On an unusually hot April day in Wimbledon, the extremely attractive and very young guest of a neighbour knocked on my door. In cropped linen trousers and a simple chiffon top, she was a welcome draught of cool in that unnatural heat. Just five days old in the country, she was there to meet a prospective groom, born and bred in swanky Chelsea. Naturally, she had no problems with following the arranged marriage tradition, but was in tears after a few meetings with this dashing lawyer, who worked in the City.
He came from a very modern home with traditional values. They had rice and chapattis every day. He enjoyed watching Hindi movies – in fact he knew most of the current songs. She didn’t. Many of his pals were Indian and Asian, but his best friend was Scottish. She politely smiled at his jokes and he never got hers. He touched his parents’ feet on every special occasion. When she was embarrassed at not knowing the meaning of ‘smriti’, the name of his littlest cousin, he humoured her with, “I am more Indian than you are”. It annoyed him that people in India did not value privacy and thought nothing of dropping by without notice. He hated the idea of favours. And though it was true that he never missed a community meet, she had received many signs that this Indian bred, public school boy from Oxford and then Harvard, was going to be tough to share a page with. “Just because he watches Hindi movies and touches his parents’ feet, how can he call himself Indian?!” she lamented. A wise head on very young shoulders, that.
The debate is always between perception and reality, isn’t it? What ‘is’ generally gets lost in the oblivion of a parallel reality, as true as any other.
To global citizens like us, where pluralism and duality are stronger truths than any reality of perception, the question that crops up time and again is, “When we say we are Indian, who, really, are we?”
While Dad defended fronts of physical divides, I was brought up in the security of campus communities where belongingness and inclusivity were not matters for consideration. Moving house every 18 – 36 months never mattered because ‘home’ was anywhere there were ten men in olive green. Whether it was a sat sri akaal that greeted us every morning or a Ram Ram that called it a day, we were ‘us’. That’s it.
And then, Dad got a posting to Bangalore – my first non-holiday experience of the south. My rapid-fire Hindi was beyond them, and the sing-song intonation of most girls, frankly, irritated me. Add to that, the confirmation of ethnicity – a band of Coorgs descended from the hostel above and introduced themselves. I couldn’t understand what was so special about me that I was afforded this kind attention.
That evening, my mother patiently explained to me all about me. Overnight, I was not just a fauji bachcha. I was also a Coorg. Apparently, I always had been one.
Until that day, I was a simple part of a large collective. But now, ‘we’, came with a disclaimer. I was eleven and learning too much, too soon.
Life teaches and flexes the securest of notions. Dad hung up his uniform to provide me the stability that I needed towards the fag end of my school days and suddenly, the disparity that is India, came hurtling towards me.
By now, almost every home had something to show for a relative ‘in forin’ or abroad. Roads paved in gold lead to esoteric lifestyles away from the country. Brighter gold, crystal ware and additional TV channels came into the country. ‘Escape’ to a better life was just a matter of some tight planning. All of this is within my active memory.
But there had been others who had already meandered their way out into countries like the UK- home to the Lords and Ladies, and America – that nation where dreams came true. The 50s and then the 70s, saw tides of high calibre professionals and skilled workers welcomed by these countries. Business-wise, it worked well both ways.
Personally, their children were still too young to pose any immediate threat to their beliefs and values.
This was a generation before the advent into India, of the colour TV, washing machine, computer, IIT-IIM, Ms Universe, Prithvi, Mirage 2000, internet and Swarovski.
Over the eastern skies, India’s star kept rising. Oblivious to our acquaintances abroad, riding this new wave of progress and prosperity, we, the younger lot, learnt only to dream big and stretch our horizons.
So while temples still rang their bells and the mullah still sang out at 5am and we still matched marks cards and we still compared jewellery and silks at weddings and arranged marriages were still the thing (which they all still are), jeans got lower waists and necklines disappeared altogether. We still gave the beggar his change. Soon, soufflés rose but it is our Jimmy Choo that will now judge how ‘with it’ we are.
So what if I can’t remember my Hindi alphabets in order? Dare you tell me I am less Indian than any other?!
Cut back to western shores where we knew our aunties and uncles of long back from photographs in fancy arcades and Chantilly silks. Cut away to ‘our’ advent there! We are in universities and enviable jobs abroad. We married those who live there. Some, stayed on.
And India, loomed again.
But this was not the India ‘I’ had left behind!
Cosy in my cosmopolitan comforts of serene Wimbledon, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing less than five miles away from it. Tucked inside tiny homes along regimented streets, simmering in turmeric aromas and shielded under veils and jhubbas, this was a shock vision of many Indias. Indias that were carried across the seas those many decades back. Indias, unshorn and unflinched by the aridity and proximity of an infinitely more permissive culture. Indias held tight in the cocoons of pre-independence fundamentalism and staunch religious doctrine.
These Indias were still colonised in mind and unwilling to break free from the shackles that their country back home had not only broken free from, but made almost obscure. Some from these Indias, also made their way into the ‘irreverence’ of local workplaces, but only to earn a living.
In fairness, this has been their oasis of comfort in the land of the unfamiliar, now as much their own as the genes they know. Centered around their mosques, temples and gurudwaras, they fostered their young and held them tight within their palloos of indoctrination. Many try to assimilate but are reigned in firmly by the values they hold dear.
So while many among us power-walked the trails of idyllic Wimbledon Common or waltzed about South Kensington among Diplomats and Lords of land, a large number outside the embassy walls and beyond the greens, still sighed at the price of a pair of boots at Woolworths.
When they visit their cousin in Banshankari, they arch their eyebrows at the Tag Heuer on his wrist and cringe at his daughter waving out of Monsoon’s spaghetti tops. They want their sons to marry from ‘back home’ but can’t fathom how ‘back home’ has gone unrecognisably beyond their expectations of blind subservience and dreamless days.
India in India, is as far and as wide at the globe, today. But the India packed into leather suitcases and cotton hold-alls, and carried across the shores half a century back, stayed in there – unopened. Trapped.
But they are Indians all the same. And dutifully, against the odds, they have protected their values. Dare I question them?!
We visited a lawyer friend in California. His son was reciting shlokas from The Gita, in a Californian accent, in Sanskrit. The little guy knew what he was reading and explained it well to us. After 22 years of living abroad, his dad was the picture of happiness, content in the belief that he had re-connected with ‘true’ India through his son. I know of others further across the globe, who have tried, similarly, to protect a part of Indian culture within them, by foraying into its forms of classical dance and music.
In the past, stigmas and stereotypes may have lead many to hide these traditional pursuits in a bid to be accepted in their western social circles, but now, with all things India, becoming the global fashion statement, even those inhibitions are redundant.
These people have found a balance that works for them.
But does that make them any more Indian than a City Railway Station coolie, who has never heard of Pt Bhimsen Joshi, but toils far from home for a decent day’s wage?
Replete in its rich culture, enviable heritage and turbulent periods of history, India is the true embodiment of what success is meant to be. After decades of Indians going abroad in search of greener pastures, the world comes ‘home’ to India today.
It is this essence of India that needs to be understood by anyone who calls themselves Indian.
Those living here, are in close contact with this sense of pride. In being away for long periods (for whatever reason), some Indians abroad have lost the advantage of being part of this mercurial advancement. In their warm mental snapshots of a nostalgia of ages ago, they, need to make room for this current reality and recognise that it is this very change that is making even their lives away from India, infinitely better.
The problem is, in hesitating to do so, they are stifling the younger lot too, who are torn between the natural instinct to flow with the mainstream in their country of dwelling, and intense values, many of which have lost their context.
Consider this: All foreign passport holders are categorised in government records abroad, as ‘citizens of ethnic origin’. Back home, they are listed as ‘persons of Indian origin’. The only thing Indian about them, is genes – their origin. Even if the bill for Dual Citizenship is passed in the Indian Parliament, does that issue stand resolved?
Now think about this: ‘Atithi devo bhava’, says our scriptures. Most visitors from India enjoy the warmth of welcoming hosts among Indians abroad. When they visit us here in India, they become guests in their own country. We welcome them, but we struggle with decoding their accents and reactions and label them ABCDs, BBCDs and others in between.
In receiving our own from elsewhere and then making them uncomfortable in their skin, how much more Indian are we than them?