Horn OK Please

Jennifer SteevesLSE


One of the first things I noticed in India, apart from the chaotic traffic on the drive from the airport, was the curious phrase painted neatly on the back of many trucks: “Horn OK Please.” Later I asked some Indians about the meaning of this phrase, and they burst into laughter. In response to my confusion, they said it was simply something they had never given a second thought to. It made me think about the richness of cultural exchange and how the commonplace becomes exotic when viewed through an outsider’s eyes. I see this happening both ways in India: so much of what I see fascinates me, and I clearly fascinate others.

India captivates me. Halfway through a bumpy rickshaw ride in Pune, we turn the corner to run smack into an elephant. My jaw drops and my camera comes out, to the amusement of local passersby. A punctured car tyre on the highway to Mumbai is fixed in five minutes by the expert hands of two little mechanics who don’t look older than 10. My list of “extraordinary India experiences” is growing. Yet it’s hard to know what is ordinary in India. Is it the three delicious meals I am served each day and the air-conditioned ride to work that are quickly becoming my routine, thanks to the care of Tata? Or is it the woman balancing supplies on her head walking barefoot through the mud, children playing cricket in the streets, the man brushing his teeth underneath his tarpaulin in front of his makeshift home by the highway?

And on the other side of the window, I am an object of fascination, with my pale skin and frizzy hair. At first I couldn’t help but feel extremely self-conscious with multiple pairs of eyes fixed on me everywhere I went. A simple trip to the chemist made me feel like a circus animal. But this unease is disappearing, being replaced by gratitude as I meet people personally. Nowhere else in the world have I been welcomed so warmly, with food, smiles, invitations, concerns that I am comfortable in India. Nowhere else have chance meetings with strangers turned so quickly into friendships.

Perhaps what I see as fascinating - I still wonder about "Horn OK Please" - is ordinary to Indians and vice versa. But that is the beauty of a cultural exchange; appreciating and learning from our differences. And in the end, we connect through our fundamental similarities as humans, curious about each other.