The outsider inside

Last Updated : 16 July 2010, 13:14 IST
Last Updated : 16 July 2010, 13:14 IST

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As a child growing up in Delhi in the late 70s-early 80s, kids in school asked me if I was Chinese. The first time, I was taken aback, but after confirming in my mind that Assam was indeed part of the Indian state, I replied in the negative, politely explaining that the borders of India did actually extend beyond Delhi;   infact, they ran as far as the strange lands we learnt of in class, called the Seven Sisters.

When I went back to the lush  valleys of Assam, I found the people there also nursed a similar, understandable anxiety about the lands across their green borders. Delhi, Lucknow, Bombay – these were distant, hazy lands. Rangoon or Yangon is closer as the crow flew. These anxieties were unsettling but one soon got used to it.

Children are resilient and one got used to being an Insider-Outsider and shuttling effortlessly between cultures.  So, when as a 15-year-old in England – my father had once again uprooted us, this time to the English town of Manchester, to a suburb right in the shadow of Old Trafford – friends asked, rather hopefully, if there were any cars in India or did we all ride elephants, one was not in the least bit upset, but rather tickled.

This was before the world had shrunk to a global village, all we were able to see on television were the three BBC channels and one Independent channel, and even these tended to show the exotic Orient more often than they did the real thing. My friends spoke not out of malice but ignorance. And, of course there was no television at all growing up in Delhi. One can argue that there were books, and films, there is no excuse for ignorance, but let’s just agree to say, people did not have as much information, as they do now, literally, at their fingertips.

Which is why it is so surprising to read of and read Joel Stein’s piece on the Indianisation of his home town, Edison, New Jersey. Surely, there is no excuse for ignorance today. Stein’s deprecating description of his hometown subsiding into a mirror image of a sorry little Indian town is not amusing at all.

This article got me thinking about perceptions. What we perceive about a person is really what we want to believe about him. Facts and so-called facts that are drummed into our young heads often are the cues that trigger these perceptions. Not surprising then that in our own country, every region has its own set perception of the other. In the same breath, one also has to admit that people in this vast country-continent are deeply different from one another. Sometimes, people from across a border may seem more familiar. I see a motif on a Burmese longyi that is also woven into my grandmother’s mekhala in Guwahati. A Naga man may have more in common with his Naga brethren across the border in Myanmar than he has with someone in Delhi; the iddiappam of Kerala is an exotic dish in Delhi or Ahmedabad but is not unknown in Sri Lanka, where they call it string hoppers.

Geography is an immensely powerful thing: it can draw people together but divide them too. Yet, despite deep resentments still simmering under the surface, there is a new feeling today of being connected: I hear of Naga Food festivals being sold out in Bangalore; my mainland friends are wearing mekhalas for parties. And a favourite Sunday meal in my hometown, far away, is very often dosa – the women have even learnt to make it at home, down to the coconut chutney!

At the risk of sounding childish – sometimes being a child is not a bad thing – I wonder if it isn’t possible to celebrate all this colour and variety. I take heart, when I hear my son describing himself as a Bangalorean, who is also Assamese and Mangalorean. He then gives me his Global Address: Indian, Asian, Of this World, then of this Solar System and finally of this Universe. All of us eventually, are of this Universe!
Jahnavi Barua


You can’t get more global than me. Sony serenades me right in my ear, I have French windows and a Persian cat, I love Lebanese food, my hair is done at a Chinese parlour and I’ve felt widowed from the day Heath Ledger died. Actually, I feel that way when any good-looking bloke dies in Hollywood. Which goes to show how seriously I took the government on liberalisation.

I stuff my kanjeevarams and don a kimono. Around the same time, Liz Hurley steps out in a sari, though she forgets the blouse. With catalogues splaying their stuff on the internet, the entire planet is my flea market. All the world’s a supermarket aisle, and all the men and women merely shoppers, or am I misquoting the Bard again?

Being Indian meant going to jail before Independence. Then being Indian became synonymous with government jobs and pensions. The joint family grew increasingly disgruntled and one-odd aunt left her husband, tch-tch. Patriotism, not to mention personal grooming, was complicated by the coming of Maybelline. We were crowned Miss World a couple of times in time to hail the make-up MNCs, and one-odd aunt opted out of matrimony altogether. All the while, people packed off offspring for foreign degrees.
My own parents ran in slow motion to meet in the middle of Kerala, my cousins married across states and my best friend is Spanish. The borders kept moving and when an Indian astronaut died in outer space, I mourned in her hometown.

I once saw a newsreader stalk the French embassy for the correct way to say Tuileries but when I told him Kozhikode was not Cow-die-cod, his shrug was most Gallic. Seriously, as long as we can go for our Tai- Chi classes and listen to Barbara Mori strangle Hindi syllable by syllable, why should we care what kalari payattu is and whether vernacular films deserve sub-titles? We holiday in Kenya and Kathmandu, going only where our next-door neighbour hasn’t been. And when we feel nostalgic about ‘the good old days’, we honour-kill that silly cousin who loved from another tribe.

Every reader knows that only NRIs can write novels about Mother India with any authority. We got the Booker, the Grammy, the Oscar... We are wining and dining the world with chicken tikkas and samosas, and our entire spice continent is burning up their Anglo-Saxon gut. How readily Lalitha becomes Linda and Sampat a Sam in our call-centres! And ours is not to reason why McDonald’s serves Maharaja Mac. And even if we do get nuked, say if the US didn’t like our accent or something, chances are the bombs will be ‘made in India’.

Really, new-age patriotism is judged against constant change. Maps are cut up prettily in tourism brochures. In our minds, thanks to TV, books and passports, we wander everywhere. The new Indian is a well-traveled citizen who chooses to stay in his country because ‘here’ is as good/bad as ‘anywhere else’. Besides, jetlag is a bummer.

My space?

So I woke up a week back to find that the R-word was doing the rounds. You know, the one that kind of rhymes with ‘escapism’. An American humorist did what a lot of humorists seem to do these days -- turn a stream-of-consciousness blend of reminiscence, observation and cliché into something that he hoped would be funny. As an essay, it was hardly Bacon. As humour, it was undercooked. But was it racism? It skirts the borderline between mocking and perpetuating stereotypes. It’s a muddle and to a large extent it received the muddled responses it deserves.

Most commentators have taken a few standard routes: take Joel Stein to task for an article that was insensitive at best, offensive at worst, point out that racism is an equal-opportunity sport that Indians indulge in too, or claim there was no racism and this was just another tantrum thrown by the PC brigade. These responses miss the point.

What is the point? I think the issue is a more fundamental one that relates to how we as human beings adapt to the realities of our world. An interesting slogan did the rounds some years ago about  the local language  vs English.

The slogan showed that xenophobia doesn’t just operate across racial lines. Most of the people speaking English are from the same community as the sloganeer if not the same country.

Another slogan that I remember is ‘Bangalore is full. Go home.’ It’s an egalitarian slogan, applicable to people from Adelaide, Atlantic City or Ahmedabad. To my shame and remorse, I once raised it myself, late one night in my lamented 20s when a group of western tourists wanted to enter an already packed establishment on Rest House Road that I used to patronise.

I wasn’t being racist – I have nothing against westerners. I gleefully claim the best of their art, literature and music as a part of my universal human heritage while being equally comfortable with using a language and mode of dress that was originated in points westward. But at that moment, this particular group of westerners wanted to enter what I perceived as my space and that made them the enemy.

But was it really my space? If anyone, it belonged to the landlord and he obviously had no problem with admitting any paying customer who observed a modicum of good behavior.  And did they really change it? Maybe a little, but places change. The Bangalore I used to know has changed for ever, if not for better and most of those changes were engineered by my fellow Indians.

Change happens, and the thing is that it’s happening faster and more thoroughly than ever before in human history. This makes us disoriented, and disoriented people can get angry. There are many people who feel left behind by changes they didn’t anticipate and lash out at someone, anyone who might be to blame.

It’s probably too late to decelerate the rate of change, so it may be time for us to start redefining our concepts. We tend to cling to a lot of 19th-century concepts that had a lot of utility at one time, but are now counterproductive if not actively destructive. And that might just include our definitions of race, place and identity. Perhaps the world is too small to sustain these artifices anymore. It’s worth thinking about.  
Jayaprakash Sathyamurthy

Published 16 July 2010, 13:13 IST

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