I know loads of Indians are asked by foreigners, how come you speak such good English? The first American to ask me this was a lady I absolutely loved reading in my teens and twenties: Helen Gurley Brown, the founding editor of Cosmopolitan. Way back in New York, I asked to meet her and she agreed. So I went careening into the West 57th Street Cosmo office, staggering under the biggest bunch of flowers I could afford. I mean, Mrs Brown had given me so much pleasure and not a few insights into the workings of the modern world. She was really sweet and gave me a Cosmo bag and a Lucky the Cat tee, but when I got up to leave, she suddenly asked, “Where did you learn to speak such good English?”
“Well, Mrs Brown, it’s been around in India for a few centuries,” I managed to say, squashing a desperate need to giggle while I’m ashamed to say, the script in my head ran, “An Ozark Mountain hillbilly is asking me this?” I was this nothingburger, as she’d have said, and she was International Celebrity, but you know what we Indians are like.
I know exactly why Mrs Brown asked, we all know why, but what the heck. It never fails to startle and I almost smacked the face of a curator at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art who was showing me around the Magritte exhibition on that same trip, when he sprang this at me. (It must have shown that I was verging on a hissy fit, because he bought me lunch and some expensive but icky-sweet Sauternes in place of pudding; it set the seal on my kharab mood, it was like drinking liquidised barfi).
I insist this speakee-English syndrome has to do with what American writer Saul Bellow apparently once said about the French, that they have a ‘Larousse mentality’. Meaning the famous French Larousse Encyclopedia has already defined everybody and everything and the French can’t handle anyone or anything outside the stereotype imprinted in their minds by their own book. I mean, imagine being told, as I often was in France, “Mademoiselle, j’adore la femme typique!” (I love the typical woman, yaane, an Indian in a sari). Fort amusant? Certainly.
But no so funny when you consider how very Larousse we ourselves are, especially in matters of faith. Every Indian is guilty of this. H, M, C, S, J, whoever. And it’s peculiar how keeping an open mind and going beyond stereotypes is lauded the most in caste-ridden Hinduism. A story that can’t be bettered for its sting is about Utanga, the old mendicant in the Mahabharata who loves Krishna dearly. Wandering around the Gangetic plain, he suddenly encounters Krishna going home from Kurukshetra. Sri Krishna wants to do his old devotee a favour. What do I need now, having seen You, says Utanga fondly to the Lord. No, no, ask for something, insists Krishna. Well then, please grant that I may always find a drink of water. You know how I wander about and sometimes it’s a problem, says Utanga. So be it, says Krishna.
Later, the Lord thinks it would be nice idea to hand faithful Utanga a drink of amrita, the nectar of immortality. But when he asks Indra, king of the celestials, to handle this, Indra wants to do it his way. He finds Utanga parched, in a barren place, desperate for water. Indra changes himself to look like an ‘outcaste’ Chandala and offers his drinking gourd to Utanga. But the old man refuses to accept, little realising that the gourd contains amrita. After much earnest persuasion, Indra shrugs and vanishes. Krisha is very disappointed that Utanga should prove so unworthy. But there it is. His mind was proto-Larousse and closed to reality. The reality being that things are not as they seem, we have to think a bit before we shoot off our mouth or dash madly in all directions. Kartikeya, now. His home turf was Delhi-Haryana? Can`t wait to tell them in South India. But perhaps it won’t surprise them. Because just as I set off to work to do this page, guess what arrived in the dak? Vibhuti-kumkum from Tiruttani, Kartikeya’s big hill temple near Chennai. Sort of spooky. But I`d want to keep an open mind on this, wouldn’t you?