Browner Than Brown
Blush I did not because in my younger days I have had girlfriends who tried their best to transform the small-town guy — that is me — into a refined metro-citizen. How to eat, how to speak, how to dress — their inputs have contributed to who 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 colleague.
It is not at all difficult to visualise a situation where I have just left a Page-3 party after rubbing shoulders with the who’s who of my city, and people commenting: “Did you notice that? He was using his fingers to eat. How messy, na?” Or: “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’.”
Ok, so I was saying how my colleague’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 and the saree being common to most cultures. We all force-feed our guests. We bend backwards to help people (try losing your way and there will be half-a-dozen people giving you directions, at times competing with each other for accuracy).
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. 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 Brown Brown Sahib.
While the Brown Sahib was the prisoner of circumstance, the Brown Brown Sahib is the prisoner of attitude. While the Brown Sahib was loyal to the British, the Brown 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 German 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 French woman mispronounces an Indian name, you consider it given, even cute; but if an Indian woman says ‘Kam-us’ instead of ‘Kamoo’ or ‘Ver-sace’ instead of ‘Ver-sachi’, 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? But you can imagine the plight of an Indian man who loudly wonders what pasta is when he is taken to an Italian restaurant (in India) by his girlfriend. Should the winds of globalisation flow only from the West?
At times I really think of joining English-speaking classes, apart from signing up for French classes, and also going to the Max Mueller Bhavan to learn a bit of German. And maybe enroll in an etiquette class too. 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?