Sunday, July 21, 2013

“When I was in the US….”

Let me point out something which is particularly and peculiarly Indian: the pre-occupation with going to the United States of America (“the US” in Indian parlance), or, having returned from either a short trip or a few months / years tenure, to try and make that fact the relevant pivot of every conversation.

There are Indians everywhere, in almost every country of the world. I’ve never heard of anyone speak with quite the same fervour, or intersperse every conversation with “When I was in Kazakhstan / Nigeria / Cambodia” the same way as they say “When I was in the US…”

 Let me run you through some examples: Mr Bhattacharya has just returned from a 6-month trip to North America. I say North America, because Mr Bhattacharya went to Canada and Mexico also, with his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, who’re based in New Jersey. So, I ask Mr Bhattacharya when he visits: “Good evening sir, would you like a cup of tea?” To which he promptly responds, “When I was in the US, I hardly drank any tea. We always drank coffee.” The collective ‘we’ could mean just Mr Bhattacharya, his family, the neighbourhood, or presumably all of ‘the US…’ I don’t know if ‘we’ in Canada and Mexico only drink coffee, or coffee and tea. 

Then there’s IT guy (cliché, I know), who’s just returned from a 3-month posting to Denver. A man of mixed Tamilian and Bengali parentage, he’s been abroad before, even spending 3 months in Japan. Now he has an accent, a propensity to speak with a nasal twang and rolls his ‘Rs’. We had lunch yesterday: “God I miss idli sam-burrr. When I was in the US, I just couldn’t get good idli sam-burrr.” He didn’t share any insights about the idli sambhar in Japan, sadly.

Then there are people I know of in real life, who’ve probably spent a year or two in the United States of America, but have been back in India for over a decade, who still force the accent. An example is Ash Chandler, who claims to be a comedian. His accent is funny, I’ll grant him that.

 For a nation whose people have collectively been subjected to repression and austerity, more out of the need to subsist on a pittance more than anything else, such a fascination is understandable, especially since the contrast is so stark. It amuses me every time when I accompany relatives who’re visiting from ‘the US’ who insist on paying in ‘daall-urrs’ at every little ethnic wear shop they visit. Of course, carting back salwar-kameez and chikan embroidered kurta-pyjamas for all and sundry is mandatory, especially since you “don’t get this kind of stuff in the US”, not so cheaply, of course.

I did a quick Wikipedia search, and it turns out that the United States of America is more than twice the size of India. Which means it’s a very big country indeed. Its history may be recent, but it has great cities, large industry and is blessed with plentiful natural resources. But I for one refuse to believe that such a large, seemingly bounteous land would be homogenous, such that people who live 3,000 kilometres apart, still refer to it as though it’s one small place, which it obviously isn’t. Just like Delhi is not the same as Chennai, or Indore is not the same as Srinagar, I refuse to believe that New York would be similar to San Francisco, or that Chicago and Denver are one and the same. I’ve met just the one family who tells me sincerely about the local food they ate while they lived there, or about the music and culture of the cities they travelled to. I wish more Indians did so too.

However, what amused me certainly, were two columns I read in yesterday’s edition of Mint Lounge. One was by a lady called Shoba Narayan rambling on a bit about shoes, her daughter’s first salary and Nirupa Roy. The column tries to link a child’s first salary with a parent’s benevolence and the teary-eyed mother perfected by Nirupa Roy, (which Narayan is definitely not). Somewhere, she digresses to feminism and stilletos, or ‘fuck-me’ shoes because “you could wear them to bed, but not to walk”, to quote Germaine Greer. However, even Narayan, a seasoned columnist couldn’t resist: “So last week, I took out the two pairs of high heels that I bought in a rash shopping spree in the US last year.” Wouldn’t have ‘rash shopping spree’ sufficed?
Next page, there’s Samar Halarnkar’s column on food. While mulling Eid feasts, India’s fast-reducing communal harmony and fondly remembering an indulgent Muslim lady who fed him to bursting, he suddenly intersperses a nicely crafted column with: “I have made Biryani only once before – in 1993, in the heart of Missouri, the American Midwest – “ Of course, Halarnkar had to give a full geographic description, lest anyone struggle to gather which place he was referring to. Area-wise, Missouri is a state just a little bit smaller than Halarnkar’s own Karnataka. If you must know, Halarnkar’s recipe for the day wasn’t even biryani, but the anecdote did establish the fact that he was ‘in the US’ for some point in time.

I haven’t been to ‘the US’ yet, but I plan to. I’ve read so much about the food, from turtles and crayfish to hot dogs and monstrous beef steaks. I’d love to see some bears and mountain lions in the wild, hike through some part of the Grand Canyon, sail down the Mississippi, visit the Smithsonian museum and take a picture atop the Empire State Building. Much of this sounds clichéd, I know, but I want to travel that wonderful country the only way it deserves to be seen – by road. Maybe when I’m back, I’ll regale you with stories, beginning with “When I was in the US…”