Lost in tradition

August 2015

My comeback to India was indeed intense this time. On the same day I arrived in Delhi I received a phone call with horrible news: My best friend in the village had died of mushroom poisoning. I couldn’t believe it, she had a pretty good mushroom hunting knowledge.There are rumors that unhappy Indian wives occasionally mix some “special” mushrooms into their husbands’ dishes to get rid of them, but that’s another story…

She was an Indian lady, a strong woman, kind and fun. My daughter loved to go to her place to play with her grandchildren and I loved to go there, because I felt absolutely comfortable in her company. I don’t even know how old she was; every time I asked about her age over the past seven years she used to answer “40”. I will miss her hugs, laughter, company and listening to her singing and playing the dolak, especially during the Holi Festival.


After coming back to our mountain village, I went to visit the family to offer my condolences. It was hard. And of course, as all too often, I unknowingly blundered.

When I came back from there, our neighbor told me that TODAY was NOT the right day to visit a mourning family. The good days were Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. I sighed. How would I know? But being a foreigner, the family probably understood and kindly ignored my mistake.

Indian traditions and social rules are really complicated to get for a foreigner, no matter how hard you try. There are innumerable details that have to be observed and all of it depends on the region, community, family and caste. Sure you can always ask an Indian, but for them all the details just come naturally and if you do not ask precisely about any possible little thing, they will probably forget explaining it to you.

I live in India since almost eight years and I only can say that the bit I know is equal to nothing!

Where we live a mourning period of eleven days is observed after somebody passes away. Close family members are not supposed to leave the house, except for performing the corresponding rituals for the parting soul in the temple. The ladies of the household will wear simple clothes and will renounce wearing jewelry and cosmetics, while the male members of the family shave their heads; the sons wear traditional white colored clothing.

On the eleventh day the mourning phase ends and people start slowly getting back to their routine. A humble celebration is held in remembrance of the departed person and people dress up for the occasion. Exactly on that day my daughter ran away to meet the children of the family and I followed her. I didn’t know that it was the end of the morning period and was completely under dressed, my faded clothes stained with flour from baking. I greeted timidly from a distance, caught my girl and disappeared unobtrusively.

People here must think that I am a real weirdo. I am a bit of a disaster when it comes to remembering dates: I usually barely know which day of the week it actually is. I guess it has something to do that during the tourist season we open our cafe seven days a week and in the off-season, every day is a Sunday for us. Usually I forget about fasting days and most of the religious celebrations, too.


Sometimes I only know about a festivity because our neighbor Mataji suddenly shows up with a plate full of treats in her hands. Shame on me!

Some might wonder how come that I do not have more knowledge about the Indian rituals and traditions being married with an Indian. I have been asking myself the same question and came to the conclusion that it figures that my husband left his home at the young age of eleven. He did not witness many years of deep family traditions inside of his home. Another point is that in most of the traditions there is a great difference in behavior and rituals, depending on whether you are a man or a woman.

Many times I asked my husband if I should go to this or that ceremony, what I should wear or what I should bring. He never really knew which advice to give me. He lived most of his life as a sadhu, which means that he did not live with any female presence that was not the image or a sculpture of a goddess. How would he know about how his wife was supposed to behave on a wedding, a funeral, when a new baby was born or if she was to attend this or that temple ceremony or not?

Baba also never has been a very ritualistic person himself and uses to say:

” If you are happy, then god is also happy. God doesn’t care if you fast or not; or even if you fail visiting the temple. All this, people actually just do for themselves. What really matters is that you try to be the best person you can be in your daily life ”


The Pinky Mudra

It doesn’t take long to find out that travel plans usually don’t work out in this country. Actually it is better to not make any, as life knows better than you and India takes you where you have to be by its own ways.

I found out that studying a map of India and marking the routes to the destinations you want to reach in a scheduled time, even if it represents only a rough idea of what you want to see, is pretty useless; unless you want to spend more time in a vehicle than in your destination.

Where I come from it takes about one hour to make 100 km by road; in India the same distance takes approximately the triple of time, at least if you decide to travel in the cheapest way, which is the local bus.

We took the local Bus from Rishikesh to the state of Himachal. I wanted to do the “real” thing and had prepared myself mentally for a nine-hour trip. But when we arrived at the bus stop and I saw the tin can in which I would be sitting for longer than it takes from Europe to New Delhi, my spirit of adventure sunk drastically.

First of all the driver lit an incense stick and performed a fast puja to the little Ganesh Statue that was glued to the dashboard, adorned with blinking fairy lights and dusty plastic flowers. Ganesh, the elephant god and remover of all obstacles…

Was this a good or a bad sign?

As we took off, I marveled at the systemless traffic chaos, which somehow seems to always work out fairly well. Despite off all the honking and random passing maneuvers you get pretty soon used to the wild driving style and don´t bother about it anymore.

For the next couple of hours I chatted with Baba and enjoyed watching the landscapes rushing by. The plastic seats though were anything but comfortable and soon my behind demanded a little break from all the up and down bumping. The driver though showed no signs of intention to stop for a break.

“Only” seven more hours to go!

local bus

Suddenly I noticed that a man a couple of seats in front of us lifted his pinky to the air. Shortly after the bus stopped on the road side and several men got off to obey nature’s call. I had my doubts that my funny guess was correct, but Baba confirmed:

Yes! If you have to pee really badly, use the official pinky mudra and the bus will stop! 

I tried to sleep. Not easy, when there are rusty screws sticking out from everywhere. The slide window was shaking loudly and cold air blew on my neck through the gaps. I tried to close it several times, but soon gave up, as each time it opened again after only a couple of minutes.

When I finally managed to doze off the bus stopped for a food break in a motorway dhaba. The conductor directed the driver into a narrow parking gap by blowing his shrill whistle as hard as possible.

During these stops I normally have to choose between eating food, finding and using the toilet (this mostly also needs some mental preparation) or smoking a cigarette. I never manage to do all of it and as soon as I scoop the first spoon of rice into my mouth, while everybody else already has finished their plate in a matter of seconds, the conductor whistles for departure.

Soon we reached the hill area, which is a danger zone. Not only because of the poor road conditions, but also because there are always a few people getting sick on the bus. Be careful if you feel like sticking your head out of the window to breath in some fresh air; you risk to get hit by someone’s vomit right in the face. The bus however drives on cheerfully from bend to bend, while people with green faces lean out of the windows trying to resist the gravity which tosses them back and forth.

Apropos, avoid leaning against a local bus during breaks, the result will probably be some nasty stains on your clothes…

heartsFive hours had passed. I felt drained, my body hurt and my thoughts were turning darker and darker. Sleeping was impossible; at least for me. Everybody else, inclusive Baba, did not seem to have any problems. Some people, who got on the bus at the last stop, didn’t get any seat and somehow managed to sleep even while standing in the corridor. I obviously was the only person having an inner struggle. Even the small children did not complain and slept soundly on their parents’ laps.

I felt stupid, what was wrong with me?

It helped a little when I tried to concentrate on my breath. I released my anger and watched my thoughts wandering from here to there. I noticed, that they became pretty creative, many ideas and conclusions came into my mind.

This was a good way to spend the time!

I remembered a story a backpacker couple told me once about their local bus ride experience: It was wintertime and a big stone hit the windshield causing a huge crack. There was still half of the distance to go. The bus stopped and they expected the driver to call someone to fix the window or to exchange the bus. Instead he picked up a stone from the side of the street and broke down the entire windowpane. That was all. The bus went off again, as if nothing had happened. No one complained.

Tired but thankful we eventually reached our destination. I like to take my time when I arrive somewhere and stay at least a couple of weeks. First of all to get to know the place in a relaxed manner and second, because I need at the minimum three days to recover from the trip and three days more to get prepared mentally for the next one.

In this backpacker lesson I learned that the secret is to accept situations you cannot change anyways; and of course,

the mysterious meaning of the pinky mudra!