Monday, March 23, 2009

Through the eyes of an Indian foreigner

When I came back to India after over 30 years, I had assumed that since I was still fluent in the language adapting back would not be challenging. I was sadly mistaken indeed! Yes, although being able to communicate in the local language is a huge advantage in terms of negotiating the daily business in the local markets, and bargaining with the auto rickshaw wallahs, it still leaves a huge gap in how people interpret you as a person. I feel most of the time like Ms. Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady who was taken out of her flower-selling roots by an English professor, Higgins, who took it as a challenge to make a "lady" out of her and went on to do exactly that.... but the lady was completely a misfit in both the worlds after her transformation. In her former world, no one would recognize her enough to accept her, and in the new world she was an impostor!
Every place that I go to here, dressed in the local garb, people look at me with questions in their eyes and at least one would venture boldly to ask, "Madam which country are you from?" It is as if I have a sign written over my forehead.... while it is true that I am much taller than the average woman here and even most men, and my skin is a bit lighter than most(just genetics), I still have not figured out why I stand out so obviously..... to convince them that I am from Chennai, so that my prices are not automatically doubled, I read some sign that is posted in the store in the local language Tamil, and that forces them to reluctantly acknowledge that perhaps I am a "local" after all!
The local conversations are loud in the market place, full of hand gestures and facial expressions that are unfamiliar and too far off in my memory lane! I do find it all interesting, but I am still a spectator rather than a participant. Imitation is still uncomfortable and formidable, so I try to be myself which is what signals the "other" to the "locals". Then there is the issue of speaking down to people who serve you.... be it to the server at the restaurant, to the cab driver, or a clerk at the supermarket.... people's tone of voices are demanding, and the language used is the non-respect form to address "you". The attitude and the tone of voice clearly says, "Well, you're here to serve me, now get on with it!" Since it is impossible for me to do that I use the formal "you" to the servicing group here, and say "thank you" and that invokes strange looks......

I notice that in the regular news dead people's faces are shown as if it were the most normal thing to do! A couple of days ago as I was watching the news, there was an item on this woman who had committed suicide at home... and the next moment there she was on the screen just the way she was discovered on her bed with her face exposed for full viewing!! This seems to be the norm, and almost daily one can see such items on the news and squirm if you are not used to seeing dead faces! This may have to do with the aspect of how death is viewed here.... for instance, funerals are a jolly good procession with loud drums, dancing, and fireworks, along the main roads.... one can heardly be tearful in the midst of all this "celebration". I was informed that the dancers and the people firing up the crackers that make loud noices are 'professionals' that are employed by the family, and they really do have a great party that involves a lot of alcohol too.... perhaps if I have to dance daily in front of dead people for a living, I would be drunk too!!

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