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From California orange to Nagpur orange

VIKRAM LIMSAY


Why is it that the moment we are in the midst of a foreigner we start disparaging our country? Why the anxiety to appear knowledgeable?



I came across a commercial on the virtues of a certain product metaphorically comparing all its goodness to a “California orange” and, at the same time, urging us to be wary of cheap imitations which were being compared with a “Nagpur orange”!

Now, I am quite sure that both varieties are equally good and that god who made it all would have never imagined such a temporal comparison. But it got me thinking about this unique Indian habit of disparaging everything that is Indian, especially when compared with something foreign or more so in front of a foreigner. Unique because, I have not seen this manifest in anyone from Polynesia to Central Africa.

If there were a Top 10 list of the most annoying habits of Indians, I am sure this would find a slot somewhere near the top.

Observe a group of people with at least one foreigner in its midst and you will know what I mean. The nationality of the foreigner is not important — from Alaska to Auckland or from Zagreb to Zanzibar, the essential condition being that he be a non-Indian. The setting can be a social do, an office party or even a casual group of strangers at the airport or inside a train compartment.

Now observe the flow of conversation. The pleasantries over, a few members or at least one of them (we shall call him the protagonist) takes upon himself, with gusto, the responsibility of making the foreigner “feel at home”.

As a first step, the protagonist lets the foreigner know that he is familiar with his country by making small talk like, “when I was in your country” or “your team did well.” We, Indians, are generally aware and that helps. The objective of this small talk is to let the foreigner know that he is among knowledgeable people and not in the company of some ignorant cavemen.

As the conversation gathers momentum, the protagonist wants to make the guest even more comfortable. Encouraged, he now goes to the next level — making a vague reference to things or places in that country about which even the foreigner has no clue! It is like asking an Indian from Guwahati, “Have you ever gone to the corner shop at the entrance of Chor Bazaar in Mumbai?”

Genuinely impressed by now, the foreigner makes a few polite references to India. But the protagonist will have none of that. He now launches into cruise mode where he wants to showcase his closeness to his foreign friend to all. He becomes overfriendly and starts praising almost everything and anything about that country. Metaphorically, he launches into how good is the colour, shape, size, taste, skin, seed and pulp of the ‘California orange'!

It is all right up to this point. There is nothing wrong in praising something. It's quite healthy, actually. But here is where he tips over. He brings in the “Nagpur orange” in the conversation.

He now starts a diatribe against his own country! Critical of almost everything that is to do with India, he takes this act of self-deprecation, especially in front of a foreigner, to an art form.

Never mind if the total size and population of that country is hardly half that of a single municipal ward in an average Indian city. Yet, according to the protagonist, India can learn a thing or two about managing its anthropological complexities from that country. Or, never mind that country has been under an oppressive and fanatical religious monarchy or a malevolent dictatorship for the last 100 years and that its citizens don't know a voting booth from a public toilet; yet, India can learn a few things about democracy and governance from that great country.

Or, so what if that country has been racially prejudiced or has been shamelessly colonising or repeatedly puncturing the earth's surface with dastardly weapons of war. So what? India should take some lessons in diplomacy from that country!

Mind you, by now a few drinks have taken their effect and the protagonist's accent has changed. It is a heady mix of his native English, wannabe Hollywood drawl and inebriated slur... and his attempt at disparaging his own country in order to gain acceptance of his newfound friend is in a mellifluous flow!

And the irony of all this is that the foreign guest is flummoxed! He doesn't know what hit him. Hadn't he heard and read so many good things about this great country? Isn't that the reason he came here to experience it himself? In fact, he likes the “Nagpur orange”!

Why do we do this? Why is it that the moment we are in the midst of a foreigner we start disparaging our country? Why the anxiety to appear knowledgeable? Why the hunger to belong at any cost? Is it some deep-seated inferiority complex? Why this lack of self-respect?

Agreed, the “California orange” may look good, but peel the “Nagpur orange” and inside the rustic and pockmarked exterior you will experience the most heavenly, sweet and juicy pulp that we have liked since childhood. So let us not insult it.

And even those obsessed with the “California orange,” in the end, despite all the insults, are sure to succumb to the “Nagpur orange.”

PS: Probably the “Orange” advertisement turned out be a “Lemon” and was withdrawn! I don't see it anymore. I am sure at least some Indians found it annoying!

(The writer's email is: vlimsay@heliconconsulting. com)

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