Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is garnering once-in-a-lifetime reviews, but the thought of reading it makes me weary. While I don’t doubt that Boo has tried to write about Mumbai’s slums in contemporary and consciously non-stereotypical ways, it doesn’t change the fact that this is yet another first-world story on those damn Mumbai slums.
In this mulish resistance to “poor India” being served to me on foreign silver, I’ve discovered something about myself. While first-world artists seem to be fixated on India’s exotic poverty, I’m equally fixated on ignoring the slums and shanties, on forgetting them, on instead marketing those aspects of India that make me proud: our tiger economy (admittedly currently meowing), our cricketing successes, our array of cuisines, etc. Because as self-appointed defender of India, I need to keep myself convinced of India’s shine.
Yup, defender. Self-appointed from the day I first arrived in London, as a student, and then again from my first day in New York City.
How melodramatic that sounds, and I confess that I usually receive nothing more teasing about India than jokes on funny head-shakes or sing-song South Indian accents. Very occasionally I’ll hear, “You’re from India? But your English is so good!” Initially, this confused me (should I feel honoured? mention the shelves of English literature I’ve had to study?), but now I retort, “So is yours!” which ends the matter.
Most of this is given and received in the spirit of friendly banter about India. There are two exceptions, however, that make me pop out all my quills (“en garde!”) like a quivering, enraged porcupine. The frst occurs whenever I write or speak about the split between poor and rich India, and am asked, albeit well-meaningly, by someone from a first-world audience if this is due to “India’s caste system?” The second concerns Indian emigrants – of whom, more in a moment.
Allegedly, the caste system in India dates back to 1200 B.C., when people were slotted into four groups: the Brahmin (people of the mind – scholars, priests, etc.), Kshatriya (people of governance – warriors, landlords, etc.), Vaishnav (people of trade – merchants, money lenders, etc.), and Shudra (serving the four other classes). Others, too lowly to classify, were stigmatised as “Untouchables.”
I shall be quick to point out, as always, that debate persists about whether British colonialists enforced a stricter-than-before adherence to the caste system to weaken India’s unity. The rifs created by caste deepened with each generation and, over the two centuries of British interference in India, created regions of extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
However, the British were ousted sixty-fve years ago, and the caste system abolished. While modern India still grapples with wide income inequality, isn’t the same true of most, particularly developing, nations? Attributing India’s every problem to “the caste system” seems convenient but is as anachronistic as attributing the U.S.A.’s every problem to “the slave trade.” While the grooves created when slavery was dragged out of America may still exist, current discussion on the inequality between black and white communities is sensibly linked to quantifiable rates of unemployment, crime, etc.
Additionally, most young, urban Indians haven’t encountered terms like Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishnav, or Shudra outside of our primary school history textbooks. My mother forced my family to criss-cross India as travellers (“You should know your own country before you begin jetting off abroad!”) but in all the cities and corners we visited, we never witnessed any example of a “caste system.” I have never been told if I, or anyone I know, belong to one of the original four castes. (Not that I wouldn’t love to know. I’d hope to be a Brahmin and date a Kshatriya and make friends with lots of generous Vaishnavs.)
In fact, I grew up assigning a completely diferent meaning to the term “caste.” India’s big cities – Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore et al. – are magnets for people from every state within India, and we city-dwellers use the word “caste” to refer to someone’s home state – you’re Punjabi if your family was originally from Punjab, Gujarati if from Gujarat, Marwari if from Rajasthan, etc. Because these metropolises host such an eclectic mix of Indians, humorous ribbing abounds: Punjabis are stuck-up, Gujaratis always talk loudly, Marwaris are stingy, etc. However, if this is a caste system, it is one of foolproof equality, since no one escapes being made the occasional butt of a joke. We discriminate, but indiscriminately.
Thus, to have the historically nasty and currently outdated “caste system” thrust upon me whenever I mention inequality in India makes me bristle.
The second annoyance stems from a source that surprised me: Indian emigrants. These emigrants lived in India until adulthood, then left, as they unanimously and doggedly believe, for greener pastures. Their children, my university friends, were born and raised abroad and are called the “first generation.”
My great aunt in London is an Indian emigrant who left Mumbai in 1965. The first time she came back to visit, in 2001, she gifed us rolls of toilet paper. The ancient loos of her day used to require washing with water, and she was convinced that, decades later, none of us had awoken to the early-morning joys of a dry, papery swipe up the butt. She remembers 20th-century Mumbai and is determined to fnd it in 21st-century Mumbai, no matter how vastly things have changed.
I was reminded of my great aunt while visiting the homes of my first-generation friends in London. Their emigrant parents greeted me, and fellow Indian students, with a mixture of warm welcomes, hot food, condescending pity (“India’s corruption, oh god”) and wariness.
“Wariness” is a strange addition to the list, and I didn’t recognise it immediately. It lurked behind my friends’ mothers’ demeanours as they served us coagulated dal (lentils) and thick-ish rotis (flat bread). It fitted across their faces when they offered sweets, mithai, which we’d politely accept and nod, “Mmm, nice, as good as what you get in India.”
An attempt to explain. Tough Indian emigrants pooh-pooh at flawed India, they graft all Indian rituals – shopping at Indian grocery stores, cooking Indian food, celebrating Indian festivals – onto their lifestyles abroad. But their imported India lacks the spice and heat of the original: Indian food doesn’t taste as good without its authentic ingredients (foreign mithai is ofen cooked with water and food colour, instead of traditional cream and saffron) and Indian clothing abroad seems like cheap pop-music compared to the luxe symphonies of fabric, taste and workmanship that are created in India.
To complain about life in India, the emigrants needed to display their superior, relocated lives, but inviting us Indian students to their homes meant making us privy to their inferior, imported Indian-ness. Perhaps the “wariness” I sensed was their desire to impress and their fear of being called out. As Indian kids, we were as smart and as well travelled as their own children, we came from equally comfortable homes, we knew a richer India than they did, and we wouldn’t receive their tut-tuts on the “conditions in India, oh dear” without telltale flashes in our eyes.
The moment Indian emigrants began to deploy their old-fashioned opinions to criticise modern India, my defence mechanisms would spring up: impossible to conduct business due to red-tape (no, start-ups are mushrooming all over India), abysmal standards of living (you have to cook and clean in your spare time, we hire help), British shopping ofers unparalleled variety (Indian shopping ofers unparalleled value-for-money).
Indian emigrants’ haughtiness toward India seems to have two sources. First, most emigrants left an India of the past, and return only as occasional tourists to the India of the present. Their complaints about India, as well as their rosy nostalgia for it, are often outdated – India changes year by year, for better and for worse. The second reason might be their unhappy experience of India while they lived there.
Consider: it would be irrational for families in India who are rich, with successful businesses, to drop everything and move elsewhere. Their children may study abroad, for the raucous undergraduate experience, the prestigious degree and a few years of half-hearted work experience, but they ultimately return to Mumbai. These business heirs have teams of maids-cooks-chaufeurs, respected family names, free reign over their careers – why would they leave?
If the richest don’t migrate, by default it must be lower1 ranks of wealth that produce emigrants. As first-class passengers might praise an airline’s service more heartily than economy passengers would, emigrants might view their homeland more critically than others would. Identical lands may seem desert or Arcadia depending on the heaviness of one’s pocket.
I’m scraping together these reasons for emigrants’ attitudes towards India, but I’m not oblivious to the connection I share with them. We have the same goal and similarly stubborn emotions – just as I need to focus on India’s strengths and accomplishments to vindicate it, to justify my Indian-ness, they must be reassured by criticisms of India which vindicate their decision to leave, which justify their immigrant-ness.
Unlike their parents and us Indian students, first-generation-ers have never lived in India, have never had to confront, and come to terms with, India’s dualities: infuriating, shameful lows of female infanticide, sex crimes et al., with triumphant progress in private business and tier-II and III cities. No, the first-generation-ers are adorable – they watch Bollywood, and they love India.
Neither hail nor snow nor next-day assignments will keep them from attending every Bollywood dance night or talent show. Samosas, cold or squashed, dosas, drooping or soggy, will be devoured. Holi, the Indian festival where everyone flings water and coloured powder on each other, will be played out in soaking splendour amidst the icy, disobliging gusts of March. They revel in their Indian-ness with such ferocity that I’m ofen left wondering if they’re not more Indian than I am.
During my first year in London, I attended a student-run Navratri celebration at a Russell Square hotel. In Mumbai, this celebration involves dancing to loud, often raunchy folk songs. I arrived late at the hotel and was surprised to hear no music pounding the walls – then shocked to walk into the banquet hall and see an elaborate puja, a prayer ceremony, in progress.
The huge number of attendees were sitting obediently in a big circle on the foor, cross-legged, hands joined in prayer and eyes turned devotionally towards the centre of the circle, where four British-Indian girls had been hand-picked to conduct the puja. The girls were, with immense gravity, burning incense and ringing little hand-held bells. They sang hymns, so passionately and so incorrectly, that I almost laughed out loud, though their earnestness would have made my grandmother clutch these four nymphs to her chest and vow to adopt them and teach them still. When the music eventually began, I discovered that the attendees were as dedicated to dancing as they had been to praying, and the night resulted in unexpected good fun.
First-generation zest for all things Indian is amusing and invariably contagious. Occasionally, there is mild jousting between Indian students and first-generation-ers, both riding their egos, tilting lances of authenticity. Indian students sometimes take exception to first-generation-ers who claim to be India’s all-in-one experts: recently, my friend from Mumbai and her Indian-American roommate argued heatedly over whether dosas are more like crepes or like burritos.
I, too, may accuse first-generation-ers of possessing limited knowledge of India, but I fall off my high horse more frequently than I stay on. When I speak broadly of “India,” I am made acutely aware of my own limited knowledge of a country with 1.2 billion people, 28 states and 7 union territories, 22 scheduled languages and thousands of dialects, and with always, always two halves to consider – the rich India and the poor India. As its self-proclaimed ambassador abroad, am I representing all of India, or just my home city and one-of-its-kind metropolis, Mumbai?
Peering at India through Mumbai is like peering at all of the U.S.A. through New York City – what you thought was a telescope is actually a kaleidoscope. Mumbai teems with so many microcosms2 that any generalisations of India can be supported or negated by picking the right group; the rest of the country remains an out of focus blur.
Since defending India sets me on edge, and I doubt if a homogenous “India” even exists, why do I do it? Why do I feel the need to champion this nation through its weekly controversies?
There is a part of my brain – air-conditioned, with sanitised metallic surfaces – that chooses to play no part in my role as India’s protector. It questions, in a cool, disinterested voice, “You know that millennia ago, all the land on Earth was joined together; chunks broke off and floated away to become the continents we have now. Why should the accident that found your ancestors on the landmass called the Indian subcontinent dictate your blind attachment to that piece of land now? Why fght for a country? What can a country do for you?”
I’ve carefully cultivated that voice, fed it some literature and philosophy, and I should listen to it. At university, I’ve actively sought exposure to foreign cultures, choosing not to spend my time in comfortable familiarity with other Indian students. I want to be global, a woman without a land, but it takes one comment – on the Commonwealth Games, telecom auctions, retrospective tax, rape – to instantly launch my counter-rant on Incredible India. Why?
First, and most selfshly, I recognise that I’m defending myself. If you think India is corrupt, I want you to know that I’m not. If you think that Indians speak with strong, guttural accents, I want you to know that I don’t. When this is my sole motivation, I’m not so much defending my country as distancing myself from its shenanigans.
The second reason is more generous – a desire to justify the decisions of those I love. When face-to-face with Indian emigrants, I want to fght for my parents’ decision to lead their entire lives in India, to justify my childhood in Mumbai, to confrm that I had as many opportunities and rewards as any child from foreign shores.
But there’s a third reason, and though I’m trying to ignore it, it won’t stop smiling at me.
I think, for some godforsaken reason, I love India. With its bad governments and potholed roads and tax evaders, I love the place. With its comically bumbling airport staff and keenly intelligent scientists, I love the place. With its whiskey-soaked gulab jamuns and its uniquely sweet alphonso mangoes, I love the place. With its street food I should never eat and always do, with its inching traffic jams that put everyone in the car on familial terms, with its smelly loos and snooty malls, damn it, I realise I love the place.
I want to be more rational and open-minded about nationality, about cumbersome identities we’re born with because of dotted borders on maps. But explain that to the goosebumps that stand to attention on my skin when I see India win an Olympic medal, when our athletes victoriously drape the tricolour around their necks, when the Indian national anthem floats through the TV – “jaya, jaya, jaya, jaya he.”
The term sounds so old-fashioned, reserved for partisan wars and French gentlemen with moustaches who attend secret meetings, but, after four years spent abroad, I’m think I’ve become, against all judgment and desire, a patriot.
The next time I read of territorial disputes, of fighting for one’s homeland, maybe I won’t be so quick to huff that the world should be borderless, fluid and open – I’ll remember that I’m a little porcupine, huffy and patriotic.
1. Not the lowest. Relocation requires some capital.
2. Carter Road, where teenagers ride along the seaside in pimped-out vehicles, cuddling and eating frozen yoghurt; Worli Seaface, where middle-aged “aunties and uncles” squeeze themselves into workout gear and jog with looks of resigned suffering; Juhu Beach, where boys from the neighbouring slums play cricket, where a group of Nigerians living nearby play football, where tourists from the rest of India come to gawk at the sunset and eat ice-cream; Versova, where wannabe TV actors and starlets slouch on cofee shop couches, waiting for a “break;” BKC, where the richest industrialists and banks have erected gleaming, green-or-blue glass buildings to house their thousands of employees; Malad, Lokhandwala, Andheri, JVPD, Santacruz, Bandra, Chembur, Dadar, Prabhadevi, Lower Parel – and this list can still only claim to be a sampling of Mumbai.