Turbans, monkeys and culture

She wiggled her finger, tapped the desk authoritatively as she spoke in a fake American accent. The object of her ire was the receptionist at the medical centre; even the person attending to me stopped punching in the details I had given her to listen with rapt, and almost sickeningly servile, attention to this ‘lady’.

There was nothing remarkable about her looks, clothes or deportment to make her stand out. What she did possess was a feeling of superiority based not on ability, which was anyway not required to be showcased here, but attitude.

That short encounter taught me a lesson: we still suffer from a colonial hangover. The British left, so we have new mimic men and women; they appear to be essential accoutrements for our society to keep the mai-baap status quo in place.

Isn’t this a form of racism?
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A group of white youth attacked a Sikh teenager and clipped his hair in a public park in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“This was an extremely distressing attack on a young member of our community, who has been left traumatised by this incident,” a spokesman said.

What was the fault of the 15-year-old? That he had a visible identity different from those around him? Do we realise that our worldview is becoming increasingly microcosmic even as we claim that we are world citizens?

What kind of a world is this where you cannot be yourself – and I add that this self is harmless to others?
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As though these fissures are not bad enough an American professor of psychiatry, Dr Leonard A. Rosenblum, has been studying simians in our country and concluded, “South Indian monkeys are more ‘civilised’ and ‘cultured’ than their North Indian cousins”.

Most people do not understand the concept of civilised behaviour forget about following it. The lady I mentioned in the beginning is, according to me, uncivilised. People on websites who make personal attacks on others outside of the realm of the issue being discussed are uncivilised. When you judge people without knowing them, when you gossip, when you make bizarre accusations, when you stoop to conquer, then you are uncivilised.

Education has got nothing to do with it. Money has got nothing to do with it. Those who have loads of money can be cheap, and those who do not have money but spend an inordinate amount of time discussing other people’s wealth are even more cheap.

Table manners, telephone manners, toilet manners are all about etiquette and do indeed constitute culture as practised. You may know what fork and knife to use, how to fold the napkin and keep your elbows off the table, but are you capable of carrying on this ‘properness’ beyond your image projection?

A few years ago some of us had gone to a coffee shop late at night after a function. While filling the glass of one of the women, the steward was nudged (unintentionally) by one of the diners trying to get to his table. As a result some of the liquid fell on our friend’s dress. She did not merely squirm or excuse herself to go clean up. Instead, she screamed at the person serving her, “Do you know how expensive these clothes are? It is a Tarun Tahiliani outfit!”

It was indeed a designer churidar-kurta. She called the manager, removed her soiled dupatta and asked him to get it dry-cleaned. I am all for asking for your rights, but was this cultured behaviour? Did the steward do it on purpose? Even if he had to be pulled up, there was no need to announce the label of the clothes. Why would someone who assumes she is superior want to impress a person she deems inferior? Was it for our ears? Did she for a moment imagine that any of us would be swept off our feet with this information?

This same person had once commented on a small piece of jewellery I was wearing. “Oh, I wouldn’t wear that. I would stick to X”, and she named a certain brand. I shrugged and smiled to myself. For, what I was wearing was indeed the brand she mentioned. Should I have told her that? What would it prove? Why would I need to embarrass her when she had not succeeded in embarrassing me?

The moment we let labels start dictating us, we cease to be people and become puppets of brands.

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