Something that never ceases to amaze me is how single-mindedly insular large pockets of London’s NRI community can be. Not to mention confused and deluded. There’s more truth than one realises in the clichés about these people being stuck in a time warp.
I don’t usually need to look much further than my uncle and his social circle of rabid right-wingers. During my visit last year I was amused to see the dismayed response of this group to the news that a Congress-led government was coming to power in the home country. Some of us had gone for dinner to an Italian restaurant around the time it seemed certain Sonia Gandhi would become prime minister. There, my uncle clowned about with the unfortunate waiters. “You must be very happy-o,” he sing-songed, “now that an Italian-o is becoming prime minister-o of India-o?” The waiters grinned uncomprehendingly. It might have been possible to dismiss the whole thing as a joke (albeit a sad one) if it weren’t for the genuine angst in the conversation that followed, about this terrible thing the Indian voters had done in ejecting the BJP. “A foreigner becoming prime minister,” they shuddered. “What has gone wrong with the country we loved and left?”
And then, after dinner, this same bunch came back home and sat about until past 2 discussing a fund collection to help canvass for a gentleman (I forget his name) who was in the running to become London’s first mayor of Indian origin. Now while I appreciate that the role and responsibility of a PM is very different in scale from that of a mayor, there was a definite parallel here, and it was interesting that no one noticed the schism between what they were saying and what they were doing.
It’s difficult to understand how people like these – citizens of the world, people who have lived and worked in another country for years – can be so small-minded. Sure, they’ve probably all taken hard knocks, especially in the early years of their life here – faced racism, discrimination, loneliness. But on balance their adopted country has been very good to them – good enough for them to want to stay on for decades. One would think it would be easier for such people to look beyond the narrow domestic walls that Tagore lamented. Unfortunately, they seem more shut in than the rest of us.
When you’re bored of being parochial about your country, you can always turn to race or community instead. On the same trip, I was in a car with another uncle when he made an inadvertent wrong turn, causing a black driver to make angry questioning gestures as he passed us. For the next 10 minutes I was treated to a fuming dissection of the “negroid race”. “The trouble with these people is, they have small brains which can only accommodate a limited number of thoughts,” uncle said, speaking with all the force and authority of the 1864 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “They’re not civilised, like us.”
Last week, during my just-concluded visit, it was a time of much Gujarati-baiting by the Punjabis. To cut a long story short, earlier this year when my very-eligible cousin announced that he wanted to marry his girlfriend of many years, a girl from a Gujarati (and vegetarian) family well out of my uncle’s social circle, it caused more than a flutter. After weeks of emotional blackmail, threats and tears, the elders finally reconciled themselves to the fact that there was no stopping the young couple. To be fair, the wedding was a nicely organised affair with much bonhomie from both sides, especially when there were cameras in shooting distance. But within the groom’s father’s clique of friends and relatives, the “Gujju” jokes still haven’t stopped. I’d repeat some of them here, but everything else apart they aren’t very good jokes.
Our aarti can beat up your shlokas
I’ve never seen a more comical instance of religion being used as a tool of one-upmanship than at one point during the wedding ceremony. After most of the rituals had been concluded, the MC (yes yes, there was an MC!) announced that a lady would now recite some Jain shlokas for the benefit of the girl’s family. The recital lasted maybe a minute, during which time the guests on the bride’s side maintained a respectful silence, hands joined and heads bowed. But this threw my dear uncle into a frenzy. “If they can have their bloody Jain chants, we’ll have our Arya Samaj too!” he bawled, and next thing I knew after a quick conference between him and the MC, our entire side of the hall had risen as one and commenced singing “Om Jai Jagdish Hare” in robust Punjabi style.
It was loud and boorish, and it didn’t sound like a prayer at all. It sounded like defiance. Above all, it sounded like a counter-attack.
Update (a part-response to some of the comments on this post): One of the things I didn’t mention is how internally confused some of these people are, despite being such confident, swaggering types on the surface. While they do go on about Indian culture and traditions, when it suits them to they spend an almost equal amount of time extolling the “civilised” western way of doing things. For instance, one of them was lecturing someone else about how we must all be dressed in traditional Indian clothing for the main ceremony; but then, a mere 10 minutes later, he was holding forth on how the seating-arrangement system at formal functions in the UK was “the right way to do these things. Everyone has a fixed place with a name-tag. It isn’t like bloody India where if you want to talk to someone else on your table you can casually get up and change your seat”. Ha.