Culture shock

Culture shock


How I came to be in New Delhi in the suffocating height of summer several years ago is a long story, and while it bears telling, it has nothing to do with where I’m headed with this particular tale.

I was travelling with a group of colleagues and we were staying at the Imperial Hotel, which would be very nice wherever it happened to be, but plopped in the middle of New Delhi, it rose like the City of Oz far beyond the poppy fields. Inside the colonial hotel there was marble, polished mahogany, and staff in crisp uniforms at every turn. Outside was a nice swimming pool, manicured lawns, meticulously groomed foliage and an imposing wall separating the grounds from the world outside.

I was having a bit of trouble sleeping, so one morning at dawn, I got dressed and decided I’d take a walk around the neighborhood, maybe get some breakfast from a local joint. I went down to the lobby and out the door, and two Sikh doormen with heavy beards, colorful turbans and starched white tunics greeted me with folded hands and the almost imperceptible bow used across several Asian cultures as subtle gesture of respect. I returned the nod and kept moving, and the men exchanged concerned glances as I passed.

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I headed down a gravel drive that stretched from the porte cochere about 100 yards across the property to the gate and on to Janpath Road. Before long, I noticed that up ahead at the guard shack at the gate, two more uniformed Sikhs emerged, and I realized the two from the hotel were following me toward the gate.

We all arrived at the same time, and there was a lot of nodding and clasped hands. One of the men asked me what my plans were. His English was perfect, his accent stiffly British.

I told him I couldn’t sleep and was going to walk around the neighborhood and rustle up some chow.

“Please,” he said. “Have breakfast in the hotel. It is not safe outside the compound.”

I laughed, which was probably not what he expected.

“Dude, look at me,” I said. I held my arms out so he could assess my six-foot-two, 235-pound frame. “Nobody’s gonna mess with me.”

I pointed toward the next corner, about a block away. “If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll just go to the corner and back.”

“Very well,” the English-speaking Sikh said. “We shall watch over you.”

I struck out for the corner, and hadn’t gotten very far when I began to understand their hesitation. I saw a man squatting oddly, folded up like a grasshopper and sitting on his heels while he gazed into a broken mirror propped on a low knot on a tree next to the sidewalk. He took out a straight razor and began to shave his face, oblivious to me. Along the rest of my short route, I counted at least 40 people sleeping – curled up in the gutters, sprawled across the hoods of the Tata sedans parked bumper to bumper along both sides of the street, or lying in the middle of the road like they’d been flung there. Add some chalk outlines and it’d look like the aftermath of a catastrophe.

There’s a lot of poverty, obviously, and I started to realize that either this jarring scene was something my Sikh overseers didn’t want me to see, or they figured if these folk were awake, they’d be aggressive panhandlers. When I got to the corner, I turned and walked back with renewed purpose.

When I got to the gate, the guards looked at me expectantly, awaiting some sort of report on my impressions.

“Looks like a Pentecostal prayer meeting back there,” I said, and crossed over into the colonial compound.

The men looked puzzled; I guess Sikhs haven’t heard of “slain in the spirit.” I returned to my room and didn’t leave the compound again until a van we’d hired arrived to drive us to Agra about 120 miles away .

After I returned to my room, I realized I had not seen any cows. It was a major global city, so livestock shouldn’t be expected. But this was India, and I’d heard all my life that cows are revered to varying degrees in the country. Actually, what I’d heard was a narrow-minded generalization that Indians worship cows, but it’s more nuanced than that. Cows are well-regarded for a variety of reasons, and are often decorated in elaborate costume at various times. And they pretty much have the run of the place, so I would not have been surprised to see a loping bovine wandering along Janpath Road. But I did not.

That would change as we set out for Agra. I had already determined that we’d take a thoroughfare out of town and that it was a fairly straight shot 200 kilometers down the Chennai-Delhi highway to the home of the Taj Mahal. The driver said the trip would take about 5 hours, not including a pit stop. That’s pretty slow.

The reason became clear. The cows I didn’t see in New Delhi were all travelling the same route, or, more to the point, in the road – along with random people, goats, dogs, carts, and endless trucks festooned with lights and gaudy colors. And there was an unbearable din, as every driver blew his vehicle’s horn continually.

It was an excruciatingly long five hours in the van. But I was fascinated by the status of the cow in Indian culture, and still am.

Several years later, we were watching a cooking competition on the Food Network, and on this particular show, one of the contestants was an Indian woman named Maneet, who has long been one of my favorites of the network’s personalities.

In this episode where contestants have a limited amount of time to pull together a challenging dish, the camera homed in on Maneet in a tizzy, bustling to beat the clock and get her food plated.

“Two minutes left!” called the timekeeper.

“Holy cow,” a frazzled Maneet said under her breath.

I thought I was going to die from laughter, and it made me love Maneet all the more. That’s long been among my favorite expressions, and if it hadn’t been, it would have become one after that.

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at


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Jorge Oliveira