Multi-cultural, multi-racial India
‘Indians are very very different from each other,’ I said casually to a teacher once. He was American. I, an Indian.
‘Really, how different?’ the American asked me, staring at me with his pale blue eyes, eyes as alien to me as his blond hair. But he was a teacher who was interested in the peoples of the world and I could talk to him. I was a substitute teacher in the same school in Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania, in a school called IST, the International School of Tanzania.
‘We are multi-cultural, like no other country in the world,’ I said.
‘You mean different religions? Lots of countries are like that,’ he said.
‘Not like India is. We are majority Hindus but we have the second largest population of Muslims in the world, Plus we have a sizeable population of Jains, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and Jews. That’s all the major religions of the world,’ I said.
There was a touch of arrogance in his blue eyes. ‘America is a multi-cultural society too. In fact we have people of different races living together.’
I sighed. ‘In India it’s similar, but the difference is that our different races or groups have kept their identity…but in your country everyone talks the same, wears the same clothes…’
‘What are you talking about? Indians are all ethnically the same!’ he said.
‘No. People from the state of Kerala for example are different ethnically from lets say that of Maharashtra.’
‘Different accents you mean…’ he said.
I could see that he was irritated.
‘No no,’ I said. ‘Different racially, There is as much difference between a Keralite and a Maharashtrian as between a Spaniard and a German.’
You could see that he didn’t believe me, and I knew what he wanted to say. That he didn’t see the difference and that he knew quite a few Indians personally. I wanted to tell him that I too wouldn’t be able to see the difference between a Spaniard and a German. Or for that matter between a Britisher and an American. Sure I knew some people from these nationalities but to me they looked the same, from the same country. As for accents, I am still confused about them…
‘Look,’ I said in a diplomatic tone, ‘I’ll give you some examples of how different we are ethnically. A Hindu in Kerala or Kashmir or Bengal eats different food, and wears different clothes. In Bengal, Diwali is not as important as Durga Pooja while no other state in India celebrates Durga Pooja, and we are talking of people from the same religion. The Ganesh festival is a big thing only in Maharashtra. And I haven’t even got to the religious differences as yet! But I can assure you that there is far less difference between a Punjabi Hindu and Punjabi Muslim that between a Punjabi and a Sindhi! There is less difference between a Bengali Muslim and a Bengali Hindu than between a Bengali and a Bihari. There is less difference because they are the same race, the same ethnicity, and they speak the same language, wear similar clothes…’
I could see that I had lost him.
‘That’s interesting,’ he murmured.
‘We have a different languages, more than thirty of them!’ I exclaimed, not a little proudly.
‘Dialects?’ he asked.
‘Oh no! Languages with different scripts! Knowing Tamil doesn’t mean you can understand Gujarati or Punjabi…the languages are very very different. As different as English and French, if not more different! Plus we have different scripts!’ I was enjoying myself now because he was surprised. ‘Doesn’t Spanish and Italian use the same script as English? And what about the Americans? Don’t they too use the same language as the British? English? And the same script as well?’ I asked.
He was silent, but I could see that he was fascinated.
‘We have an ancient culture. Almost as old as the Egyptians. Maybe older,’ I continued deliberately, because just a day earlier another teacher had asked me whether Indians were tribals before the British established the education system. ‘Ancient Indians were educated in maths and astrology and science before the west was. We had an ancient library called Nalanda in Bihar, which was destroyed by invaders.’
Well, this teacher was open to new knowledge. He pulled out a map of the world and spread it out in the empty staff-room. He pointed to India. ‘That’s a very large area, you are bound to have such differences. And yes, I know that India has a rich culture…’
‘Yes, rich and diverse. Do you know that the Parsis left their homeland of Iran hundreds of years ago just so that they could practice Zoroastrianism in peace, here in India? Today, Parsis, though of a different race, are very much Indian, though they have maintained their distinct identity.’ I was getting late for class and realised that I had forgotten to mention the unique racial identity of people in the north-east, but I was getting late for class. As I walked out I couldn’t resist my parting shot. ‘We are the most tolerant country in the world,’ I said.
(This is an actual conversation I had with a teacher at IST. I have combined two conversations into one.)