Saturday, Jan 21, 2006

Metro Plus Chennai

What? Diwali or The Valley?

Being an Indian in a coach full of foreigners in Italy

 has its advantages and disadvantages, 

discovers Sheila Kumar

To be fair, we had insisted that we tour foreign parts, as it were, with
anyone but Indians. Don't get me wrong, I am as fond of my fellow
 Indian as the next person; only, I have some experience of
how badly Indians travel. How they cart their idiosyncrasies
abroad with their potlums and urugais; how they insist on
dal-roti-rice wherever they are, how they eschew all that
they are wary of, which runs a wide gamut from Chippendale
shows to a walk down the fashion district of Paris. And so on
 and so forth.

The travel agent understood perfectly. "Yes, indeed," he said.
 "I'm booking you on a coach trip with Americans,
Australians and Europeans. You'll be guaranteed great local
food (they'll insist on it), you'll get insights into how other
 communities live, and there will be no short cuts where
sight-seeing is concerned, they won't stand for that kind of
thing. And I will vouch that they make for great fellow
travellers." It seems he had done one such trip.
(Of course, it was much later that we found out he had
carried a small section of his community along...
wife, in-laws and two couples from down his street).

Mixed group
And so it was that my sister and I boarded a coach with a
sundry lot of Americans, Canadians, Australians and a couple
from Malaysia, a motley crew from all walks of life. There was a
 man retired from the construction business, a beautician, the
owner of a boutique, a man who'd made `several fortunes'
on the stock market, a woman who looked like she was
recovering from some kind of nervous problem; a nurse,
an Outback dude, one old couple who were also obviously
old money, from upstate New York. The younger lot was
students, heavy on the make-up and light on curiosity
about the places they were visiting.

At first, their sheer effusiveness upon meeting Indians
camouflaged their sheer ignorance. I spent a good ten
minutes listening to the stock market adventurer talking
about how his Indian neighbours invited him to `the
valley' and how he loved the lights out there (Kashmir?
 Unlikely, I thought, even as I politely listened) before I
cottoned on that he was talking about Diwali. The hairdresser
from Canberra happened to be walking with me around Bologna
one sunny morning and asked me about the Valley (the
real one, this time) with all the air of making light
conversation. "All those people killed there for nothing," she
said, smiling brightly. The only way to deflect that
conversation was by asking her about the boat people,
John Howard's bete noire. And, of course, she knew
as little about that as she did about Kashmir, so both
of us turned to the topic of anti-frizz lotions with mutual relief.

Soon, we were being asked questions ranging from
 the serious to the seriously ridiculous. The elderly couple
had yet to visit India and asked keenly about the
 country. The ex-construction businessman asked about the
poverty, others about er, elephants and snakes (I kid you
 not). Willy-nilly, we had become some sort of ambassadors
 for India. Be it knowledge of wines and cheese, my having
 read up on some of the more famous cities on our itinerary,
why, even the puns we cracked in ye olde English seemed
to have the palefaces in perpetual surprise. One sublime
 moment came when we were driving down a leafy
avenue full of old buildings and suddenly to mar the
 view, appeared the golden arch of a McDonalds. I
nudged my sister ruefully, only for the Crocodile Dundee
of our tour to lean forward and ask, "Your first McDonald, eh?"

The accents were something else. Of course, you got used
to them after a while but every so often, you went into
 the old "Sorry? Excuse me?" routine. The Oz accents
were toughest, followed by the Canadian drawl. If the
American mangling of English was amusing, the
Malaysian couple was downright incomprehensible. My sister
and I shared a table with the last at a trattoria in Milan and the
 man insisted on speaking Italian to the dumbfounded
 waiter. Our conversation was a brief and fraught interlude;
all I gleaned was that the man had visited Chennai (and
Vindaloo, his wife put in helpfully, before he told her that
was the name of a dish not an Indian city) and loved,
no, not the dosa and idli-sambar but the ice creams
in our town! "Much better than the Italian gelato," he insisted
 and we nodded in agreement weakly.

Derision seemed to come easily to the Americans and they
spared not one of the Italian masters: da Vinci, they decided,
was not a very popular man because he obviously had a lot
of time on his hands to do all that he did. They tired of the
cathedrals early on in the tour, they felt David had been
 sculpted when Michelangelo had felt out of sorts and they
chortled loud and long over the handful of askew towers we
 saw, not just in Pisa but a few other places, too.

Another matter of concern
Food was another divide. Often, after a long hard day of
sightseeing, all we would want to do would be to soak our
 feet and turn in early. But not our fellow travellers, oh no.
However arduous the trudge, they'd be there at the dinner
 or lunch table, enthusiasm intact, wit flowing and asking us
 every now and then, "You girls tire easily, eh?" Our inability
 to do full justice to four-course meals was a matter of
 concern, too.

And so it was that after a week spent in the company of
these friendly but somewhat alien palefaces, we were in
 Venice when an Indian tour group disembarked and
walked towards us. There were men dressed in woollens
that would have done an Arctic expedition proud, women
 in heavy silk saris and balaclavas (a deadly combination)
 and kids squabbling, shouting. I caught the eye of one
woman and smiled. Her jaw dropped, closed shut and
she hurried past, averting her gaze. It took a minute before
 the realisation clicked in: she was wary of me. And Indians
 eschew what they are suspicious of.

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