Thursday, June 15, 2006

Apu, Ash and the cabbie who dropped me home! 

I used to think this is a very Indian thing till I realized that everyone does it. Just tell someone that you are from a particular place and they'll instantly try to show off their limited knowledge of that place, culture and celebrities hailing from those parts. Try going through the hard disk of your past experiences. There'll be ample situations like the following:

So where are you from?
Juhu beach? Bollywood?

You are left wondering "What abt Juhu beach and Bollywood?" but the other person is all agog, given that he has just managed to prove it to you that he is no alien to the city of Mumbai.

If you are a Bengali (which I am) and you went to a college with a large number of people from South India, this can be all the more amusing. I'm not making this up, but at least 5-6 people at different points of time have had some variant of the following conversation with me:

They: Which part of India are you from?
Me: Calcutta.
They: You guys have this red-light area. What is it called? Errrr! Hmmmm! Sonagachi, Sonagachi? Right?

Now I'm no expert on either Calcuttan landmarks or skin trade in the city but I'd definitely like to believe that Sonagachi is not Calcutta's most popular landmark. Also, every time a person from way South of India asked me this question, I'd view them with the very "Eeeew! How and why do you know that?" look. It was almost after a year of repeated bombardment of the question that I delved into the dept of the matter. I found out that in some Tamil movie featuring Kamal Hassan(Mahanadi, if my memory serves me right), his daughter was sold off to some dude in Sonagachi and Mr. Hassan came down to the city of joy to save his daughter. The movie, it seems, was a huge hit. As a result, everyone in Tamil Nadu now knows abt Sonagachi and uses it as conversation starter with Bengalis. Very amusing indeed. So it has been a long standing desire of mine to make a Tamil movie with Mr. Hassan (or is he too old now in which case I'll use Madhavan or Vikram), where he plays a raging sex-maniac who comes to Calcutta to visit Sonagachi. Throughout the movie he visits actual tourist attractions of the city and asks people where Sonagachi is and they rebuke him saying "Calcutta is not that kind of a city". I know the plot of my movie sucks, but anything to revive my city's image - what say?

So why am I posting all this now? Simply coz I'm trying to address a much broader issue - that of mouthpieces of locations. As an Indian, who has a fairly large number of non-Indian friends, I get asked several questions about Indians and Indian culture and many of these questions arise because we have the worst mouthpieces of our culture. So who is the most popular Indian outside the Indian community? Think abt it. There is no clear cut answer. Seriously. Who is it?

If I was asked this question, I'd probably say it's Apu from the Simpsons. Some people will probably say it's our Father of the Nation but a few years back someone actually asked me "wasn't he the guy from the Gandhi movie?" - so I wouldn't count on that. So who is it? If India is a brand - then who is our brand ambassador. Is it Aishwarya Rai because she has giggled on Oprah and even been the coveted "second guest" in David Letterman? Try going up to your first non Indian friend and asking him/her if they know who Aishwarya is. You'll be surprised that they have no freakin clue as to who she is. Then try telling them that she is really famous and is doing a spree of second tier English movies that'll never get mainstream wide releases. So we are back to point zero.

I can sense the uneasiness with my non Indian friends. They sincerely wanna talk abt India and ask me questions but they don't know anything to start with. Once they realize that I'm not feisty abt India, they open up and clarify the one doubt that all of them seem to have - DO YOU HAVE ELEPHANTS IN INDIA? And I nod my head tell them "Yes. In the Zoo!" Then there is silence. Some of them are bold enough to ask me abt the Kamasutra and if it is popular in India. Then we have some awkward silence and then we quickly change the topic to basketball and Star Wars and whether Michael Jackson is actually ET who can dance. And I don't blame them. For an outsider, all that they see or hear abt India are engineers, cabbies, elephants and movies where everybody dances - quite the range I'd say.

Our only saving grace comes from the grand uncle of all monuments. The Taj. But there too, my lack of travelling across India, removes any chance of continuing the conversation.

"So have you seen the Taaaaj Mahaaal?"
"No, I haven't," I reply in a demure fashion. "But I have seen Sixth Sense. That was made by an Indian too. Manoj Knight Shyamalan." I scream out.
"What? Em. Knight's from India?"

So back to square Uno. Tell me, who is India's brand ambassador? Please.

Me too got to know about Sonagachi from that film. You are right, It's Mahanadhi.
One American who gave me a city tour of Chicago, rattled off the places he had been, while in India. Calcutta, Mumbai, Rajasthan, Chennai Airport (!), Andamans....I told him that I haven't been to 90 % of the places he listed. Then I asked him the area of Chicago. He didn't know!!
I guess we cram up on the geography of other countries/places while not knowing a thing about our own.
Don't you worry - soon I will be brand ambassador, and tell the world all about India. And I will make sure that I am first guest on Letterman.
it has to be the cow. the number of times I've been asked "so you indians don't eat cows", is countless. When I explain, that indians eat everything including cows, crocodiles, monkeys, frogs, snakes and what not (ok that's a lie), they are aghast. Then ofcourse, follow trivial details like "all indians are not hindus. all hindus are not veggies..india has good many veggies, but india has many meating hindus, many meating muslims, christians..vec-cec-tra..and hindus and muslims and christians are not always fighting each other..sometimes they watch movies too..and they watch item numbers..not all indian women wear saarees.." and you know..the conversation can go anywhere..if we start with cow.
@jingu - i completely agree. but you know what's the part tha ti liked most abt the comment? i have hardly traveled across India but of the places you mentioned I have been to 4 (muhahahaha) - i am soooo kicked !!

@telytooty - i know its lame but somebody at some point has to crack the brand ambassador brand maruti joke :D

@anshul - ha ha ha! yes, the cow and th eelephant! two animals that have done India very very very proud - honestly!
Random American - so which part of India are you from?
me- Calcutta.
RA - Ah, that's where Mother Teresa rescued all the poor/lepers/beggars.
followed by a sideways look at me (to confirm that I do not fit any of the three categroies) thinking why the &*#! this guy is wasting his time here instead of joining her mission.
funny! I don't know who our ambassador is but now that I think back about it, I probably am guilty of "showing off" my limited knowledge (recently it was about Las Vegas and Grand Canyon :p).

Btw, I have seen Mahanadi (very sad movie) but don't remember Sonagachi. Now, I know what I'll ask you if I run into you by some quirk of fate :))
My American counterparts think their jokes might offend my Indian sensibilities, and never force me to drink alcohol, and wonder if American cows are sacred too! Actually, very respectful!

FAQs: Have you been to Bangalore?
Can you speak Bangalore?
How is your English so good?
and my favorite:
...I got the Delhi belly when I was there... ;-)

BTW, I know Calcutta as the City of Joy thanks to Dominique Lapierre...
I guess I will go with Gandhi in appreciation of the guy from Palestine at my next to work lunch truck who calls me Rohan Gandhi for some reason :)
@dipanjan - yes, Mother Teresa is universally known and the fact that her mission is very close to my house is also really cool.

@rs - so tell me abt vegas and grand canyon - will ya? :D

@qs - but you left out the main thing - do you really speak Bangalore??

@rohan (gandhi) - and ladies and gentleman, lemme now introduce you to the Son of the Nation :D
I nominate Peter Sellers in The Party as the India Brand Ambassador...
lol Great post! :-) And seriously I don't understand this fixation with elephants. Even in the Seinfeld episode in India, an elephant was in the scene. Next time I get to talk to an American, I am going to bring in a big mac or something equally crazy into the scene. :-)
And Kamal Hassan rules! :-)
And where have the headlines and farmer boy disappeared?? :-(
I am surprised that these things are still prevelant...coz I thought it's the pre-IT age that had this kind of image about India.
When I visited SF last year, I was quite amused to learn that most of the non-indian colleagues of mine were well aware of what India is ... and one guy had actually travelled all over India and had much more to tell me than to know from me. Most of them talk about bad roads or dirty driving or crazy honking kind of things or even great mobile technology but not the age old elephant, camel, snake charmer things. May be you should tell your non-indian friends to watch some travel tv.
i took my american boss to a central-asian theme restaurant in b'lore and in spite of my reassuring him many times that all the waiters were indian, he said, "gee, i hope these afghans aren't too upset about Bush and the whole bombing thing - wouldn't want them to poison us." pretty mixed-up geography. :)
my talking point when i meet calcuttans - mamatadi. :)
LOL. I didn't know about the Sonagachi thing, I will feed it my bachelor friends as a cool pick-up line to use on Bengali girls.. "You from Culcutta, eh? Been to Sonagachi?"
@ttg - sadly, namak halal used parts of that and we might offend Indians who don't know who Peter Sellers is and want credit to the Big B :D

@janani - farmer boy is making a trip to the land of elephants but will return soon - ekdum guarantee :)

@tweety - i know i get the dirty roads and traffic thing too - that too with some video doing the round showing how dangerous driving in India is - everybody is having a field day with me :((

@chary - LOL!!!

@dna - pick up line?? please lemme know if that works - please :D
heard a lot about this phen.n but frabnkly, never faced it. i was in the US and in the UK for about 6 years but i found that - in my personal experience - they all know india - and only too well - either bcz they have - or have friends who have - travelled there - or bcz they have heard abt these geeks from india who will take their jobs away =- or bcz they heard abt how fast the economy is growing ... but def'ly my experience is too ltd to draw definitive conln.s from i am sure :)

also most places i went there were too many indians settled there or working there or studying there for it to be an unknown strange land

brand ambassodor - u mean in the west the face of india? u knw what? i think the girl in ER (the bend it like beckham girl)
My vote goes to the vegetarian, teetotaller, Mama's boy who is waiting for Mom to cherry pick the perefct wife for him and who always reaches the party before I do. He my dear friend is the face of the Brand India.If you arrive on the scene a few minutes later you will be left to deal with questions raging from vegetarianism, alcoholism to bride burning, elephant riding etc. etc. Heck! I recently found it difficult to explain to a colleague's husband that Indians have a roaring porn industry thanks to one such brand ambassador.
Erm, been in South India for 8 years and noone ever asked me about Sonagachi thank goodness; being told Bong women are hot in bed was bad enough. I do get asked about Howrah Bridge, Victoria Memorial and roshogolla a lot though.

As for non Indians, other than the usual stuff about cows and elephants and snakes, I have been asked this one very deep question " what was it like growing up as a woman in a country like India". I think this boy expected me to rattle off horrific tales of how my eductaion was stopped after 5th standard, how my brother got all the food while I went hungry, how I was almost married off at age 12, because he looked most disappointed with my " not that different from yours" answer :P
@prerona - actually that is very true - a lot more people I have met know "the girl from Bend It Like Beckham" than the girl from "Bride and Prejudice" :)

@anyesha - wow! I am a teetotaller and am an almost vegetarian (I know that means nothing but I eat meat very rarely and don't eat fish). So I am pretty much the real thing then :D :D

@ron - what? You dint get married at 12? so when was it? 14? that must have been tough right/ being the only unmarried girl at that age - chaah :))
Haha, very funny. It's true though. Nobody has "a clue" about those whom we deem as "faaamoooooooos".

Perhaps the Himalayas will help you next time. If they haven't been there either, you can make up stuff you've read about.
Although I must add, cities everywhere are global. It's the villages and the suburban areas that people are really more interested about. Americans are also like Indians, they too want only "khaas baath", not the same old same old. I think it depends on who you are talking to. If you are talking to a physicist, you can talk about CV Raman. If you're talking to a sociologist, you can talk about the fraud Swamis they see on Ntl Geographic (along with the animal programs). If you're talking to an actress wannabe, you can talk about the White girls prancing around in the background in duet songs!

The world is full of inquisitive people and India has a ton of different people doing different things to quench their curiousity.
but i seriously think that software professionals and the fact that bollywood movies still have songs and dances are India's brand ambassadors.
btw, Night Shyamalan is American(only indian by origin) though like a true Bengali, you've tried to take even the remotest link to claim him Indian
@silpa - i rarely talk to physicists. the only sociologist i know is my sister and wannabe actresses don't talk to me - so there :((

@anonymous - ooops. yougot your stats wrong there friend. m. knight was born in India and his first movie Praying With Anger was also shot in India - so that makes him a fair bit Indian I would say - i might know my desis well - but i do know my films inside out :D
brand ambassador, eh? it seems aishwariya has taken it a bit further, just a drop out of the sea od american ignorance....shes got a l'oreal lipstick shade named after her.....
a question that has been asked to my aunt who livs in detroit.... why is dhone pata so hot? i ask u y?
and hey, to u dr. nandy..... ur in good shape.... tho i havnt been here for a while. :)
Hey Sagnik,

How about Kavya Vishwanathan? I think shes famous (notorious) enough.

I have been reading your blog for a year now. Simply superb dude.For a guy, you sure can write loads about relationship stuff :)

And its very amusing and funny in a PGW-ish way.
I would ask for Rashagulla first...nothing else comes closer:)

How about Kalpana Chawla? I am sure people have heard about her. Wait for few months, Ramanujam, the math genius will be our ambassador after his movies come out.
Stereotyping for sure, but most South Indians will tell you that even now folks in parts of north & west India use the term 'Madraasi' to refer to everyone south of the Vindhyas.
I am from Calcutta too, and when people find out abt that, the top 3 questions that are asked to me are:
1. Have you been to Sonagachi?
2. Do you like rosogollas?
3. Whats up with Ganguly, man? When is he going to score?
Of course, the top question is:
0. (With a condescending look)- So, Are you a Bong?, to which I can fortunately say 'No' very quickly! (no offence :)
People of any cricket playing nation would recognise Sachin, as easily as we would if asked about any batting legend of almost any test playing nation and Im not including Kenya, Canada and Holland.
India is not a 'one' brand..its an amlagamation of almost all kinds of obscure people and cultures one can come across, so I dont think any single human being, not sure about teleute above ;-) can represent them.
On a lighter note, how do we go from kharagpur to Kolkatta, i am in Kaharagur presently felt like chilling out..a reply would be appreciated..
@sayantani - once again that lipstick will be used by the desis alone

@vetti-guy - are you from BITS? coz your name is very BITSian like. and thanks btw :)

@queer - very good examples. specially the late Kalpana Chawla. but the one i am scared abt is the forthcoming movie Shantaram - i have a gut feeling that might do some more image damage :( btw, aren't you from SD - i am in SD right now for the weekend and the wheather rocks as usual - wohooooo!!

@jagadish - i do agree that people from up north think of the entire South as "South Indians" but I guess it exists the other way too

@nirav - oh! don't even get me started on how many times i have been held responsible for Ganguly - woooooff!

@usg - but the number of cricket playing nations is less than 10. and if you wanna go from KGP to Kol just take a train - there is one almost daily.
but the europeans seem to have only one question for the Indians - 'what is the secret of the divorce rates in India??' and i almost stopped myself from saying 'eternal patience' and 'parental pressure'
thanks..much appreciated..
Deepak Chopra. That's the answer I seem to get when I interview my non Indian friends. Now that they have me in their lives of course it's Shah Rukh Khan :)
Brand Ambassador? The Indian IT engineer, of course!

And an american friend of mine cant stop teasing me about the bollywood group dances... I was going to Chennai last week, and he told me: Dont break into too many of your simultaneous dance routines with your 'desi' friends.
That was really cute and hilarious, I thought.
superb post!

I have to say it has to be Ganesha. He is everywhere! Unfortunately even on Lingerie and slippers. I am assuming you only mean the West. Otherwise it has to be the BIG B.

and god did Miss. Rai SUCK on Letterman. Shit.

And YES.the whole Seinfeld episode (the betrayal) was one long ****ing cliche.

I have been asked a lot about India (Especially via Orkut) where I seem to get a lot of emails about the country especially from Brazilians and the Americans who come here for spiritual reasons...and everytime I tell them that when I travel to the northern part of India I feel like a stranger in a different country! Which I think is true :)
Sagnik: but you left out the main thing - do you really speak Bangalore??

Yes, on bad grammar days, I don't say Bangalore, I speak it! :)

Ambassador: Chicken Tikka Masala!
@swathi - not to forget the never ending supplies of good food that the mother-in-law keeps sending :D

@usg - no probs

@hemo - actually Deepak Chopra is a very good one! btw, did you know that his son is a filmmaker??

@casablanca - oh no no - the call center guy beats the desi techie any day - trust me - without the latter the machines wont even boot :)

@p - wow! you have been asked questions abt India on Orkut? we should make you the brand ambassador then :)

@qs-ji - so what if you speak Bangalore? I speak Calcutta with a Bangalore accent - beat that :D
Arrey how can you forget Amrish Puri's Kaali Maa...Indy Jones. And it really is astonishing what-not ideas people have about India. A professor (he was born in Darjeeling - his parents were British missionaries) asked me whether there are still cows roaming in the streets of Calcutta:)

I knew someone who was asked in Japan whether telephones were available in India as yet.
Brand Ambassador: Mother Teresa definitely, I tell my non Indian pals that I am from the same city that she lived in towards the end of her life. Usually, a lot of people say how can you live with so much poverty. Doesn't it affect you?

Believe it or not I got to know that Sonagachi was a place in Calcutta only after I left for Bangalore.
@biplabda - the same movie which has led to several people question Indian desserts ??? :D

@generally-speaking - you dint know of Sonagachi till you left Kol - wow you were well protected dude!

Read your post. Nice take on Red-Calcutta and for that matter on being from india. It really is funny how people latch onto certain place names or cliches and then expect you to have the same familiarity or agree with their point of view that that single perspective covers everything.

By the way are you St.James 97 batch-Pilani and stayed near Moulali?
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