The ugly Indian
EVERYONE knows about the oppression of rural India and the urban poor. Some people even do something about it but spoil it by terrorizing anyone else who foolishly admits to liking nail polish, squirts Ma Griffe, collects Spode or can say ‘hors d’oeuvres’ and ‘Cabernet-Sauvignon’ without a blink. But I wonder if you’ve ever heard the poor little stories below?
* A likely lad from Delhi goes to Singapore (pre-WTO). He’s enchanted by its cleanliness, by the endless orgy of shopping and snacking it offers, by its romantic possibilities. Nothing in his mis-spent, picaresque youth in the hot and dusty plains of Hindoostan had quite so much... potential. A pretty Australian girl responds to his chatty line and, whoopee, she’s agreed to have dinner with him. They find a candlelit Chinese restaurant and settle into a nice, easy rhythm of innuendo. Her hand lies so close to his.
He’s mustering the nerve to ask her over to his hotel, when two paunchy, safari-suited Indians waddle in. Their piggy eyes light on a large blonde at the next table. They strut over and make the most obscene verbal passes. Pretty Australian suddenly withdraws her hand. The likely lad completely loses his nerve and the romantic evening peters out in false, bright promises to e-mail.
* At a Kutiyattam festival cum-workshop under a thatched roof at Irinjalakuda (Kerala), an incredibly arrogant Tambrahm dancer addresses an audience of European and Indian art addicts. She blathers on about how every good idea in the world was actually born in the mind of some ancient rishi. Everyone reacts in typical ways. The gin-drinker Indians wriggle uncomfortably in acute embarrassment. The Swedes look politely blank. The French curl their lip. A German musicologist who has lived a good portion of the last twenty years in South India, turns an alarming shade of brick red. I think he is about to burst an artery, but luckily Ms Cornucopia stops twittering just then and the German rushes out for an ice cream on Irinjalakuda’s high street, scientifically ripping the Iyer mami’s spiel to shreds the while.
* The CNG crisis lets loose the dogs of war on Delhi’s streets. A pack of testosterone-driven lumpen youth circle a lone woman driver at a traffic light, squeeze in and harass her, until a cruising police patrol jeep evicts them. The woman is shattered. Her democracy has rebounded horribly on her and she’ll take good care to keep the ‘others’ at a safe, hygienic distance for evermore.
* Two young women are Eurailing and youth-hostelling their way around Europe one heady summer. At the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, they find they have to wait ten minutes for the afternoon visiting hours to begin. The Italian gatekeeper wants to know their nationality. ‘Aah. Donna Indiana, bellissima!’, he kisses his fingertips. ‘Huomini Indiani – molto male!’ The girls want to bop him on the head, but truth compels silence. In almost every European city, they’ve been troubled by greasy Indian men. ‘Arre darling, main paas aa jaon?’ these compatriots demand to know on the Parisian subway or a Munich bus. Or they whistle on Vienna’s Maria Theresia Strasse and jostle them in a Venetian vaporetto, exactly as if they were on board a Delhi Transport Corporation bus.
* An activist in the South is furious. She’s fought and won serious battles on the humanitarian front. People should be saying how proud they are of her. But because she was born into an upper caste family, she is hounded and persecuted in innumerable little ways by an inimical set of neo-Dravidians, who nevertheless consider it a status symbol to acquire a Brahmin mistress or wife. ‘Why are certain wars fought on women’s bodies?’ she hisses. ‘Why the blazes should I be part of this?’
Well, shall we get all Yeatsian and say the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity? For what can I write about the Ugly Indian that you don’t know backwards, that you’re not already mired in?
It’s our famous historical lack of self-esteem, isn’t it? Isn’t that why we’re always yelling, pushing, shoving, scheming, gypping, urinating, defecating, mounding up rot in rainbows of non-biodegradable waste? And always going at each other’s throats?
But give us one good reason to be better citizens. We all know the dream’s gone bust. Most Hindus and Muslims hate each other’s guts. And indeed, why should we like each other? Because the Constitution thinks we should? And why should Christians be allowed to get away with trashing other faiths? And isn’t it about time that Sikhs stopped competing with Jews for the Supreme Sufferer medal? Hey, we’ve got compassion fatigue, man. Sure, your granny from Dera Ismail Khan had a bad time on the train. Do you expect us to cry forever? Ask cooljat at ikonkar.com. These are his ratings: Sikhs – good. Muslims – bad. Hindus – damn right ugly. And why can’t the Kashmiris stop whining? The Indian Union subsidizes their state so heavily; can’t they get their act together instead of trying to blow the rest of us up in a million sneaky ways? And meanwhile, who told the Gorakhpur goons that they were entitled to speak on behalf of ‘the Hindus’?
After all these years, we’re sunk in ennui. Give us Kargil. Not another boring Orissa cyclone – we get those all the time, and how many photogenic disasters can one look at?
Let’s raise our heads and stare a bit into our own kohl-rimmed eyes. Three years ago, Swapan Dasgupta wrote a wonderful cover story on The Ugly Indian from a sociological, historical perspective. Last January, Kuldip Nayar wrote on the theme again in its political dimension (the SAARC countries loved it!). And to put it into elementary bazaarspeak, this is an ‘Excuse me for living’ situation. It’s like how everybody loves to hate the USA and waffle everlastingly on about the Ugly American, but also wants to get right in and melt into the pot.
Almost exactly like that, India’s neighbours love to hate India, because we’re so big and overwhelming. Meanwhile everyone else at home loves to hate the privilegentsia but also wants to Sanskritise into them. The privilegentsia itself is a beleaguered lot, a society under siege, a riven race. Some doughty bearded warriors are clustered still under a tattered, fading red flag, while others frantically sew sequins on swallow-tailed saffron. Positions are already taken on everything and no middle ground is allowed to exist. In this binary world, how can anything just be?
Either you’re a picture-perfect, sanitized, affluent society with a place for everything and everything in its place. Or you’re desperately grubby, fetid and Third World, speckled with rich ghettos and middle class ghettos at whose fortified colony walls the lap and slap of filthy poverty rises darkly higher. Will anyone, will we ourselves, allow India simply to be a country that chose a long, tortuous route to selfhood? Will we cut our losses, take stock and admit that we made several horrendous mistakes because our leaders were so eager for approval from their old school masters out West? Will we kick ourselves hard on the butt and say, well, we messed up, but now we need to dust our hands and get back on the job, with rueful but alert new awareness?
No, thanks. That sounds like too much work. There is actually no peaceful place left to lay our sleeping heads. Either the Normal World of masala commercials is pressuring us to Buy, Buy, Buy, you’re a dummy, you’re no good unless you’re a Person of Property, surrounded by all the artifacts of accumulated wealth. Or the jhola brigade is shrilling in your shell-like, that you’re Cruella De Ville crossed with Thakur Bhairon Singh because, like Rosa Parks, all you wanted was to get home after a hard day’s work.
Wait a minute. Is that why the mall rats and kitty ladies, the business barons, the garment exporters and treasurers of the Bonsai and Bougainvillea Societies are flocking to the New Age Ashram? Gosh, we’re awash in a tidal wave of bottled Gangajal. Wake up, we’re wet behind the ears. Time for more small stories, bits of sparkling stone from the floating, dissolving, re-morphing mosaic of urban India:
A busload of well heeled, perfumed people head for Agra. The CII is holding a jamboree there and for the climax, it’s invited the hottest guru of neo-nirvana, Srisri Ravi Shankar. At the luxury hotel they alight in, the atmosphere is festive and wedding-like. Exquisite saris and jewellery are tenderly extricated from expensive suitcases. Women help each other dress in sisterly excitement. Snatches of song, a hunt for missing diamond buttons from a husband’s starched muslin kurta, a final flourish of red Chanel lipstick, an anxious, critical peep in the mirror and the ladies burst out of various doors, filling the guru’s corridor with simmering anticipation. ‘We’re all in love with him,’ says a bunch of very nice women. But hark, the guru exits, chased by bare feet.
In the conference hall, the guru leads penguin-suited captains of industry into half an hour of deeply soothing meditation. But at question time – wait, I am getting to the point of this Ramkatha – not a single ‘spiritual’ question is asked. Instead, and this really stuns me, one expensively shod, well-suited merchant prince after another stands up and asks poignant, wounded questions – why has India lost her ‘moral authority’, why is India ‘unable to realize her potential’, why has India ‘lost her esteemed rank in the world community’.
Don’t they know? Or did the Harvard Business Review forget to mention it? The guru’s answers, as could only be expected in encounters of this sort, were bafflingly vague. It is not pretty, it is not satvik in today’s India, to hold up a mirror of truth and say frankly, ‘Well, old boy, we’ve royally effed up, we’ve got what we richly deserve. And it’s no use lunging at the usual suspects: the Brahmin and Bania, the Mullah, the SGPC, the license raj, the Dhanbad mafia, the Nehru-Gandhis, the Loser Left, assorted Singhs and Yadavs and Shankaracharyas of every ilk. You can detest certain people, but excusez-moi, we’re all collaborators. We’re part of the problem, pretending to be part of the solution. Go stand in line at the gates of the American embassy. Or go figure.’
Instead – and I swear this is veda vaakya (or gospel truth) – the neo- believers either sniff up Prana or head for the New Age Shoppe. Incense. Scented candles. Wind chimes. Aromatherapy oils (lavender is the panacea). Pretty books, bound in soothing pastel covers with dinky satin ribbons for bookmarks, full of pretty thoughts. NRI guru-speak. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective (Defective?) People. Of Families. Of Dogs/Cats/Budgerigars. Vaastu for Wealth. Feng Shui For Love. ‘Self-help books are the biggest sellers’, reveals a tipsy publisher, in the manner of Bronowski whispering confidentially about Machhu Pichhu. Really? Tell us more.
‘You buy this big crystal,’ says a shopkeeper authoritatively. ‘Place it in the entrance to deflect negative chi. If you fill a tray with rose quartz, it’s luckier than white quartz. Turquoise and amethyst cost, but they’re super-effective in neutralizing harmful currents.’ But his customer is distracted. He’s peering at a handmade poster that offers to teach ‘Dances based on Gurdjieff’s Philosophy for Rs 5000 a week.’ What might that be, now? ‘It’s a flowing sequence,’ says an earnest practitioner. ‘Raise your palms, cross your forearms, bring them down to your sides. Release your blocked energy.’
Meanwhile, in newspaper offices around the city, Page Three reporters are being dispatched to cover ‘up-market’ events, with sullen photographers in tow. A French company is launching a new line in handbags. As guests walk into a marbled five-star lobby, they see an old hennaed horror of a former minister chatting intently with a rookie reporter from a small town. She’s thrilled to be tete-a-tete with a Big Man. He’s ecstatic, getting some attention again. Round tables are rimmed with bored strangers who don’t know each other and divert themselves by tripping up the scrubbed country boys who circulate trays of hara kebab, chicken tikka, fish fingers and tandoori paneer. Just as every Cosmo girl serves the same candle-lit dinner, every promo or launch serves these staples and gags with desperately lipsticked people posing and straining for their pictures in the papers.
In one such write-up on Greek National Day, the country’s biggest newspaper confidently informs us that the party was to celebrate Greek independence from the Automan (sic) Empire. How can the country’s feistiest newspaper not assert itself, then? It proudly features a Sunday cover story on ‘The Social Climber’s Guide to New Social Etiquettes (sic)’, positively bursting with style tips. Drink creme de ‘cassius’ (as if Mohammed Ali had ejaculated into a glass), eat ‘soie’ gras.
Likewise, a glossy lifestyle quarterly from Mumbai features a list of dishes to serve at an ‘elegant luncheon’. Ultra-basic cauliflower au gratin is high on the list, along with a mysterious new piscatorial specie called ‘salmon-trout’. We wanna, we wanna, we wanna!
Or check out the article on what the well-dressed woman is wearing. It displays the ‘heiress’ of a Mumbai mill that has not paid its employees in years. Court cases and bankruptcy plague the business. Or so you’ve heard, from the pink papers. But voila, behold the daughter of the house curled up on a mound of Versace cushions, telling anyone who cares to know that she orders from European designer collections by telephone.
If your heart isn’t battered yet, perhaps this last lot of stories might help. A long line of children in wheelchairs bumps its way along the stony walkways of Hauz Khas Deer Park in South Delhi. It is a Spastic Society outing. The stumbling, halting line suddenly buckles on itself. The access gate to the picnic area is locked. The chowkidar is nowhere in sight. Is the party over before it began? A frantic search for someone, any one, yields a crusty, reluctant individual. ‘Bring along the wheelchairs!’ he shouts in Hindi. Several children’s faces crumple in sudden hurt, while the parents flinch. ‘We’re children, not wheelchairs,’ mutters a twelve year old, who can talk.
Parents compare notes. A Doordarshan report on spastic children left many traumatized. Kanchan, a lower income group mother, starts crying. ‘Every time they showed me, they wrote "Spastic bachche ki ma." Don’t I have any other name?’ she weeps. Satish Gujral, the celebrated painter, sheds tears too, remembering an old hurt. As a little boy, he did not know that his classmates and even his teacher called him ‘Deafy’, until he saw it written down somewhere. When he asked and was answered, he was devastated.
Well, why must we bellyache about this? Does anything in our mainstream religion or culture teach us to include the disabled? Take the story of the blind medieval poet Surdas. His own parents rejected him because of his disability. His brothers got good food and new clothes on Deepavali. He did not. When the village children mocked him, he ran to his parents for comfort, but they pushed him away. One day he just left home in the wake of some wandering singers, who fed him that night, but stole away while he slept. If Surdas had not discovered that he could sing, would he have had a life? Of course, not. In India you have to overcompensate, if you’re disabled. And half your energy goes in evasive or deflective action against the aunties, uncles, visitors, waiters, drivers, wayfarers, who peck you to pieces with an unvarying set of questions or else inspect you with great thoroughness, as if you were an inanimate object.
In fact, if you have any kind of physical handicap you can expect to be left out by city corporations that won’t allow the disabled into parks, zoos or public spaces. And count on being forgotten by architects, even famous ones, who design buildings without ramps; by pizzerias, movie halls, shopping malls, even temples. I mean, just look at the honourable cultural precedent. In the Mahabharata, Duryodhana lifts the hem of his dhoti because he thinks he’s about to step into a pool of water in the Maya Vilas. Draupadi loudly mocks him as the unseeing son of a blind father because he’s fooled by the trompe l’oeil. None of the Kuru elders rebuke her for this flagrant discourtesy, this appalling show of bad manners.
The Ugly Indian is the wonder that was, is and will be India. How anyone let this creature live and multiply to fill more than one-seventh of all humanity has got to be an inter-galactic joke. I suspect we’re like pieces in a complicated pachinko parlour game being played by Mr Big Yakuza (imported Bhagwan, actually Made in Taiwan). See, He – I won’t let it be a She, for no She could be so unfeeling – gets his kicks turning the wheel till almost everything blows up – and wheee, He swerves away by a hairsbreadth to allow for another lease of playtime.
Maybe we’d all be better off sniffing up some of that Prana. The Yama part already holds good.