I live in Mumbai, India, a big city, but I’m acutely aware that I came from a remote Kerala village. When I was a boy, hardly anyone spoke English around me. So, at age nine, Dad decided to pack me off to Montfort, a boarding school in another state. There, I had to speak English or be punished. I wore grey flannels, blazer and tie, and played cricket – so different from Kerala in the 1960s, where little boys went around in shorts and half-sleeved shirts that were never tucked in. The men wore dhotis, a traditional Indian garment. Villagers walked barefoot or wore slippers, but nobody had shoes. As for cricket, hardly anyone had heard about that English game.
My boarding school, nestled amid pines and silver oaks, was once meant to be a home away from home for the children of British officers serving in India.
By the time I joined in 1961, nearly all the boys attending Monfort were Indian, but many English traditions continued to live on. At the end of the school year, when I went home for the holidays, I must have forgotten local dress codes. Everybody was staring at me – just because I came back in shoes and slacks. “Sahib!” one or two local boys hissed, the word used for lordly Brits who once ruled India.
“Hey you, speak some English,” some of my neighbours used to tell me, half in jest. Looking back, I think I unwittingly brought a bit of English culture to my village.
But English and too much Western influence are precisely what many traditionalists and political leaders fear. They ask: Will such influences distort or finish off our own culture?
Some Indian leaders have tried very hard to erase our colonial legacy. They’ve pulled down old British statues and replaced many colonial city names like Bombay and Calcutta with older native names, Mumbai or Kolkata. British street names too are disappearing. Diehard nationalists have even suggested we make Tuesday, the Hindu holy day, our weekly day of rest instead of the “Western” Sunday.
Extreme responses I say. You can’t alter history, and it is only natural for foreign influences to permeate a nation’s culture. So Indian culture, as it is today, is really a hybrid derived from centuries of Aryan, Greek, Afghan, Moghul and European invasions.
Add to that the massive changes of the 20th century resulting from the semi-conductor revolution, the pill, jet-age travel, the Internet, etc.
Everything from clothes and language to food keeps changing, yet we remain every bit Indian and Asian. I believe that Asian cultures, like Chinese and Indian, are too ancient and deep-rooted to be distorted by any kind of foreign influence.
Allow me to illustrate my point. Some time ago my wife Sheila and I took a close relative, who was visiting us from Singapore, to a Chinese restaurant in Mumbai. The relative, born and bred in Singapore and who often enjoyed cooking Chinese delicacies for his daughters, ate a full dinner of sweet-corn soup, fried rice, Manchurian vegetables and chicken chilli fry with us. Later, while driving home, I talked about the fine Chinese food we’d just had.
“Was that Chinese food?” our guest exclaimed innocently. “Oh, I didn’t know.” It must have tasted too Indian for him to realise it.
Meanwhile, like countless other Asian villages, my rural community in Kerala has transformed over the past decades. Lots of people wear shoes and trousers – even some of the girls. Cable TV brings live cricket to drawing rooms and playgrounds and even village elders follow every major match. There’s also an English-medium co-ed boarding school run by missionaries, just a five-minute stroll from my home. There, you overhear the kids giggling, yelling, flirting – all in English, but with an Indian accent, often mixed with local touches. Just like the Chinese or Italian food you get in India.
Are these foreign influences something we should be worried about? I don’t think so. India’s Chinese food tastes pretty good to me!