Contemporary India. 1a. Basic Sources of Information. Catherine Taylor’s Possible Sequel to Sarah Macdonald’s Interpretation of India
I had never heard of Catherine Taylor until I read the article which I reproduce below (from The Australian, Weekend Magazine, 9 October 2010, at the height of the Commonwealth Games media coverage). Seasoned India watchers will detect the usual strong indications of a successful and balanced interpretation of India by an “expat” (non-Indian) English speaker:
– prolonged residence in India
– journalistic and writing instincts and ambitions
– keen observation and sensitive reactions
– deep understanding and appreciation in the face of gross “provocation”.
If my intuition is correct, we should therefore be seeing the publication of another interesting book on India by this resident visitor in the not too distant future. Here, with due acknowledgement to Ms Taylor (and in anticipation of more of her Indian observations), is the full telltale article which prompts this prediction:
Mad for Mumbai (The Australian, 9 October, 2010).
“Living in India is like having an intense but insane affair, writes expat Catherine Taylor.”
“TONIGHT, as I waved my high heel in the face of a bewildered taxi driver, I thought suddenly: I am absolutely nuts in India. It’s a thought I have often. Someone or something is always going nuts, and quite often it’s me.
“I was trying to get a taxi driver to take me home, a mere 500 metres away, but it was pouring with rain and my shoes were oh-so-high, and it was late. He, of course, was having none of it; no amount of shoe-waving and sad-facing from a wild-haired firangi was changing his mind, when suddenly I remembered the magic trick – pay more than you should. “Arre, bhai sahab, 50 rupees to Altamount Road? Please?” And off we went.
“I have lived in Mumbai for almost three years. It was my choice to come – I wanted offshore experience in my media career and India was the only country looking to hire – and I wanted a change. I needed something new, exciting, thrilling, terrifying. And India gave that to me in spades. In fact, she turned it all the way up to 11. And then she turned it up a little more.
“To outsiders, living in India has a particular kind of glamour attached to it, a special sparkle that sees people crowding around me at parties. “You live in India? My God, really? I could never do that. What’s it like?” The closest I have come to answering that question is that it’s like being in a very intense, extremely dysfunctional relationship. India and I fight, we scream, we argue, we don’t speak for days on end, but really, deep down, we love each other. She’s a strange beast, this India. She hugs me, so tightly sometimes that I can’t breathe, then she turns and punches me hard in the face, leaving me stunned. Then she hugs me again, and suddenly I know everything will be all right.
“She wonders why I don’t just “know” how things are done, why I argue with her about everything, why I judge, why I rail at injustice and then do nothing about it. She wonders how old I am, how much I earn, why I’m not married. (The poor census man looked at me, stunned, then asked in a faltering voice, “But madam, if you’re not married then… who is the head of your household?”) I wonder how she can stand by when small children are begging on corners, how she can let people foul up the streets so much that they are impossible to walk along, how she can allow such corruption, such injustice, such A LOT OF HONKING.
“But she has taught me things. She has taught me to be brave, bold, independent, sometimes even fierce and terrifying. She has taught me to walk in another man’s chappals, and ask questions a different way when at first the answer is no. She has taught me to accept the things I cannot change. She has taught me that there are always, always, two sides to every argument. And she was kind enough to let me come and stay.
“She didn’t make it easy though (but then, why should she?). The Foreigner Regional Registration Office, banks, mobile phone companies and rental agencies are drowning under piles of carbon paper, photocopies of passports (I always carry a minimum of three) and the soggy tissues of foreigners who fall to pieces in the face of maddening bureaucracy. What costs you 50 rupees one day might be 500 rupees the next, and nobody will tell you why. What you didn’t need to bring yesterday, you suddenly need to bring today. Your signature doesn’t look like your signature. And no, we can’t help you. Come back tomorrow and see.
“It’s not easy being here, although I am spoiled by a maid who cooks for me, and a delivery service from everywhere that ensures I rarely have to wave my shoes at taxi drivers. I buy cheap flowers, trawl for gorgeous antiques, buy incredibly cheap books; I have long, boozy brunches in five-star hotels for the price of a nice bottle of wine at home, I have a very nice roof over my head … on the face of it, it would seem I have little to complain about. But then, I am stared at constantly, I have been spat on, sexually harassed, had my (covered) breasts videotaped as I walked through a market, had my drink spiked, been followed countless times. I have wept more here than I have ever in my life, out of frustration, anger, loneliness, the sheer hugeness of being here. But the longer I stay, the more I seem to relax, let go, let it be.
“But I do often wonder why I’m here, especially when I’m tired, teary and homesick, my phone has been disconnected for the 19th time despite promises it would never happen again, when it’s raining and no taxis will take me home. But then a willing ride always comes along, and we’ll turn a corner and be suddenly in the midst of some banging, crashing mad festival full of colour, where everyone is dancing behind a slow-moving truck, and I won’t have a clue what’s going on but a mum holding a child will dance up to my window and point and smile and laugh, and I breathe out and think, really, my God, this is fantastic. This is India! I live in India! She hugs me, she punches me, and she hugs me again.
“Yet I know won’t ever belong here, not properly. I know this when I listen to girls discussing what colour blouses they should wear to their weddings – she’s Gujarati, he’s from the south, she’s wearing a Keralan sari. I know when my friends give me house-hunting advice: “Look at the names of the people who already live there, then you’ll know what kind of building it is.” (Trouble is, I don’t know my Kapoors from my Kapurs, my Sippys from my Sindhis, my Khans from my Jains). I know this when my lovely fruit man (who also delivers) begs me to taste a strawberry he is holding in his grubby hands and I have to say no, I can’t eat it, I’ll die… I know I will never belong because, as stupid as it sounds, being truly, properly Indian is in your DNA. I marvel at how incredibly well educated so many of them are, how they can all speak at least three languages and think it’s no big deal, how they fit 1000 people into a train carriage meant for 300 and all stand together quite peacefully, how they know the songs from every Hindi film ever made, how they welcome anyone and everyone (even wild-haired, complaining firangis) into their homes for food, and chai, and more food.
“I’ve seen terrible things – someone fall under a train, children with sliced-off ears, old, old men sitting in the rain nursing half-limbs while they beg, children covered in flies sleeping on the pavement, beggars with no legs weaving themselves through traffic on trolleys, men in lunghis working with their hands in tiny corridors with no fans in sky-high temperatures. I’ve read heartbreaking things, of gang rapes, corruption, environmental abuse. I’ve smelled smells that have stripped the inside of my nostrils, stepped over open sewers in markets, watched a goat being bled to death.
“I’ve done things of which I am ashamed, things I never thought I would do. I have slapped a starving child away, I have turned my head in annoyance when beggars have tapped repeatedly on my taxi window, I have yelled at grown men in the face. I have been pinched and pinched back, with force. I have slapped, I have hit, I have pushed. I have screamed in anger. I have, at times, not recognised myself.
“I’ve yelled at a man for kicking a dog, and yelled at a woman who pushed into a line ahead of me when I wasn’t at all in a hurry. When a teenage beggar stood at the window of my taxi, saying “F… you madam” over and over, I told him to go f… himself and gave him the finger; once on the train I let a kid keep 100 rupees as change. I am kind and I am cold-hearted, I am fair and I am mean, I am delightful and I am downright rude. I am all of these at once and I distress myself wildly over it, but somehow, India accepts me. She has no time for navel-gazing foreigners; she just shoved everyone along a bit and made room for me. She has no time to dwell on my shortcomings, she just keeps moving along.
“And then, and then. I’ve been to temples where I’ve sung along with old women who had no teeth, I’ve held countless smiling ink-marked babies for photos, I’ve had unknown aunties in saris smile and cup my face with their soft, wrinkled hands, I’ve made street vendors laugh when I’ve choked on their spicy food, I’ve danced through the streets at Ganpati, fervently sung the national anthem (phonetically) in cinemas, had designers make me dresses, I’ve met with CEOs and heads of companies just because I asked if I could. She hugs, she punches, she hugs again.
“In short, I have been among the luckiest of the lucky. She keeps me on my toes, Ms India, and I have been blessed that she let me stay for a while. She wanted me to succeed here and she gave me grand opportunities and endless second chances. She willed me forward like a stern parent. She welcomed me. And when I leave, because I know I will one day, I will weep, because I will miss her terribly. And because I know she won’t even notice that I am gone.”
Given the language barrier and other political factors, it may be a very long time before we get such intimate and revealing pictures of life in China as those of Ms Taylor and the other writers referred to in my previous Indian blog.
Which may be a useful thought to mull over.