Do You Speak Indian? A Crash Course on Three Words: Indian, Hindi and Hindu

I am regularly asked well-intended but somewhat ridiculous questions when I talk about my stay in India. The chief offenders are: “Do you speak Indian?”, “Did you make Hindi friends while in abroad?” and “Could you teach me something in Hindu?”.

If one were to draw a parallel, those questions would be analogous to asking someone who’s visiting Toronto whether he speaks Canadian, if he’s made English friends, and if he could teach you something in Christian.

I thought I’d spare everybody some embarrassment by clarifying the difference  between the terms Hindi, Hindu and Indian.

Indian:  An Indian is a person who Continue reading


Bombay Hair Burning: Meet The Man Who Casually Cuts Your Hair With Fire


Aqueel of Zulf Makers in Bombay is about to cut my hair using fire.Photo credit: Frédérick Lavoie.

Aqueel of Zulf Makers in Bombay is about to cut my hair using fire.
Photo credit: Frédérick Lavoie.

“I use small small fire.  No big fire.  Otherwise it will be difficult to control, very dangerous,” said Aqueel as he brought his candle closer to my hair in order to cut, or perhaps more accurately, burn it.

Just like the ear cleaners of Delhi and dabba wallah of Mumbai who deliver 200,000 lunch boxes to office-goers on an average day, Aqueel Kiratpuri has crafted a job for himself that most would never have thought existed.  On a quest for a strategy to attract new customers twelve years ago, the man from Uttar Pradesh decided to play the wild card: scissors out, fire in!  The natural way, if you ask him.

“But the technique wasn’t new,” confessed the hairdresser.  “Back in my village, I had heard of a very old man cutting hair using mombatti and fire, but I never met him.  I just did it on my own after inventing a type of candle that wouldn’t leak burning wax on my clients.”

The flame finally touched the lock of hair Aqueel kept in place with a lilac hairclip, thereby creating a crackling sound far louder than I had expected – much like if someone was slowly rumpling a piece of foil next to my ear.  I couldn’t help but ask out loud: “Why the hell do I do these things?”  Mr. Kiratpuri had an unequivocal answer to that question: “The Almighty gave you the daring to get your hair cut by fire”.

As the pungent smell of hair turning into ash slowly engulfed the room, I glanced at the counter hoping Aqueel had a bucket of water, just in case a mishap turned my head into a bonfire. Needless to say that my prayers intensified when Aqueel blazed through my sideburns, bringing flames close enough to my ears to get high-pitched squeaks out of me.

No pain, rest assured.  It turns out Aqueel’s talent completely negated the need for water buckets: the man performed his work with the uncanny precision of the sculptor, knowing specifically where to set the fire and how intense to make it so it would extinguish right where he needed a trim.

More than anything else though, it was Kiratpuri’s composure that eventually led me to relax into getting a pyromanic haircut.  The salt and pepper-haired man carries the kind of calm generally associated with the deeply meditative and religiously anchored.  It then struck me that the long scar that runs down Aqueel’s left cheekbone – from his eye right down to his beard line – softens his traits instead of hardening his looks.

Aqueel Kiratpuri futting hair with a candle and fire in Mumbai, India.Photo credit: Frédérick Lavoie.

Aqueel Kiratpuri cutting hair with a candle and fire in Mumbai, India.  Photo credit: Frédérick Lavoie.

Aqueel goes about his craft with utmost humility.  The salon itself is a major understatement.  In Canada or the U.S., a talent of this kind would be turned into a light and sound show with the flashiness of Las Vegas.  Here, in the midst of a Mumbai suburb known as Andheri, Kiratpuri does his magic in an unceremonious, quaint, neon-lit salon that goes largely unnoticed by passersby.  “We all need to do our work with the fire in our heart,” he said, before putting the last incendiary touches to his chef-d’oeuvre.

So how did haircut #149 turn out?  Well, exactly the same as it displayed on Aqueel’s wall of hairstyles.  Still in disbelief, I was running my right hand through my rugged hair when Zahab, Aqueel’s son, smiled and promised to throw in more chilies to the experience next time. He explained he plans on starting to cut his clients’ hair using a welding torch instead of the pieces of broken glass he’s been using to distinguish himself from his father.

“Only if you pay me, Zahab!”


Aqueel Kiratpuri owns and operates Zulf Makers Salon & Academy at:


Shop No 5, Marble Arch No 4,
Shastri Nagar, Lokhandwala,
Andheri West, Mumbai

Landmark: On the street across from the HDFC Bank.


Fire powered haircuts cost 1000 rupees (approximately $19).

“My Shit Bang” in Dharavi, Mumbai’s Flagship Slum

Dharavi, Mumbai.Photo credit: Chandrashekar (Shekar) Manalam.

Dharavi, Mumbai.
Photo credit: Chandrashekar (Shekar) Manalam.

Shekar led our pack as we crisscrossed the alleyways of Dharavi, which was known as Asia’s largest slum until another zhopadpatti in the Northern suburbs won the dubious title some two years ago.  The narrowness of the walkways, of course shared by pedestrians, motorbikes, children playing cricket and vegetable vendors, belie the grandeur of Dharavi and almost successfully conceals that this 1.7 square kilometer patch of land is home to over one million inhabitants.   The bustling of the place is unmissable: women prepare dough to make bread for export in the U.K., men stitch clothes frantically, potters go at their craft, and cobblers dry leather to be distributed across Mumbai, formerly named Bombay.

Alleyway in Dharavi, Mumbai, India.  Photo credit: Chandrashekar (Shekar) Manalam.

Alleyway in Dharavi, Mumbai, India. Photo credit: Chandrashekar (Shekar) Manalam.

After braving the crowd and witnessing Shekar dodge inquires from at least a dozen curious acquaintances, we finally reached the 22 year-old man’s house.  Immediately, I was impressed with Shekar’s living arrangement. He is the sole occupant this recently revamped first floor room, leaving him with an area of approximately 8×10 ft. to himself – a sheer luxury in a slum where many families have to cram six or seven people in rooms of that size.

When I was deeply absorbed in contemplating his bathroom, a rare and highly prized commodity in Mumbai squatter communities, a massive boom detonated, sending vibrations throughout the room. In shock, I turned around to see Shekar who […] Read more here…

How to Insult Your Indian Friends: Say Please and Thank You

Bahan chod, madar chod and paagal, or sisterfucker, motherfucker and mad, respectively, are wonderful insults indeed, but you don’t need me to discover them – your local friends will teach you such basics sooner rather than later. Here, I’d like to discuss a more subtle, most often involuntary way of bruising your Indian friends: using “please” and “thank you” […] Read more here…

Here’s How to Make Real Chai at Home!

It’s time to make the real stuff!  During a visit to Udaipur, Rajasthan, I attended Shashi’s delectable cooking classes.  The energetic woman was kind enough to pass the secret of Indian chai onto me – and I am happy to share it with you.  Chai is one of the things I love the most about India, and I promise it’s 100 times better than any of the fake syrup stuff you served in the West.  Here’s how to prepare it in less than 10 minutes […] Read more here…

How and Why the West and India Differ So Much According to Devdutt Pattanaik

India is a land where things are highly unpredictable, and where uncertainty is part of daily life. That doesn’t budge locals, but can make unprepared foreigners highly uncomfortable or leave them completely dumbfounded.  In this truly enlightening TED talk forwarded by my friend Darshan, Big Bazaar Chief Belief Officer Devdutt Pattanaik explains how mythology has shaped Western and Indian ways of behaving in completely different ways.  This speech explains in a few minutes what I feel others take hours to address only superficially.  It’s s a great first step in cracking India open for anyone travelling to this land, seeking to do business here or wanting to bring Western and Indian people to work together.  Enjoy this talk by clicking here…

Street Food Festival in Delhi Until 10 PM Today

I am at the Indian Street Food Festival at the Constitution Club of India on Delhi’s Rafi Marg, enjoying brilliant paneer kulcha, lemon rice, ghol dosa and stellar Bengali mustard fish. It’s bustling with action here and the long queue at the gate has now subsided so you can make it inside in a snap. Hurry for curry-the event ends at 10 PM today. Entry is free, and food is fairly priced. And no Delhi Belly for me-all is very clean. Thank you for the tip, Sachin!