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Brunchfor 5th Anniversary Special
Sixty years ago, when the tricolour first fluttered over an independent India, our former colonial masters predicted that India wouldn’t last very long as a nation. There are too many people from too many different cultural backgrounds, they said. They don’t have much in common, they said. Clearly our former colonial masters were not terribly perceptive people. Because it doesn’t matter if we’re Bengali or Sindhi or Tamil or Punjabi or whatever. All of us share a whole heap of character traits that cut across all cultural boundaries and make us particularly (and peculiarly) Indian.
Just three days short of our 60th Independence Day, join us as we celebrate our Indianness with this handy Brunch ‘Guide to Us’.
The Great Indian Shaadi
See, when a member of our family gets married, it’s not that we’re being inconsiderate when we take out a baraat that stretches from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, dancing in the streets and lighting fire crackers, thus causing traffic to be backed up for the next eight hours. No, we’re just happy to include the whole country in the celebrations. We want everyone to please enjoy. Because weddings are about celebrations – and not much else. Certainly not about the two people, known as ‘the girl’ and ‘the boy’ (once both these people had names, but then they decided to marry and immediately became ‘the girl’ and ‘the boy’, even to their own mummy-daddies) who are about to be joined in matrimony. At no wedding in this country does anyone notice when the ‘the girl’ and ‘the boy’ actually get hitched. That’s because the priests always declare that the auspicious moment for the rites to begin is 03:12:02 am and not a nano-second before that. So ‘the girl’ and ‘the boy’ sit on their thrones for hours and hours from 6 o’clock in the evening, doing nothing but grin into the video cameras. And the guests all line up at the dinner counters and at the bar, queue-jumping every now and then when it’s second- or third-helping time and all they want is a particularly succulent looking piece of chicken, not the whole meal all over again.When ‘the girl’ and ‘the boy’ finally get hitched, no one notices if it’s to another ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ respectively. That’s because all the guests have eaten and left, and the girls’ and boys’ families are sound asleep.
Once Upon A Time
IST as the world knows it is Indian Standard Time. IST as we know it, is Indian Stretchable Time. In other words, when we say (for example), “Let’s meet at 4,” what we mean is, “We’ll set off to meet you at about 5, never mind how long it’ll take us to get there.” (Unless the person being met is a phoren person, he or she knows this, so he or she will only set off for the meeting place at about 6.)
This is why, when we receive invitations to parties that have timings engraved on them in a large, bold font, we don’t even dream of getting there at the time we’re told to arrive. If, perhaps because we’re phoren (which we’re not), we do commit that folly, when we ring our host and hostess’s doorbell, we find the food still in a state of preparation, the host in the shower and the hostess in her nightie and rubber chappals, wondering what to wear. So it’s no wonder that, when we travel abroad and decide to watch a play, we find the lobbies of the theatres packed with distraught Indians waving their passports and demanding to see the Indian High Commissioner because they got no vasool for their paisa. It’s because those strange phoren people actually start their plays at the time they say they’ll start their plays, and refuse to let us in till Act 3 just because we’ve been slightly delayed by three-four hours.
Though our fashion industry is growing by leaps and bounds, we are sorry to say that it will never really hit the big time till it understands once and for all that the national dress for women is not the saree but the nightie and chunni combo teamed with rubber chappals (indoors) and trainers (outdoors).
Because the whole world is our family, it is perfectly all right for women to go for morning walks, buy vegetables, and drop and pick up their children from school all in the clothes that ought to be worn only at home. Since we have become fashionconscious of late, the nighties are now jazzed up with accessories and footwear from major international brands, like Gucci sunglasses, Roberto Cavalli flip-flops (better known as astoundingly expensive rubber chappals) and Reebok trainers.
What’s the sign that we are on holiday? Bengalis in their monkey caps, that’s what. When the temperature drops one degree beneath 32, it has clearly reached freezing point. And that is precisely the point when every Bong in the vicinity whips out his or her mustard-coloured monkey cap, just in case the frost attacks his or her ears and causes them to drop off, thus preventing them from ever indulging in adda again.
The other sign that we are on holiday is the bus-loads of Gujaratis who invade the restaurant we’re lunching at, carrying enormous fivetiered dabbas containing entire cooked meals that they have brought from their home far, far away. Why are they at the restaurant? Arre, they need tables, no?
Eat Up And die
We are a nation obsessed with weight. When we run into an acquaintance after a long time (say, 12 hours), the most-often used sentence we hear is any one of these three: “Aapne put on kiya hai?”, “Aapne reduce kiya hai?” or the admiring one meant for old people (in their mid-twenties or so) “Arre, aapne bada maintain kiya hai!” Even if we have “put on”, there is no way we can walk into anyone’s house and not be stuffed with
so much food that it could have kept a small African nation going for a year. “Have some more,” our solicitous hostess says, heaping our plate with a mountain of jalebis and holding a gun to our head. And she only stops when it becomes clear to her that if we put one more thing into our mouth we will actually burst, thus destroying the nice clean polythene covers on her new three-year-old sofa.
When we eat out in India, we are world travellers on a platter, willing to try any new cuisine that comes to town. Chinese, of course, is our favourite, followed by Italian and Mexican (though only some Mexican, like nachos and tacos, because the rest of it is simply rajma-roti and frankly, we do rajma much better). But when we travel abroad, we are down on our knees within 24 hours, begging for our daal-chawal. We cannot eat Italian – there’s no tomato ketchup on the pizza and even if there is, it lacks the real taste of kaddu. We can’t eat Chinese – what, no chicken Manchurian? And where’s the papad, dammit? We can’t eat anything at all except Indian, and that in phoren countries, let’s face it, is only about as good as Mexican rajma-roti. This is why all Indians who travel abroad take a Mumbai flat-sized suitcase full of packaged snacks from Haldiram Bhujiawalla along with them. (Gujaratis carry their dabbas of cooked meals, and often, even their cooks.) And this is why, when friends invite us to the new Italian restaurant in town, our first question is a cautious: “Is it authentic? Because if it is, no thanks.”
Space is not a problem in India. As in, we’re not particularly fond of it. We like being in crowds. Four generations of families live in a single one BHK flat; when we buy a scooter, a whole nuclear family – mummypapa, two kids, baby and dog – ride off into the sunset on it; and as for the Maruti 800, no one ever dies of loneliness in it: it can fit 36 people. This is why no one ever walks on footpaths in this country, even when there are no stalls or beggar families taking up the space. We walk in the middle of the road where all the other people are.
Since ours is the only country in the world with words to describe every possible family relationship up to and including sister-in-law’s mother’s second cousin’s third child’s nephew’s niece, it’s clear that the family is the most important thing in our lives. But it doesn’t stop there. We inhabit a large and frightening world and when even our sister-in-law’s mother’s second cousin’s third child’s nephew’s niece is not there to hold our hand, we instantly adopt all passing strangers into our family. Every man, woman, young adult and child in the world is therefore our uncle /aunty / bhaiyya / didi / beta / beti, whether they like it or not. (Often, especially when they’re 16 years old and addressed as ‘uncle’ or ‘aunty’, they most emphatically like it not.) Naturally, since the whole world is our family, we have the right to know everything we possibly can about them (this does not necessarily include their names). So we are free to ask intimate questions like, “Why don’t you have children, is the problem with you or with him / her?” and have frank discussions about the results (including colour and consistency) of the morning’s visit to the loo.
Till We Meet Again
It doesn’t matter that travelling is now a normal part of existence, and in fact, train and plane tickets are just a mouse click away. If we must go off on work or a vacation, we must be sent off in style.
So, bags packed, and blessings received from the elders of the family, off we go to the airport or station in a convoy of six cars with three outriders on scooters or motorbikes, part of a gang of about 60 people composed of our closest friends and family. At the airport, where people without tickets have now been banned from entering (uff, all this terrorismsherrorism, we tell you!), the convoy screeches to a halt and we receive about an hour of tearful farewells per day that we will be away.
On the train, once installed in our berth, there is a farewell party, with chai, cold drinks and samosas procured from passing vendors. Often, our farewell parties get mixed up with our copassengers’ farewell parties so we find ourselves partying with 60 complete strangers. But that doesn’t matter in the least because the strangers are instantly converted to family (beti / beta / didi /bhaiyya / uncle / aunty). And only when we’re halfway to our destination will the farewell party get off the train.
Although we are world famous in the world for our accuracy of aim and distance-covering ability when it comes to spray-painting buildings with paan juice and flinging garbage out of windows, we are also world famous for the care we take of our possessions. Especially when they’re new.
That’s why, three years after we got our new sofa-set, it’s still in its polythene covering. It’s new after all; we don’t want it to get dirty, do we? And though our new cars (just two years old) have been so dented and destroyed by manic traffic that the local raddiwallas are hovering about like vultures, we can still tell they’re new by the plastic on the seats, around the steering wheel and on the rear-view mirrors.
So fond do we become of these plastic covers that we maintain them with all our might. We tenderly dust and wipe them clean every day, and should they tear at any point, we take them to the tailor to be darned beautifully, with tiny invisible stitches.
Even though dryers are available these days, we don’t believe in them. We believe that washed clothes must be pinned out in the sun to dry – it’s so healthy.
But because architects never take our ‘healthy sun’ fixation into account when they design houses and apartments blocks, we solve that problem by attaching clotheslines to the exteriors of our buildings. This is where we hang everything, including grey underpants and large pointy bras, out to dry.
While we can’t exactly call this aesthetically pleasing, the outside clothesline makes good economic sense, especially in apartment blocks. Because when the upstairs neighbour hangs out her long, flapping sarees and bedsheets to dry, they serve as curtains for the downstairs neighbour who can then safely take her curtains down and put them in the wash without having to put up another pair. When these are hung outside the window to dry, the neighbour below is given the freedom to wash her own curtains and so on.
We have included this phoren component not because we have a phoren fixation (okay, so we do, so what? Pass the Toblerone please), but to prove how ingrained Indianness can be. Because while other countries refer to their citizens-in-foreign-lands as ‘expatriates’, we refer to ours as ‘NRIs’ – Non-Resident Indians. (However, we do not refer to ourselves as RIs because RI stands for ‘Rigorous Imprisonment’ and we’d rather not think about that.)
We also have a term for people who’ve given up their desi passports and become citizens of other countries. These are PIOs (People of Indian Origin), who may be American, British, Mauritian or Jamaican, but are damned if they’ll give up their inherent daal-chaawal, Hindi film songs and plastic bag fixations just because they are technically not desi any more. In fact, there are so many Indians all over the world who flatly refuse to stop being Indian, that a whole department of our esteemed bureaucracy is devoted to their interests. No other country does this.
This explains why, while Britain’s Lord Meghnad Desai is a PIO, India’s Mark Tully is not a PUKO.
Over the 60 years since we became a nation, the NRIs and PIOs scattered all over the world have given birth to strange breeds of people called ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis) and BBCDs (British Born Confused Desis) who, while being intensely American (or British) on the one hand, grow up to write award-winning books and make award-winning movies about how, even though they’ve always thrown up when Ma dished up daal-rice and aloo-gobi with round round chapat-tis, phir bhi their dil turns out to be Hindustani.
Every resident Indian family has at least one NRI or PIO relative somewhere on this planet. These relatives return to the motherland every December and January with blond hair, phoren accents and enormous plastic shopping bags full of chocolate, cheese, clothes and alcohol which are handed out as gifts to all and sundry, never mind that it’s all available here much cheaper.
The good thing about globalisation is that we don’t need to wait for our NRI and PIO relatives to arrive in December-January. We get all the phoren chocolate, cheese, clothes and alcohol right here.
The bad thing about globalisation is that since we’ve become citizens of the world now, we don’t have to spend two hours in a phoren country to acquire that strange Australo-American-Cockney-with-just-afrisson-of-unspecified-European-plus-basic-desi accent we’re all so fond of. We don’t even have to fly over Bangladesh by accident. All we have to do is not cut the line instantly when a call centre person phones. Or stand in front of the embassy of our choice for an hour.
We see no reason why we should take so long to say words and phrases when they can easily be reduced to a few alphabets. So girlfriend becomes GF, boyfriend BF, the Supreme Court SC, Scheduled Castes also SC, and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham K3G. And everybody knows what these acronyms stand for without having to be told. So newspapers are filled with headlines like: “90 % reservation in IT, I-T, CA for SC, ST & OBC: SC”, which make so much sense to us that we never need to read the stories. On the face of it, this reluctance to use words and phrases does seem a bit strange in a nation that has not stopped talking for even a second since the mobile phone arrived. (So communicative have we become that we even talk when we have nothing to say, such as when the plane we’re travelling in lands and we all whip out our mobile phones to give our families a running commentary on our movements: “Now we have landed. Now we are taxiing down the runway. Now we are still taxiing down the runway. Now we are slowing. Now we have stopped. Now we have all leapt up simultaneously and opened the overhead baggage compartments.
Now all our bags have fallen on everyone’s heads. Now everyone has concussion” and so on till we get home.) But doesn’t our acronymitis prove how forward-looking we are? Because, in the same way that we’d invented complex mathematical formulae long before the phoren people could put II and II together, we had invented SMSese long before anyone had even thought of mobile phones.
From Archives of Brunch for 5th Anniversary Special