Where to learn more about India?
October 24, 2022 8:42 AM   Subscribe

I have a number of co-workers from India and I know virtually nothing about the country. (I am from Canada.) Can anyone recommend a good starting point for learning more? My co-workers are from Bengaluru, if that helps.

(A good first question: is using "Bangalore" instead of "Bengaluru" insulting or inappropriate?)

My preference would be for knowing more about people from that area who are in technical jobs, but any other background information that would be useful would be appreciated.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Hi! My family is from Karnataka, the state Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) is in.

Do you generally prefer text, audio, video, or other means of learning?
posted by brainwane at 9:08 AM on October 24, 2022

My apologies if this is stating the obvious, but you already have great resources available to you for information about India. Have you tried asking your coworkers about where they're from?
posted by emelenjr at 9:09 AM on October 24, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm from Bengaluru, and my folks and I call it Bangalore lots of times. I don't believe it's going to be offensive. Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata, on the other hand, are never Bombay, Madras, or Calcultta anymore, and yes, in those cases people might actually take offense.

Aside from the obvious recommendation to just talk to your colleagues and ask them, I'm not sure what to recommend re: learning about India. IDK what you're interested in and what your preferred method of learning might be, you know?

However, here are some shot-in-the-dark recs:

- The 1982 movie Gandhi directed by Richard Attenborough, which gives you some solid context for how colonialism ended for us and India became a country.

- The 1991 novel Such A Long Journey by Canadian-Indian writer Rohinton Mistry, which is a fabulous and accessible story of people in Mumbai in the 1980s. (If you're okay with reading more literary novels that make you work a little to understand them, then Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children are both incredible books that will introduce you to India in their own ways.)

- (Recommended with the caveat that this is an intro to hinduism which is not the same as an intro to India; the two categories are not the same, no matter how much hindu indians wish to conflate them) The 2011 movie Sita Sings The Blues (written, animated, directed, edited, etc. by Nina Paley) is incredibly good!! It's not just an entertaining introduction to one of the central mythological stories of Hinduism (the Ramayana is kind of like the story of Moses is for judeo-christian religions), but also that movie is a fabulous glimpse into how hindu Indians of today think about/comment on that myth. It is available to watch free online under a creative commons license.

- Your colleague will, 100% guaranteed, invite you to their home for dinner. Go and eat the food! :) Food is central to our culture, like it is to many others'. If you are completely new to Indian food, then, like, get some takeout from a local restaurant sometime and ask them to make it less spicy if that's what you prefer. Food made in your colleague's home will be nothing like food from Indian restaurants, though. Completely different cuisines almost.

Other than that, idk, read a wikipedia page? It's tough to tell you how to learn about a country with a history going back thousands of years.
posted by MiraK at 9:12 AM on October 24, 2022 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: I won't threadsit, but to answer a couple of questions that have come up:

- I am not comfortable talking to co-workers about non-work topics, so I don't want to ask them.

- I prefer text or reading as a form of learning.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 9:35 AM on October 24, 2022

Oh I have so many books to recommend to you!

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta (Pulitzer-winning nonfiction book about Mumbai circa 2000s)

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (pulitzer-winning nonfiction book about Mumbai slums circa 2010s)

A Better Man by Anita Nair (a Bengaluru writer of thriller fiction, 2000s I think?)

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Booker-shortlisted literary fiction, 2010s)

Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat (humor/coming-of-age fiction about life in India's top engineering college, 2000s) - this was made into a really fun Bollywood movie called 3 Idiots.
posted by MiraK at 9:46 AM on October 24, 2022 [4 favorites]

Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata, on the other hand, are never Bombay, Madras, or Calcultta anymore, and yes, in those cases people might actually take offense.

I won't speak for the other cities on this list, but my family's from Bombay, and we call it "Bombay" in English, "Mumbai" in Marathi. (I personally really haaaate the American attempt at "Mumbai;" I know your ear can't hear that diphthong, but yeesh it's nails-on-chalkboard for me.) The Bombay --> Mumbai thing was the work of the fascist Shiv Sena party, anyway.

For reading, you could do worse than the Mahabharata. No synopsis because it defies synopses. Greatest story ever told. You can also watch B.R. Chopra's Extremely Eighties 100-hr-long miniseries which is a fixture of my childhood.
posted by basalganglia at 9:55 AM on October 24, 2022 [7 favorites]

You want to read about modern India and specifically modern Bangalore, the place your colleagues come from, to better understand them, their worries, their interests, and so on.

You might want to consider starting with English-language news media that covers India, especially South India, in particular Bangalore. Some of The Caravan (an English-language Indian news magazine) is paywalled, including this 2013 piece on technical education and fraud in Bangalore. I think the Deccan Herald (English-language newspaper based on Bangalore) is not paywalled. And BBC News often covers many dimensions of modern India and is not paywalled.

It's also worth noting that, even though your colleagues are all similar in that they come from Bangalore, they probably differ on a few other dimensions that affect how they think, what their goals are, how they're treated in India, and/or how other Indians treat them abroad. Major ones include gender, language, religion, class, and caste. I don't know much about casteism in Canada, but here's some journalism on caste's impact in the US. In fiction, I recommend Lavanya Sankaran's work, which is set in modern Bangalore and which often depicts how caste, gender, and class affect people's lives. Her short story collection is The Red Carpet and her novel is The Hope Factory, and I recommend both.

Some of your colleagues are aiming to work in Canada and then return home, or move elsewhere; some are looking to stay in Canada. I recommend the nonfiction book Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents by Minal Hajratwala, which covers some recent Indian history and the experience of the South Asian diaspora.

And if you decide you want to dive into the academic literature of South Asian Studies, check out Chapati Mystery (previously)!
posted by brainwane at 1:57 PM on October 24, 2022 [4 favorites]

I have also been interested in learning more about life in India. I really liked the reading lists from the Five Book website (they interview an expert on a topic or genre about five books they would recommend on their topic of expertise.)

posted by forkisbetter at 7:46 PM on October 24, 2022

are never Bombay

FWIW I have heard Bombay from a few different immigrant friends and coworkers, so much so that I felt like I was being a white weirdo liberal by saying Mumbai. My friend told me that the Mumbai change is connected to right wing, Hindu nationalist movements in Indian politics, and saying Bombay is a way of distinguishing yourself from that. So it seems like a fraught issue so I would ask first and then use the name they use for the city they're from.
posted by dis_integration at 7:09 AM on October 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

> My friend told me that the Mumbai change is connected to right wing, Hindu nationalist movements in Indian politics, and saying Bombay is a way of distinguishing yourself from that.

Yes this is true.

However it is worth noting that Bombay is the colonial name for the city while Mumbai is what the locals have always called it, before and during and after colonialism. The nascent Hindutva movement of the 1990s did not invent their own saffronized (hindu-washed) city names to replace colonial ones. They just argued that we should call the city by the same name that the locals do. Chennai was always called Chennai in Tamil. Marathi people have always called it Mumbai when speaking Marathi. Same for Bengaluru and Kolkata. The colonial name has come and gone while the native name has always been in use, always been the same.

In cases where the Hindutva movement HAS invented completely new saffronized place names to replace colonial (e.g. in Mumbai the central train station which was known as Victoria Terminus became saffronized into Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus ) the local people quite resolutely do *not* use the new saffronized names.

I'm not making an argument either way here. Activists can call it Bombay all they please, I trust they have thought this choice through. What I'm trying to explain is, I don't think anyone can legitimately claim that "Mumbai is the right wing name for the city". It's categorically not. Mumbai is what the locals have always called it, and also Mumbai is what the right wing wants. Bombay is what colonialists called it, and also Bombay is what leftists call it when they wish to make a statement about the current right wing. There's several separate considerations that go into deciding what name you choose to call it. It's not just left vs right.

(I guess this is the argument I am making: anyone who tells you it's purely left vs. right ... is wrong.)
posted by MiraK at 9:38 AM on October 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Indian 1.5th gen immigrant here.

I can confirm that Mumbai, Chennai, etc are what the locals have always called their home cities, and not a fabrication by the right wing (who have done frightening things, but removing colonial names is not one of them). However, Indians will almost never take offense if you call Mumbai Bombay - whatever is easiest to pronounce for you is fine.

If you don't mind jumping right into unfamiliar territory, try reading The Hindu / The Times of India - national newspapers written in English. (Despite the name, The Hindu doesn't have any religious affiliations content wise). India has 30+ languages, and English is often used as a Lingua Franca, especially among the middle and upper classes.

Another good source of learning about (Hindu/Buddhist) culture is to read about epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. You can easily find English versions of these online; I read them in the Amar Chitra Katha comic books - which is a whole series of comic books about Indian history and folktales, in English as well as many Indian languages! I would also recommend the Jatakas and Puranas, which are tales taught to (Hindu) children to describe concepts of morality. India finds tradition very important, and many of the views in those stories represent what an Indian would think of the same situation today.

Some other historical figures to learn about include Kalidasa - a poet and playwright, Adi Shankara Charya - a philosopher (historically free thought was very important to the functioning of Hinduism, although right-wingers won't tell you that), and the Rani of Jhansi - a freedom fighter.

Some vignettes of pre-British Indian history to learn about include the Maratha empire and the Mughal empire in the north, the Chola and Vijayanagara empires in the south, and furthest back in history, the ancient Ashoka and Gupta empires.

Some facts I would want to share, which aren't immediately obvious to non-Indians:

Most people outside of India don't realise that the culture of the North is markedly different to the South. (Bangalore is in the South!) Dravidian languages are spoken in the South; Bangalore's local language is Kannada, which is very different to Hindi, the most commonly spoken language in the north. Foods of the south include idli and dosai, whereas foods of the north are things like sabzi, roti.

(And this isn't even mentioning that local foods and languages vary by state, as well. Because the country is so large, it's split into states, although the US baggage of "state's rights" isn't a thing in India. It's really diverse!)

Although India is home to many religions, there is a lot of tension between those groups. In the South at least, Hindus are unlikely to see Muslims favourably, because previous Muslim rulers have horribly oppressed Hindus. Muslims are not going to see Hindus favourably because Hindus generally exclude Muslims from their lives, and Hindus are polytheistic, which is one of the worst things you can be in Islam. Christians are a smaller group who tend to be more affluent and have more status because Christianity was the favoured religion of the British. I recommend avoiding this subject with your coworkers for obvious reasons...

Sorry for how rushed it is, but I hope it gives you a place to start learning about the history and culture of India. I'm from a Hindu background so I can't speak for other religions; this is based on my own childhood.
posted by wandering zinnia at 4:18 PM on October 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

Disclaimer: My tired brain forgot to clarify that it's usually the most insular, hardcore segments of the population who view other religions like that
posted by wandering zinnia at 4:32 PM on October 25, 2022

wandering zinnia, welcome to MetaFilter (I saw this is one of your first comments and I appreciated it!).

Amar Chita Katha -- YES! I remember when I had to wait for relatives to bring new issues in their luggage on trips from India to the US -- now one can buy them online!
posted by brainwane at 7:56 PM on October 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

« Older Rates For Private Yoga, Massage and Healing...   |   Me no know computer no more Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments