Culture. Tradition. Tastes. Sights. Rickshaws.
Here I share the experiences I had whilst I visited my family in the great Motherland, India.
I took my first step outside the air conditioned airport and took in my first breath of proper Indian air. My glasses steamed up. I instantly remembered the humid, and unique Indian air smell which I smelt over 12 years ago, the last time I was in the country.
I had arrived in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the western state of Gujarat. A population of around 6.3 million people who are known for their love of food and their colourful celebrations of religious festivals.
We were greeted by my Granddad who I call Nana in Gujarati, and my uncle, Kartik who I call Mama, along with a family friend and rickshaw driver, Babu Bhai.
- Nana = Granddad (maternal)
- Mama = Uncle (Mum’s brother)
- Massi = Aunty (Mum’s sister)
- Mami = Uncle’s wife
- Bhai = Brother, but can be used for any male friend, family or stranger
- Bhen= Sister, but can be used for any female friend, family or stranger
I took a ride in the rickshaw with my brother and Dad and saw Ahmedabad’s streets for
what felt like the first time. It was a wonderful experience: motorcycle and rickshaw drivers beeping their horns everywhere, vehicles driving down the wrong side of the road, cycles with 3 or 4 people on them, street vendors selling water, snacks and Indian tobacco, fruit and veg sellers.
The red traffic lights and indicators meant nothing here, everyone just took the quickest trajectory to their destination. Although, in the chaos and centimeter close encounters, I never saw one accident happen. The drivers seemed to have a code of knowing when to let people pass and overtake. People were beeping everywhere. I was told they did it to make others aware they were there, but sometimes it just seemed like a natural itch to beep, even when no one was around. Smoke from exhausts seemed to cling on to the heavily humid air.
It was a short drive off the main road, a small street with a few houses and a building in construction. We arrived on the street where where my Nana, Uncle (Kartik Mama), his son / my 10 year old cousin Varun (who you will learn is a little rascal), and his wife / my Mami, Anchal live.
We entered the house from the kitchen, which had a small portable type gas hob, a basin and an area where rotis are made.
The next room was the main living room which had a table, a small cabinet with a few ornaments and photos, a chair, bed and a TV in plastic covering.
There was another small room further down which had a mandir and also lead to the back enclosed outer area where there was a washing machine, toilet, clothes line and a ladder which lead to the upper floor.
Space was made for us upstairs so after initial greetings, we climbed the ladder to unpack. Here there was a bathroom and a bedroom with a bed which could fit 3 people. There was also another room at the back which a clothes line and a wash basin.
After getting settled, we went downstairs to chat and have lunch. I hadn’t seen my grandad in many years and it was great to just sit with him. It was the first time meeting Anchal Mami. She was very welcoming and kind, offering us refreshments and lunch. She had prepared a traditional Gujarati meal which consisted of rotli with ghee spread, potato & aubergines shaak (curry) and patra shaak. The Patra shaak is a vegetarian dumpling like dish made from colocasia leaves and rice flour. Delicious.
Eating food with hands is an integral part of Indian culture, but I have become accustomed to using a spoon. I pull apart the rotli with 2 hands instead of the traditional one hand motion, place some shaak onto the spoon and then cover this with the rotli and consume. I jokingly told Nana, this way the shaak to rotli ratio is higher meaning I eat less rotli carbs. However, back in the UK, I rarely have potato curry. I always have a bean based curry: butterbeans, chickpeas, kidney beans… most shaaks that my relatives made in India had potato in them, the carbs reasoning I had didn’t stand here.
Tired from the long journey, we then had a quick powernap and then we went out to explore Ahmedabad. The exploration party involved 7 people: my brother Nimit, Mum, Dad, Nana, Varun, Babu Bhai driving and myself. We all squeezed on to a single rickshaw until we got to the main street where we found another vehicle. I was laughing because I was hanging on at the front with 1/3 of my body outside of the rickshaw. We then found another tuk tuk, bought some of India’s favourite cola soft drink, Thums Up, and continued on our journey.
The Thums Up was refreshing on this hot and humid day; it had a fizz which wasn’t too empowering along with a slight aftertaste of lime/acid. We stopped by a street vendor to buy some sandals. After some trying on, we bought 4 pairs (one for Nimit, Nana, Mum and myself) for an equivalent of around £1.66 per pair at 590 rupees.
We visited my Dad’s friends house where we sat and the elders talked for a little while. The elders had masala tea, the go to Indian hot drink. Click here for the recipe. They also offered u
s water multiple times but we politely declined (we stuck purely to mineral water in India).
My brother then fancied a sweet lassi so we rickshawed to my Dads all time favourite lassi place and bought sweet lassi for everyone. My Dad had lived in Ahmedabad for many years when he was younger when completing his studies. I had the lassi ‘special’ which was a thick lassi with cashew nuts. It was probably one of the best lassi’s I’ve ever had – extremely sweet and yoghurty, and the cashew nuts twist was genius. Dad and my brother went for another round but one was more than enough for me.
Night had fallen. We stopped by at a mall area where there was a bustling shop that reminded me of a busy Primark on a Saturday. My brother and I were in charge of Varun. We told him to pick two T-shirts and we would buy them for him. As we wandered some nearby shops, we lost my parents and the rest of our party. Annoyingly, we tried to search for them but only after around 20mins of searching did we find them. I learnt then that it wasn’t a good idea to travel around in India without a phone. En route home, I noticed that some men held hands with each other whilst walking on the street. I initially found this strange but I was told it signifies close friendship rather than its western meaning.
I had a wash when I got back: this involved using half a bucket of cold water and a plastic jug. The whole day had been baking hot and sweaty so the cold water was refreshing. After this we had dinner: tasty potato filled paratha. I had around 5 paratha with some ketchup. Ketchup gave a tangy contrast to the paratha and surprisingly goes well together. I then sat for a little while with Varun as he played a game on my phone.
Nana usually sleeps outside at the end of the house next to the corner shop in the warmer months; he said that area at the end of the street has good airflow. He was sitting there on his foldable bed along with my Dad and the locals. I sat with him for a little while. He told me that when he was younger, he used to sleep on a big pile of gravel on the ground, that way he would get coolness from below and the air above. The locals stared at me as I, a western foreigner, was a rare sight in the community. One person asked if there are loose cows and dogs roaming the streets in London like they were in India. Varun came out and sought permission from Nana to show us round the block. Excited with a green light, he took his bike and escorted Nimit and I down the street.
We slept around 12am. The beds had a wooden solid base, with just a duvet thin mattress, but I didn’t mind the firmness of the beds. I don’t know if it’s because I’m the youngest in the family or just fate, but I was sleeping on the worst bed in the room: in the crack between two beds 😦
I had seen a lot today. From the moment I entered India, it felt like another world. The heat and humidity, beeping on the crazy roads, cows wandering the streets, houses which functioned on basic technology. Eating, washing, sleeping – it was all different. But I loved it.