Being a stranger in a foreign land is no easy task. One struggles to fit in, to find those catch-phrases and mannerisms that will allow one to fit in and not stick out like a sore thumb. And then, there are times when in the pursuit of that mannerism, one gets it all wrong, and sticks out in the worse possible way.
Take the example of the head-roll or head-bob that a good number of foreigners who come to India pick up. The Indian head-roll is special. It is a shaking of the head that is not top-down to indicate yes, or a sideways left to right to indicate no, but a tiny head-roll, like that of a Nandi bull, bordering on a left right movement that can indicate a variety of emotions. You can be a listening to a musician ‘pull a taan’, or agree vehemently with an argument, or submissively listen to your boss spout nonsense and painfully plod along. At all or any of these moments, you abandon the yes or the no movements and shift to the Indian head-roll that has been identified as the marker of Indian-ness by so many persons from ‘the West’ who visit India.
The sad, unfortunate and often painful truth is that while they may have identified the movement as typically Indian (or is it more properly South Asian?) these well intentioned foreigners often get the context all wrong. So you wind up with these embarrassing moments when you meet this India-enthusiast who is so bubbling over with India-love that the moment you are introduced they start rolling their head. Or take that idiot at the restaurant at the Hindu temple in Lisbon. Trying to display his command over the authentic manners of ‘the Indians’ to his girl-friend, the doido, wobbled his head as violently as a Thanjavur doll subjected to the attentions of an insanely bored child. One forgot which was more painful, the process of watching him, or his poor neck once he was done with the whole charade.
While on the subject of misplaced contexts, one must not forget to present the example of the Brazilian soap opera Caminho das Índias. The soap opera was immensely popular in Brazil, introducing ‘India’ to the Brazilian masses and to an extent an audience in Portugal as well. Watching snatches of two episodes was enough for this Indian however. The background research to the drama seemed to have been very well done, given that they got so much of the ‘typical’ Indian into the novella sets. Perhaps it was a little too well done, since they had distilled ‘India’ so completely and perfectly, that it resulted in a sensory overload. If there is such a thing as too much India, then this soap opera had nailed it. The end result was insufferable, at least to this Indian, with no particular fondness for a Bollywoodisms, given that it was like an Ekta Kapoor saas-bahu soap on Speed. However in a number of portions it appears that despite their research, the producers got the context wrong. Take the example of the phrase ‘Arrey baba’ that was used in the soap. Actually no, let us make a correction. It was not just used; it was sprinkled, liberally, through the episodes I had the misfortune of watching, used as an exclamation, a comma and every other punctuation you can think of. And there were plenty of punctuations. And yes, it was inevitably accompanied by the Indian head-roll. Given the popularity of Caminho das Índias one wonders, is the Indian head-roll then next big Brazilian thing?
It is difficult being a stranger in a foreign land. One struggles to fit in, to find those catch phrases and mannerisms that will allow one to fit in and not stick out like a sore thumb. And then, there are times when, as a stranger in this foreign land, one comes across the well-meaning, but clearly misinformed, native who treats you to a caricature of nativeness, in the hope of reaching out to you and making you feel welcome and loved. What exactly, pray tell, is one supposed to do?
(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 6 July 2011)