May 31, 2020
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That Cipher In The Mirror

Indians abroad instinctively feel they’re lower in the world’s racial, cultural, ethnic hierarchy than most peoples, except blacks.

That Cipher In The Mirror
Log kyaa kahenge?" What will people say? This phrase, this interrogative, is central to our psyche. We worry about very little, but when we do worry, it's usually about what others think of us. And when these others are The Other - the foreigner, the vilayati - our worry becomes most acute, almost unbearable. In this, as in many other things, we are quite unlike the Chinese. (As my late uncle Rajan used to observe, no two neighbours could be more different. Nothing illustrates better the supreme self-confidence of the Chinese, as well as the essential timidity of the Indian, than a comparison of our respective eating habits. "The Chinese," he would say, "look for any reason, any excuse, to eat another living creature - whether fish, fowl, beast or worm - even when it is obviously repulsive.

We Indians with our taboos, on the other hand, will look for every possible reason not to eat something - even when it’s obviously nutritious.") The Chinese don’t care at all about their image in the eyes of the foreigner. Indians, particularly the urban middle-classes, would appear to care about little else.

Obviously, this obsession with what foreigners think of us has its roots in our long history as a colonised people. We are accustomed to being measured by outsiders - so accustomed that we still believe the best yardstick is the foreign one, the best eye the foreign eye. We’ve been weak in the sciences of self-assessment. The "self-image" we’re most comfortable with is the one that’s assigned to us by others. (At a seemingly frivolous level, but in my view a complex one, we are now convinced that Indian women are the most beautiful in the world for Sushmita, Aishwarya, Diana and Yukta have won a quartet of international beauty contests. Before that, we were not quite sure our women had the measure of those half-dressed blondes in Baywatch. Hence the extraordinary headline in a recent story in The Times of India: "Fourth Crown in 6 Years Establishes India as Beauty Superpower.")

Self-image is a devilish thing. I had a drink with a friend from Delhi sometime ago. It was his first visit to New York (his first visit, in fact, to the US), and he was under the impression that most people had assumed that he was Hispanic - "I suppose a lot of people think I’m Mexican or Spanish or something". This is a common phenomenon with Indians, and reveals a mix of wishful thinking and low group-self-esteem. Indians, when abroad, rather like the idea of being mistaken for another nationality. It’s because they feel, instinctively, that an Indian is somehow lower in the world’s racial-cultural-ethnic hierarchy than most other peoples (but above the blacks, for sure, above the blacks!). Also because they feel that to be an Indian overseas is to be a cipher, to be from a land that no one quite knows about, of a race of people that hasn’t quite registered abroad.

But anyone who has been abroad, particularly to prosperous west Europe or North America, will know that it’s nonsense. Indians have registered. They are everywhere, doing everything. I’ve met Indian shopkeepers in Barcelona, Indian scientists in France, Indian road-sweepers in Norway, Indian professors in Britain, Indian truckers in Canada, Indian bankers in the US. Indians abroad - like Indians back home - can be proletarian, bourgeois, intellectual, criminal, illiterate, fat, svelte, wealthy, broke, glamorous, geeky, model citizens or anti-social.

In recent years, whenever I’ve been in India - or with people visiting from India - I’ve faced the inevitable "Indian image" question. Depending on where I’ve lived, it has had its variants. These are:
(1) "What do they think of us in America?" The question, asked of me now that I live in New York, is expectant and often optimistic. Indians believe the US is a basically fair and meritocratic land and we have no negative racial baggage to bear there. (2) Before moving to New York, I worked as a journalist in Spain, and the question then was: "Do they have a good opinion of Indians?" It was tentative in tone, a coded way of asking whether Indians were "on the map" in that country, and if so, was there any reason why the Spaniards might not like us. (3) When I lived in Britain - in many ways the original Indian bastion abroad - I had to confront the most depressing question of all: "Have you experienced a lot of racism?" It assumed that racism existed, that Indians were at the receiving end, that we were regarded as inferior by the Brits.

Middle-class Indians are particularly prone to asking these questions. When travelling abroad, they are often nervous about whether Indians settled overseas - mainly working-class Indians who drive cabs, work in factories or run tacky little restaurants - have "spoiled things" for them. I’ve heard this, particularly from people visiting the US. As we all know, there was a time when "only the best" took airplanes to foreign places, doctors, scientists and professors. Indians were then regarded as both exotic and brainy. Now, Indians man gas stations, sell peanuts on the sidewalk, work as doormen on Park Avenue, as nannies and baby-sitters in Brooklyn. These people, it’s feared, are distorting the image of the Indian abroad.

But distortion has no independent existence. It’s in the eye of the beholder - and in this case, the "beholder" is the Indian who second-guesses what the Outsider thinks of us. With this sort of mindset, will we ever be a great nation? I fear not. Greatness does not lie in keeping our fingers crossed, and in waiting and watching to see what foreigners say about us. India, for all its billion-breaking demographics, will be a paltry place, a meagre place, if it continues to ask "what is the image of the Indian abroad"? Isn’t it time we stopped shopping for a self-image at second-hand? Isn’t it time we stopped caring about what others think of us?

( Tunku Varadarajan, a New York-based writer, is working on a book on Indian immigration to North America.)

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