I was overwhelmed as much by the rush of emotions as by the unexpectedness of the whole thing. It was a total immersion of ego into motherland which I had never experienced before.
I was born in the fifteenth year of India’s independence. We lived in a part of the country which had been a great stronghold of the Raj, and there were many who were Staying On. We ourselves were staying on, in the sense that we led a lifestyle inherited from the departing rulers, complete with butlers, ayahs, and afternoon tea. There was the Ooty Club, with a separate room for children so that they could be seen and not heard. The main dining hall displayed photographs of proud, straight-backed men and women on horses. A cousin visiting from Bombay had once disgraced us in this room, by allowing a leg of chicken to fly over his shoulder while struggling to apprehend it with knife and fork which he (uncultured bumpkin) was unfamiliar. No, there was not a great deal of scope for patriotic feelings here.
Then there was the fact that my mother’s family had fled their homeland forever, with nothing but a few trunks containing their clothes and my grandfather’s books, sailing from Karachi to Bombay in the nightmare that followed Partition, to settle in unfamiliar parts of the country.
They never once longed, none of them, even wistfully, to go back, knowing that it could never be. For them, their homeland no longer contained the home of their ancestors. As they assimilated, their culture was evaporating – and there were no roots to support us here.
As for my father’s family – they were not just Brahmins, but my grandfather had been in government service all his life. This was a new India, with different values to assimilate – with, if I may extrapolate, a little wariness.
My parents had met in college, and ignored the tradition of their times by being so bold as to fall in love and get married. From geographically and culturally different parts of the country, and consequently no exposure whatever to each other’s native languages, they spoke English to each other at home just as they had done at college.
Unfortunately, this meant that we grew up without any Indian language. This was compounded by the fact that in the state where we lived in the days when my brother and I were growing up, Hindi was frowned upon, so of course we seldom used it. Food was an eclectic combination of recipes from various sources, and I only learnt about the standard formula Indian meal, and turned to it by choice, as an adult.
At school, our motto was Never Give In – derived, irreverent rumour had it, from the last words of the founder, Sir Henry Lawrence, who had died valiantly on the battlefield crying as he fell, “Never Give In to these Indian dogs!” which the school had adopted, politely omitting the last part.
When I think about it now, all this makes an unlikely setting for that sudden seizure of intense, shuddering identification with the country of my birth at the UN building in Geneva so many years ago.
It was born partly, perhaps, from the experience of being a foreigner, and that too an exotic foreigner. One cannot have this experience in, for instance, the USA with its multiracial, multicultural population – or, for that matter, in Britain where if you are Indian, you are assumed to be a local, which can be annoying. But I remember, back then, people smiling at me and asking curiously about the bindi I was wearing; looking deep into my eyes and exclaiming, “You are so dark!” and not meaning it as an insult. In small towns in Germany and Denmark, people nudged each other and pointed at us with a lack of sophistication which we found rather astonishing, having grown up to equate foreignness with sophistication.
But of course it is not the feeling of being a foreigner that brings surreptitious tears to my eyes in mawkish scenes in patriotic Hindi films. Nor does it explain the feeling of exhilaration when the Indian cricket team performs well – or of personal disgrace and degradation every four years during the Olympics. It isn’t heredity; it isn’t environment. I don’t even think it arises from any charming subconscious predisposition to align myself with large groups. Maybe it is just the nature of patriotism itself.
first appeared as ‘From India with love and squalor’ in Sunday Times of India on 3 Aug 1997