An Identity Crisis and a Tale of Two Cultures:
Conversations on an Indian train
knew that it was wise not to be drawn into debate over such things in
public, if at all possible'.
Outside the station
was business as usual. It was sheer madness. Throngs of people were milling
about, and a million vehicles were snarled-up in a traffic jam of Indian
proportions, waiting to get onto Howrah Bridge. After battling through
the traffic in a yellow and black Ambassador taxi, I then battled through
the crowds on blistered feet and arrived in coach S9 soaked in sweat and
more than a little agitated. The length of Indian trains is phenomenal.
It can be a mission in itself to find the right platform, but its an even
bigger one having to walk half a kilometre along the platform with heavy
baggage to get to your designated carriage, while cutting a path through
a thousand people. As the train pulled out of the station, I gulped down
half of my ten rupee bottle of "Bisleri" drinking water, secured
my backpack to the metal hook under the bench, and settled down.
was yet another long haul train journey. I was heading south from
Calcutta and can remember passing the time (and there was a lot
of it) by talking to Ramesh. He was a neatly dressed, thirty-something
government employee. Like a lot of private conversations, they tend
to become public property as anyone and everyone gathers to listen-in.
And it is guaranteed that on crowded Indian trains, a large audience
will be listening-in. So I have become an expert in the art of saying
a lot without really saying much.
The usual flurry of activity then took place. Chai-sellers, fruit-sellers,
toy-sellers, cold-drink sellers, and just about every type of seller imaginable
passed through the carriage, shouting, wailing and bellowing. After the
bedlam died down, Ramesh began to talk.
The usual "Tell me, what is your good name, sir?" was asked
and then things went into full flow. He then asked me what my job was
- a simple everyday question, but not for me. I used to be a researcher,
but in the last few years have dabbled in selling jewellery, writing,
proof reading and am considering teaching English somewhere along the
line. After a degree of hesitation I selected a job from my ever-growing
Next, he enquired about my age and whether or not I was married. With
typical Indian directness he said, "You are not yet married at your
Well I have had relationships, girlfriends, and anyway, marriage is not
as important in the West as it is in India - all part of my well rehearsed
stock in trade answers. Ramesh laughed and shook my hand. Being a man
I can get away with having such seemingly lax morals.
By this stage about six or seven strangers had sat and were listening.
I had to tread carefully. Things were getting intense. This guy was setting
a minefield for me by bringing "God" into the conversation:
"You are a Christian?", he asked, followed by "Do you believe
in God?" I waffled about being brought up as a Christian, and believing
in "good" rather than God, while trying to side step the issue
by saying that religion is not as important in Europe. The good rather
than God reply is one of my "get out of jail" cards. It had
worked before and it did again. It brought a beaming smile from Ramesh
and everyone present nodded in agreement.
India is a highly structured society where family, gender, education and
religion provide people with a strong sense of identity. Ramesh was trying
to ascertain where I belonged in the scheme of things. But being from
the less rigid West, my self-identity is more transient and by this stage
was shifting by the minute according to the questions being fielded -
or more precisely, to the "could-mean-anything" answers I was
giving. If I didn't have an identity crisis before, then I was in serious
danger of developing one now.
It was getting hot - very hot. Someone switched on the overhead fans to
blow some warm air around. Thirteen men were now packed into berths that
were supposed to seat eight. The intensity stakes were cranked up a further
notch as Ramesh asked, "Which country?" - I replied, "England"
- "Very good country" he said and someone shouted, "What
do you think of India?" I have learnt not to offer a personal opinion
on anything in situations like this, but especially when faced with the
"what do I think of India" thing. This issue can be hotter than
a hot potato.
Indian newspapers were full of stories about Hindu/Muslim violence in
Gujurat, Kashmir, religious fundamentalism, corruption, poverty, and globalisation.
I knew that it was wise not to be drawn into debate over such things in
public, if at all possible. So I dealt my second escape card by saying,
"Some things are good, some things are bad". It worked. Most
people laughed - not because it was funny, but because they live with
the "bad" things on a daily basis and appeared to take comfort
from the fact that a foreigner is also subjected to them. They knew what
I was talking about without me having to say - endless queuing, form filling,
delays, bureaucracy, and all other types of man-made madness.
Ramesh wanted to know, "What do British people at home think of India".
This was successfully negotiated by pleading ignorance on behalf of the
British public. I replied that people back home are largely unaware of
what happens in India. I told everyone that the average Britisher knows
little about the world beyond the confines of North America and Western
Europe - and even then that's stretching it. India rarely features in
Back home, "What do you want to go there for?" is the usual
response said in a tone denoting "shock-horror" if I tell someone
that I am going to India.
What they really mean is that I shouldn't be going. Strange really, given
their knowledge of India is ill-informed at worse and minimal at best.
Unfortunately, people are less concerned with finding out about what is
happening in the rest of the world and more concerned about world-shattering
events surrounding what Posh Spice had for breakfest, the latest tabloid
sleazy sex scandal, or some other high class tit-bit from the all-important
world of Britiish celebrity-dom. It was half a world away from where I
was but it might as well have been on a different planet.
The train pulled into a station, and as usual auto-rickshaws were out
in force near the entrance. It must have been early morning as I recall
the drivers being curled up in the back seats not yet having risen from
their night-time slumber. A family were crouched on the platform eating
rice-meals from banana leaves with their fingers. Next to them a vendor
was yelling, "Omlette! Omlette! Omlette!"
A beautiful girl, no older than eighteen, wearing gold-coloured dangling
earrings and a pink sari looked at me as the train moved-off. I thought
about where she could going and who she might have been. Maybe she was
off to attend some kind of function, she looked so elegant. But she was
going nowhere and to many she was just a no one. The only "get-together"
she would be attending was the marriage of hard work and low pay. She
wrapped her sari around and tucked it in, then someone handed har a rag
which she folded into a cushion on top of her head, upon which someone
else placed a board full of bricks. She was part of the family of labourers
that had been toiling away behind her. Her beauty was incongruous with
the brutality of it all, and I wondered if she would look so young and
beautiful after a few more years of hard labour. I was a long way from
It saddened me to think that most of the great British public are led
to believe that the world basks in a rosy glow, only slightly tinted by
a few bogey men and rogue states, and a bit of poverty in this or that
place. And I nearly forgot - a minor war here or there. But really that's
all a long way away, and if it continues then good old Uncle Sam will
put things right by bombing hell out of someone. If it can't be put right
in that manner then we will have comic-relief, sports-relief or some other
back slapping charity event to ease our guilty consciences. But an Indian
train was neither the time nor place to vent my frustrations. I shut up
before saying anything too incriminating.
But Ramesh wanted to know more. His questions were incessant. "What
do most people in England do in their spare time?" I had thought
about replying along the lines of - Friday night drinking binges, followed
by Saturday morning shopping sprees, followed by arranging some credit
loan from the nearest bank. People have to spend their money on something
even if they don't necessarily need or can afford the particular "something"
that they spend it on.
I gazed out of the window and noticed a flamboyantly painted rural temple,
almost identical to the previous flamboyantly painted temple that we had
passed ten minutes ago. This one was dedicated to Shiva. I knew this because
a black stone figure of Nandi the bull, his mount, was positioned in front
of the shrine. Ramesh informed me, "That is a temple, sir".
Well I didn't think it was a burger joint (surprisingly, you don't tend
to get them in the middle of a field in rural India), but I replied "Yes"
trying to demonstrate grateful acknowledgement. It made me think that
debt has long since replaced religion in securing conformity in Britain
- most people have too much to lose (or should that be too much to pay?)
to rock the boat or to challenge things - even if they wanted to. But
this aspect of the good old British way of life was best left unsaid.
I didn't have the heart to burden anyone with such an unhealthy dose of
faultfinding gloom. After all Ramesh had told me that England is a "good"
country and maybe it is. Anyhow, I didn't wish to shatter any illusions
- Britain is what many want India to be - "developed".
I don't suppose that I'm an expert on anything much, but if I am an expert
on anything at all, it is in being able to regurgitate various viewpoints
to prevent having to give an outright opinion of my own. I was asked about
my views on development and India. So I mentioned J.K. Galbraith, the
leading American economist, who is often quoted in the Indian press warning
India not to dive headfirst into unfettered global capatilism. One of
his classic quotes is something about the foolishness of feeding a horse
strawberries, while expecting the masses to live on what comes out at
the other end. It's not so much a case of the "trickle-down"
effect, but the "trickle-out" effect, and the urban Indian elite
seem hell-bent on devouring vast quantities of strawberries gulped down
with a good old dollop of western values.
The train trundled along. Scores of women were working in the fields under
the baking sun. The lower parts of their saris were pulled-up between
their legs to aid mobility. I grew tired just watching them. I don't think
much had "trickled-down" to them. So much for strawberries!
Everyone had laughed at the strawberry-eating horse story but were unsure
whether or not Galbraith's opinion was also mine. I couldn't possibly
Finally, my saviour arrived in the form of the ticket inspector, and everyone
dispersed to sit in their designated seats. I had got through the last
hour with admirable skill. Everyone had done a lot of listening, and I'd
done a lot of talking. But was anyone any wiser about who I was at the
end of it all? I wasn't. I then sat wondering whether I had turned into
some slick and shady operator, deft in side-stepping issues - an opportunist,
capable of ducking and diving with consumate ease. But then I came to
the conclusion that I am really quite a decent and right-minded person
- a typical product of Western culture. In other words, completely normal:
unbalanced with multiple personalties, suffering from an identity crisis
and unable to give a straight answer to a simple question.
Colin Todhunter - The Madras Diaries - India, 2002
Todhunter in India
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India first you get married and then you work these things out",
he said with amazing casualness.
will be a small financial re-numeration" Mr Sunderjee says...
Colin Todhunter finds himself the unexpected 'star' of an Indian movie.
unique experience of going
to the gym in India
God and Jerry Seinfeld: spaced out in India
got the impression that he thought he was a living God. He was lost in
Tax Office and the Trail of the Banana Pancake
people get to where they think they want to be, many realise that they
didnt want to be there in the first place or at least want to be
somewhere else - somewhere better'.
to the Future on Triplicane High Road
women with love in their eyes, and women with flowers in their hair, but
Rainbows in Chennai
The gap between the glossy world of adverts and reality may be big in
the West, but in India it's gargantuan.
Whislt staying in India try staying here?
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