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The People of India, Way of Life

The life of Indians is centered in the family. Extended families often live together, with two or more adult generations, or brothers, sharing a house. In much of the countryside, neighboring houses share a wall, so from the street one sees a continuous wall pierced by doorways. In other areas, in the south for example, the main house will have a veranda on the street, with an open courtyard behind. As farmers prosper, they change from adobe construction to brick plastered with cement, and from a tile or thatch roof to a flat concrete or corrugated metal one. Most home activity is outside in the compound courtyard or on the verandas of the house.

Only in a few parts of India, such as Kerala and Bengal, do people live on their farmland. The village is thus a settlement area, or a set of settlement areas, surrounded by unbroken fields, with farms frequently made up of separated plots. A large village will have a primary school, perhaps a temple or mosque, and a small shop or two. Some artisans have workshops in their houses. Most villages and settlement areas are fairly small, with about 100 to 200 families and a land area of about 250 hectares (about 620 acres) in regions where the land is irrigated, or three or four times that in dry areas. Paved roads and electricity have been extended to the majority of villages, making them less isolated. Many villagers now work for part of the day or part of the year in nearby towns or cities, while continuing to farm or to work as day laborers in agriculture or construction.

Men work mainly in the fields, although where rice is grown, women transplant the seedlings. The entire family will pitch in at harvest time because most agricultural work is still done by hand. Women fetch water, prepare meals, clean, and care for milking animals that are stabled in or near the house compound. Among Hindus particularly, most worship is done in the home, where a room or an alcove is devoted to images of a god or gods. Young girls are expected to help with the women’s work, and girls care for their younger siblings. Boys have fewer responsibilities, although they often herd goats and bring cattle to and from the fields.

In most cases a woman who marries moves to her husband’s village from her home village. Visits to her birth family, who may live a day’s journey or more away, are generally rare, especially as the woman grows older. Senior men (and their wives) exercise power in the family. Disputes within the family, which can be common, may result in partitioning of land or even of the house compound.

In the cities families still remain the center of social life. Different families (of the same or similar caste) may occupy different floors of the same house. Newer housing is in the form of apartment blocks for the poor and lower middle class, and separate two- and three-story houses on very small plots for the rich and upper middle class. Most women in cities work in the home, although some may supplement the family income through craft work such as embroidery. Poor women may work as house servants, laborers on construction sites, or street vendors. Increasingly among the educated, however, women have their own jobs as teachers, clerks or secretaries, or professionals. Women entrepreneurs or shopkeepers are rare.

Meals in village India consist mainly of the staple grain—rice, or wheat in the form of unleavened bread baked on a griddle—with stir-fried vegetables, cooked lentils, and yogurt. Each part of the country has its own cuisine, with differences in the kinds and mix of spices, in the cooking oil used (mustard oil in the north, coconut oil in the south), and in favored vegetables or meats. In seasons of scarcity, such as the months before the harvest, the poor may be reduced to having just a chili pepper or salt to flavor their rice or bread. Vegetables are those in season, and cooked food is generally not stored. Food at weddings or other celebrations can be very elaborate, with city-style soft drinks and snacks brought in. Men drink alcohol, most often fermented toddy palm juice in the south or cheap distilled spirits in the north.

In urban areas meals are still organized around a staple grain, but the variety and amount of vegetables and meat are greater. Food is bought and consumed on the same day, and even those families with refrigerators typically use them only to keep water, soft drinks, or milk cool. Social visiting in cities is also mainly with relatives or among students with their classmates. The upper classes will entertain friends or business acquaintances at home, but men of other classes will more often meet at restaurants or tea stalls to socialize.

The basic clothing for most Indians, men and women, is still a simple draped cloth. For women this is the sari, which is wrapped as an ankle-length skirt and draped over one shoulder, with a fitted shirt and petticoat underneath. Styles of tying the sari vary among regions and communities. Except for widows, who wear plain white, saris are generally colorful and can be made of cotton or the finest embroidered silks. Village men and men in some urban areas such as Kerala wear a cloth called a dhoti in its full-length form. In north India it is typically tied with one or both ends brought between the legs and tucked in, to form loose “pant” legs. In the south, the full cloth or a half-sized one is wrapped as a cylinder, an ankle-length skirt that can be pulled up and tucked in itself to form a short skirt when work requiring movement is done. Muslims tend to wear the half-cloth in colored cottons rather than the white with thin colored border favored by Hindus.

In Punjab, women, especially Sikh women, wear a baggy pants-and-shirt outfit known as the salwar-kameez. In Rajasthan and elsewhere long skirts and bodices are worn. This is also a common dress among young girls throughout the country. Men in northern India may also wear a pants-and-shirt outfit called the pajama-kurta. The pajama, which originated in India, is made of white cloth and can be loose or tight-fitting. The tight-fitting style is often worn with a long closed-collar coat (the sherwani) made famous in the West when India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wore it. Also called the Nehru jacket, it is the most formal dress for men. Turbans are worn by a broad range of men, especially Sikhs and Hindus. Muslims can often be identified by their embroidered caps.

Western-style clothing has virtually replaced traditional dress for men, especially in northern India. With rare exceptions among elite women, who wear slacks and a blouse on occasion, women continue to wear the sari or other Indian dress. In Mumbai and a few other cities Christian women may wear skirts and blouses, a remnant of colonial rule when English dress was expected of those groups.

Colonial rule also is responsible for popularizing cricket and soccer. India’s national cricket team competes at the highest international level. Soccer is popular in eastern India. In central India men play a traditional Indian team sport, kabaddi, that requires quickness and strength. The oldest sport, one that goes back to the time of the Hindu epics, is freestyle wrestling. Wrestling clubs, presided over by a guru, feature a regimen of Hindu religious ritual and practice.

There are a number of traditional games played mainly by men. These include chess, which originated in India, and pachisi, which literally means “twenty-five,” after the number of spaces moved in one throw of the dice in the original Indian game. Card games also are common as is gambling.

Indians with leisure time and money, such as the middle classes, go to the cinema, or increasingly watch television. During school holidays families may visit relatives or go briefly to hill resorts where it is cooler. In rural areas, slack times in the agricultural cycle allow families to go on pilgrimage or attend weddings, which include much feasting. India has many religious festivals, which provide occasions for even more feasting and conversation, perhaps accompanied by music or a dance or folk theater performance.

 

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