Horn OK Please

July 4, 2014

Trucks are a phenomenon in India. Their bodies are meticulously hand-painted with elaborate designs and emblazoned with evocative phrases like “Top Speed!” and “Road King.” Otherwise mundane components of the truck are labeled with flashy, calligraphic script boldly identifying themselves as “Diesel Tank,” or “Tools Box.” The trucks are personalized for their owner and advertise a great many things. Among the more cryptic (but also ubiquitous) messages is the phrase “Horn OK Please” painted across the back. What does it mean? Please honk at me? It’s OK if you see me honking at somebody? Honk if you need to pass me? Traffic in India is a sea of random horn-honking anyway, I don’t see why they need to let you know it’s OK.


King of Road

The linguistic situation in India is overwhelming, to say the least. There are 22 official (and countless other unofficial-yet-still-widely-spoken) languages in India representing the Austroasiatic, Dravidian, Indo-European, and Sino-Tibetan families. The northern two-thirds of India mostly speaks various Indo-European languages (distantly related to English, Spanish, German, Russian, and others that we’re familiar with). The southern third speaks a few Dravidian languages, one of the world’s other primary language families. Each region in India has its own local language. One of these local languages, Hindi, is something of a lingua franca for India. Many official duties are performed in Hindi and many Indians speak it in addition to the local language(s) of their region. Due to common ancestry and/or areal influence the phonological systems of many of these languages (at least in the southern two thirds of the country) are quite similar (extensive use of retroflex consonants, contrastive aspiration, breathy voicing, etc), so to a linguist who has spent most of their time steeped in Western Eurasian and Circumpolar languages like myself it’s tough to try to differentiate between many of them. To make matters worse, various Hindi or English words and phrases are commonly thrown into whatever language is being spoken. There are quite a few Indians who are not proficient in Hindi, so English plays a dominant role in inter-region communication as well. Indian English is a legitimate dialect of English spoken by many in India, but its phonology is also heavily influenced by native Indian languages such that sometimes, depending on the speaker, it doesn’t even sound like English. With all that said, my phonetic transcriptions in this post will include the source language in addition to the pronunciation.


Oh, OK then.

After a grueling flight (we even landed an hour early, clocking in at just about 15 hours) with way too many screaming infants per capita we landed in a hot and muggy Mumbai (Marathi: [ˈmumbaɪ]). Fortunately the logistics seemed to be working out alright and the driver my company hired was waiting outside the gate with a sign with my name on it. The driver deftly navigated the insane traffic commonly-associated with big cities in developing countries; I was silently grateful that it was him, and not me, doing the driving. Mumbai is one of the largest cities in the world by most measures, the scope was becoming evident block-by-block. We finally arrived at the hotel, also organized by my company. The hotel stood like a glass-armored sentinel among the drab, concrete highrises in Thane. Effectively built as a gated community, the security measures had long been forgotten and the reinforced gate stood propped open.

Another driver showed up a short while later and whisked me through the dusty streets to my company’s office complex. Unbeknownst to me, my arrival was something of an occasion. I was greeted at the front door by a number of employees, most of whom I knew by name and online persona but had never met in person. They had flowers for me and performed a small welcoming ceremony where a bindi was applied to my forehead. As much as I hate being the center of attention, the gesture was heart-warming and lovely. Moreover, this was all for the guy they only know as the one who sends the outage notifications before doing network maintenance; I wonder how they treat the execs.

Early the following morning I headed for Bangalore (Kannada: [ˈbeŋgəɭuru]), where the majority of my business was to be conducted. There’s not a lot going on in Bangalore, but it’s somewhat nice-looking (if you don’t look at the not nice parts of it, like the piles of garbage and open sewers). After two weeks in Bangalore I headed back up north to begin my week-or-so of vacation in the north of India.


Doorway in Austin Town, Bangalore.

I flew from Mumbai to Srinigar (Kashmiri: [ˈsrinagar]), and immediately noticed the pleasant effect the elevation (around 1500m) had on the weather. It was no longer oppressively hot and muggy, but a comfortable 20C with blue and sunny skies. Srinagar is the co-capital of Jammu and Kashmir (Kashmiri: [ˈdʒɑːmuː kaʃˈmiːr]), the northernmost (and most hotly-contested) state in India. The territory is a subject of much contention between China, India, and Pakistan. Where the actual border lies depends on who you ask, but the Kashmiri people generally consider themselves autonomous and just try to stay out of the conflict. Srinagar is a beautiful city situated on the shores of Dal Lake. There are a huge number of ornately-designed wooden houseboats on the lake, many of these are hotels and guest houses these days. Much like Venice, the typical form of transportation around the lake are taxi boats called Shikaras (Kashmiri: [ʃiˈkaːra]).


Typical scene from Dal Lake.

I had a very relaxing stay there which mostly consisted of hanging out on the houseboat with the family that ran it. Paradoxically, the entire staff was male, including the foul-mouthed, tiny old Kashmiri cook/cleaner/handyman/all-around-badass, Abdul. I woke up ridiculously early on my final morning there to check out the floating market before heading off into the mountains for a night. The market is a tradition among residents of Srinagar and it’s well-known as the place to go for produce, the only catch is that you need to get there by 05:30. Before the sun peaked over the mountains the ever-present Abdul coaxed a Shikara over to the dock after having prepared breakfast. I departed at just after 05:00 with another of the workers (Guys? Cousins? Friends? I’m not sure what any of them were, but they all seemed to have some relation to one another and all seemed to do some amount of work at some point or another). We had a leisurely row out to a location across the lake, glassy and perfectly still aside from the occasional wake of a Shikara loaded to the gunwales with produce for sale (seriously, one more onion and some of these things would quickly take on water and sink). I mostly watched the commerce, but it was certainly a sight to see; the Shikara drivers expertly navigating amongst a swarm of other boats, shouting over each other in Kashmiri, negotiating this way or that, or simply smoking a pipe and observing.


Boat-bound vegetable peddlers.

That day I continued my journey east from Srinagar. I spent the day hiking around a village called Naranagh (Urdu: [ˈnaranaɣ]) off the Srinagar-Leh highway. The village is populated with Urdu speakers who apparently have a strong distaste for the neighboring Kashmiri people. I met a kid in town who taught me some phrases in Urdu (آپ کانام کیاہے؟) and warned me repeatedly not to talk to the Kashmiri people I might run into in the mountains. I found these fears to be unfounded, I talked to plenty of Kashmiri people both in Srinagar and in the mountains and they all seemed like swell people. On my way up the mountain I ran into a couple Pashto shepherds as well. This area is considerably east of where Pashtuns are usually found, El Niño perhaps. The following day I made a hectic jeep-to-jeep transfer from the driver who gave me a ride to Naranagh the previous day into a new jeep chock full of chain-smoking Ladakhis heading east for Leh (Ladakhi: [ˈleː]).


Me and the Ladakhi Boyz throwin’ shapes on the way to Leh.

The twelve hour journey from Srinagar to Leh was nothing short of spectacular, in all ways. The landscape slowly transforms from lush, temperate forests to arid, high desert over the course of the 400km road. The reason it takes 12 hours to go 400km is due to the insane switchbacks, overall lack of road maintenance, and manic traffic. From Kangan (Urdu: [ˈkaŋan]) the road climbs and climbs and climbs more. Switchback after muddy switchback it climbs, through some of the highest mountains I’ve ever seen. The road is incredibly narrow, one side a sheer cliff with hundreds of meters to fall, the other side an unyielding stone wall. Despite these incredibly dangerous surroundings, there is a constant stream of jeeps and buses driving at absolutely unrealistic speeds. Laying on the horn and passing other cars around blind corners was not uncommon. The drivers who drive this highway for a living seem to have the process down pretty well though, despite the harrowing theatrics, nobody seemed to go careening over the edge (at least not while I was watching), although we got uncomfortably close quite a few times.


Careful, rocks inside.

Kargil (Kargili: [ˈkargil]) is the midpoint for the journey, and it’s a midpoint for a number of continua that this road represents. The landscape becoming drier; the greens becoming browns, the rivers less abundant. The facial features becoming more Asiatic and less Indo-Iranian; the faces rounder, the eyes narrower, the skin lighter. The religion changing from Islam to Buddhism; less mosques, more prayer wheels, strings of colorful prayer flags hanging over the roadway. The dominant language changing from the Indo-European Kashmiri to the Sino-Tibetan Ladakhi. Kargil is a legitimate mix of all these things, the more Asiatic-looking Ladakhi people intermingling with the Indo-Iranian-looking Kashmiri people, praying at the same mosques, spinning the same prayer wheels, speaking the same language. The end of this drive became spectacularly hellish; the elevation (3500m) was getting to me, and the 12 hours of swerving, bumping, cigarette-smoke-and-diesel-fume-inhaling road was wearing thin. I was able to get a little bit of sleep in between my head slamming against one thing or another inside the car until we finally reached Leh.


This was a great improvement over the cramped back seat of a manic, careening jeep.

I suffered from altitude sickness and some other unknown ailment to varying degrees for pretty much my whole stay in Leh. It was my original intention to do some trekking, but I was pretty well waylaid by feeling crappy. On top of this, I can’t imagine doing any sort of real exercise (like trekking with a full pack) at that elevation; walking up one flight of stairs winded me pretty sufficiently already. I ended up renting a scooter and exploring the stunning scenery that way. The city of Leh and the surrounding areas are incredibly beautiful, it’s nestled high in the Himalayas and surrounded by mountains on all sides. The people and culture of Leh are essentially Tibetan, but there is a fairly large Muslim minority as well. For the most part, the ethnically Tibetan people are Buddhist while the ethnically Kashmiri people are Muslim, but there’s a decent amount of overlap on both sides. There are two mosques in Leh that do the Muslim Call to Prayer (Adhan, Arabic: [ʔaˈðaːn]). Strangely, the muezzins (Arabic: [muːˈɛzɪn]) of these two mosques perform both the best and worst Adhans I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately the minaret of the worst muezzin was right outside my room, so I awoke every morning at 03:30 for the pre-dawn Salat in the form of a tone-deaf, butt-rock power-chord, pig-latinized Adhan (seriously, how does this guy keep his job?). Shortly after this thoroughly aggravating and deeply disappointing Adhan the other mosque across town would lull me back to sleep with the haunting and melancholy progressions of a perfectly-executed Adhan. While I don’t associate with any religion, I find great beauty in religiously-inspired things. There’s something wonderful about the piety of the muezzin, lovingly performing his routine, calling the faithful to prayer. Many of humanity’s great works of art can be attributed to an incredible dedication to some higher power in the artist; while I may not feel that myself, and while I may have misgivings about the fundamental faith on which that dedication lies, I guess I’m glad it’s there for some people, for now.


These Buddhist monuments are scattered all over the place in Ladakh.

Speaking of great works of art inspired by dubious religious adherence, how about the Taj Mahal? I was fortunate enough to spend a day out in Agra (Hindi: [ˈɑːgrə]) on my way back from Leh. I was truly in awe of the beauty of this structure. Built as a mausoleum to Shah Jahan’s third wife, construction began around 1632 and took more than 20 years by 20,000 workers to complete. Seeing the intricacy of some of the designs immediately explains the workforce. The entire thing was handmade down to the centimeter, the designs on the white marble are not painted, but carved from other stones and inserted into corresponding gaps carved into the marble. On top of that, the entire site is perfectly symmetrical with the exception of the actual caskets (holding both Jahan’s third wife as well as Jahan, which wasn’t part of his plan).


No big deal.

Anyhow, I’m currently back in Mumbai taking care of a few final work details before heading back to Finland and I can hardly contain my excitement. I rode a local last night, which is one of those infamous trains in Mumbai where people are so packed in that they’re hanging out the doors and standing on top. The Mumbai Suburban Railway carries 7.5 million passengers per day (which is, hilariously, considerably more than the entire population of Finland every day). I got on at Marine Line Station and rode up to Bandra Station at around 21:00. The trains operate at around 3 minute headways all day, but even this long after rush hour they were still crush loaded. In order to ensure a spot passengers grab on and clamber aboard through a sea of people before the train comes to a stop. Likewise, in order to avoid the crush of boarding passengers, those wanting to get off must jump off while the train is still slowing down (that is, if you can even navigate from your spot inside the train to the doors).

Personal space isn’t much of a concept here, and spoken like a true westerner I’m definitely looking forward to having mine back. On top of that, I’m looking forward to being able to walk down the street without being deafened by horns or almost being run over by a constant stream of cars. I’m also looking forwarding to being able to leave the house without immediately being drenched in sweat or Monsoon rains. Among the things I certainly will miss is the food*… the biryani in Bangalore, the wazwan and chapati in Kashmir, the momo and thenthuk in Leh, the pav bhaji in Mumbai, the fresh mangoes and coconuts on every corner… the list goes on.

India has been good to me, and for that I’m grateful.


This way to Helsinki.

biryani: (Telugu: [birˈjani])
wazwan: (Kashmiri: [ˈwazwan])
chapati: (Kashmiri: [tʃaˈpati])
momo: (Ladakhi: [ˈmomo])
thenthuk: (Ladakhi: [ˈtʰentʰuk])
pav bhaji: (Marathi: [pao ˈʋadʒi])

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