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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Oh Be Careful Little Feet, Where You Go!

This verse of an old Sunday School song is full of significance in India today.

First of all, beware of stepping on a gonguli purugu, 'woolly worm,' whose cute fuzzy hairs behave more like porcupine quills.  A friend told me her gardener saved their son (children do like to pick things up!) a great deal of pain by rubbing the son's finger on his (the gardener's) oily hair, as a palliative for the stinging reward  the child received for picking up the worm..  On another occasion, our own adult son brushed his foot against a woolly worm, earning a painfully swollen ankle requiring an antibiotic to heal.  These black worm-like caterpillars like to live in the drumstick  tree, so be careful when you walk  nearby!  (Drumsticks are
aptly named vegetable pods which are good when cut, cooked and eaten in the manner of peapods, their flesh and seeds stripped off between the teeth.)

And then, sad to say, some people like to spit. Mostly men.  On the street and in heavily travelled public places.  Look, if it bothers you, before you walk. It bothers a great  many people here, and you will see signs advising against the practice. Then there are the guys who'll just open their fly and water the side of the road,
in town or in the country.  Usually well to side of the road, but in plain sight, many grown men still find it acceptable to relieve themselves any time they feel like it.  Sometimes with briefcases by their side.  But it would be best to remember another verse of this song, "Oh be careful little eyes what you see."  Especially if you are a woman.

Besides active yet surprisingly fluid traffic patterns, streets and roads present unexpected challenges like  rocks and chunks of debris, or dips and potholes, not to mention sleeping dogs, wandering chickens or cows, and, in shopping areas, innumerable roadside vendors, including tire, or shoe, repairmen, fruit sellers, and the ironer busy at his cart, even a maverick worship site: rock, tree, or shrines.  Constant road construction and improvement these days are signs of India's progress, but present obstacle courses for walkers, riders, and drivers alike.  Dank open drains remaining in use along many roads lend their gray-green 'fragrance' to that of  exhaust and dust; sudden rains can send their sullen brackish shine flooding over low lying intersections and properties, leaving pedestrians no choice but to wade through it on their ways home from shopping, work, or the market, while cyclists, auto rickshaws, cars and trucks go on their merry ways. (Shades of Rudyard Kipling!  Did you know that, as a young man, he wrote for a newspaper his father ran, in India? The "great, gray-green, greasy Limpopo river"  of 'The Elephant's Child' story in JUST SO STORIES takes on new meaning as I look over this paragraph...!)

Wood being in short supply, homes are usually made of brick and stone; in the past, black slate was the flooring of preference, while tile and marble floors are becoming more and more common.  But beware:  The practice is to sweep. and then swab the floor with disinfectant every day. Consequently, the floors are slippery; new hotels polish their marble or granite floors to a mirror-like shine. Shops and public venues are usually steps above the street, and the newer ones have stairs as treacherously shiny as the floors.  Good reasons to go slow, as well as watch your step!

And India has a lexicon of manners relating to the feet.  Feet being the lowest part of the body, this status
conscious society considers them of low social value as well.  You must never, ever, touch anyone or point at anything with your feet, nor sit with your feet extended toward anyone.  If, say, in a crowded railway car or movie theater, your foot inadvertently touches another's, it is expected you will bend and touch your hand to your heart or reach both hands in the direction of the other's feet, in apology.

Doffing footwear at the door of homes and places of worship is usually expected, indeed you might be asked to take yours off, if you don't think of it yourself when you see the assortment of footwear near the door.  If
you have reason to keep them on, you apologize and ask if it is all right, and will usually be excused.  Some of the more frequented national monuments or places of worship may provide shoe covers.

Back to the matter of reaching toward another's feet:  It is a sign of deep respect (sometimes overdone by political followers!), to reach toward, if not actually touch the feet of a respected or revered person, or a those of a religious idol..  It is a part of the Hindu wedding ritual for the couple to touch the feet of the parents after the ceremony, and again upon their first visit or visits to the parental home after marriage.  The person receiving the respect will usually acknowledge it with at least a nod, or even lean forward to lift, or even prevent the gesturing one, from bowing.  Respect I can understand, but somehow, even before entering this culture, I have associated touching the feet only with the degree of honor we owe to God. While I understand it, I find it difficult to accept the gesture when extended to myself.

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