Culture shock. Or not.

OK, I made up the heading because that’s my not-so-secret-and-definitely-not-very-bright way of getting you all to read my posts.

I have not watched any TV for years and years now. I hate what our TV programs have to offer – they are pathetic at best and each time Arnab Goswami comes on, he brings out my homicidal instincts and with a 15 year old son, I don’t need to be incarcerated just yet, so I choose the easier option. I don’t watch TV, period. And actually, no one at home watches any TV, so we have no idea what we are missing, which is good. The other 2 in the family download stuff on the RealPlayer  and watch it, and so anyway I am way down in the TV pecking order to merit a time-slot, and I watch what I can on You Tube. In any case, we only subscribe to Tata Sky when my parents come to stay for a few days, because they, like all of the country’s 60+ population, are evening TV addicts and while my mother will politely fidget, my father would openly sulk.

Which is what I am coming to. I watch Pakistani serials nowadays. I can sometimes watch them on a loop. Over the weekend just gone, I had watched so much and done fairly nothing else, that the Google page now comes up in Urdu and the searches come right aligned. I went salivating over Fawad Khan, but realized there was a lot of amazing talent in that country. What I found shameful was actually my amazement.  I realized Pakistani urban society was so similar to ours it made all talks of divisiveness incredibly pointless. I never knew the depths of my ignorance and how the stereotypes get entrenched, till I saw this – despite what I thought I was, – an urban, educated, well-traveled person, my mind had the same stereotypes in its dark corners, brought to the fore by my surprise that Pakistani women living in Pakistan wore jeans and spaghetti-strap tops. If you think that statement should definitely send me off back to Stone Age, you are absolutely right. My knowledge of facts, or lack of it, was the clear indication that the dumbing down of the world was succeeding. As kids three decades younger than me would say, it was a true facepalm moment for me.

Among other collateral lessons was the fact that the super-rich everywhere lived the same kind of lives, the kind I can’t afford – the ladies went to kitty parties, wore similar clothes and similar sized diamonds, had huge houses with swimming pools and innumerable cars and impossible gardens, well behaved and liveried chauffeurs and a whole retinue of home helps. I understood, truly, how Jemima Khan survived 9 years as Imran Khan’s wife. (My mental image of her 9 years was of this aristrocratic British lady struggling in a joint-family having to do adaab at everyone, peppering everything with mashalla, inshalla, and other wonderful Urdu words, with tens of elderly ladies making life miserable for her; not being allowed to drive and all kinds of similar things in a deeply patriarchal society. Truth though is, almost every society except for some tribal ones, all over the world, are patriarchal.)

And yet, I really should not have been surprised. In UK, we were regularly mistaken for Pakistanis, which is kind of weird, because my husband looks not only Indian, but very Bengali, and my nose is flat as a button and I have nothing of the regal looks of Pakistani women. But most in UK did not know the difference, and in some inner city areas racist comments were shouted at us at intervals frequent enough to tell us we were not home. But when we went to Egypt, everyone who saw us called my husband Amitabh Bachchan and me Madhuri Dixit. (Those of you who have seen me need not snigger – I can feel it transmitting through the ether anyway, spare yourself the effort). We had to explain to our European co-tourists who these two were, but it was a revelation and it also felt nice – illogically- when we saw posters of films of Amitabh Bachchan in halls in Cairo and Giza and even smaller cities like Luxor.

Bollywood, after death, is possibly the great leveler of the world. I got sent clippings of my Welsh friend and her friends dancing in the Norwich market square to Bollywood music. Music which honestly even I don’t listen to anymore. My weak heart cannot take the constant thud in between screeches and lots of ‘aha- aha’ for music, but clearly the world likes it. I stop at Sonu Nigam and Shreya Ghoshal.

Similarly, I suppose, one could go on about UK and USA – they are two countries separated by the same language, as someone said (my memory was never what it used to be, I am afraid). Interestingly, there was a post doing its rounds on social media a few days back about the British. I always found them unfailingly polite and when I first went there, it was almost a shock to realize the man walking towards me was actually smiling at me and no one else behind me – my Calcutta existence made me so used to being jostled or frowned at, or, if you are lucky, just stared at blankly, I had no idea random people could smile at random people. However, a very close friend of mine who visited me from the US told me how serious looking everyone on the Brit streets were, which to me, was surprising.

After coming here, while crossing roads, I used to automatically raise my hand in thanks to the driver of the car that stopped to let me pass till I realized I was probably being viewed as a weirdo. Little gestures which make the world a better place don’t exist in some parts of the world. Usually the parts which need it the most. The world was too full of people having agitated conversations using their blue-tooth devices which denied us the privilege of knowing if there was a madman/woman in front of me

I remember my parents going apoplectic when I used to tell them I was driving from London to Cambridge, leaving London at 1 a.m in the morning, alone. It feels strange that I would not think of doing similar things here, in my own country.

While in UK, going to the supermarket was stressful. I once counted the number of thank you’s we exchanged between my taking the stuff to the till and then walking away with the trolley. 19, I kid you not. While saying ‘thank you’ is considered good behavior almost everywhere, you will find some close friends and relations (usually the older generation) actually ascribing them to a lack of closeness. If you come from middle-class Bengali families sans any pretensions like I do, try saying thank you to your mother when she gives you something – you will get a ‘god-you’ve-gotten-weird’ look from her. Many people will actually say things like, ‘don’t want to demean all you have done by saying thank you’ or such stuff. Which is totally at odds with the whole point of those two words.

In the first days of my stay there, I used to wonder how even the poor managed to dress so well, because except for the occasional beggar with his hat and matted hair, everyone seemed so well turned out. It took me a few months to distinguish between the ones on dole, the middle class and the rich, and once that happened, we all found it so easy to distinguish, almost like one does here in India.

Staying in a foreign country teaches you so many things. I had never had wine in India, and when we went to UK, my favourite wines were the really sweet-almost-desert-wines, Lambrusco or Hock. Through the years, though, we cultivated posh-ness and would not touch Lambrusco/Hock with a barge-pole. It was too infra-dig for us. Till date I don’t know anything about wines, – and whenever friends still in UK with similar levels of knowledge/ignorance ask me what wine to get, I always tell them to utilize the intelligent marketing in developed countries and go purely by price. If in doubt, to be classy, go for the expensive ones. But you will never have me admitting that in a posh gathering, because there I would be twirling the wine in the glass and then in the mouth and having it with a developed (more often than not faux) relish which had nothing to do with taste but everything to do with keeping up appearances. And letting the dead juice of long dead grapes breathe!

One of my closest friends is this British lady whose experiences of anything outside of UK were annual trips to Majorca where her husband bought his year’s stock of cigars. An absolutely endearing person, she made the first tentative steps at making friends with me over the said Lambrusco. And by the time we left UK, she preferred my 2 year old to her nephew who she claimed looked like baby Churchill while mine was a cherub, had graduated to having kebabs from Waitrose barbecued at her place – which was a huge jump from potato salad and grilled chicken, learnt we cannot eat kebabs without onions (red ones, the white were too English, with not enough zing to it); was close enough that throughout my very difficult pregnancy when I had difficulty going to the launderette, she took all our dirty clothes, washed and ironed them each week through those 6 months, vacuumed my flat, did my shopping and generally listened to my whinging. I don’t know any Indian friend who would do that for me, honestly. Another friend, in that time when your kid is this wailing, howling 1 year old with high fever and your husband is on-call; when having had a kid seemed like such a colossally bad idea, – she would come and sit with him and distract him in a way only she knew how. She was also the one who sat patiently through my depressive phases and taught me it was wonderful to unwind with wine, especially if your culture had taught you not to unwind without feeling guilty. When hearts meet, the outside world becomes irrelevant.

An uncle (dad’s colleague), a polish gentleman, was thrilled when my son called him ‘dadu’ (grandfather in Bengali). It’s the same uncle with whose grandchild my son communicated through an entire vacation just by Google Translator. Biesek uncle who – ever so delightfully- as I was holding on to him and crying, realizing I would probably never see him again, – quickly went and got us four shot-glasses filled with his best vodka. It was the alcoholic equivalent of ‘break a leg’ or ‘dugga dugga’ that Bengali elderly relatives do.

As Terry Pratchett would have said, ‘So much universe, so little time’. And even in that little time we only look at differences and forget the similarities. Something’s gotta give.

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One thought on “Culture shock. Or not.

  1. Sigh.. almost have tears in my eyes reading this.. am a sentimentalist at heart:)

    Well sometime back I chanced upon the Pakistani serials too and was totally taken aback by the almost lack of differences. It’s a pity that we are too divided to appreciate this.

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