Reflections on Indianness from an Indian abroad
CY Gopinath | 25 Mar, 2012
Reflections on Indianness from an Indian abroad
“We have no difficulty with Indians, they’re just like Thais,” gushed Mr Maneechote, who was helping us move house from one Bangkok lane to another. “They speak our language, they respect our customs, and they are kind, generous and gentle. It’s the Chinese we have trouble with.”
Sometimes you have to tell a lie if you want to hear a truth. “Me, personally,” I said, “I have some difficulty with these so-called Thai Indians. They are a discredit to their country. I find them arrogant and greedy.”
Something in Mr Maneechote’s eyes changed as it dawned on him that it might be safe to open up a little. “We have a saying in Thailand,” he said, leaning forward. “We say, if you see a snake and an Indian,” he dropped his voice, “kill the Indian first.” His smile remained courteous and pleasant.
I suppose an Indian living in India would hardly give a moment’s thought to how others see him, surrounded as he is by people who share his many failings. But for 12 years now I have been an alien Indian, living in other people’s countries as a guest with a renewable departure date, and I have developed all kinds of sensitivities. Since 2000, when I moved to take up employment and residence in Kenya, Africa, the implications of Indianness have been a theme in my thinking. Of my two children, one has spent no more than her first seven months in India, and the other his first three years. Their nationality, prescribed by the citizenship on their passport, is theoretical to them. Other than the over-colourful and hyperbolic India of Bollywood, they have no clue what being Indian means.
The embarrassing thing is, neither do I. The urban India I see on my annual visits home neither reassures me nor makes me particularly proud. I sometimes recognise familiar strains of a slower music from a more reflective older country that I grew up in, but the new one seems in too much of a hurry, too greedy, too self-centred, not at all tolerant. And the answer that slips away each time is to the question: how should I explain to my children what it means to be Indian?
If I were to look for answers in all that I have heard said about my fellow countrymen in my 12 years away from India, both from foreigners and from persons of Indian origin, then Indians—
» Get rich wherever they go. And then they corrupt;
» Regard any working system as a challenge;
» Are incredibly racist;
» Believe they have nothing to learn. They come to speak, not listen;
» Are rough, unclean, indisciplined—
unless there’s a penalty for it.
Let’s look at each in turn. The single most consummate criminal mastermind in Kenya was a businessmen of Indian origin, Kamlesh Pattni. During the 1990s, Pattni persuaded the government of President Daniel arap Moi to engage him in a massive money-laundering scheme in which he exported non-existent diamonds to Europe in return for guaranteed premium fees from the government. Over $600 million were reportedly siphoned off by the so-called Goldenberg scheme, but an unofficial estimate is that the Kenyan economy lost about 10 per cent of its GDP over those years. Pattni had paid off the entire government, from its very highest levels down to the judiciary, making any investigation impossible. When Mwai Kibaki’s government came to power, the details of the Goldenberg case finally emerged into the open. Pattni cannily converted to Christianity and changed his name to Paul in a flamboyant baptism ceremony, and then demanded to know how any human court could try him when Jesus himself had forgiven him his trespasses. To no one’s surprise, Pattni was never convicted. He had gamed the system so thoroughly that it crawled under a chair and hid when it saw him.
The subversion and corruption of a working system is a nearly genetically inherited skill for us. The Indian version of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is probably ‘If it ain’t broke, go ahead and break it’. An Indian learns through gruelling experience that every certificate, licence, no-objection letter, form, approval, endorsement and visa has a price. Every process is made deliberately tedious so that someone may invent a lucrative shortcut—consider the Tatkal scheme where you pay a surcharge for slightly faster processing because glacial is the real normal. The Indian hates waiting in line like the rest of the masses when with just a little affluence or influence, he can slip in through the side door.
In Kenya, knowing I worked for an American agency, several Indian traders made typically Indian overtures. One would send a calendar and sweets at Diwali, followed by a visit and clumsy request to throw some work his way. I tried to explain that the donor—the United States Agency for International Development—was very strict about due process and integrity, which earned me a look of frank disbelief. Surely, he seemed to be saying, I would know a way around the paperwork? “Kuch karo, yaar,” he said, unable to believe that there could be an Indian who didn’t know how to game the system. I suddenly understood what he was saying: we are both Indians among these Black strangers, who will help us if we don’t help each other?
Living in both Nairobi and then Bangkok, I grew accustomed to hearing locals of Indian origin belittling Kenyans and Thais, both people for whom I have much regard and affection. “Yeh kaale log…” was the usual beginning of a sentence on its way to putting down a Black Kenyan. Indians, both visiting and resident, talk of Thais as though they were giggling idiots of an inferior race. And yet, Thais manage their Bangkok a thousand times more effectively than Indians manage their Mumbai or Bangalore. In every respect—transportation, civic organisation, amenities, garbage disposal, services—Thais accomplish effortlessly what, say, the Maharashtra government has proven itself utterly incapable of time and again. There is new construction everywhere, but Bangkok somehow manages to keep its dust down. There is food everywhere, but you will hardly see a fly. There are cars and buses everywhere, but you will not see impatience or hear angry cars honking. You will see people in a hurry, but no one jostling anyone.
I have made a list of things Thais do better than we:
» They keep nooks and crannies clean. The Indian is a 95 percenter, leaving the last few details of any job undone. The Thai is a 100 percenter, staying with the details until every last one has been dealt with. Proof: the layers of grime on the hard-to-reach upper surfaces of the tubes leading into the subway at Victoria Terminus. Proof: the edges where paving stones touch the kerb in our cities, never aligned, completed by careless contractors in a hurry to submit their invoices. Our cities are testimonies to the fact that we don’t give a damn in daily life, and it’s the first impression Incredible India offers visitors stepping off planes. My daughter calls it ‘the India smell’, the peculiar odour of Phenol and musty carpets that greets you at Mumbai airport as you step off your plane.
» They respect each other in daily life. Beyond a shadow of doubt, Indians have stopped doing that. The urban Indian lives daily life in a state of barely suppressed road rage, and the violent honking of horns on every road is only one manifestation of that. Interruptions of any kind ignite instant anger; nothing is tolerated that could come between today’s Indian and the success and wealth that awaits him. Thais, on the other hand, never forsake courtesy, even in dire crises. Last October, with their cities submerged 20 feet deep in floodwaters, all their belongings drowned or swept away and no food even for infants, no Thai, however bereft or hungry, made a display of impatience or greed when boats with survival rations rowed up. It is the same spirit the world noticed in Japan after last year’s quake, a quality of grace and thoughtfulness in crises that seems to have deserted the Indian temperament, whether they live outside India or within it.
» They do not view other people’s mishaps as money-making opportunities. A friend of mine visiting Thailand last month lost her husband to a massive heart attack at 2 am in a hotel in Bangkok. She was paralysed with grief, and I found myself dealing on her behalf with the Thai government, bureaucracy, police, hospitals, airlines and embalmers, trying to get clearances, autopsies, certificates, and so on. In the space of 12 hours, I dealt with a morgue for an autopsy; a police station to file a report; the District office to get a death certificate; an embalmer; and an airline to get clearance to ship the body. Amazingly, every document my friend needed was in her hands within 12 hours. No bribes were sought; every system worked as advertised; all human beings were courteous, efficient, and friendly, even though hardly any spoke English.
I do not believe Thailand is a virtuous paradise with no corruption in daily life; policemen pocket payoffs from motorists just like in India. But I have yet to see an individual in power squeeze money out of someone else’s misfortune or grief. I remember the story of Murtuza, a boy hanging out of a train who was knocked off by a trackside telephone pole and then cut in two by the train’s wheels a few hundred yards from Sion station, Mumbai. I covered the story for Mid Day in 1996, and remember one grisly detail—Murtuza’s severed legs could not be found at Sion hospital. The morgue attendant claimed they might have been ‘misplaced’ or could perhaps be found in a garbage dump. His parents had to bribe the attendant a few hundred rupees to get their son’s limbs back.
In my more ruthlessly introspective moments, I wonder if I am an automatic racist just by being Indian. For example, I found Kenyans in general less competent in work, unable to follow management systems, and hopeless at reports, while Americans I worked with seemed more engaged with development, more dynamic, more eager to see change. How much of my assessment was linked to skin colour and race? Little, I now believe. By the time I left Nairobi for Bangkok, I had begun seeing Kenyans and Americans differently, both flawed and both promising, both merely human.
Are Indians promising? What is the promise? More and more I suspect, they are the wise ones who forgot their wisdom and became strutting bullies. Take the case of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, better known as SAARC. As the behemoth of the Subcontinent, India is a natural power centre and could easily play big brother and mentor to its smaller neighbours such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The fact that it chooses instead to be a bully, railroading meetings, and neutralising important discussions by simply absenting itself has made it an uphill task to get SAARC off the ground. Officials at the United Nations, aware that without India’s nod nothing can move in the region, bash their heads against the wall from the sheer frustration of trying to engage with the high-handed Indian bureaucracy. I once facilitated a South Asian meeting on gender-based violence, where the Indian delegation yawned with barely concealed boredom as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and other countries humbly spoke of their efforts and creativity in working with violent men. Then the Indian delegates held forth on India’s own amazing achievements.
Which brings me back to my son and my burning question: how do I explain to him what being Indian means? We were waiting at the spotless platform of Bangkok’s skytrain, when with a sudden increase in ambient noise, a troupe of a dozen or so Indian salesmen, freshly freed from a sales conference, scrambled up the escalator. They’re young, full of hormones, ready for blood, and masters of all they surveyed. Three Thai girls waiting with us discreetly moved further away; after a decent interval, so did we.
The train arrived, packed wall-to-wall with human bodies. No one waiting on the platform even considered trying to get in—except the ratpack of Indians. Entering Churchgate mode, they began darting up and down the platform, shouting to each other as they spied openings and footholds. As we watched, 12 of my countrymen disappeared like a biology lab trick into a train that could not possibly have held more. The few Thais on the platform waiting patiently for the next train said nothing.
And in that damning silence, my son and I wondered who we really were.
The author can be reached by email at email@example.com and his website is www.cygopinath.com