Precious little, on first examination. Not the national language, Hindi. Not any specific attire. Because our genes are the same, the product of several thousand years in this sub-continental melting pot. We share languages, traditions, cuisine. What then identifies the Indian? We should step outside ourselves for a while to ask, how does the world see Indians? How far are we from the standard shibboleths of mysticism and spirituality and exoticism? In the American media (what, is there any other kind?! You mean there’s folks out there Who. Don’t. Get. Fawx. TeeVeeee?!) the standard Indian is a nerd. Apu in The Simpsons and Raj Patel at Riverdale High. The software geeks who are “taking our jobs to
In Britain, where Patel may soon be the most common surname (indeed the most common Indian name across the world, from gas stations on Mid-western highways to pulp and insurance magnates in Kenya), India is sadly equated with balti cuisine and Bollywood rap. For the Japanese,
Much has been made of Messrs. Mittal and Ambani, their pre-eminence among plutocrats and their conspicuous consumption. About how
I could trade it all for evenings like the one I spent in a village in
We were visiting learning centres set up under a scheme for functional literacy that employed volunteers. The teacher at the centre was a field labourer who had had to drop out of school after the 5th grade. This man, with a family of 9 to feed, gave hours of his time every evening so that his fellow villagers could learn to read and write. And insisted that we share his dinner before we left. Puffed rice, jaggery cakes and tender coconut water from his own yard. Simple fare that I remember 15 years later because the unthinking hospitality with which it was offered brooked no refusal.
Hospitality. To paraphrase O. Henry, they will pour their larder into you before they pour their lead.
At the height of the Khalistan movement, a friend in the police met some of the most feared insurgents. He shook his head in wonderment as he recounted their first offer – Duddh shuddh piyo jee, “have some hot milk”. Kashmir in 1990, the Valley in flames after the shooting of Ishfaq Wani, when a waiter murmured a warning in my ear as we sat down to dinner in the Circuit House. But in the same breath, apologised for the meagre fare during the month of fasting.
This can border on the farcical. On election duty in Sangroor in
The tradition of hospitality is not limited by
Hospitality. In the simplest form, placing humanity above the self.