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Saturday, June 21, 2008

(Published as "The Self-Created Oppressor of Colonised Mentality" in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express on 1st May, 2008)

Overheard at the Hanuman temple on Jakhoo Hill, Shimla:

"Aw, that's a pretty dog!"

"Handsome dog; he's a guy."


"Yes, yes. And very possessive of us, too."


"Yeah...he doesn't want other dogs near us. And he runs around after his girlfriends."


This conversation was between a foreign tourist and an Indian man walking his dog – she smiled encouragingly, enunciating his "bigger" words with a sort of fascination, while he seemed rather keen to show off his comfort with English to her.

While intellectual debate and international dialogue about subaltan cultures and empires writing back go on, I think the question we need to ask ourselves is: can four hundred years of colonisation work its way into our genes? Should generations born in independent India feel a sense of embarrassment with no cause at all? Why are all of us out to impress tourists, while they feel a sense of patronising goodwill towards us?

For a long time, the impression that "foreigners will spend money" has been imprinted on our minds. But with the MNC- and IT-driven corporate culture, and yuppies in sleek suits and designer clothing walking the streets, surely there should have been a revision of opinion? It is not only the foreigner who will spend money. And yet, when you're part of a group waiting at a food counter, chances are a tourist will be attended to first. The same holds for restaurants in deluxe hotels, and the attention given to visitors in hotel lobbies. Yet, the majority of Indians tip generously, sometimes more than a tourist wary of being swindled.

But what is more troubling is the attitude even the upper middle class of Indians, with their spending power, have. We seem to carry an inferiority complex in our blood – something that makes us a little more polite to foreigners than to our countrymen, something that makes us want to alter our accents mildly and prove to "them" we can speak the English language flawlessly, something that makes us consider tourists more polished than our Indian counterparts (while often, we're comparing foreign hippies with indigenous sophisticated corporate professionals) and something that will never allow us to be happy with the beautiful colouring of skin the tourists are, ironically, trying to achieve.

Over time, and in the absence of an active oppressor, we seem to have constructed an oppressor – a combination of western viewpoints and our own colonised mentality. Somehow, being acknowledged by a voice from the other side of the world means more than being appreciated by our own. While we review horror stories of racism exercised abroad, while we rally behind cricketers who might have flouted these norms, we practise our own breed of racism – directed against ourselves.

I can recall a dinner at a diplomat's house, where a lady told me I didn't speak like other Indians.

"Why, what do other Indians talk like?" I asked.

"Well, your English is good, and you're not rude," she answered, and then enunciated to a couple of Indians who worked with her, "you know, you people in-ter-rupt all the time. And you're agg-ress-ive. You can-not work by in-tim-id-at-ing people." The irony that she was wagging her finger as she said all this did not escape any of us, but none of us said a thing in response. A few hours later, I sat in my room and wondered: will we ever stand up for who we are? Will we stop empathising with a sad little nod, as if pitying poor cousins, when visitors to the country tell us Indians are rude? And will we ever tell them English is a first language to most of us when they slow down or speak broken English to communicate better with us?

That said, I do know one person who made an effort to "squash the coloniser within" as a friend of mine put it – my mother found a novel way of getting her own back. A tourist stopped her to ask for directions. He widened his eyes and said, with accompanying hand gestures, "G N Chetty Road enge?" – to which, she replied, after a pause, "ippadi neyraa poyi, valadhu pakkam thirumbi konjam dhooram nadandha ange irukku." (Translation: "If you go straight down this way, turn right and walk a bit of a distance, you'll find it there.") Apparently, the tourist gave her a blank look for a few seconds and then said apologetically, "uh...could you repeat that in English, please?"


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