We are Like That Only
Gentleman July 1998

In the very early eighties, Paul arrived in Calicut. He had fled from behind the iron curtain and was seeking asylum in a world where lines and lives were not drawn with such rigid markings. I do not know what Paul expected to find in Calicut, or in India but perhaps he was only hoping to exhale... to discover a life where it was possible for lines to zigzag and for time to just be instead of segregated by meaningful and multiple choices....

One of us befriended Paul. He was, after all, wrapped in foreignness and a foreignness we knew very little of. Czechoslovakia: What did people eat there? What did they drink? What are your personal politics? Who are your heroes? What do you fear?

He was an object of interest and like a much sought after but not so readily available book, Paul was passed from home to home within our family.

The women fed him appams and stew; gave him semolina and saucepans to make his kasha in and let him wreathe their living rooms with his mosquito netting. The men listened to him talk and guffawed; answered his questions and ignored his almost discourteous manners. He called an aunt of mine obese and they just laughed. She did veer towards a rather solid plumpness. He burnt a saucepan and a sister-in-law said: never mind, a handful of ash and coconut fibre will sort it out. In summer during an acute water shortage, he squandered water by flinging bucketfuls of it onto the ground to make it wet and let grass grow...and we were very generous. He was after all from a foreign country and all this brownness must make him feel home sick.

We, he and I, went for an all-night Kathakali performance and to help me stay awake, he gave me a herbal medicine, procured from Indonesia, he said. I didn't sleep for a week thereafter. And my family let me off with a mild reproof and continued to ply Paul with food he didn't want and indulge his questions: So why do you deify everyone? From the Panchayat clerk to the City mayor to movie stars? Why do you offer bribes? Why don't you fight the system? Vedas are all crap? And did you know Vatsyayena was a celibate? You ought to make the cow your national animal and not the tiger. How can you be so bovine? So bloody passive?

In most parts of the world, Paul would have had his face smashed in for such insolence and would have been flung out on his ear, mosquito net, blue eyes, questions and all, but we tolerated it. Paul was a guest in our homes and we Indians are known to take our guests seriously even if they tend to overstay their welcome, make unreasonable demands on your time and subject you to much inconvenience and rudeness.

So we didn't defend ourselves or even explain the reason behind our so obvious shortcomings. What was there to say anyway?

Then Paul attacked Mrs. Gandhi. He called her a megalomaniac; a tyrant tottering at her end and suddenly Paul was no longer welcome in our homes.

It wasn't that my family has very strong political views or affiliations. It wasn't as if we had an exaggerated sense of national pride. But Paul crossed a line; we were not going to accept that kind of talk from a foreigner.

It is this I think of as I try to make sense of what it is to be Indian....the why we are who we are factor....

What is this rogue component that might make us at times seem like a nation of eccentrics: original polythene wrapping that remains attached to car seats months after the car has been bought and clocked more than a thousand kilometres; plastic bags that wait beneath mattresses for some further use; gunny thread we roll into balls and stow away; talcum tins that become piggy banks; and used wooden ice cream spoons and bottle caps that are turned into craft work....

You would think such thrift, such a need to conserve and recycle, would find its way into a better comprehension of the world around us and a compulsion to preserve it... Instead what do we do? We behave as if the whole world is our oyster; to be colonized and even treated with disdain....so we bathe strange walls with our bodily fluids. Phlegm, betel juice and urine. We clean our homes and shops meticulously because we are a fastidious nation in many ways, wash our doorsteps down with water and phenyl and let the water turn the streets into slush... We groom our hair and adorn it with flowers and fling the loose hair out the window, never mind if it is into the neighbour's garden. We won't allow a shred of litter within our homes and dress our thresholds with kolams and rangolis but think nothing of dumping our garbage at the street corner.... and if all of it isn't a blatant enough display of why the space around us is ours to do with as we please, we switch on our loudspeakers.

Pure rant is the resonance of our times and its chief instrument is the trumpet shaped loudspeaker or as the villagers in Kerala refer to it - the 'kolambi' or the spittoon.

Long before even the birds wake up, the kolambi spews out devotional songs from the temples. Soon jeeps or autorickshaws begin to prowl hither and thither…New shops, political meetings, a film release, lottery tickets, eye camps…everyday there is something to blare about! Then it is the turn of the muezzins from the mosques....Of Edith Sitwell F.R. Leavis stated that she 'belongs to the history of publicity rather than poetry." Of the loudspeaker, I think, it will someday belong to the history of religion rather than invention...

But you see, don't you? That there is a sub-text to it all. To live and let live. For that too is part of this Indian ness as much as the I-before-thou. Which is why while we wait for traffic lights to change, we press our fingers down on the horn and hoot till the person before you turns and eyes you balefully.
"Wait, will you, ars*^%$*!" his eyes bore into you.
Then you smile almost ruefully, and look away. And he shakes his head in disgust and lets it be. Anyway it isn't as if he isn't guilty of the same sin....

Much needs to be said about our sense of tolerance in the mechanics of everyday life. That, despite near lawlessness on the road, we see very few instances of road rage.... We let a bullock cart amble on a narrow bridge while it holds up the traffic. Or that we almost cause a near pile-up by braking to avoid the jaywalker who cuts through the traffic holding up his hand with a cursory gesture....

We endure power surges that ruin all equipment and hartals that paralyze life; thugs disguised as Members of the Parliament and laws that make a mockery of personal freedom; lazy bureaucrats and worse, corrupt ones...when the system fails, what we do is not fight it. Instead we try and make the system work for us. We offer bribes and manage to find a relative of a friend of a friend who is a senior official and who can 'put in a word of recommendation'...Compromise is a word we latch onto with great fervour. We might not sell our souls but we sell pretty much everything else... that too is a key ingredient of to live and let live....

Perhaps one of the vital elements of being Indian is that we accept hypocrisy as part of life and practice it quite easily. We might frown at a TV commercial for a condom before 8pm but we will also let Shakila and Mumtaz and such sirens flesh our fantasies at midnight...

It is perhaps we are such exemplary hypocrites that we have this national ability to read between the lines and behave thereof. When wedding invitations appear with the mandatory line at the bottom: 'No Presents: blessings only', who takes it seriously? Who dares walk into a wedding hall with empty hands? So you buy that steel utensil [let's give them something useful]; or that Tanjore plate [something to hang on the living room wall] or that table lamp [we found it at the Chinese exhibition, looks very expensive but is well within our budget] and you give it to the newly weds along with your blessings....and watch them thrust it onto the table where mountains of gaily wrapped steel utensils, Tanjore plates and table lamps grow

Or take that commodity called Indian Standard Time? Or Indian Stretchable Time? Who ever is ever on time...More fool you to be punctual.... and so it is some months ago at a book event, I [chief guest/ key speaker/ guest of honour, etc.] arrived to discover that I had arrived before anyone else including the organizers of the event... I may not be exactly diva material but within me too nurtured a desire to make a grand entrance. So I skulked behind bookshelves while waiting for the audience and the organisers to arrive all the while dying a million deaths hoping no one would spot me and ask, "But what are you doing here?" And I would have to point to the empty spaces where chairs were still being placed...... Is it any worse than the time I invited a couple for breakfast and they arrived at almost lunch time with a breezy, "But you didn't think we would come that early, did you?"

And yet, some time ago, when a foreign publisher asked me if I would ever consider moving to London, I said emphatically and with no hesitation, "Absolutely not! Why would I ever want to? India has everything that I would want…"

Most of all that I need make no excuses for who I am.

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