My sense of shame in being an Indian in front of foreigners has somewhat changed over time.
When I was younger, I used to be very bothered whenever I saw people begging, pestering a visitor at the traffic intersection and of course, the sight of people defecating in full public view.
These sights do not put me to shame anymore.
I have come to terms with the underlying causes that make my countrymen beg, bother foreigners near touristic places or live in squalor next to heritage sites and five star hotels.
When people do not have a roof above their heads and everyday is a matter of survival for the majority, what use is my shame?
I am deeply aware that every civilization must progress on its own terms, in its own time. There are no short cuts to uplifting more than half of a country with 1.2 billion people into a developed state. I have done my own bit towards that cause, and I will continue to do what I can, but in my lifetime it is very unlikely that there will be no beggars on the street, or that people will stop relieving themselves in public view, or that I will see the vanishing of squalor that co-exists with the sometimes ugly opulence in our cities. So, these days, when I am with a visitor from overseas, I am not ashamed any longer with the sights, smells and sounds of India.
But last week, I held my head in shame–deep shame–and this happened in a small University town in Germany.
I had been invited there to speak at a student event. Along with my wife Susmita, I had arrived the day before, and we were touched by the affection and hospitality of the students and the faculty. During the dinner that night, we had told our student hosts Paul and Leo that if ever they came to India, they must stay at our home so that we could return some of their hospitality. Because our two daughters left home a long time back, we live in Bangalore all by ourselves, and love hosting young people from around the world.
That was the night before.
The next day, when the student event actually began, my talk was preceded by one from an Indian gentleman based in Germany; he runs the German operation of a family-owned Indian conglomerate that is a household name in India. The gentleman has been in Europe for a long time, and has evidently done well for himself.
He started his presentation titled “The Indian Mind”. It was a medley of Internet jokes customized for India, a bunch of PowerPoint slides that frequently spam all of us depicting the greatness of ancient India, and a bunch of cartoons that depicted the so-called “the Indian way”. There was also a short movie that contrasted Germans and Indians based on cultural generalization. Finally, he delivered his own take on what Indians are supposedly like.
The presentation opened with the macabre picture of a skull with a dollar sign stuffed inside it.
The narrative to match this dramatic, if disturbing, image went something like this:
An Indian went to see a banker in Manhattan. He wanted a $100 loan; he was willing to pay any amount of interest, and offered his Porsche as collateral. After taking the loan from the flummoxed banker, he went off to India on a month long vacation. When he came back, he promptly returned the $100 along with the interest of $20 and reclaimed his car. When the banker asked him to explain this puzzling behavior, our man proudly said, “Where else in Manhattan could I park my car for an entire month for all of $20?”
The two hundred or so young German students laughed at the joke.
Then came slide after slide on the glory that once was India: Aryabhatta to Charaka, he depicted the story of zero to the fact once upon a time, India had invented chess. He told the audience how we had figured out gravity before Newton did, and the concept of inter-Galactic travel before anyone else.
The audience sat in awe.
Then he switched over to a film clip that sought to contrast the past with the present.
His film clip showed Indian legislators break chairs, throw footwear at each other, and not stopping there, break their microphones to hurl missiles at each other until blood flowed from the injured, and finally some law makers were seen taking cover under their tables.
The German students were now bewildered and I started to feel uncomfortable sitting in their midst. But then I told myself, maybe the truth must be told and this is important knowledge about India that the 200 future leaders must know. And why not? As I gulped down my discomfort, more Internet jokes followed.
One was about corruption and inefficiency.
A man supposedly went to Hell only to find that there were regional options available down there. There was this American Hell that offered a hundred lashes. Next to it, he found the German Hell that offered a choice between an electric chair and fifty lashes. The man moved on to check out the Indian Hell and finally settled for it. Why?
In the Indian Hell, there were power-cuts so the electric chair did not work and the person in charge of lashing sinners simply took his salary and never came to work!
The students laughed some. That was indeed funny!
Then he went on to tell the next Internet joke.
Americans had invited international bids to build a fence around the White House. An American and a German firm that submitted bids had taken careful measurements and then they had quoted $700 and $1200 respectively for the work. Then there was the Indian firm that took no measurements and simply quoted $2700. The bewildered decision-maker called in the Indian bidder and asked him to explain. “How can you quote such a high price when you have not even taken measurements?”, he asked. Our man replied with supreme confidence, “I do not need to take measurements. I will pay you a thousand and take a thousand and we will sub-contract the work to the lowest bidder.”
Then our presenter showed a short film contrasting how Germans and Indians thought of the idea of forming a queue – the Germans fell into instant orderliness and formed a single file but Indians pushed around, and broke the line as soon as one was formed. Then he showed a German parking a car, and how an Indian does it, and a few other such things including how Indian bureaucracy and politics differ from that of the Germans.
Everyone in the audience was getting the message.
At this point, he returned from the movie to slides.
With dramatic flourish, he showed a picture of a bucket full of crabs.
“This picture was taken on an Indian beach while I was with a friend from Germany. He was curious to know why the crabs were not escaping the bucket. I said, ‘Let us call the fisherman and ask him’. The fisherman listened to the question and told us, ‘These are Indian crabs. When one tries to get out, the others simply pull him down’. ”
Oh well, never mind if you have heard a dozen variations of the same joke.
Now the attention of the students was beginning to wane a little bit. So, he came to the end of his presentation on India.
He had a slide that said Indians liked to receive (and, thankfully, also give) presents.
And then he went on to hold aloft his magnum opus, a slide that prophetically read:
“Indians do not mean what they say
and do not say what they mean”
It required a story to explain.
So, he narrated how a group of Germans were once called home for dinner by an Indian. The Germans being Germans took the invitation seriously and actually showed up only to find an unprepared host who opened the door in his pajamas. The message was clear. Do not take Indians at face value.
My mind turned to the dinnertime conversation the previous night, and I wondered what Paul and Leo were now thinking about our invitation to come stay with us when they visited Bangalore!
Finally, the man gloriously wound up, saying that despite all this, India was one of the fastest growing economies in which if anyone chose to put in his money, it was bound to fetch a great return.
The audience clapped and then everyone took a fifteen minute break.
I headed to the toilet.
There was a long queue.
Suddenly a young German student in the queue, unaware that I was behind him, did a mock drill of breaking the line to form what he called an “Indian Queue”.
I was the only Indian there, and I had only my countryman to thank for the ignominy.
I had to wait until that afternoon for my talk, and when done with that, we returned to our hotel.
The next day, one of the student organizers came over to drive us to Frankfurt in a rental car so that we could leave for the US from there.
While driving on the Autobahn, unfortunately, the car drove over some object and its two left wheels burst. We pulled over, and, after counting our blessings for what did not happen, called for help. After probably an hour, another student organizer reached us and we switched over to his car. The first student had to stay with the damaged car, waiting for a tow-truck to arrive.
Soon we were on our way.
The entire episode had shaken everybody, but thank God, no one was hurt. Nonetheless, many plans had gone haywire. We were all past our lunch time by the time the second car had arrived. So when we finally reached our hotel in Frankfurt, we invited our young friend to join us for lunch since he too had missed his, and was to now drive all the way back to his University town. When Susmita asked him to park his car and come into the hotel to have lunch with us, he responded spontaneously, and without any malice, “The German way or the Indian?”
We tried to laugh off the repartee, but deep inside I felt hurt where once upon a time, I used to feel shame.
Poor Susmita started convincing him that we really wanted him to have lunch before he drove back, and of course, he joined us, but I wonder how on earth we were to change the newfound knowledge on India that was now deeply imprinted in 199 other young minds because an Indian in a position of authority had so convincingly delivered the message that we do not mean what we say and don’t say what we mean.
I can deal with my poor, uneducated, disheveled countrymen back home, begging at traffic intersections, troubling foreigners, living in squalor and defecating in public view, and behaving in a thousand other unacceptable ways.
But I have difficulty when the educated, the well-to-do, the ones who have everything going for them, mentally defecate, trying to impress the world at the cost of their own country.
After lunch, when the young man was finally on his way and Koblenz was behind us, I thought of the idea of motherland.
The word “Motherland” evoked the image of my mother.
In that moment I wondered if there is anyone in the whole world who thinks that his mother is not beautiful.
Worse, is there anyone who actually tells the world that his mother is an ugly woman?