Monday, August 30, 2010

More from THAT essay (does it never end?)

I abhor Sounding Serious, but the I-word has to come into this somewhere. Identity. What IS this Indian identity? What sets me apart from a Bangladeshi or a Pakistani? (I've been mistaken for a Mexican, too, but perhaps that's not strictly relevant to the subject.)

Precious little, on first examination. Not the national language, Hindi. Not any specific attire. Because our genes are the same, the product of several thousand years in this sub-continental melting pot. We share languages, traditions, cuisine. What then identifies the Indian? We should step outside ourselves for a while to ask, how does the world see Indians? How far are we from the standard shibboleths of mysticism and spirituality and exoticism? In the American media (what, is there any other kind?! You mean there’s folks out there Who. Don’t. Get. Fawx. TeeVeeee?!) the standard Indian is a nerd. Apu in The Simpsons and Raj Patel at Riverdale High. The software geeks who are “taking our jobs to Bangalore”. (A skewed perception, since the entire Indian IT workforce is less than 2 million out of a population of 1.13 BILLION.)

In Britain, where Patel may soon be the most common surname (indeed the most common Indian name across the world, from gas stations on Mid-western highways to pulp and insurance magnates in Kenya), India is sadly equated with balti cuisine and Bollywood rap. For the Japanese, India is the cradle of Buddhism. The French made Satyajit Ray a Chevalier of their Legion of Honour. Russia had a long love affair with Indian tea and with Raj Kapoor (though we hear that of late Amitabh Bachchan has gained ground). An Indian cannot, reportedly, walk the streets of Cairo without fielding questions on his proximity to Mr. B. Which is all very well, but is there such a thing as the Indian of the 21st century?

Much has been made of Messrs. Mittal and Ambani, their pre-eminence among plutocrats and their conspicuous consumption. About how India has Arrived because Tata have bought Corus and Jaguar. I agree that this is great news for the urban Indian who reads the financial papers. It means recognition in the international market, it means credibility for our skills and our goods. It means holidays in Latin America, gadgets from Singapore, mezze brunches in classy brasseries. And it means sweet damn all to half of India.

I could trade it all for evenings like the one I spent in a village in Howrah district back in the ’90s.

We were visiting learning centres set up under a scheme for functional literacy that employed volunteers. The teacher at the centre was a field labourer who had had to drop out of school after the 5th grade. This man, with a family of 9 to feed, gave hours of his time every evening so that his fellow villagers could learn to read and write. And insisted that we share his dinner before we left. Puffed rice, jaggery cakes and tender coconut water from his own yard. Simple fare that I remember 15 years later because the unthinking hospitality with which it was offered brooked no refusal.

Hospitality. To paraphrase O. Henry, they will pour their larder into you before they pour their lead.

At the height of the Khalistan movement, a friend in the police met some of the most feared insurgents. He shook his head in wonderment as he recounted their first offer – Duddh shuddh piyo jee, “have some hot milk”. Kashmir in 1990, the Valley in flames after the shooting of Ishfaq Wani, when a waiter murmured a warning in my ear as we sat down to dinner in the Circuit House. But in the same breath, apologised for the meagre fare during the month of fasting.

This can border on the farcical. On election duty in Sangroor in Punjab, I found that one candidate's election platform was a large trailer drawn by a Tata Safari. Loaded with CRATES of Solan whiskey and the charred remains of a poultry farm. His appetites were as large as his heart. For every sip he offered, he would take one himself; his day's canvassing ending only when he subsided into the trailer, snoring blissfully. At which point his nephew (on Safari with him, so to speak) would steer homewards. Steer a little erratically, since Said Nephew shared the family trait of appreciating the simple pleasures (or plai-years) of life. When it was pointed out that this amounted to soliciting for votes with promises of gain, the complainant was immediately rebuked and shushed by at least three other candidates, the largest of whom turned to me and said, with a dismissive wave of a huge hand, 'Wo koi nahin jee, bacche thod-di si jo pee pah lehnde so ki fark painda'. “What does it matter if the boys have a drink or two.”

The tradition of hospitality is not limited by India’s boundaries. Out on Long Island, the man behind the counter at a Dunkin’ Donuts forced cakes and coffee on me, then refused to accept payment because apne mulk ke hain aap, you are from my country. In Barcelona, I bargained over curios with a Sindhi shop-lady who would not give an inch or a peso, but pushed two boxes of sweets into my hands as I left. “For your baby”.

Hospitality. In the simplest form, placing humanity above the self.


Tanu said...

Well, its not just for Indians. I remember going to some small village in Eastern Germany and walking into a Turkish Swarma place to be met by a Bangladeshi man. This guy had not spoken Bangla with another human being face to face for about a year or so. He was so happy to see me and my crew (who did not speak any Bengali), that he refused to take payment and even volunteered to come meet us at the hotel after work to show us around the area!!

Holden Caulfield said...

i have had similar experiences. once a bangladeshi hawker in venice gave us two toys free for our little daughter when he heard us speaking in bengali. i was left wondering about the gesture from a "stranger". unadulterated brotherly love.

km said...

A worker at a certain famous Parisian shop once gave me ice cream for free.

Hospitality? No. It was due to lack of exact change.

Vive l'hospitalite!

Anonymous said...

In San Francisco, two white women who owned a chocolate shop crammed 10 kinds of chocolate into bags for me to take home to my parents. As a gift from them. Because they had been to India and they loved it.

No, I didn't know them and they had never met my parents and the chocolates were not for me - they gave me a bagful for myself to snack on. Those 10 bags were for my parents. Just because they had been to India and they'd loved it.

Anon E Mouse,
Beneficiary, presumably, of some of my compatriots' hospitality

Phantasmagoria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

A Pakistani cabbie refused payment because the 'nai bahu' was coming home for the first time. He even lugged all the suitcases up the long flight of stairs.


So how does that differentiate us from the Bangladeshi and the Pakistani Mr. P. That was your thesis to begin with no?

Milo Minderbinder said...

On a side note: charred remains of a poultry farm...TOO GOOD...

I said...

I'm taking away your last line.