Welcome to this space where I am speaking in my own confused voice, not a poet's or a writer's or anything else...nothing lyrical or romantic...just plain old me.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Forever Indian II

Banners in front of the Tata office, Mokattam, Cairo

What, Indianisation?  Again? Well, yes.  In a previous post, I have put forward a historical perspective on the multifarious ways the world has been Indianised, past and present.  I have dutifully looked at facts and blathered on about figures - populations and diaspora, trade and FDI.  I don’t say facts and numbers are not important, they are. Extremely important. But they are kind of dry.  Lack the thrill sometimes, that sense of amazement on unearthing some tiny miracle tucked into the mundane somewhere, wholly unexpected.  Nope, numbers can never tell the entire story.  For that one has to look beyond them.  

Jahaan bhi jaaun yeh lagta hai teri mehfil hai

My personal experience of living in 4 foreign countries (Nigeria, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain) and travelling 20-odd has always taken me places which turned out more Indian than I ever expected.

Through the 70’s, I lived in two different small towns in remotest north-eastern Nigeria.  Facilities were basic - a primary school, two secondary schools – one each for boys and girls, one hospital, one small departmental store, a traditional market, no restaurants.  However, both towns had open-air cinemas, and to my delight, Hindi movies were regularly screened to packed houses. The films and the film-stars both had a massive fan following.  I have watched more Bollywood films living abroad, first as a child in Nigeria, then as an adult in the Gulf, than I have living in India.

In Egypt, where I lived till recently, the fandom of Amitabh Bachchan is far-reaching. When he visited Cairo in the early nineties, the immigration formalities had to be completed at his hotel because the airport was mobbed.  I have heard personal anecdotes of Egyptian fans going to extreme lengths for an autograph or a memento. In Sharm-el-Sheikh, a cab-driver has talked about his favourite Bollywood celebrities, and his knowledge about our films was way more than mine.  All this in spite of restrictions placed on Indian films in Egypt since 1987! This has recently been relaxed, and Bollywood films are gradually making their way back into Egyptian theatres again.

In both Egypt and the Gulf, Hindi films dubbed/subtitled in Arabic are beamed into homes through dedicated TV channels too.  Not just films, surfing through channels in a hotel in Morocco, my husband has suddenly chanced upon a dubbed Hindi soap.  Surfing channels, I have come upon ‘So You Think You Can Dance’, and to my surprise, not only did non-Indian dancers perform a fusion Indian dance, but also the judges of European descent remarked on how their performance drew from kathak.  Indian entertainment is popular practically everywhere.

So is Indian food.  From Amman to Zurich, there are Indian restaurants wherever I have travelled. In Amsterdam I have come upon an Indian restaurant called Gandhi. Far away from the Indian hubs, I have spotted eateries offering the full tandoori works in Inverness.   In Cairo, some dozen Indian restaurants flourish.  In the years that I lived there, I have seen Indian items like papad and mint chutney nudge their way slowly but surely into supermarket shelves.

There have been yoga and meditation sessions conducted at the Giza pyramids and at Azhar Park in Cairo;  henna days and Indian dance classes are offered in the posh suburbs.  Egyptians participate in these events with great gusto.  At a Holi celebration at the Indian Chancery grounds, Egyptians outnumbered the Indians two to one, and the gulal ran out!

Egyptians at Holi in Cairo

During my time there, Tagore’s 150th birth centenary was marked with several events.  I turned up for some of them, and was taken aback at the number of Egyptians who attended.  In one of the addresses, I heard Prof Galal Amin, an eminent economist and writer, remark on Tagore’s influence on his childhood. He further went on to elaborate on the correspondence between Ahmed Shawqi, the famous Egyptian poet, and Tagore.  But Galal Amin is of an older school; I came across Egyptian people a generation younger to me, who had read Tagore’s poetry.  A gentleman in the audience gave us an impromptu recital of “amader chhoto nadi chole bNake bNake.”  It blew my mind the level of Indianisation that this great Bengali poet has brought about single-handed.

Forget Tagore, the gentleman has had 150 years in which to make an impression.  I have myself picked up Indian authors’ books from Diwan’s in Cairo and Jashanmal’s in Bahrain.  Contemporary Indian authors such as Neel Mukherjee and Amitabh Ghosh are available in Middle-Eastern bookstores now, unthinkable two decades ago. 

Kurtis, gold fringes, Indian embroidery and jewellery are now common in the West among high street fashion retailers.  Indian style tops and jackets, and flat women’s chappals are retailed in Egyptian shopping malls too. 

Another slightly sombre face of Indianisation is in El Alamein.  Fallen Indian soldiers, fighting on the British side in World War II, have been commemorated in the WWII memorial there.  So a “corner of a foreign field” in Egypt, “remains forever Indian”.

Cultural exports often piggy-back on trade and overseas investments, on the backs of Indian SME’s.  I have watched this business-led Indianisation in myriad small ways in my corner of the world.  From shopping at the Chellaram’s chain in Jos in the 70’s, to spotting Ashok Leyland trucks running in Dubai; and Bajaj auto-rickshaws in the working-class suburbs of Cairo.  From staying in an Indian-owned B&B in Amsterdam to seeing Indian silk cushion-covers offered by a leading British high-street retailer.  It gives an Indian heart a proud lift indeed when it suddenly sees the Tata logo flying high on a banner planted in foreign soil.

Chhor aayein hum wo galiyaan…phir bhi dil hai Hindustani

Did you know Diwali is an official holiday in Fiji and Trinidad and Tobago; and Mauritius?  I've met third generation Mauritians of Indian origin who put out lamps for Diwali and dress in traditional Indian attire for festivals.  Some people there still stick to the vegetarian diets their Brahmin forefathers followed, though the Mauritian society has no caste system. Hindu weddings are solemnised with age-old Vedic practices.  Majority of the Indian diaspora seem to preserve their cultural traditions three four generations down the line, wherever they might settle in the world.

As I was writing, an Anais Nin quote about how we see things as we are, and not as they are, flashed into my mind.  Maybe it's just me?  So I sought other opinions - from Indians and non-Indians.  A selection from what they had to say:

People here are fond of Indian food.  Almost every German city has Indian restaurants. Food served is adapted to the local palate.

Some clubs here have a special Bollywood themed night. Events where Bollywood singers visit. Bollywood movies are screened here. There are Bollywood dance classes, classical Indian dance classes and of course, Yoga courses.

In Heidelberg, the South Asia Institute teaches four south Asian languages, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil and Bangla. Also courses on politics and history. Recently they had a summer school to learn Sanskrit. There are books in German about learning Hindi and Sanskrit. 

University communities of Indian students everywhere organise Diwali, Holi celebrations. Germans also participate enthusiastically.

Although there are many positive perceptions about India, there are also many negative/false ones. Popular German media does not always report objectively about India.

Vihang Ghalsasi, Indian, Doctoral student, University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany.

You just don’t see many Indians in the street here.  There is a call-centre in the inner city where I understand many Indians work. They have not settled en masse in Brisbane.  

(But) there are several Indian restaurants and yes, they have grown in the last couple of years. One of my favourite restaurants serves traditional food from the Punjab region.  It is hugely popular with Indians and Europeans alike and is always packed. 

Denise Covey, Australian, teacher & writer/blogger, Brisbane, Australia.

When we were school kids, people used to say that if you were to buy a pair of (foreign) jeans, chances were 30% that the denim would have been produced in India.

Nowadays, thanks to our IT industry, people say that 30% of the software that the world uses, whether in banks or airlines or wherever, is produced in India, or by Indians elsewhere in the world.

Certainly a pointer to how the world looks at us and the shift in the skills we bring to the table.

In sports, words like “doosra” when applied to a cricket bowling delivery have become part of the commentators’ regular usage.

Sandeep Bhargava, Non-Resident-Indian, Director, Avani Resources Pte Ltd, London, UK.

There are so many (instances of Indianisation).  There was a study done in Canada about religious preferences – the number of non-Indians switching to Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism has gone up, from something like 7% to 17%, from one census to the next.  Bhajan/kirtans have become very common.  Yoga is a big thing.

It is a craze to attend an Indian wedding, dress up in Indian attire and jewellery. Henna tattoos are very popular.  People dress as Indian brides and grooms in theme/costume parties.  Cotton (kurtis) and silks from India are things everyone wants to see in their wardrobes. 

Kama Sutra is also a craze, at adult spas Kama Sutra massages are taught to improve relationships.  Incense or agarbattis are burnt/lighted for creating ambience.

People call us and ask for home remedies/herbal products – like honey and ginger for coughs and colds.  People use neem oil as a pesticide rather than chemical ones on fruit trees or indoor plants, as neem is safer.  The use of Ayurveda, satvik diets etc is trending.

Riki Roy, Canadian-Indian, President, Omnus Investments Ltd, Edmonton, Canada.

As the Navaratris started last September, the Bahrain National Theatre hosted a performance by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, a re-telling of the Ramayana through dance and puppetry. So very apt, it seemed to me, summing up Indianisation in a nutshell.  Religious epics that have diffused east and have influenced foreign art forms now coming to be performed in western Asia.

Many concepts that diffused east and west from India in the past, are now converging steadily and inexorably into trends, crazes, fashions the world over and ultimately, into a force to be reckoned with.    The cultural Indianisation that began in the 1st millennium is now merging with economic Indianisation in the 3rd.  India is finally coming into its own.  And I am fortunate that I am born Indian, that I witness this process.  There are a million reasons to be grateful, a million reasons to celebrate. 

This entry has been written for "More Indian than you think" contest sponsored by Lufthansa over at Indiblogger.

If you are Indian and have travelled abroad then I would love to hear your views.  And if you are not from India, then I'd love to hear your views too - do you see/use Indian style fashions, paisley prints, jewellery? do you enjoy yoga, or Indian food, do you have friends that do? Have you heard of or read any Indian authors/poets? watched Indian films?


  1. am glad i dropped by.
    my god that's an extensive account of all the Indianness you've come across over a life span, would love to sit down and sip some chai and know more...
    Congratulations !!

    1. Thanks, welcome to chai anytime...masala or plain?

  2. Loved the last paragraph. Brilliantly written piece and wonderful thoughts expressed. Glad I could experience what you have.. :)