C Y Gopinath: Saying it like it isn't

Apr 10, 2018, 06:12 IST | C Y Gopinath

I hope to share some of my perspectives, a view of the city that raised me from the city that now houses me, backed with good facts

Mumbai seems to be a city of the restless rich looking for new ways to amuse themselves, while pastoral India seems to be becoming ruthless, streaked with the blood of a twisted nationalism and oppression. Representation pic
Mumbai seems to be a city of the restless rich looking for new ways to amuse themselves, while pastoral India seems to be becoming ruthless, streaked with the blood of a twisted nationalism and oppression. Representation pic

C Y GopinathMy son, now 21, has seen very little of India, since we moved to Kenya in 2000 when he was just three. After six years there, we shifted to Thailand, where we still live. He, meanwhile, finished school in Bangkok and left for university in Montréal, Canada. The only Indian city he has seen, in short bursts and through squinted eyes, is Mumbai. His Hindi is scanty, and his Marathi and Tamil are non-existent.

Naturally, I have always wanted him to understand that though he may have left India, India will never leave him. Trying to explain what being Indian means has been a persistent theme in our father-son conversations. Not easy, since Indian-ness is a slippery thing to define, defying quick definition, especially with the country's current rulers.

One evening, as we waited for Bangkok's skytrain, the topic surfaced again. The BTS is an efficient and punctual operation, with thoughtful passengers who neither push nor shove. Men don't grope women at peak hour, and somehow the smell of sweat doesn't fill the air even at day's end.

There was a sudden increase in the platform's decibel level as a small flash mob of high-spirited fellow Indians barreled up the escalator. I guessed they had been recently let loose from their sales conference and were all revved up to explore thrilling Bangkok nightlife. They were animated and loud; some Thais discreetly shift further down the platform. After a while I did too.

The train, when it arrived, was packed wall to wall. There was no question of anyone boarding, so the Thais on the platform patiently remained standing. The Indians, however, switched into what I could best describe as 'Churchgate mode'. They began scrambling up and down the platform, looking for footholds and gaps between bodies, shouting out to each other in Marathi or Hindi.

By the time the train left, every one of them had pummeled and pounded his way in, bulldozing bodies out of his way. The platform was quiet again."So," my son asked, "is that what it means to be Indian?" I am not sure what it means to be Indian any more, much less a Mumbaikar. Mumbai seems to be a city of the restless rich looking for new ways to amuse themselves, while pastoral India seems to be becoming ruthless, streaked with the blood of a twisted nationalism and oppression.

I'm not sure where I'd fit, but living outside your own country after almost 50 years in it does give you an unsettling vantage. I'm proud of what my city and my country made of me, but these days that feels like another country, another time. I was embarrassed by the Kenyan Indians I met in Africa, and I am repelled by the entitled and condescending behavior of many Indians I meet in Bangkok. And when I visit Mumbai, I see the pointless stress of lives apparently lived in continuous road rage.

With the hypercritical eye of one reviewing progeny, I wrote a piece in 2012 called Kill the Indian first. I had heard the phrase from a deferential Thai who had been all praise for Thai Indians till I let slip that I didn't think that much of them. He leaned over, still smiling, and told me Thais say if you see a snake and an Indian, kill the Indian first.

That's not new, of course. I've heard it said in India about Sindhis and Marwaris, and abroad about Jews and Lebanese. It's probably what the embittered everywhere say about those who know how to get rich. My article seemed to go bacterial, if not viral - and incandescent. The nearly 2,000 responses were divided roughly equally between people who agreed some serious reflection was in order about who we were (or becoming) and those who thought I should be banned from returning to India. It didn't feel like my opinions were welcome. Many pointed out that I didn't even live in India.

But, Shobhaa De does, and her opinions don't seem particularly welcome either. Her 2015 tweet "I just ate beef. Come and murder me" led to her being trolled, and calls for police action again her. I could never do as De do, but since objective journalism died sometime in the '90s, you no longer have to be rich or famous to continuously speak your own mind. Even at the risk of getting steamrolled.

In this column, I hope to share some of my perspectives, a view of the city that raised me from the city that now houses me, backed with as many good facts as I can unearth. And keep the door open for whatever flies in next - at me or for me. In my opinion. In my humble opinion. IMHO.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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