only one exception). Chinese merchants targeted me in markets, but when I refused to look at them, they left me alone rather than follow me around or grab my arm and pull me into a stall.

What’s so weird about all of this is that Chinese people have a reputation for being a lot less nice than people from these other countries. I suppose its true, the average Chinese merchant doesn’t have a big grin on his face and constantly call me “sir” like they do in India and Thailand. But if that’s the price I have to pay for not worrying if every friendly person is trying to scam me, then I’ll gladly pay it. Of course that’s not to say Chinese people are always curmudgeonly. They can be great fun in normal social gatherings. But they definitely don’t have that overwhelming smiling pep that people in the other countries do.

Some people, I know, have found that off-putting, but I like it. It still weirds me out that Indians and especially Thais seem so ridiculously happy and friendly all the time. I don’t personally know any people in the US who act this way. It’s unnatural. And as I said before, I can’t help but think that the ridiculously happy facade (whether real or forced) helps hide more sinister intentions. That is not to say that every Indian and Thai person wants to rob me, only that the ones who do can camouflage themselves in this cultural norm as a way to disarm me.

Basically, I like Chinese people and Chinese culture more than its poorer neighbors. China is comparable to Singapore, different but equal to Malaysia, not comparable to Japan, but better than Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India.**

*Irfan: Lucknow is widely considered one of the centers of Mughal Islamic culture, alongside Delhi, Agra, and Lahore (Pakistan). See, e.g., Abdul Halim Shahrar, Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture.

**Irfan: Despite bad-mouthing the peoples of South Asia, Matt seems to have enjoyed the luck of the Irish there, or alternatively, having left (but himself escaped) abundant devastation in his wake, including a fatal machete attack, near-fatal bombing, and ferry accident in Dhaka, and now, a fatal train derailment in Lucknow. As you can read here, things go harder for Matt when he gets to Kathmandu (Nepal), but he manages to survive and even do some farming by the slopes of the Himalayas. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

6 thoughts on “Guest Post: A Passage to India, Lucknow (by Matt Faherty)

  1. Looks like Matt was dealing with the vestiges of the caste system. I don’t know much about the subcontinent, but his comparative account of different cultures in the region just screams “Caste System!”


  2. Pingback: Guest Post: A Passage to India, Delhi Days 1 and 2 (by Matt Faherty) | Policy of Truth

  3. Matt,

    I’ve been thinking about your honking comment. Honking happens to be a hang-up of mine, and I also drive a lot in New Jersey (enough said). Having been to Pakistan and Nicaragua, I think I understand the phenomenon you’re describing of cars honking every few minutes, but it seems to me that honking in Third World countries is less obnoxious than honking here in the US, despite its greater frequency there. The difference lies in what honking means.

    Here (in New Jersey, anyway), honking generally has a “fuck you” aspect to it. People here honk to insult one another. When you honk, you’re implicitly saying, “Hurry the fuck up, you stupid asshole,” or “Get the fuck out of the way, you’re in my way, dick” or “You cut me off, you piece of shit.” I tend to think that American (meaning NJ) driving is faster than driving in Managua or Lahore, and has a scarier, more aggressive aspect to it. Likewise: the cars are bigger (e.g., SUVs) and people are pretty unapologetic about exploiting the size of their vehicle to intimidate people with smaller vehicles. Finally, there’s the outside chance that an altercation could lead to the use of firearms.

    In my experience–in Managua and Lahore–honking has a very different meaning. It just straightforwardly means, “I’m over here, look out.” It’s done with a light touch, and the horns themselves are not as loud and blaring. No insult is necessarily intended, and none is typically taken. The driving itself is slower, and though frenetic, it’s not as aggressive somehow. All the vehicles are relatively small. In Lahore, anyway, there is an assumption that your car will get dinged slightly in traffic, which you just accept as the price of driving. But you’re typically going so slowly that dents and dings aside, there’s no real danger to you. By American standards, it’s like a bumper car ride. There is some chance in Lahore that the other driver has a firearm, but I find myself more nervous about that here in NJ than there.

    For that reason, unlike you, I got used to honking pretty quickly in Pakistan and Nicaragua. (Granted, I wasn’t the one driving in either place, but then, neither are you.) I still haven’t gotten used to the honking in New Jersey, and I’ve lived here all my life. Israeli driving tends to be just like American driving, and Palestinian driving is a phenomenon unto itself. I’ve been to Italy, but don’t remember the driving, specifically–except for the fact that the roads were constantly blocked because of workers’ strikes.


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