I have been thinking about our March trip to India, reflecting on the series of successful visits and interesting observations. The conversations, sights, sounds and smells that came my way have left me with images that in some ways contradict those formed during my 2008 trip. My 2008 visit was short and dominated by a conference I attended and a trip to the Taj Mahal. That is, I did not experience very much of India, although what I did observe was grand and startling.
My recent visit covered much more geography and I had much more time to reflect upon what was taking place. The universities we visited in March 2013 are much more influenced by religion and food than those centers for learning that I normally visit here in the US, including UNO. In India, a visit to the temple seems as natural as spending some time in the library or in a laboratory would in the US. Food also seems to shape the culture of the universities in India more than here, where we bring our lunches, eat in cafeterias, or visit restaurants that provide menu items we believe represents the fare found in other lands. Thus the phrases, “Let’s go eat Italian” or Chinese or Mexican can be heard as a group gets ready to select the restaurant for lunch on a particular day. We do not use the term “Let’s go eat American,” because in some ways there is no American. We have borrowed foods from other countries and made them our own, even though they still retain a name connected to their original source. And, we have altered them beyond recognition to suit our own tastes and tolerance for qualities such as sweetness and hotness. Ever eat Italian food in Italy? If you have, you know that it does not taste the same as it does here. I did not hear “Let’s go eat Italian” once while I was in India. I did eat at a Subway though. Not surprisingly, it was not your average US subway. No Italian there either.
Most of the persons I met while I was in India were vegetarians, as is my friend and partner in travel, Phani Tej Adidam. Entire campuses are vegetarian, as well. So, for many days during my trip I was a vegetarian too, eating all sorts of things that I would almost certainly avoid when at home. Moreover, I ate vegetables that are readily available in the US but no one ever offers. While it took a day or two to get used to the new food, I did eat it and I liked it. Those who go to lunch with me know that a burger, chicken sandwich, or burrito are my first responses when asked what I would like for lunch. No such items in Kanpur; just broccoli, peas, beans and rice, all with really cool names. The best part of this dietary change is that I felt great as my number of days as a vegetarian increased. I had a lot of energy and actually lost five pounds, sorely needed given my most unhealthy lifestyle. However, I was challenged at breakfast time. I just cannot seem to eat my veggies at 8 a.m. But, I had options in most places and found, for example, potato pancakes that were delightful.
I must offer a confession though. Upon my return, I resumed most of my bad habits and now only go veggie once or twice a week. For the most part, veggie options available here are poor and leave some people to go hungry until they get home or give up and scream for some cow. My excuse: I am too much shaped by habit.