The International Indian

I must thank Shashi Tharoor for this. Not that I know him or anything. But like all of you, I know of him. Recently, thanks to the internet and the forward mail industry, I got a link from my wife to his speech at the TED forum. As I watched it, I must say I truly enjoyed it. Well, Tharoor is from Palakkad, my maternal hometown and though I disagree with what he said about R K Narayanan, I think he is a pretty neat guy, charming and all that, with a twinkle in his eyes, set to warm many a girl’s heart and a Hugh Grant style demeanor and a Brit accent to boot. But gals, unfortunately this is not about Tharoor or how to charm a woman. It is a little bit about the roaming Indian in the big wide bad world, something Tharoor reminded me of..

As I was writing this the spell check gave out its warnings – Narayanan was underlined red due to some enthusiastic chap at Microsoft (quite possibly an Indian whose code warnings red marked it as not being in the English dictionary) and suggested that I replace it with Maryann. Grr…RK Narayanan with Maryann, what gall. Why can’t these people add the whole bunch of Indian names & Hinglish words to the electronic dictionaries?

But well, this goes back a few months, and I was at my favorite haunt in Temecula, a place which is fast becoming a memory. It was the public library. After a bad week, I was trudging my way in, a little hunched as usual, not a cheer on my face and wondering if I would get the book I wanted. The Library was crowded on that Saturday and there were plenty of people in various poses, lounging in the cavernous hall. An assortment of South Californian pride, I suppose. One could see a number of excited and chattering youngsters with their mommas all dolled up, I mean the mommas were dolled up. There was the team of teenagers trying to access sites to which the hormones coursing through their blood stream were directing them, and giggling in the process. Then there were the somber academic types clacking away on their keyboards referring to voluminous books in front of them, there were the mousy bespectacled types studying for the upcoming exams, there were the decrepit types, the homeless who had surreptitiously come in to use the toilets and relax for a while. There were the busy ones, striding in, doing their thing & striding out, like me….A typical Saturday scene at the Public library.

I was pacing by, scowl on my face when a pretty girl beckoned to me. Now, that was kind of surprising. I would have taken it in my stride some years back, being one (i.e. myself) of the charming species and all that. But it happens less frequently these days and so I was a little flustered, sort of caught off guard. Suddenly I was reminded of the little paunch that was developing and my hairline that was fast receding like the water off the Arabian Sea shores. She sure was pretty; I tell you and must have been some 20-22, female Caucasian, not underage or anything, so certainly interesting, I thought, enough to warrant a proper response.

Taking a deep breath to pull the sagging ‘rectus abdominis muscles’ up (sarcastic New Yorker writers call it ‘gut’, but these are the ones that will hopefully when well defined give you the six pack look) I ambled up to her, John Wayne style (No, I did not – it was a lame metaphor) and putting on a deep baritone reminiscent of Gregory Peck, I asked ‘yes?’, with the ‘twinkle in the eye’ (hopefully it was the Tharoor type). Anyway the young one batted her eyelids (not really) and said, Sir, (the rectus abdominus muscles loosened and the air left my lungs when I heard that, but then I thought – at least not the term ‘uncle’ which is guaranteed to depress you for a week) can you help me?

There was still some hope left and I waited with bated breath to see what the request was going to be. She had a number of books open before her and a laptop open. I thought, maybe she thinks I am a volunteer helper at the library, maybe she wants a book or something, maybe she needs some coaching on a difficult subject. But she got me surprised with her next question - Sir, can you help me with my laptop? Well, I would have expected this kind of a question from an older mama, but this one seemed to be from the laptop mobile computing texting generation, so I was a little perturbed wondering if the challenge was going to make a fool of me.

She continues in a low husky voice (much later I realized that the low tone was due to the – SILENCE board), I cannot get my PC to connect up to the wireless network, can you help me with that?

Well, I sat down next to her with enormous confidence ( I am reasonably good with tinkering around stuff like this – you see) thankful that I had doffed myself with Davidoff before setting out, as that had proved a sure winner ( I mean conversation opener – not anything stronger) with the fairer sex in the past. But there was no comment about David or Davidoff anyway, this time. Sitting down next to her, I pulled the laptop towards me (I was thinking laptop laptop and realized that my mind was going astray to the nether regions), seeing with dismay that this black box ( for it was certainly not a laptop but a mini PC) belonged to a previous generation, a clunker as they call it in USA.

And then I suddenly realized that I had a real major serious problem. I had no reading glasses with me. While I can just about read without it and with teary eyes resulting from the effort, doing serious work was out of the question. Now the keyboard was certainly looking a little fuzzy and after much use the letters had started to fade out even. But then, there was no way I could wriggle out of this predicament easily. I had committed myself, Good Samaritan and all… And so, it was indeed going to be a headache.

It proved to be a very difficult challenge. For the lady had ‘for some strange reason’ this ancient computer with Windows 98 and a wireless card. Now that was certainly antique in PC terms and she later confessed that she, a pretty nursing student (ah – I can see the sudden spurt of interest in the mind of the male reader – To date I have not figured out why a nurse in white is so appealing, and the nursing dress has done wonders to ramp up sales in the sexy attire aisles of such shops) was in Temecula on study holidays and that this was her aunt’s ‘purdy ole’ laptop. We chatted awhile about all this as I struggled with the machine.

Some readers would be wondering if I was exaggerating, and the answer is of course, I am, but not too much, as yet. But you must realize that an average American is quite forthcoming about his or her background after a few minutes of friendly chit chat. Once they warm up, the life history comes tumbling out. So as I was peering at the keyboards and racking my memory cells about old experience with Windows 98, cursing ‘Bill the Microsoft Gates’ all the time, trying to get the connection right and the driver re-installed, I felt my eyes tearing rapidly. The peering was getting a little too much and I was not there yet.

So sheepishly I admitted to this young gal that I missed my lenses. She was very apologetic that she had put me to task and then came the stunner. She said, you see, when I saw you walking in, and saw that you were looking Indian, I was sure you will know how to fix my computer problem. I was aghast. She continued, rubbing it in, you guys are smart with this stuff, you all know a lot about these thingies. So it had nothing to do with the twinkle in the eyes, and the baritone and Davidoff and all that, it was finally Hamara Desh Bharat Mahan at work? Oh! Come on…

Anyway, by now I had found the solution and the computer was connected to the library network. I sighed with relief and my eyes thanked me for stopping right there. Then I patiently explained that I was not a computer guy or a call center tech, but an electrical engineer dealing with big power stations and things like that. The girl’s eyes grew even wider and said. Wow! An engineer dealing with power plants, would you believe it? You guys are even more smarter than I thought. I hastily bid goodbye, red faced by now, and wished her best with her exams and aunty and laptop and nursing and trotted off, a little miffed with the experience, moving towards the history aisles in search of a book on Teddy Roosevelt, a story I was researching involving Churchill, Roosevelt & Gandhi and smiled. The little encounter was certainly interesting, and turned out OK eventually, but well, in hindsight it did make me think a bit.

When an average American sees an Indian these days, you are either a PC techie or some call center guy. Now that is the present. A decade back you were a Patel working in the corner gas station or Seven eleven or running a motel. Before that you were always a Punjabi lumberjack. In between a few guys slipped in and quietly made their name, assimilated into the American mainstream and made themselves conspicuous by their absence from limelight and general invisibility. They became whiz kids, humble and behind the scenes operators, doing yeoman service and getting their colleges like the IIT and IIM into the limelight. They continue to be so. But today there is another lot; for here in Raleigh I saw a new set of people, the young IT crowd from India, supremely confident, no longer timid and flustered and clearly enjoying life. Raleigh seems to accept them joyfully. They are the ones who will now steer India’s name to the next level and I will be here seeing it all, I hope. But I do not want to write too much and complicate this piece.

And that brings me to Tharoor’s speech on what he called ‘soft power’. It was his mention of how a guy came running in an airport asking if the Indian could repair his laptop that triggered this specific memory. Tharoor humorously mentioned so many other things, a good orator that he is, like the influence of Bollywood. You know, he is so right. We had been watching ‘ so you think you could dance’ for a few seasons now and as you see the number of the Bollywood dance sequences attempted by the young American contestants, it becomes very clear that they have finally learnt that India is not just a land of snake charmers and slums and Patel’s, but also a fun place with a lot of cool stuff you could pick up. But what they still have to learn is the other bedrock that we have in subjects like history, science, mathematics, medicine, the learned people of the ancient times and their learning that we all imbibed. But that will take some more time, I suppose.

My own experience is testimony to much of this, for as I was In Saudi, I could see that the Saudi’s had little regard for the Indian “Hindi”. For him, the Indians were a bunch of slaves to be kicked around. It was even worse in Kuwait. I still shudder to think of that day in war torn Kuwait, when the whole country was in ruins, we were in a house where a once rich Kuwaiti family lived. In Kuwait to do a damage assessment we bumped into a friend from the TV channel who was conducting an interview & so he pulled us along. As we got into the house, the lady of the house was complaining about the atrocities heaped on them by the Iraqi’s, of how they had to learn to cook and wash their clothes (stated with extreme anguish- of course and I had to suppress my sniggers). A daughter came in to serve tea and believe it or not, she served everybody expect the lone non European or non Arab in the room, being me. She simply would not hand me a cup.

Finally my friend passed me his cup and asked for another one thus solving the problem. I was furious actually, I was risking my life in that hellhole, trying to help these people and see how I get treated. That rankled, but I soon forgot it in the struggle over the next few days in the lightless, foodless booby trapped Kuwait with bullets whizzing by and grenades exploding. That was how the Arab treated the Indian, even in dire situations. In Dubai, I know it was slightly better, though there was contempt in the undertone of Arab life, however I believe it was manageable.

But it was all so different in Istanbul, a vibrant place where they had by and far a poor opinion of India, where Hindus according to them ill treated Muslims and so on, but they were always open and willing to discuss and agree when they saw they were wrong and met a person to discuss it with. It was there that I came across and wrote about the Turkish Prime minister who loved the Gita, a general manager who had an Indian Kidney and so on (quite a few stories are yet to be published). They remembered Raj kapoor and Awara and even had those movies on TV, certain days. As you went to remote places, the older people always said – Hindistan – you make great movies. I heard the same refrain many times over, in many other countries like Romania, Czech Republic and so on, but the loudest connections to Indian Bollywood were in Egypt – for when they saw Indians they equated them to Bachan Saab or Sridevi.

England of course was different; there we had more understanding of the abilities, since by then much of the medical industry was run by Indians, the doctors and the nurses alike. So there was plenty of respect and it was much more than the Indian hotel owner thing. Like Tharoor said, the one Billion Pound Indian food industry of Britain today is more than collectively the coal, steel and many other industries. That was an astounding statistic. Recall the days when those very British industries were fuel to the industrial revolution? Well the Indian soft power now fuels the IT revolution, I presume.

But it was not my intention in any way to make get into heavier topics, so I will digress for now and get back to today. Sorry guys, this was just a bit of a self indulgent prattling on a Sunday morning. I thought, why not, for I had bored you with reams of historical stuff about musty old people dead and gone, so wrote a little bit about the world I had seen.

So I will sign off suggesting that you try seeing this video of the speech made by Tharoor, it is certainly interesting, replete with the twinkle in the eyes and the Brit accent and the floppy hair and so on…

Tail note – See ‘Paa’, the Hindi movie if you can, we saw it last night and thought it brilliant. Both Bachan’s and Vidya were superb and I had a soggy handkerchief at the end of the show much to my missus’s embarrassment. Ilayaraja’s music reminded us of many old Tamil & Malayalam masterpieces of his and Balki, well thanks to him for bringing us this good movie…


Urs....Jina said…
For some weird coincidence I was thinking the same thing for the few days.
Though I like Tharoor and all (infact adores him for all the said reasons), once you have read his books, the speech has only his charisma left. He rehashes things sadly.:(

Anyways coming to the point, if you remember from my blogs, I had been to the remotest corner of Assam to do a project and one of my teammates computer broke down (A Georgian and American).
We didnt have decent 'any' other shop there. But we did get the laptop repaired and to their utter disbelief quarter the price the online guarantee company had offered it for.
For one day amidst the lack of drinking water, no sanitation and health disasters, I gloated.;)

Yes, somehow now India is synonymous with soft power (of the computer kind)
shinojcv said…
For the last few weeks i was trying to download Sashi tharoor's speech.Thanks for giving the link.You are rigt he is truely an international indian.He is showing us a new style of politics, politics of hope and change.
harimohan said…
as far as sasis animosity for RK Narayanan i can vocuh for that did mail him once and he expressed his dislike for pg wodehouse and RK strangely two of my best loved authors !

we indians are any day smarter than many and would be in the top no doubt but i cant believe how we cud have scum for our politicians ( some ) sasi and co area welcome difference

so with all the rectus exercises and lapdancing sorry laptopping hope your rectum didnt react !
Happy Kitten said…
What a nice library and your prattle is great too...

nd this "Uncle" (not so much the "Aunty") word can sure get many depressed.. have seen the same with my Hubby too :)

am yet to listen to Tharoor's speech though I got the link..

as for Kuwait.. things have changed a lot since then.. nd even here the Indians are now automatically associated with Computers.. but then among the whole GCC, it is told that the Kuwaitees have the biggest ego until the war made a little dent to it.. and now some of the younger lot are turning out better...
Dreamer said…
Thanks for the link. Tharoor's speech was quite good. It's quite a leap for the Indians global image from snake charmer to software engineer though, eh?
Naveen Prabhu said…
tharoor sure makes us proud & he as a politician generates hope ...... but i wonder whether he is closer to the glamorous/virtual world than the essence of the "real india" ....
I enjoyed reading this so much.
Maddy said…
Thanks Jina..
I am yet to read his books, i starte dout on one some years ago, but felt them a bit dense at that time.

I agree - nothing to beat the feeling when you beat a problem..
Maddy said…
Thanks Shinojcv & thanks Hari..

While studying that RKN Tharoor story, I did see that Tharoor later clarified that he did like RKN, but felt that his wiritng did not have depth or somthing like that.

ha! no problem managed to hold the rectus only for minutes..
Maddy said…

thnaks, the libraries here are truly well endowed.But the real thing is the British library at London - that is a WOW
Maddy said…
Thanks Dreamer & Naveen

that was a great speech anyway..
kallu said…
You sure enjoyed the trip to the library after all, and we did too. Lots of atmosphere.
Zahra said…
Am quite late, but I really enjoyed reading this. You've got a valid point about perceptions there.
I could relate to the part about Indians in the Arab world....I grew up in the Gulf (not Saudi, thank heaven!), in one of the countries that don't make too much of a hoo-haa about Indians vs. the rest. But the distinction, however subtle, could still be felt. What's even more interesting is the perception your fellow-Indians have when you're back in India.....when we came back for good in the late 90's, there were plenty of people who believed that you had to have a "construction worker" past if you'd made a living in the Gulf :)
Maddy said…
Yeah I agree Zahra - it was always a number of questions trying to find out what exactly your profession was. once it was determined to be suitably high, the questions change nature to - why on earth did you go there ..