Thursday, July 31, 2014

Other Tongue Blues

I’m always rather stumped when I have to fill out a form which asks me for my “mother tongue”. I have to resist writing “overworked” there. I also reflect fondly back on the boy in school who earnestly wrote “pink”.

Perhaps his confusion is quite reflective of what a handful of us feel. India with its gazillion languages, dialects and sub-dialects is mind-boggling to the unfamiliar ear. We drove the British out, kept their trousers, massacred their language and cried with indignation when they put tomato ketchup in Chicken Tikka Masala and called it their national dish.

And yet, in that melee, there were a few who chose to retain the English language as it was meant to be. A small motley group of people who know English to be their “mother tongue” – Wikipedia numbers this group to be about 225,000.

I’m one. I’m related to about 5 others and friends with a couple more. I don’t know where the rest have hidden themselves. A smart move since times are tough and circumstances are unwelcoming for Anglophones.

It’s equally frustrating to have to explain to an astonished foreigner and a gawping Indian that you've grown up speaking only English, your family communicates only in English (yes, even the grandparents and so on), you think in English and you struggle with vernacular languages because your brain is far slower than Google Translate on Internet Explorer on a dial-up internet connection. Yes, people like us exist. Yes, we’re Indian. Yes, this is our normal. And no, we do not think we’re better than everyone else.

An ex, an Englishman, was awestruck that I spoke as fluently as I did.

“Your vocabulary is even better than mine,” he exclaimed rather patronizingly.

“Why shouldn't it be?” I shot back. “My family is great with language, I went to a good school and I read a whole lot more than you do.”

“Well, yeah,” he acknowledged, “but, you know, you’re Indian.”

When he emailed a friend of his back in the UK telling him about his Indian girlfriend and that she “speaks only English”, the friend replied: “Did you mean she speaks no English?”

Say, how do you tell someone to fuck off in smoke signals? Or should I just tom-tom that on my Indian drum?

While travelling overseas, it’s somewhat insulting to be told I don’t sound like an Indian. Who are these Indians they've heard before? Ranjeet Singh in “Mind Your Language”? Call centre employees?

It’s no easier back home. My dad often tells of the times he and his brother were mockingly called “East India Company” for conversing fluently in English. My other ex - the loser Ducky - and his family tried to enforce their mother tongue on me and then rolled over and played the damaged victims when I dared voice my protest (yes, in English). A friend was told by a stranger to “Go back to England” when she got into a fender bender and tried to sort the matter out in English rather than the local language.

Anglophones are always given a really hard time. If you speak in English, they'll accuse you of being supercilious. If you try to speak a vernacular, they’ll mimic and mock your “anglicised accent”. If you shut up entirely, the men will call you shy and the women will label you snooty.

You can’t apply for several English-based teaching/writing jobs abroad because being Indian means you’re automatically not a “native speaker of English”. Even China’s “White is Right” policy means it prefers English teachers who are blond-haired, blue-eyed Westerners, particularly Americans, with pitiable grammar. We can’t seem to catch a break and it’s only getting worse.

There’s this sudden upsurge in enforcing the local language of the state on everybody. Our Prime Minister insists he will speak only Hindi while our state Chief Minister insists he will not look at any official documentation unless it is in Kannada. How they will ever work together is beyond me. But then, they’re politicians. Politicians don’t make anything work. They’re fluent in Stupidity.

There’s this ad on television currently which has a bunch of people lowering flags with English alphabets on them and raising flags with various alphabets in vernacular languages on them. Wouldn't it just be simpler to put in additional flagpoles instead and let the little English alphabets be? It’s sad. It’s very representative of what is happening in the country today.

We brag about our all-encompassing culture and yet curb one language for the sake of the other. We boast of a Constitution that grants citizens the freedom of speech but impose language restrictions on that speech. Hypocrisy is an unofficial language here and we're freakishly fluent in it.

We need to stop thinking of English as a foreign language. It may not be as old as some of our other Indian languages. But it still has considerable historical significance and has even evolved to include several words of Indian origin. English isn't foreign anymore. It was planted along with tea and coffee by the British. Yet we rant against this "foreign language", abhorring it over steaming cups of "chai" and "kaapi" and hailing our PM's humble origins as a "chai wallah".

That's something our pro-Hindi PM and mother-tongue enforcing politicians should think about as they slip into their trousers, don their foreign sunglasses and scoot off in their Morris-inspired cars to lecture people on language.

I’m all for preserving ancient languages and all that, but when you shove your mother tongue down my throat, I gag. In English.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Words Unspoken

"In the world of diplomacy, some things are better left unsaid." Luckily, I can blog them.

I’d like to think that I have the gift of the gab. I certainly hope to God I do because I haven’t much else. (I have whined about this before. *Click*) To put it mildly: When talent was being distributed, I completely missed the memo and was most likely doing something pointless like foraging for goji berries.

Therefore, to bolster some semblance of self-worth, I tell myself I possess a glib tongue. Of course, this is a pretty useless thing to possess and has, on occasion upon joyous occasion, utterly failed me. I was afflicted by social paralysis. It is possible that my heightened sense of diplomacy and love for keeping the peace overrides what I ought to have said in response to certain obnoxious individuals I have had the misfortune to encounter.

So, without further ado, I present my shortlist of unfounded accusations hurled at me by half-wits and the responses I wish I’d mustered enough courage to actually give:

"You're shallow."

Na-ah! I’m not shallow. On a scale of bottle cap to Indian Ocean, I’d rank around the depth of a hospital bed pan. I’d say that's pretty good considering the amount of poop I to have to put up with.

"People hesitate to approach you."

Hell, yeah, if they’re selling weed or their grandsons, sometimes their weed-smoking grandsons. People may hesitate to approach me but they sure as hell have no problems in reproaching me. Isn't that a good thing…for them?

"You hate our parties."

That’s because you use the term "party" loosely. What you should aptly be calling it is a "coma inducing night of Bingo/Tambola with a crowd of septuagenarians". Then I wouldn't hate your parties. I'd simply avoid them. Oh, wait. I did!

"There’s no such thing as a 50-50 relationship. It’s 60-40 at best. Women must compromise 200%." 

Ooh, look who finally woke up! Rip Van Winkle. You've been asleep the last couple of centuries. Not to worry, you didn't miss much. Just a couple of tiny, insignificant things like the atom bomb, a vaccine for small pox and, oh, yeah, WOMEN'S LIB.

"Your blog has no journalistic excellence."

That’s why it's a blog, not The Wall Street Journal. Duh.

"You suck."

Yeah, you’re right. Glad we can agree on something.

Okay, so that last one I might have actually said. And it isn't even clever. Sigh. Yep, I suck.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Here a Quack, There a Quack

My first ever report card, issued at the end of my first term in school, read: “She is an asset to the school.” The word “asset” boggled my young brain and I asked my mother what it meant. “It means ‘little donkey’,” said my mother and I never doubted her for a second. I wasn't even hurt because I believed this to be true of myself.

Birth order is said to play a huge role in psychological development and I’d be a fabulous case study for that theory. As the second born and youngest in the family – I lost that race to my brother by a narrow margin of six years - I quite naturally assumed the role of imbecile. Everyone has a natural tendency to tell the youngest what to do and how to do things. Decades later, nothing has changed.

Indian society is fascinatingly mired in the belief that seniority is the only criterion one needs to be able to play advisor to anybody younger. It doesn't matter what the issue may be – irritable bowels, financial woes, marital strife, ingrown toenails…

And since I was born into the role of the little ass, I seem to attract counsel – wise and otherwise – from just about everybody. No word of a lie, I don’t even step on the weighing scales at the gym anymore. I just walk in and some podgy woman who can’t stop belching each time she stretches tells me whether I've gained or lost weight. If she's feeling really generous, she'll even tell me exactly where that weight has appeared or disappeared. One particularly charming elderly gentleman told me I ought to “do exercises to grow taller” as only then could I “get a good life partner”. He was really tall so I presume his wife struck gold in his eyes. Imagine his shock when he walked out the gym and realised it was the 21st century, riddled with emancipated women.

These self-professed counsellors are everywhere and if you are lucky enough to have that neon sign above your head that reads “space between my ears for rent”, you will receive innumerable perils pearls of wisdom. I don’t know why the West makes such a fuss over therapists and shrinks and all that mental health jazz. Please, people, just come to India. We have pro-bono counsellors crawling out of the woodwork. No appointments. No venues. The counsellor is omnipresent and omnipotent. The world is your couch.

There was this fad where people would do crash courses in “counselling” and then scour the world for last-born children, younger people, the unmarried, the childless by choice, non-vegetarians, non-engineers and other such non compos mentis individuals to “counsel”. There must have been a mark on my front door for I entertained a fair number of these dubiously certified shrinks.

My split with my ex, for instance, brought them hammering at my door, eager for glory – to be the one that patched up the ill-fated relationship and saved the day (I’m not sure for whom). Considering that that relationship itself was born of ill advice, it was but fitting that it should end with bad counselling too.

You know how you’re supposed to go to a counsellor of your own free will and volition and talk to them with complete privacy? Yeah, we did away with all those formalities. May be the crash course crashed before it covered that part. I remember being cornered on a couch at home while my concerned folks looked sombrely on. The self-appointed counsellor gazed at me solemnly. I wasn't entirely sure this wasn't some sort of exorcism. Looking at me intently, she cleared her throat and in a stage whisper asked her first question: “So tell me, BB, why is it that you think you’re better than everybody else?”

I had to bite my tongue to stop from hollering, “Because I am? Ha!” The sarcasm would have been wasted. (Rapport building – 0, defensiveness building– 1). At least one thing’s for certain: my report card from society is never going to read “she is an asset” any time soon. As far as they are concerned, the “little donkey” is now a full-fledged ass. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

What Is This Platonic Nonsense?

If you want to test the intelligence of a dog, throw a dish towel over his head and see how long it takes him to shake it off. If you want to test the genuine progressiveness of an Indian Baby Boomer, throw platonic friendship at them and see how they deal with it – they’ll either lap it up quite normally, spring away from it in absolute horror or chew on it a while and then spit it out in complete confusion. Judge accordingly.

I've been regaled by stories of suspicious parents of women in particular. They’re constantly eyeing up the male classmate or colleague who turns up at their doorstep to hang out with the daughter much too often. There’s a definite stiffening of stance and wiggling of nose when a certain male name crops up in general conversation more than twice. An alertness creeps into the eyes when a male pronoun is mentioned. It's almost endearing that they’re so oblivious to the fact that their progeny has caught on but chooses to carry on anyway, turning a deaf ear to the tell-tale higher pitch in the parental voice as they report to another blood relative about “some colleague of hers” or “some friend” with a knowing emphasis.

This general perceived acceptance of platonic friendships is convenient to those parents in denial, unwilling to accept that their homely, domesticated, convent-educated daughter could be so bold as to be in a *gasp* relationship with a boy *double gasp*. I had the misfortune of being seated next to one such mother on a bus. She proceeded to tell me, unwilling listener as I was, minute details about her two daughters. One had been an absolute letdown to the entire family, having brought much shame to her mother for marrying a man of her choice and, horror above all horrors, not from the same community. Ooh, taboo, taboo. I clucked my tongue and pretended to feel her shame and pain.

The younger daughter was clearly her mother’s favourite. Her mother painstakingly listed out all of her myriad achievements, including marrying a “very good boy” from within the community. She then hastened to assure me that it was not an arranged match. “We are very open-minded, you know,” she gushed and I looked downright impressed. “This boy was a very good friend of hers, okay. They were friends for many, many years. They were JUST FRIENDS, okay? Just friends. There was nothing more because she is not THAT type of a girl. We told her, ‘Why not you marry him only? He is the perfect boy.’” I nodded sympathetically, concealing my amusement. “So she agreed and he also agreed and now they are very happily married!” she cooed, clapping her hands happily as I dabbed my teary eyes. 

Because that’s what truly platonic friends do, right? They leap at the opportunity to marry each other without so much as a second thought. Unfortunately for Bus Aunty, I knew the girl in question. And I also knew that she’d been seeing the guy quietly for a long while, slowly getting her folks - adherents to the arranged marriage norm - to envision him as the perfect boy. It helped that he was from the same community unlike her harlot sister.

I frowned on the girl for ruining it for the rest of us. Platonic friendships seem to be a more modern, urban phenomenon seeing as we’re a culture that is rather zealous about gender segregation, arranged marriages, female chastity, women of virtue and whatnot. The concept does not quite sit well with a lot of the older generation.

All this marrying of “just friends” business does not bode well for the rest of us who are genuinely just friends. It’s gone and muddied the pristine waters of platonic friendships. All the self-professed “progressive, open-minded” Baby Boomers think it’s perfectly okay to coax us into settling down with our good friends. Very little credit is given to our intelligence – if we thought the person was perfect for us, wouldn't we have embarked on a romantic relationship in the first place? Oh, no. The Baby Boomers are certain the scales will fall from our eyes only when they point it out. By the same token, I've seen people shake their heads in absolute consternation as they mull couples who have split or divorced and yet remain the best of buddies. “If they are such friends, why did they split?” they marvel, trying to wrap their heads around it.

I remember being asked why I hadn't hooked up with my friend Krazy Frog. At that suggestion, Krazy Frog looked like he’d smelled something really rank while I collapsed into peals of laughter at the absurdity of the notion. How could I possibly explain to someone daft enough to make such a suggestion that what I had in my heart for Krazy Frog was exactly what I had for my gal pal KO without sounding vaguely bisexual? I couldn't bring myself to form those really corny words “He is like my brother” which women from very traditional backgrounds would use to vehemently deny any sort of romantic relationship that would sully their good reputations.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for settling down with someone who is your best friend. It’s the best kind of relationship to be in. But there’s got to be some sort of “spark”, a romantic interest, thrown into that mix of friendship and perfect togetherness. Call it chemistry or attraction or whatever. It just seems completely wrong to settle for someone you’re great friends with but feel absolutely no “spark” for. Sparks do not ignite magically later.

Oh, as a footnote, anyone reading this who is thinking of turning down some arranged prospective groom with the line “Oh, we could be just friends but that’s about it” because there isn't a socially acceptable enough reason to say "No", please don’t. You’re playing right into their wily matchmaking hands because that is the perfect basis to arrange a marriage. "All that spark-shark, love-shove nonsense will come later," they’ll say. Trust me, it doesn't. It may have “come” 50 years ago, or something like it blossomed at least. It doesn't “come” anymore. Why settle for the cheap imitation?

My blood relatives thought they’d hit pay dirt with me when I reconnected with a childhood buddy and then proceeded to be good friends with him for several years. Knowing how terribly fond I was of Jatin (not his real name) and vice versa, they figured it’d be easy to convince us to throw a couple of garlands around each other and settle down to wedded bliss. Imagine their disappointment when I snickered every time it was suggested, balking at the very thought of being his missus. I was at a loss to explain to them how it didn't work that way. Yes, I was very fond of him (and still am) but the thought of marrying him made me want to retch.

I hung up the telephone after one such call, rebuffing a relative who figured it’d be a brilliant match. Chuckling I told my mother what had been suggested before breaking into laughter. "Ha ha ha!" she chimed along. "Yuck! I had to say it’d be like settling down with Scion," I shuddered, still amused and making a mental note to mention this to Jatin so we could giggle over it. "Ha ha ha!" said my mother. I joined her at the table and we proceeded into five minutes of silence - me shoveling food into my mouth, while she contemplated the table.

Finally, she looked up. Her expression was deadly serious. Very somberly, she asked, "But why not Jatin? Is it because-- is it because he is..." Her eyes widened in the certainty that she’d hit on the very painful truth and struggled to bring herself to finally say it: "Is it because he's bald?"

Gobsmacked, I sighed and gave up. Progressive Baby Boomers seem to agree on a number of things, among them: Lal Bahadur Shastri being the best prime minister, Sean Connery as Bond, reusing disposable containers and plastic cutlery, the reversibility of platonic friendships and, apparently, my complete and utter shallowness of being.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Kecak, Kecak

Bali was never on my bucket list of places to visit. I’d always dismissed it as too touristy and commercial. It only made matters worse that it seems to be all the rage with non-imaginative honeymooners. However, with flight fares and visa norms being conducive, it seemed like an ideal getaway for a few days. Besides, with some good research, I knew I could ferret out some quieter, non-touristy areas to explore.

Of course, there are certain traditions that a traveler must experience. I’d shied away from the long list of temple tours – as a non-practising Hindu, I didn't fancy my trip being turned into a pilgrimage. Nonetheless, since some of the temples – for instance, Tanah Lot or Uluwatu – are located in absolutely picturesque locations, I decided to grasp the nettle and pay a visit. It was well worth my while.

Views from Tanah Lot & Uluwatu (Click to Enlarge)
For one, I noticed that despite a lot of the Balinese people being more ummm, well…vociferous about their religion and castes than in urban India, their temples are wonderfully more open, welcoming, tolerant and less greedy than a lot of ours. While Tanah Lot didn’t impose any restrictions at all – I even saw tourists sauntering around in the main temple area with their shoes on – Uluwatu provided bright purple sarongs, free of charge, for both men and women whose clothes did not cover their knees.

The peace and genuine piety was not lost on me as I flashed back to a horrific visit to the Jagannath Temple in Puri (Orissa, India). Here, the vile priests whacked us with fat wooden sticks and demanded money for their “blessings”, picked out anyone light-complexioned/in jeans/sharp-featured, asking them to prove they were Hindu before allowing them in. Dude, please. If I were giving out money to everyone who whacked me, my mother would have made the Forbes Rich List before I reached age 6.

My main interest in Uluwatu, nonetheless, was the famed Kecak fire dance - performed in an amphitheatre on a cliff at sunset. The view couldn't get any better – the sun splattering the sky in hues of yellow, orange and then pink and purple before sinking into the wide expanse of ocean. The organisers packed us in tighter than sardines – the amphitheater was crammed beyond capacity and at least an hour and a half before the show was to begin.

The audience squashed together (Click to enlarge)
I knew from my research that the Kecak dance involved a few dancers performing scenes from the Hindu mythological tale “Ramayana” to the tune of 70 men, dressed in checked cloth around their waists, percussively chanting “kecak”. They weren’t kidding about the “kecak” chanting. It continued for a good 15 minutes initially – I got worried that was all there was to it: Sitting there listening to men chant “kecak” while absorbing the sweat liberally rolling off your neighbour in the sweltering amphitheatre.

However, the dancers soon showed up. The story was easy to follow for anyone vaguely familiar with the Ramayana – take it from someone who, on occasion, has struggled to distinguish her Hanumans from her Ganeshas. Having the pamphlet with the various scenes outlined for reference was handy too. Hanuman (or “Hanoman” as he is known in Bali) clowned around with the audience for a bit – further reiterating how much easier the Balinese seem to be about religion than the Indian Hindu fundamentalists. The performance was engrossing, the kecak-ing never relenting for the entire duration.

The performance built up to a crescendo with Hanuman, his tail on fire, running amok and setting Lanka on fire. There was fire and sparks flying around dramatically in the middle of the arena at the end as the kecak-ing singers reached a frenzied crescendo and then called it a night.

The remaining embers were doused with water while the crowd posed with various dancers for pictures before quietly filing out into the balmy night; everyone’s ears still reverberating with that annoyingly addictive yet rhythmic gibber: kecak, kecak, kecak…..

Scenes from the Kecak Dance (Click to enlarge)
[Click here for a video of the Kecak dance at Uluwatu. Let me assure you it sounds far better in person.]