On a not so warm summers day I got on a train to Lisse. I was going to meet a few friends at the stunning flower drenched gardens of Keukenhof, located in a small town in the Netherlands. I’ve never been a big fan of the flowers but this Dutch garden, the largest in the world, impressed even me. Which is why I was going back for a second time with my daughter. She was excited too, probably more at the promise of a purchase of a tulip shaped sucking lolly, but I digress.
As we passed the ticket counter and headed towards the cafe, I spotted some friends and we all got a table together -thinking that a nice hot cup of something might be just the thing, to start the day’s journey of flower adoration.
Close to our table sat an Indian couple. They were unmistakably Indian. They were both dressed in jeans and a T.shirt with a thick jumper worn over, but in addition to this she was wearing a pair of bright pink earrings and a necklace, which contrasted nicely with the black of her wooly jumper.
One of my friends, lets call her girl # 1 sniggered. “Oh – God, will you look at those two” she said. “Actually, don’t its a sight for sore eyes” So of course we all turned to look and everyone burst out laughing. “Looks like they just got here from Sowcarpet” said girl number two. ”Sowcarpet’ being a not so trendy area in the metropolis of Chennai, in Southern India. Perhaps they heard us or perhaps this was just coincidence but very soon after, the couple stood up and left the cafe. This resulted in even louder squeals of laughter and ill concealed grunts from the girls. Girl # 3 was wiping away tears of laughter at this point while she said “I just love it, get all this way from India but you can’t get away from the goddamn Madrasi accent” and the rest of our coffee time was spent poking fun of this couple, and how badly dressed they were and how they couldn’t even speak english and why couldn’t Indian people learn how to groom themselves properly and a host of other things in this vein.
What was my reaction to all of this one might wonder. Did I challenge their point of view or stand up for this quite and unassuming couple from India ? Perhaps from Chennai or who knows where from, India as you know is a very large country. This couple who were just going about their day, minding their own business yet somehow managed to provoked such a hostile and critical reaction in their fellow countrymen.
I am ashamed to say I didn’t really, or if I did it wasn’t expressed as forcefully as my reaction to it was. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach but I couldn’t find the words to express how disgusted and distasteful I found this form of classism. For that is what it is. But I didn’t have the right words or thoughts to articulate myself at the time. This is a little game we middle class Indians love participating in. The tearing down and ridiculing of those less fortunate than us. The mocking of Indians who don’t speak with as good a diction or as polished as accent as ourselves. The countless number of Indians who didn’t have the privilege to go to a fancy private school, their every whim and fancy taken care of. A distancing of the self from such utterly stupendous ill bred, ill mannered people. An embarrassment that they could be related to us in any way. An unconscious thought that’s sometimes not so unconscious – What will these cool, trendy white European people think? That I am like them? The same as them ? I am not. I am most certainly not.
My daughter has a book. It’s a series actually. It’s called – That’s not my frog, That’s not my Princess, That’s not my teddy-bear, so on and so forth. The book which is beautifully illustrated begins with a descriptions of all the things the princess, frog or teddy bear is not – Too soft, too squishy, too shinny until you turn the last page and there it is. The perfect frog, princess and teddy-bear which the child can identify with and claim is his. Just the right, perfect one.
Our conversation reminded me of that book. That’s not my Indian, she doesn’t look cool, he can’t articulate and enunciate words in a neutral English accent , She wears a dot on their forehead – even after traveling all these thousands of miles, still smells mildly of coconut oil and something else – an unmistakable Indian smell. They laugh and heave and sigh until they can finally spot the people they can call their Indians. You know, the trendy ones, who wear branded clothes and have nicely shaped eyebrows and spangled nails, the ones who fit in anywhere and everywhere and can sound and think and feel more European than any European ever can.
I am older now and hopefully a little wiser. I’ve grown better at standing up for myself and saying no to the things I find distasteful and disturbing, particularly discrimination. I would like to think if a similar situation arose I would say what I felt without holding anything back.
There are people who have the ability to recognize and be thankful for their many privileges and then in turn want to do something to help make things better, make the playing field more equal. So we can all have a chance, to reach our potential, shine and find our spot in the world. People who don’t fixate on the external qualities that are easily discernible, but can dig a little deeper to find something more meaningful and of value. That person – is exactly my kind of Indian.