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  • Words of advice for the silly season

    Posted On June 19, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    It’s the silly season again. That’s a British term for the time of year when politicians take off on holiday and television devotes itself to old movies and re-runs. The Indian equivalent is determined more by the absence of MPs than by the content of telly. But if you make political programmes – or watch them – it cannot have escaped your attention that most ministers have migrated to cooler climes. Well, good luck to them. I write not to criticise but to advise.

    As London is their favourite port of call, how will they be perceived in the British capital? As visiting Indians, as wogs or as undesirable aliens? I lived there for over two decades and the answer depends on who is observing you as much as on what you are saying, doing or wearing whilst being observed. It’s very much a two way process.

    Let me explain by example. The first is from as far back as 1973. I was 17, still in school, uncertain, unsure and innocent. I was part of a school party that had gone to Stratford to see Coriolanus. However, Shakespeare wasn’t the attraction so much as the chance to escape from Stowe.

    During the interval there was – as there always is – an enormous rush at the bar. Everyone was queueing for a drink. Not having the guts to imbibe in public I was in line for an ice-cream. As we slowly shuffled forward I started talking to the man in front of me.

    We were near the end when he suddenly asked :

    “How long have you been in this country?”

    “Just under a year.” In those days I still kept track of such things. The first anniversary of my arrival in England was an event I was eagerly awaiting.

    “Hmmm” he continued . “You speak remarkably good English. How come?”

    “Because it’s the only language I know!”

    “Oh” he replied. “A bit of a brown sahab, eh?”

    He meant no insult but he had unwittingly put his finger on the truth of my situation. The Jamaican community in Britain has a more colourful phrase for such people. They call them coconuts – brown outside but white within. I am not sure how many of our ministers would qualify as coconuts but I daresay many of them would be happy to be mistaken for one.

    When I first arrived in England the popular idea of India was determined by Peter Sellers, the corner-shop paki grocer and the smell of curry and rice. Within a decade, however, this characterisation under went dramatic change. By the time of Operation Blue Star things were starkly different. Spielberg’s Indiana Jones was the hit film of the year and Private Eye borrowed from its posters to respond to the storming of the Golden Temple. Its cover had Indira Gandhi, whip in hand, riding a chariot, galloping towards Harminder Sahib. The caption read : ‘Indira Gandhi and the Temple of Doom’. Quite how thoroughly Indira Gandhi had captured the British imagination became apparent soon after.

    It happened three weeks later when I was sheltering in a taxi because a ceaseless downpour had made walking home from the tube station impossible. In fact I was lucky to find an empty cruising cab and get to it before anyone else. There was relief written all over my face but not that of the cabbie. Taxi drivers hate short hops, particularly at rush hour, and this was only a journey down to the end of the road.

    “Awful weather” I said trying to be charming.

    “Too bloody true” came the terse reply.

    “Been like this all day” I gamely continued. “I can’t stand the rain.”

    The cabbie kept silent. I was only 26 and un-used to such situations. I carried on trying to make conversation but it was all in vain. I babbled on and on but his silence only grew louder. Finally, when we pulled up outside my front door the driver turned around and asked :

    “And where you from then?”

    “India” I replied. It always amazes me when people ask because I can’t imagine where else I could come from.

    “The land of Indira Gandhi” the taxi driver replied smiling as he took her name. “Good woman. I approve of what she’s done to the Sikhs. Feel like doing it myself too.”

    To be honest, in all my years in England I did not experience much overt racism. In fact, I don’t think the British are racist. But they are xenophobes. They don’t like foreigners and when they jest that wogs start at Calais they very definitely mean it.

    The British have pejorative nicknames for almost every nationality. The French are frogs, the Spanish wops, the Italians are dagos, the Germans huns or krauts, the Americans yankees and the Arabs, who are thought of as the most distasteful of all, are pronounced eyrabs. But lest you get the wrong impression let me add that the English do not spare their own. The Welsh are boyos, the Irish paddys or micks and the Scots …. well the Scots don’t count at all. Indians used to be wogs. Increasingly, however, they are now called pakis.

    Yet at the end of the day the British only care about two things : your accent and whether you know which knife and fork to reach for when you sit down to dinner. Sadly, I can’t advise our holidaying ministers on their accents. It’s too late for that and their pronunciation is anyway incorrigible. But when it comes to knives and forks there is a simple rule to follow. Start from the outside and work your way in. So if there are three forks and three knives, the set on the extreme left and right is for your aperitif, the next pair is for the main course and the third for a savoury, if there is one. Dessert spoons and forks are usually at the head of the table setting, butter knives on your side plate and the big spoon – the one that looks like a little karchi – is for the soup.

    Two other things : burping is not a welcome response to a good meal and it’s polite to listen attentively to other people rather than talk endlessly yourself.

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