Sunday, September 24, 2000

Black booty

I walked through the door of my house, and nearly fainted at the words I heard blaring over the music system. Before I could wonder if I’d imagined them, there they came again, loud, cheerful and mellifluous: “I want to see your underwear …”
Until that moment two years ago, I had naively and somewhat egoistically imagined the generation gap to be a figment of fevered imaginations which, like Santa and time travel, simply did not exist, and if it did, merely represented the incompetence of my own parents. Even more painful was the fact that none of my children were yet of an age to be interested in anyone else’s underwear. It struck me that tastes in music define a generation as clearly as traits such as hard work, birth control, fondness for hashish or a facility with the newest technologies.
Another reminder of the generation gap came recently at the Black Country Museum in England. The Black Country, immortalised in print and celluloid by British media personality Meera Syal, is so named not for the numerous Indians who inhabit it but for its role in the Industrial Revolution. “Black by day and red by night, unmatched for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe,” the American consul in Birmingham declared in 1868.
The museum is set in a twenty-six-acre site and recreates the living and working conditions of those days. We went down into a coal mine, took a ride on a canal boat, visited ironmongers, sweetshops and apothecaries, saw a silent movie in a shed-like hall, and even had a lesson in a Victorian classroom where the teacher wore a black gown, spoke in a shrill falsetto, and kept a wooden cane at hand.
Much that we saw, including the cinema, buildings, and some products in the shops, were familiar to me from my own childhood. Tea-plantation bungalows and wooden-floored boarding school dormitories in the Nilgiris still retained much of the Victorian era a quarter century ago, and perhaps still do. So when we walked into a shop and one of my teenage daughters pointed at a bacon-slicing machine saying, “That must be the photocopier,” I was startled into a sudden vision of what a different world my children live in. By the time I dared to imagine such a miracle as a photocopier and could believe that I no longer needed to painstakingly write out copies of documents or roll messy carbon papers into the typewriter, I must have been in my twenties. For me the museum had been more about nostalgia than novel experience.
But in the end, the Black Country Museum presented us with an encounter which reassured us that the world is indeed a familiar and cosy sort of place. At the fossil and gift shop, there were beautiful stones for sale. When we told the man we collect stones like these from the ground around our house, he politely asked where we were from. We said, “Pune, India.” He laughed, picked up one of the stones and showed us a label which said that it had been brought here from “Pune, India.” So of course we promised to come back again soon, this time with a big box full of stones.
first appeared as a Times of India Middle on 23 Sep 2000