In my United Nations years, one of the dilemmas foreigners often confronted was in dealing with the sensitivities of India’s prickly neighbours. Soon after Independence, when foreigners asked a South Asian looking individual, “Are you Indian?”, they often found they had caused great offence, as their interlocutor might draw himself up to his fullest height and snarl, “Indian? Don’t insult me. I am Pakistani.”
One lady of my acquaintance dealt with this by beginning conversations with subcontinental strangers with the question, “Are you Pakistani?” When she tried this on me, I politely pointed out that I was not, adding that her line of questioning was somewhat illogical, since the two countries’ relative population numbers meant that she was six times more likely to be right if she asked, “Are you Indian?”
“I know that,” she replied. “But Indians are also six times less likely to take offence when I get it wrong.”
I recalled this the other day when reading the delightful “novelistic travelogue”-cum-memoir about Cambodia, My Driver Tulong, by former UN official M.P. Joseph, who described himself asking a South Asian-looking man, “You must be from India?”
Joseph, a former IAS officer, says: “That was my opening gambit these days for finding out if someone who looked like an Indian was indeed an Indian or was from elsewhere in the subcontinent, from Pakistan, or Bangladesh, or whatever.
“A decade ago, if I had asked the same question to someone and that someone had turned out to be a Bangladeshi or a Pakistani, or for that matter even a Nepali or a Sri Lankan, they would have felt insulted. None of them would have liked being mistaken for an Indian. A Pakistani or Bangladeshi would have reacted angrily, hotly denying being an Indian or having any association with India.
“But times have changed. Today the same Pakistani or Bangladeshi would feel flattered to be mistaken for an Indian and would answer pleasantly that he was not, without the rudeness of the past. To be mistaken for an Indian is today a compliment for people from the subcontinent.
“India has arrived.”
Joseph was writing about an incident in 2005 or 2006, and it struck me that the transformation he describes was undoubtedly one of the more interesting side-benefits of our economic boom. Another was the popularity of India as a destination for heads of state and government, who all made a beeline to what had now become—and not just climatically—the “hottest” world capital to be seen at. During my brief stint at the ministry of external affairs, there was such a backlog of pending requests for state visits from African potentates that our chief of protocol simply could not cope, since each state visit required blocking the dates of both the president and the prime minister, and they had other things to do as well.
The dramatic reinvention of India’s image as a country to be admired rather than despised is one of the most striking aspects of being an Indian abroad in recent years. When I first went to the United States for graduate studies, I was appalled to discover that the prevailing stereotypes of India were of a nation peopled by emaciated beggars, along with snake-charmers and naked fakirs impaled on beds of nails. (The only counter-image was of maharajahs on their caparisoned elephants. But how many Indians abroad could be mistaken for one of those?)
How things have changed! Now, thanks in particular to the IIT graduates who have invented the Pentium chip, devised Hotmail and cofounded 40 per cent of the startups in Silicon Valley, Indians are seen everywhere as mathematical geniuses and computer wizards.
Sometimes this has unintended consequences. I met an Indian a couple of years ago, a history graduate like me, who told me of transiting through Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and being accosted by a European saying, “You’re Indian! You’re Indian! Can you help me fix my laptop?”
Far better, I suppose, than having an airport official look at him suspiciously and say, “You’re Pakistani! Are you carrying a bomb?”