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A Cross-Cultural Glossary

by Shayok Mukhopadhyay
Ambassador
the major car-brand in India, till recent de-regulation opened up the auto industry to foreign companies. Awaking nostalgic memories in British tourists of the old Morris Oxford, the Ambassador has been exported as a retro curio, and its antiquated engine design has emitted much more noxious fumes and consumed far more gasoline than the oil and dollar-strapped India can afford. Note that the roots of this monopoly-serving protectionism go back to M.K.Gandhi's vaunted Swadeshi Movement.
auto
truncation of "auto-rickshaw". A three wheeled vehicle, built out of the basic components of a scooter or, less commonly, a motorbike, popular in Asia. Usually running as cabs, the driver sits in the front-seat and two or three passengers can sit comfortably in the rear, limits that are frequently stretched. Manoueverable and nimble to a dangerous degree, these cause both gridlocks and pollution.
Bengal
a reasonably cohesive regional entity for hundreds of years prior to the British colonization of the Indian subcontinent and through the British rule, this province was split into West Bengal and East Pakistan at the time of Indian/Pakistani independence in 1947. Note that division of Bengal on a religious basis was a feat the British had attempted but abandoned in face of popular protest. It was left to Indians to implement it. While West Bengal became a state in the Indian union, East Pakistan was paired off with West Pakistan, an entity 1500 miles away across the breadth of India to form Pakistan. East and west Pakistans had nothing (not food, not language) in common but Islam. This cathartic state of affairs continued till East Pakistan managed to overthrow its West Pakistani oppressors in 1972, form the nation of Bangladesh, and install, for most of its existence, an indigenous set of oppressors.
Bengali
a native of Bengal (also its lingua franca). A people in steady decline since 1947 (the year of the partition of Bengal), in sharp decline since 1970s, it has made major contributions in the arts and sciences, recognized (inadequately) by Nobel Prizes and (adequately) by top prizes at international film festivals.
bidi
a crude kind of cigarette made with tobacco rolled in a special kind of leaf, tied with a bit of twine whose color often serves to identify brand or grade. There is, of course, no filter. "It's a woman thing" too, among the economically backward.
biryani
aromatic rice preparation, usually with meat, similar (at risk of alienating purists, I might helpfully add), in some respects, to the pilaf/pulao. Versions sucking up to vegetarians not unknown.
burkha
the black cloth that covers the head and face of the demure Muslim woman and sizzles her in tropical heat while protecting her from lecherous looks. Usually part of a head-to-toe black outfit. Foreigners travelling in Muslim countries with similarly clad wives (in order to be in compliance with local laws) are not unknown to have lost them in a crowd thus. Also known as the chador.
Central Park
Humble New Yorkers will no doubt take umbrage at the suggestion that solar systems exist where The Park needs a glossary entry. A huge wooded area in the heart of Manhattan, the lungs of the metropolis, the oxygen mask of its inhabitants, a tourist-trap if there ever was one. While New Yorkers and wannabe New Yorkers locomote on roller-skates, tourists take carriage rides, whose first stop is at a water-trough, where the horse is brought, but rarely persuaded to drink.
chorten
Buddhist memorial to the dead.
Compaq
large manufacturer of small computers; recently acquired a small manufacturer of large computers.
cricket
a strange, slow, baseball-like game played in about a dozen countries, mostly former British territories. Revolutionary reform by mercurial Australian media baron (sorry, not Murdoch) Kerry Packer has produced an abbreviated eight-hour long version out of the original, and still prevalent, six-day epic that traditionally included a Day of Rest. Predictably, the English squire's invention and passion.
Dunkin' Donuts'
an American fast-food chain focussing on the niche-market of coffee, breakfast and snacks. Among the better chains.
JFK
the major international airport in New York metropolitan area, it's widely touted to be the world's worst. Named after John F Kennedy, the US President.
mullah
Islamic priest; religious and social leader in Muslim community.
NRI
Non-resident Indian. Usually US resident. The new Brahmin. Indian matrimonial classifieds specifically seek and advertise NRIs.
quarter
US $0.25, the gold standard for vending machines and parking meters.
rupee
unless otherwise mentioned, the Indian Rupee. Ten rupees roughly make a quarter today. And dropping still.....
Saibaba
self-professed Indian godman with a Larry Gomes (for those who remember this West Indian cricketer overshadowed by more prominent contemporaries) hairstyle, revealed to be little better than a second-rate magician by P.C.Sorcar. Headquartered on the outskirts of Bangalore. Large following.
Spotmatic
Asahi Pentax's once-popular line of screw-mount SLR cameras, available in huge numbers in the used market in the US, pushing prices down to a level which, if prevalent in the third-world, would generate plenty of serious photographers.
Swadeshi Movement
M.K.Gandhi's call to boycott British goods during the Indian independence movement, on closer inspection revealed to be a sop to his campaign financiers - Indian entrepreuners seeking to foist inferior and pricier goods on the Indian poor. Rabindranath Tagore was one of the few to see through this ploy.
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