Friday, 31 January 2014

Does knowing English create a class barrier?

George Bernard Shaw said that England and America are two countries separated by a common language.

In India though, English, which is not such a common language everywhere, creates barriers.

When you arrive in England, you realise knowing English just means it is easi..."er" to communicate, but it doesn't automatically place you in an elite group of people, who share a different aspiration in life, whereas in India it does.

My brother had related a story to me, about the conversation which followed when he reached his lodge, where he was staying in Patna while he studied in Science College. The conversation was with his lodgemate (if that makes sense), who was not from an English medium school,  and it was after brother dear reached the lodge, having watched the blockbuster Deewar.

Lodgemate: Humko to nahi samajh me aayegi?

Brother: Kyun? Deewar kyun nahi samajh me aayegi?

Lodgemate: The War...English hogi na?

Apparently he had concluded that my brother must only watch English movies!

Similarly I have watched people (friends, relatives) become tongue tied in social interactions simply because they feel that the expectation is to speak in "farratedaar" English.

People start teaching their kids even before they are born and in the endeavour whole households seem to be speaking in English all the time and their need to speak in Hindi becomes confined to speaking to servants (a class apart). Don't know if it is true about other Metros but Deceptive Delhi, definitely.

I have been at the receiving end of this snobbish condescension, since the time I arrived in South Delhi to attend for the first time, a co educational school; from a little known small town in Bengal with oiled hair in braids, having hardly ever listened to any Western Music, having no sense of fashion whatsoever (I realise that hasn't changed at all since those early school years) and having just my tenth marks as my claim to fame.

I soon learnt about painful and painstaking measures of female grooming which are now deemed essential, started listening to Sunday requests on the radio,  became aware of the fine balance of "come hither" and "get lost" looks pretty girls gave to chasing boys. And yet, I still feel judged and inferior when face to face with a name dropping, designer clad, well heeled, articulate and fragrant member of homo sapiens- male or female!

Needless to say, I am sure I have been guilty too of making others feel this way. However, as I have grown older and wiser, I have come to realise what a load of rubbish "class" is. I am sure all of you read about the world famous violinist who played anonymously near a train station and nobody except pre-schoolers paid him any attention. I wonder if dogs listened, our dog was usually a good judge of character!

I remember as kids we used to have our favourite relatives, people who we were usually in awe of, people who were young; seemed smart, articulate, well dressed; people who smelt nice, told us stories and brought us gifts. Our parents always taught us to be grounded and therefore we also saw how my dad bathed and tended to a poor far off relative from the village, only because he was a distant cousin of mummy's, was sick and needed treatment. We were taught the basic values of courtesy, respect and care but...

When we grew up and when my parents wanted to go on bride hunting sprees for my brothers, I was the most vocal in saying we needed life partners who we could connect with, who we had a lot in "common" with, people who we had "got to know", people we could watch "English movies" with.

I was young, energetic, idealistic, eager to take on the world; the ways of which I now realise I had little idea about.

Being a migrant in an English speaking country is a great leveller too. I still can't sometimes understand the jokes going back and forth in the operating theatre. Culture, education and background...they can be used to create barriers when people choose to, but positive energy is able to dissipate most barriers

 The older and wiser me realises the essence of the words- "its the thought that counts". I have realised how the things which matter most are vibes, thoughts, actions which speak louder than words in any language. I realise how the simplest people can look so beautiful and all the designer clothes can't inspire the energy which a brave and loving person's actions can. I realise that you need to have nothing in common to be friends and certainly very little in common to be life partners and love does make the world go around!

Sunday, 19 January 2014


Earlier, living abroad meant festivals would come and go in blissful ignorance, as it would just be another working day. Unless there was a function organised over the preceding or following weekend by the Indian community, life (festivals) would just pass us by.

But with the advent of the Facebook and smartphones, one is very aware. Best wishes start pouring in from the day before, animations and cards followed by photographs and videos of the actual celebrations in the community or at home, in India and abroad; makes us all feel  a part of the festivals like never before.

Festivals have a special flavour in every region of India. Yes I would like to go to Brazil during their carnival, but nothing can beat the lure of Durga Puja in Kolkata, Dussehra in Mysore, Dahi Handi in Mumbai, Navratra Dandiya in Ahmedabad, Holi in Mathura (not so sure I would want to be there)....and probably many more.

On 14th January 2014, I saw pictures of the International and Local Kite festival as part of the celebration of Uttarayan in Ahmedabad (on Facebook). Beautiful and creatively crafted Kites of all shapes and sizes took to the sky amidst cries of "Kai Po Che". I learnt for the first time what the name of a very famous movie inspired by Chetan Bhagat's book, meant- A victory cry when the opponent's kite is cut! And of course all festivals have to have their share of some special cuisine, which is eaten together. 

For us as children, we always knew the menu at Nani's house on the day of a certain festival. So the night before Holi would mean a treat including Dhuskas- a savoury deep fried circular snack made from equal parts of semolina, gram flour and rice flour! We always knew whose mother would bake a cake for Christmas and also where the different types of sewai would come from at Eid and which Aunty would make Sondesh for Bijoya.

Just eating together was not enough, on Kartik Purnima, we as an extended family would eat on the terrace. Kheer or rice pudding with Puri was usually the menu and the Kheer was left uncovered to catch the amrit/ambrosia being shed by the moon that night. Did it make us immortally healthier? Emotionally and socially, I now realise festivals do have a role to play.

The people in England today are not religious, hence the only time street parties happen, people get together on the street, are for events like the Queen's 85th Birthday, the Olympics, the Fireworks at New Years and other charity events like Race for Life (Cancer Research) or closer home, the school fetes.

When Nani performed the Chhat Puja, we would be involved and would get up early to drive her to the little lake for the sun salutation in the water. It would be cold! The best part for us of course would be the special Thekuas made of jaggery and wholemeal flour.  But in later years, even if nobody in the house was actually performing the Chhat Puja, somebody in the neighbourhood or amongst family and friends would be and we would receive the Thekuas as Prasad.

What we took for granted when we were little, one longs for now. Hospital accommodation in NHS did allow for gatherings and exchange of Prasad and Sewai during important festivals of North and South India as well as during Eid (we had neighbours from Pakistan and Bangladesh at various points of time) but festivals like Christmas, New Years, Diwali and strangely even Valentine's day, especially in the Metros have become commercial exploits more than coming together of people and families.

All I remember about Raksha Bandhan or Diwali in Delhi (Mega festivals for the city) is the TRAFFIC!!!!!

Another unusual festival, I have had the fortune of being witness to was the display of Holika a day before Holi in Jabalpur. Jabalpur, my sasural is an interesting place, where snake charmers still walk the streets to get money on Nag Panchami. My husband, an artist at heart says he used to be involved in decorating Ma Durga's idol as much as the Tajia at Muharram, for his gali (street) as a young man. Coming back to Holika, who is burnt in bonfires there were many versions of her, I saw. One of the idols depicted her on a vegetable sellers thela, selling vegetables in a Maharashtrian sari whereas most were dressed in Western clothing- skirts, bikins, hot pants, shades.....artististc and religious licence or sculptor's fantasy?