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Indo ethnic

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 15, 2018 Published on March 03, 2017

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When we’re in Delhi, our press-wallah comes in once a week to iron the clothes that we’ve washed in the machine. It’s a great solution. It halves the effort that goes into looking well-laundered while providing a little pocket money to the guy I’m going to call Jingo.

He’s a big-made man who likes to talk politics with Bins. They chatter away in several tongues. Jingo speaks Hindi with a smattering of English and vice-versa for Bins except that he throws in the occasional French and Tamil. This weekend, as Jingo is smoothing out the sheets, he pauses in his actions to ask Bins, “So: is it true that in Chennai the people don’t eat Indian food?” He uses the word “Indian” without any qualifiers.

Bins takes several minutes to process this question. “Umm. People in Chennai are Indians, no?” Jingo agrees they are. “So their food is Indian food, no?” Jingo nods his head vigorously but goes on to say, “See, my son went to Chennai last week. He says there’s no Indian food there. Only rice.” I am sitting in another room, chuckling to myself. I’m glad I’m not the one dealing with these queries.

“Wait!” says Bins. “Rice is Indian food too, my friend!” He explains that there are many restaurants serving North Indian food in Chennai. The easiest way to find them, he says, is to go to a place with a Muslim name. Jingo straightens up then and clears his throat. They do not go further down this path. Instead he redirects his questions to a recently deceased politician. “Is it true,” he asks Bins, “that this person who died, she was an ACTRESS?” Bins confirms that she was. “And was she Hindu, this actress?” Jingo wants to know. “Yes” says Bins. “So then,” asks Jingo, “how come she was buried in a GRAVE?” Because, as he explains, “We Hindus burn our dead, you know! We don’t bury them.”

In order to explain the intricacies of Tamil Nadu’s politics, Bins suggests they go outside to smoke a friendly bidi. I don’t hear the rest of this conversation, but it doesn’t matter. I know that Jingo and Bins get on very well. The wording of the question about food was innocent. It wasn’t meant to inform Bins and me that, being rice-eaters means that we are somewhat less Indian than he, a wheat-eater. I don’t think he’s even conscious that Bins is actually French. All he knows is that we both go to Chennai now and then. His questions have grown out of genuine surprise, not a desire to put us in our place.

Even so, it bothers me to see the rigidity of his world view. Jingo watches TV, he reads newspapers. Why isn’t it hard-wired that “Indian” has many thousands of interpretations? But later on, when I ask Bins what he thinks, he says, “You’re making too much of it.” It’s time for lunch and so we settle down to eat what our cook has made for us. Bins eats rice while I eat rice with chapattis. Meaning: I use the chapattis to scoop up the rice. “A pukka barbarian,” says Bins, grinning. “Jingo would lose his mind if he saw you!” I shrug. “I’m just a multi-ethnic Indian. Deal with it.”

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on March 03, 2017
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