On the whole, we’re a warm and hospitable bunch of people. Whether it’s a Sardar taxi driver in New York or a village woman living in a mud hut in Kutch, no stranger need fear that he’ll be dealing with an inscrutable oriental. There is, however, the flip side of the coin. We are loud and noisy, a trait that we share with other Asians, except perhaps that we’re a bit louder and noisier than most other nations. We are also extremely inquisitive. “Are you married?” “How many children do you have?” “What! No children! Why ever not? Have you been to see a doctor?” You may like to think that it’s only a certain class of person who asks simplistic questions like these, because that’s the way their socio-economic class is predicated: when a girl is of marriageable age (18 is not too young), she is married off to the highest bidder. If, after 9 months, there’s no trip to the maternity home, eyebrows are raised and lips are pursed.
As a food critic, I am in touch with several dozen restaurant owners. Because of sky-rocketing real estate prices in New Delhi, you can’t be a middle class restaurateur: even the cheapest restaurant costs seven figures, and the number of restaurants costing eight figures is increasingly common. I may not be asked whether I am married and have children by restaurateurs, but to a man, they’ll want to know how their competitor is doing, how much rent he is really paying (“I’ve heard he is paying Rs 4 lakh plus a month. Is it true?”) and how many tables were occupied on my last visit there. It’s no good saying that I really have no idea about his deal with his landlord – nobody has ever believed me, and I am too weary by now to repeat that I am a food critic, not a rent critic!
Then, maybe it’s a Delhi thing because we are close to the Corridors of Power, or maybe it’s because North Indians have spent the last few millennia chasing out foreign invaders, but name dropping is something of a national pastime. “I told Suhel last night” or “Robert and I were at this great party” is all it takes to establish your credentials. It doesn’t matter if you’re an airhead or worse, unsuccessful at every thing you’ve ever tried in your life: what counts are the names you can drop.
But, if you really want to know the bad points about Indians, why take my word for it? Just go to any wedding banquet buffet and see the jostling that takes place. Then, compare it to free food that is distributed in front of any place of worship. One is attended by every socialite and her uncle in town; the other by pavement dwellers, but the frenzy to get there first is still the same. Why? Could it be because as a third world nation, our collective unconscious still remembers the famines of a bygone era?
Nothing puts the perspective of national character in place like foreign travel. My abiding memory of Switzerland is, no not the image of the glittering peak of Mt. Jungfrau from 200 metres away from the café where I sat, but the memory of a highway crammed with cars (crammed relative to Switzerland’s traffic, not to India’s). There was an accident up ahead and suddenly we heard the wail of an ambulance siren. To a man, every car stopped where it was and turned to an angle of 45 degrees to allow the ambulance right of way. Would it ever happen here?
Then, there’s the memory of lush Swiss countryside with farms growing strawberries and tomatoes. Dotting them were little trestle tables with signs saying “one punnet of strawberries for Swiss Francs 10”. The amazing thing was that there was nobody manning the tables. Passersby who wanted a punnet just helped themselves to one, left their money in a box and drove off.
And what is my most abiding memory of China? Not the Great Wall for sure. It is the sight of a road construction worker in Shanghai who was engaged in laying kerbstones on a pavement in a particularly trendy part of town. Was he looking at the display of mini-skirted legs all around him? Was he taking a cigarette and tea break? Was he at least working as if his work was sheer drudgery? None of these things. He was doing something that I haven’t seen in India: he was completely absorbed with the task at hand, and kept looking at the kerbstone he had just laid, from all angles to make sure it was aligned just right. He looked like he was enjoying his job immensely.
The other memory of China – and the other countries I’ve visited – is never getting a reply to a friendly wave and smile to anyone who looks like an Indian. I’ve tried this many times, in many countries and all I’ve ever got is a frown before the other person looks quickly away. It’s probably because we’re a naturally suspicious race. And of what are we suspicious? Nothing in particular and everything in general. See how an Indian shopkeeper eats his lunch in his shop. He’ll make sure no one can see him, even if he has to sit on the ground facing a grimy wall to do so. See the same thing in just about any other country, including other Asian countries, and you’ll see what I mean.
I’ve been out driving with wealthy friends in Delhi who drive the latest sedans. Down go their windows and out pops an empty bottle of mineral water. I’ve been too embarrassed to tell them not to litter the streets. They’re not my social equals – they’re my social superiors and they travel abroad far oftener than I. So, do they litter the streets of Sydney with empty packets of crisps? Chances are that they don’t, which makes it all the more puzzling. If they know that littering is wrong, why do they do it in their own country? And if they are in the habit of littering, why don’t they do it when they are overseas?
Could the answer be: Because we are like that only?