Feb 14, 2003

Why do we have to kow-tow? Even when we are not at the receiving end.

After finishing the final exams of my 7th standard in Madras, I attended a summer camp for about 4 weeks, a move ostensibly to prevent my chronic boredom. All the other kids were about the same age, and soon the main attraction became football, so much so that we even had coaching on it. The camp had a couple of foreign kids, definitely Nordic, most probably Danish. Brothers they were, with the elder in my age-group, and both were quite athletic befitting the European physical stereotype. The elder played great football, and the rest of us, who just enjoyed kicking the ball around and screaming when we got anywhere near goal were quite awed by his rather physical and intense game, not something we were used to. Just being blond will turn heads and attract attention in India, and the kids were no different. I soon realized one thing: many of the other kids would put on an accent while speaking to him, probably so that the Dane would understand them. I don't think they were trying on a Western accent or were aping that alient intonation, but I genuinely think they were trying to speak in his way. It might be a manifestation of our much touted athithi devo bhava concept, but frankly I didn't agree much. Some of us would continue to speak to him like we normally did with each other, in fact exaggerate our Indian accents; why should we care if he could understand us with difficulty or not. I wasn't going out of my way or changing my speech to make him feel better. I reasoned he could jolly well make the effort to understand us instead of the other way round. Why should we change ourselves artificially just to accomodate some other guy? (Mind you, this kid was brash, rich, prone to acting tough and so on, and didn't deserve any special attention: he was just an oddity there, but the kind we seem to fawn over.)

I don't know if this constitutes pop-patriotism or silly jingoism, but it just seems the right thing to do. If you go to any decent nation, the onus is on you to behave the way their people do, and you make all the adjustments necessary. But, dislike as I do that thought, somehow, it seems borne out of observations that many of us behave in servile manners when confronted with Westerners in India. One may argue that most Westerners are clients for the Indians that deal with them and so it is worthwhile for us to make the changes. But how do kids (as in my experience) learn to behave in such a way? Is it ingrained in them to do so or do they pick it up from the elders around them?

When one joins software firms that deal with Western customers, one is instructed while using email communication to make hajaar spellchecks, ensure the tone is friendly yet businesslike, informal though not casual and so on, to make sure one doesn't offend the other person. When one receives a mail from the other side of the seven seas, one finds that those chaps write in the manner that would send Grammar teachers rushing to send their resignations. Not to say that we should be as lax as them, but why should we exercise such extreme care and try to present ourselves as highly pativrata wives from soap operas, who take a lot of nonsense from many?

I got into a session the other day where the speaker was instructing many with the intricacies of American slang versus their British equivalents. I'm not sure that is very high priority for Indians right now or what message that sends out, but it seems just the kind of things we seem to do. Learning English is fine, but putting on fake accents is a bit too much, and saying faucet is not really required.

Can this not be an aspect of national pride, where one doesn't give up one's daily manner in a vain attempt to impress a firang ? Why talk of grandiose plans to revive national honour when there are so many leaks among us? Or am I being simply impractical? Whatever be the case, I would hope I will be able to stick on to saying "schedule" instead of "skedule" and not drawl over a "sem-eye" final. I've never lived among foreigners, so I don't know if there is a sub-conscious impact to alter the accent, but I always try to notice changes in that direction among friends and relatives who've been abroad a considerable length of time, to see if they've changed in that respect. I somehow seem to have a little more pride in the ones that have held on to their little Indian accents, retaining whatever regional twists they had before. I don't know if it is tough, but their example seems to suggest it can be done. The analysis, from aye to zee? :-)

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