Just Like That | Notes on culture, an ‘inspired’ play, and a hilarious incident

Updated on Sep 10, 2022 02:10 PM IST

Of the uniqueness of culture in a globalised world; a well-received play staged across countries that was inspired by a book I wrote; and an evening with Gulzar Saheb which involved an ill-equipped ambulance and several moments of panic

A true but hilarious story demonstrates how, in spite of the homogenising influences of globalisation, cultures remain distinct. (IStock Photo) PREMIUM
A true but hilarious story demonstrates how, in spite of the homogenising influences of globalisation, cultures remain distinct. (IStock Photo)

Cultures are unique

Rapid globalisation has fostered a myth that the entire globe has shrunk into a small village where everyone is a mirror image of the other. It is true that many erstwhile communication barriers have been demolished, but individual cultures still retain a stronghold, and that uniqueness and diversity need to be preserved and nurtured, as UNESCO has declared.

A true but hilarious story demonstrates how, in spite of the homogenising influences of globalisation, cultures remain distinct, and what needs no explanation in one, is totally incomprehensible to the other.

A lady bureaucrat from Delhi had to go for official work to Paris. Karva Chauth was on the first day of the tour. She spent the entire day in meetings without eating or drinking a sip of water. Tired, thirsty, and hungry, she returned to her hotel room in the evening. She needed to see the moon before she could break her fast, but the overcast sky and the restricted view from her room were making this difficult. Desperate, she decided to go to the rooftop of the hotel. The door to the terrace had a sign that said: "Entry Prohibited". But she was so keen to see the moon that she disregarded it.

The moment she pushed the door open, an alarm rang. Soon she was surrounded by the hotel security and by French police, who were automatically alerted. They asked her what she was doing here, a restricted area. She said that she had come to see the moon. "Why the moon?", was their natural query. Because I need to eat, she said. Very perplexed, they asked her why she needed to see the moon in order to eat. She said, "because it is for my husband". "Where is your husband?" they asked. She said that he was in India.

Their English was poor, her French was bad. There was complete confusion. It was impossible for them to make sense of what this lady was saying. Finally, they arrested her. The Indian Embassy was informed, who sent across an official with an interpreter. She was set free, but only after she realised that, even in a globalized world, where everybody watches CNN and eats Kentucky fried chicken, cultures can be very opaque to outsiders.

Salaam India

Some years ago, I wrote a book called "Being Indian: The Truth About Why The 21st Century Will be India’s". It was a long, hard look at who we as a people are, warts and all, and what makes us uniquely Indian. It was the book’s thesis that often we have a very idealised view of ourselves, borrowed from selective plaudits, especially by foreign observers. What is the real Indian behind his public self-belief? In essence, what sets us apart as a culture and a civilisation, what makes us different, and why the traits that do, could ultimately be the factor for our timeless resilience.

Lushin Dubey, arguably one of the most talented Indians in the field of acting and theatre, made a play which, as the credits say, is "inspired" by my book, Being Indian. The play is called "Salaam India". Salaam India has been performed in over 60 places in India and abroad, including in the United Kingdom and the United States to rave reviews, which have found it "fascinating", "funny", "moving", and "outstanding".

To coincide with the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence, Lushin restaged Salaam India last weekend at the Indian Habitat Centre’s Stein Auditorium to a packed audience. On opening night, she invited me to say a few words after the show, which I happily did. At the next day’s performance, Shashi Tharoor did the honours. He was accompanied by his 86-year-old mother who greatly enjoyed herself.

Of criminal negligence

I had written about Gulzar Saheb in one of my previous columns. He came to Delhi soon thereafter to do the narration in a dance-drama called "Parvaaz Ka Agaaz", dedicated to Dr Abul Kalam Azad, a remarkable scientist and former President of India.

Gulzar Bhai and I were having a cup of tea in the lounge at Siri Fort auditorium before the play was to begin. Suddenly, Gulzar felt terribly giddy. An ambulance was called. It arrived quickly, and with two doctors in hand locally, he was given a check-up. But one vital factor could not be checked: His blood pressure.

The ambulance did not bring this basic instrument with it. People were sent to the market to buy the machine. It was a wait before it was procured. I think for the ambulance not to be equipped with something so basic was criminal negligence. Fortunately, Gulzar fully recovered by evening, and left for Mumbai, as scheduled, the next day.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha).

Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers

The views expressed are personal

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