Oh my GOODNESS I am so jealous! Need an assistant? Er, I should say, wanna pay for an assistant?
IANAIndian, but Indian culture is absolutely fascinating to me; I spend a lot of my free time finding out as much as I can and can’t wait to go.
Of course you probably know by now that India is a huge honkin’ incredibly complex country with, actually, dozens of cultures, and if you try to learn everything about everywhere you may just drown in information. It’s roughly analagous to “European culture” – there are some constants, sure, but what’s true for Spain ain’t necessarily so for Sweden, for instance. You might be best off being selective for info about Bombay and Madras.
It certainly can’t hurt to read a good synopsis or two of Indian history. You may want to pay special attention to recent history, especially Independence and Partition, since understanding something about those events may do the most to help you avoid saying something offensive, and may also help you understand more of current politics.
It’s also probably a good idea to learn something about Hinduism, Islam (especially as practiced there), Jainism, and Sikhism. Not to focus on all the theologies and grand ideas, but more the cultural effects. Also about the caste system as it stands today, which is to say, it’s officially illegal and generally recognized as a social evil, but still has a degree of influence, especially socially.
I strongly recommend finding an Indian friend, preferably one from Bombay or Madras, to prep you some before you go. It might be especially nice to learn to eat without utensils in the Indian fashion; as I understand it, this is one of the easier things you can do to put people at their ease. Most of the Indians you will work with are probably familiar with using utensils at table, but that doesn’t mean they all enjoy it (or, of course, that they all don’t). I can’t remember the source, but I once read a lovely little essay about a man whose Indian host was delighted to learn he would eat with his hands, and so the host could “put away the heavy artillery” (meaning the silverware) and stop worrying about being so formal. I enjoy eating with my hands, but I need regular practice to be able to do so without involving my left hand, which is supposed to stay mostly in your lap at meals.
You might like reading Culture Shock: India. IIRC it’s pretty business-traveller oriented. Any Indian Dopers out there read it who could offer a review?
I like najniran’s suggestion to try Indian food at local restaurants (assuming you aren’t already a fan), but I’d also note that Indian food is vastly more varied than typical Indian restaurants in the US would indicate. Typical ones here focus on dishes from Rajasthan and the Punjab (tandoori dishes, heavy but yummy sauces made with cream and yogurt, lots of fried items) and adjust them to an American palate somewhat. South Indian food is very different. I imagine in Bombay you can probably find any kind of cuisine you like, Indian or otherwise.
My favorite “cultural information” site is Kamat’s Potpourri. Excellent essay material and great photos.
My mother, a forestry professor who has frequently been a consultant in India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, found that the biggest obstacle for her to overcome was the differences in how important hierarchy and status are there. One does not put forth one’s brilliant ideas on one’s own; one lets one’s boss do that, if at all. She found that “collaborative groups” and “brainstorming” were very difficult in mixed-status groups, especially if the participants had working relationships outside the context of her projects.
Another stumbling block for many Americans that I’ve read about is the idea that it may be not only vaguely shameful to do work that’s “beneath you”, it may also be offensive, in that you’re taking work away from someone else. Example: Boss spills his coffee. Boss should not necessarily clean it up himself. Boss should let the cleaning person do that, even if it takes much longer and even becomes a hassle. The idea of “rolling up your sleeves and working right beside the regular guys” that Americans admire in a leader isn’t much shared, in practice, though of course there are exceptions (Gandhi pushed on this issue and made some headway, as I understand it).
Here’s a tidbit I found particularly germane, as I’m an allergy sufferer: most Indians consider blowing one’s nose on a hanky or Kleenex, and then sticking the used article back in your pocket, to be unspeakably gross. Apparently it’s more acceptable to clear your notsrils, one at a time, into the gutter (or at least throw away your Kleenex immediately). Can anyone confirm this for me?
I’ve heard that one of the outstandingly difficult things for Americans in Bombay is the unceasing pressure of people EVERYWHERE. I read an essay about trying to fall asleep in a room with the windows open to catch the breeze, hearing the families sleeping on the street below snoring and chatting and, well, living.
Can you tell us what kind of work you do, Philster?