Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Educating Rajan

“It’s fo’lō, not fōl’o,” my well-meaning better half corrected me for what must be the nth time. It is not as if she takes great pleasure (or pride) in picking nits in my pronunciation; it is just that like any self-respecting wife, she prefers her husband’s diction to be nothing short of perfect.

The first time she corrected me, I must have blushed, if that were possible for a brown-skinned Indian. That was over thirty years back. I do not blush any more, because my children, schooled in English-medium institutions, too pick holes in the way I say ‘laugh’ or ‘easy’ or ‘is’. Instead of making me blush, it sets me thinking.

Blushed I must have because in my younger days I used to have the severe inferiority complex a small-town guy is apt to suffer from. My colleagues were all refined metro-citizens (This was much before the expression 'metrosexual' was coined by Mark Simpson) who knew how to eat, how to speak, how to dress. I must confess that their inputs as well as those of my wife have contributed to what I am today. How far they have succeeded, I do not know. And I shall never know, because not everybody is as well-meaning as my wife.

It is not at all difficult for me to visualise a situation where people I rub shoulders with may people comment: “Did you see how he was using his fingers to eat? How messy, na?” Or, worse still: “Didn’t he look as if he is just out of the zoo?” Or maybe this: “I was trying so hard to control my laughter every time he said ‘economist’. Weird!” They might not mention a thing to me about my flawed accent, but laugh they would within their sleeves and suppress a chuckle or exchange knowing smiles.

Ok, so I was saying how my wife’s comment set me thinking. The point is, we are all Indians, and irrespective of the state we belong to, we have certain things in common. We all use our hands to eat. And, traditionally, we are also used to eating sitting on the floor. We usually speak our mother tongue at home, which is not English. We all have our traditional outfits – the kurta-dhoti and the saree being common to most cultures.

The two-century old British rule, however, created a class of people that was socially British but culturally Indian. Their table manners, for example, were that of the Sahibs (the British); but the attire of their womenfolk was thoroughly Indian: could you imagine a respectable Indian woman wearing a frock? These people were called the Brown Sahibs. Example? The ICS-wallahs from India, who go for morning walks wearing white shorts and canvas shoes, a swagger-stick in hand, called the ‘Haw-haw-Sahebs’ by a cynical friend because their loud resounding laugh goes ‘Haw! Haw!!’

After the British left our shores, they became the rulers; and soon after a class was formed that aspired to be the Brown Sahib. That’s the class most of us belong to — the Dark Brown Sahib.
While the Brown Sahib was the prisoner of circumstance, the Dark Brown Sahib is the prisoner of attitude. While the Brown Sahib was loyal to the British, the Dark Brown Sahib has gone a step forward: he worships the white skin of any nationality. So when a Frenchman speaks English with a French accent, they find it cute. But when a Malayali or a Bihari speaks English with an accent, he is considered a bumpkin and becomes the butt of jokes.

If a British expat wears a Fab India kurta and a dhoti to work, you are likely to find him cool, but an Indian won’t wear a dhoti even when he is out shopping. When a German diplomat refers to the Father of the Nation as ‘Gaa-n-di’, you consider it a given. When a French girl misprounces the name of Amitabh Bachchan, we are willing to make allowances, we even find it cute; but if an Indian woman says ‘Albert Kam-us’ instead of ‘Albe’r Kamyoo’ or ‘Ver-sace’ instead of ‘Ver-satchi’, she forfeits her right to be admitted to high society!

And can you imagine an Italian girl admonishing her boyfriend for not having heard of the samosa and imli-ka-chutney or avalose-unda and kuzhalappam or dhokla or luchi-maangsho? But you can imagine the plight of an Indian man who loudly wonders what spaghetti is when he is taken to an Italian restaurant (in India) by his collaborator. Should the winds of globalisation blow only from the West?

At times I really think of joining English-speaking classes, apart from going to the Alliance Francais du Trivandrum to learn a bit of French or signing up for German classes. And maybe enroll in an etiquette class too. But… wait a minute: won’t I be killing many birds with one stone by going to a skin-grafting clinic instead, a la Michael Jackson?

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