I remember walking the streets of Pondicherry one hot day. It was a terribly humid day with no breeze. The air hung in the sky as the sun broiled anything that dared to move along the cement streets. Sweat had drenched most of my shirt making it resemble more like a used towel after a shower rather than a cotton button down oxford. One particular gift shop caught my eye as I meandered down a back street looking for nothing and everything in particular. Noticeable ceiling fans spinning frantically spoke to me, begging me to come in for a 5 minute cool down.
The shop was a small hodge podge of a knick knacks contained in a rectangle space that spread itself deeper than wide. Shelves upon shelves of trickets, jewelry, kitsch home decor items, and random Indian souvenirs may have been a shopper’s delight although I found more interest in the air conditioned breezes and the owner who sat quietly in the corner watching me browse. He was wearing crisp khaki shorts, a sharply pressed chambray shirt, watch and sandals. His age had to be late 50′s, early 60′s. He had light skin and a balding head of hair that had long ago turned salt and pepper. I wasn’t sure if the air conditioning was more for his enjoyment or mine. Sitting confidently relaxed in a beach chair , he initiated a conversation beyond “Hi” and “How are you?”, that someone worked itself into a debate about culture, more specifically what is it?
It really started when this friendly, seemingly outgoing shopkeeper asked if this was my first trip to India. When I replied it was my 5th time he responded with a question I often get asked, “Why do you come to India so often?” My answer always disappoints…”food, people, culture, history…” I say before he interrupts me.
“Oh, culture, what does that mean? There is no culture here. We all are one, no difference”, he said. “I’ve traveled the United States and Europe. You don’t actually need to travel to a foreign country. One can watch TV to know the ‘culture’ of a country.”
What the what? Does this guy hear what he is saying? I argued that a person needs the fragrant aromas, to hear the sounds, run their fingertips across foreign soil and taste authentic spices on their tongue to fully appreciate what another person can only see on TV.
“Don’t take offense,” he said, before explaining his travels, how he learned from them and the people he met, the sights he visited…
I rationalized that is culture. How he answered my next question with a straight face is still a mystery. “Do you travel within India?” I asked. “No,” he replied. This argument was like a house of cards with heavy winds coming fast. How can one say India has little to offer when he doesn’t venture into his own backyard?
In a matter of fact, mild tone, the shopkeeper continued on; He was a bad student, a trouble maker. He claimed he learned more from traveling than school. He had just argued himself into a corner and he knew it. Any retort I tried to interject was met with what felt like irritation and a belittlement of my interest in India. It was time to leave his shop. My body had managed to stop sweating long enough for my shirt to try it’s best to return to it’s dry state and I was feeling like a stranger in a country I’d been traveling for years.
“Where ya from? What, are ya like from Cheecago? I bet you’s from out there, out on the west cooast. You ain’t got no culcha out there. All the culcha you need is right here in New Yawrk.” -Any New Yorker
Maybe culture wasn’t the right word? I stewed on this conversation, once again lazily roaming Puducherry’s French Quarter. Another gift shop, another shopkeeper…
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