Cash, baby, cash

December 7, 2008

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India, except maybe for a few major cities, is a cash-only culture. Most payments, even TVs and computers, are made in cash even though everyone earning more than $150 a month now has a credit card. Ask if you can pay by card and the shopkeeper will look at you as if you have just asked him whether he’d like to come home and clean your toilets with his shirt. Most of the time he’ll have to pull the credit card machine out of a drawer, dust it and plug it in. Then he won’t know how to use it. Very often, I swipe my own card.

However, you can’t not get affected by the customs of a country you have lived in for years. Just like I have become a sucker for spicy food, I now think cash. Even in France. When I lived there, just like everyone else, everything that cost more than ten euros, I paid by card: metro tickets, grocery shopping, movie, etc. Now I pay as much as I can in cash, to the utter dismay of salespeople. They think I am a drug dealer.

I guess Indian cash-obsession is typical of an economy where black market is still paramount. It is also the sign of a country that doesn’t trust the Establishment. And could you really blame them? In a country where the police is so useless, brutal and greedy that nobody in his full mind would ever call them even if they had just witnessed a hit and run, a country where everyone rather settle their cases privately than wait seventy-two years for the courts to do so, and where government jobs and school entry exams are for sale: in such a country, of course, cash prevails.

Little man, fend for yourself.

Bring on the cash.

Pink Winter

November 8, 2008

There is something about winter.

Somewhere in October, the weather changes. It happens overnight. You notice it one morning when you step outside your house: for the first time in months, your body temperature is higher than the outside temperature. It is still hot – an average 30°C, but not unbearably so.

It is no longer a humid heat. The last monsoon showers are a couple of weeks old and suddenly the air is not oppressing anymore. You don’t need to swim through it: light and crisp, it brushes against you skin like velvet.

The light also changes. It becomes clearer, sharper. Soon the people of the street, rickshaw-wallahs and cart-pushers, will disappear in their blankets. They will move around the city like an army of cape-clad knights.

The homeless will stay up late, covered in whatever they can find, dozens of them sitting around a single little newspaper fire. On the roadside, the cars are like the sea. In summer they send the street-dwellers a hint of a breeze when they zoom past. In winter the heat they exude gives them a small relief.

Further up the hill of luck, the ladies will take out their pashmina shawls, a shade lighter than their saris, and will brave the cold to attend endless weddings. Draped in meters of eerie chiffon, they will suffer to be beautiful while the men drink it up, cosy and warm in their dark bandgalas.

It’ll be time to light bonfires and stock up on whisky. Single malts will be sipped first, then replaced by Teachers when the palates get too numb to mind.

Food will be served late, midnight or one ‘clock. Rajasthanis are eager meat-eaters and love nothing more than a hot tender lal maas ( “red lamb” ).

In the houses, since there is no such thing as central heating, a few appliances will appear from the back of cupboards. Small electric radiators whose perimeter of action doesn’t exceed one square meter. You will have to switch it off in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, if it hasn’t already been turned off by the power cuts they cause. Any piece of fabric touching the radiator will instantly take fire, and your skin will turn into parchment within one hour of proximity with the damn thing.

You might get some sleep if you keep a pair of ski socks by your bedside.

All in all, the cold is bearable if you don’t mind not having a bath. Washing your hair when it is 10°C outside and inside takes some willpower. You might want to invest in a leave-in conditioner.

There are a few items I discovered to be essential to survive north Indian winters, including Ugg boots. .

At the end of the day forget the harshness of the cold season: it only takes a little bit of equipment to fully enjoy these enchanted months. And once you see the December light, its mist on the Pushkar roses and its stroke on your cheeks, you keep coming back for more.

Because Indian winters are: exhilarating.