|Apr/May 2013 Humor/Satire
Artwork by Clinton McKay
Some nations are insular, reluctant to consider or accept foreign concepts, while others are more open. The Indian psyche sits somewhere in between, on this spectrum of openness. Eager to consider new ideas, this psyche shows a penchant for morphing most foreign imports into barely recognizable but reassuringly Indianized variants.
Try this controlled experiment: Find yourself an Indian. Any Indian will do. Then give him an alien concept. Now, sit back and watch. He will be sure to first assume a bovine position, and then proceed to ruminate. Don't be fooled by his expression as he chews on this newfound conceptual cud. Decorum prevents him from rubbing his hands with glee, but deep down he's thinking: "Promising concept! Hmm, now how can I fuck with it?"
In the words of the great Adam Savage1, this masticating Indian is merrily rejecting your reality and substituting it with his own. Adam should know, since he is what you call an expert. It is no wonder that other astute scholars have described India as the "Nation of Rumination."
This ruminative process can often be fickle, defying logic or reason. Consequently, its end results are far from predictable. Very, very few imports are accepted and cherished in their original and unmolested form. This general principle extends to sports, culture, cinema, cloth and men of the cloth—and by that, I mean religion.
Consider life in the South Indian city of Chennai (Madras), which is where I grew up. You were lucky if the average humidity was 99% and the average temperature was 120 degrees Fahrenheit. And that's on a good day. These days, the weather isn't any better, despite public protests and higher tax-rates.
Gandhi's pro-Khadi2 philosophy had served its purpose. A smart aleck (God knows, I wouldn't stoop so low) would even say we cottoned onto his ideas, but not for long. It was time to be fashionable, even if it meant being impractical. Given the scorching weather in Chennai, a few wise parents opted to dress their kids in sensible fabrics such as cotton—after all, Madras was once famous for its cotton. Some parents might have. Not mine. As the saying goes: some parents are wise and the rest, like mine, are blissfully otherwise.
Eager to display their utter lack of wisdom, my parents exclusively preferred synthetic fabrics: Terylene, Nylon, Rayon3, Crayon—just you bloody shut up and put-it-on! As long as it was non-porous. Breathability was bad. Besides, if a fabric was good enough for a sultry movie star, it was good enough for you. This was quite common. Some parents simply rolled up their kids in industrial-sized sheets of polythene. Having narrowly avoided an early introduction to being shrink-wrapped, I considered myself lucky.
If you were unfortunate enough to have been a South-Indian brahmin school kid in the 70's or 80's, it is likely that your well-meaning parents, bless their hearts, packed you off to a local, missionary run Christian school. Much like present day 7-11 convenience-stores, most Indian metro cities had one around every corner. When you think about it, many graduates are doing a fine job as employees at 7-11's all over the world.
The average Hindu parent knew better than to trust their kids' education to any other faith. Can't trust other fellow Hindus to do the job, can we? Christianity meant a modicum of discipline (Indian pronunciation: dish-plinn). And there was the remote possibility of us learning to speak English, an exalted linguistic skill.
This quasi-religious educational experience entailed several things. You were firmly fed equal measures of Christianity and Castor oil, and then asked if you could tell them apart. The theory was to cleanse us, spiritually and intestinally, both being equally important.
Such a wholesome form of education also entailed choral singing, which was considered to be character building, despite (or because of) repeated attempts by Kishore, the class bully, to pull your trousers down. Perhaps he was hoping to give a new meaning to the phrase "public performance." This act usually had the immediate side-effect of galvanizing teachers into screaming, "Be devout!" and "Hold onto your pants!," a choice of words not often heard together.
If you were raised in Mumbai, there were other rites of passage to suffer through. You were forced to hone your linguistic skills by cutting your ungrammatical baby teeth on a bright red copy of Wren & Martin, the importance of which assumed biblical proportions. Oh, but they called it grammer! Doesn't everything sound more convincing when said in a British accent?
As per Wikipedia, P.C. Wren was a B-grade novelist, who, unsatisfied with making dubious claims of having served in the French Foreign Legion, then chose to gratify himself by shoving the arcane rules of English grammar down the throats of kids all over the Indian subcontinent. His sidekick, co-author and partner in crime, H. Martin, is even more mysteriously shady.
No one, not even Wikipedia, our fountain of knowledge, seems to know much about H. Martin. Content with having played Sancho-Panza to Wren's Quixote, Martin seems to have disappeared into the sunset, presumably looking for windmills to tilt at. Sad. Like Garfunkel.
Anytime you mention "Wren & Martin" to a Mumbai-ite, you see their eyes widen. As best as I can tell, reminding them of their gospel of grammar seems to evoke a gag reflex that is a heady mix of dread, respect, awe and loathing. Outside of Mumbai, however, we were less uptight about dangling participles (or other body parts, for that matter). A little dangling suits us just fine. Makes sense to be less uptight, especially if you're lungi4 clad down south.
Understandably, after reaching adulthood, some of these recalcitrant students of the English language derived no small pleasure in settling old scores by seeing made-up Indian English phrases such as "issueless divorcee" be grudgingly accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary stuffed shirts. That'll teach them!
Doesn't it sound a lot more irritating, and satisfying, to use your present continuous tense to say: "Now, if you please, we will kindly be fucking with your language, ok, thank you?" By the way, we still stubbornly refuse to "graduate from" colleges—we're still "passing out" of them amidst much "felicitation" instead.
After 200 years of colonial oppression, having our way now with the English language is a prerogative as well as a national sport—which is the least we can do, considering the liberties that Tom Alter5 took, with our beloved Hindi. But then again, what more could we expect from a man whose last name was Alter?
Apropos of sports, Indian ingenuity can never resist improving upon existing concepts. Take golf. Good sport. Holds promise. But it needs improvement, of course! Golf requires walking. Too much exertion. That's bloody unnecessary! So let's get rid of it. Golf also requires access to a golf course, which can be expensive.
So why not come up with a portable version that can be played on a board? Ergo, the birth of carrom. No walking required. We can even play it sitting down, while clad in lungis. That's great! We do most things best sitting down, including sports. Especially sports. Ask our world chess champion, Viswanathan Anand. He almost chose Spelling Bee, but quickly realized that meant a lot of standing. Smart choice.
In the early years, the World carrom championships attracted elite athletes only from countries like India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. However, today, with several call-centers, at our disposal, to help spread the good word, even Canada has a carrom club consisting of (surprise!) mostly Indian Immigrants.
The current reigning World carrom champion, and winner of the prestigious Arjuna6 award for sports, is one A. Maria Irudayam, from Chennai (of course!). In the tradition of other great athletes, despite rumors to the contrary, he continues to maintain that he is drug-free and has only admitted to imbibing the occasional tipple of toddy that was thrust upon him during playoff games.
During the 80's, as the ghost of a crankily socialist Nehru still lurked hauntingly in the background, much like a miserly and disapproving aunt, consumer choices in India were extremely limited. Upon reaching puberty, schools decreed that you "be a man" and purchase a Camel Geometry Set, ostensibly to help develop an aptitude for Geometry.
We kids, however, chose to viewed the Geometry Set as a "coming of age" tool-kit, promisingly brimming with danger and potential—specifically, potential for danger! And it had to be the Camel brand, since choice was considered decadent, corrosive to the karma and therefore verboten. Not quite Camel cigarettes, but suffice it did.
Since the British revere pointlessly futile and long-drawn rituals, it came to us as no surprise that they considered one's ability to accurately bisect, trisect and quadrisect angles as being critical to rounding off one's education. A few overzealous kids, unable to contain themselves, even pentasected unsuspecting angles and had their butts kicked by their classmates, for their troubles. There are reasons why we have just four Vedas7, man! Even Led Zeppelin regretted breaking this "Rule of Four." So know your bloody limits!
This state mandated Geometry Set inspired us in countless ways. Drawing oversized pairs of boobies was only mildly entertaining after a while but the sheer joy of having license to wield lethal, deadly and pointed instruments in public made up for the pointless drudgery involved in using them to draw innumerable concentric circles. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you have a pointed compass thingie, everything and everyone suddenly looks like a prospective pin-cushion.
For some strange reason, our educators nursed futile hopes that we would all morph into legions of impeccable draftsmen, to be of future service to the Raj. Perhaps our British overlords hoped that someday, we too would draft, if not design Pyramids in their honor. Little did they know! In any case, the impact of this box of pointed objects was far-reaching and even helped the East India Company develop its insidious divider-and-ruler policy!
While we didn't have many other possessions to speak of, we certainly had our share of favorite obsessions—not the least of which was unmitigated Bruce Lee idolatry. This was way before Jet Lee, Van Damme and the MIT thug, Dolph Lundgren appeared on the scene. Yes, go ahead and look it up. He was admitted into MIT. Private colleges, I tell you! These days they admit just about anyone.
We Indian school-kids were divided about Rajani vs Kamal, Amitabh vs Vinod Khanna, MGR vs Sivaji Ganesan8 but all these differences were put behind us, as we, in an act of unsurpassed solidarity—we call it a Mile Sur Mera Tumhara9 moment—acknowledged the unquestionable greatness of Bruce Lee. He elegantly and eloquently spoke the universal language of kick-ass.
Bruce Lee began trending before we even knew what trending meant. Bruce Lee shrines (also called Dojos) sprang up everywhere like wild mushrooms on every block, usually sandwiched between the 7-11 and the Christian school.
Once "Enter the Dragon" entered a movie theatre, it never left—nor did the audience, for that matter, even if the movie was dubbed in Pali10. "Enter the Dragon" has been dubbed in every known Indian language and a few unknown ones. Innovative Indian engineers have even translated the film into programming languages such as Java, C, and C++. Surprisingly, the plot didn't suffer one bit.
Bruce Lee arrived as the perfect antidote to an India hungover on an overdose of Ahimsa11. Badly in the mood for a certified asskicker of men, India welcomed Bruce Lee-ji with open arms. Well, I'm not so sure—India might have welcomed him with an Air-India-esque namaste. Come right up, don't be shy, you can have a namaste too! As advertised on TV, buy one, get one free!
At my local barber-shop, much to our delight, beside the standard Shiva and Vishnu deities sat a garlanded picture of a grim Bruce Lee, now elevated to Swami status, anointed with a tikka, displaying his blood stained torso. This wasn't atypical. Bruce Lee was represented in all self-respecting Indian Pantheons.
This business of inducting prospective martial artists into our Pantheon of Hindu Gods is a serious one, and these days, as with most things Indian, the competition is stiff. We have grudgingly given Jackie Chan an untenured assistant professor status. He smiles too much. Very ungodly, that. Please be serious!
Thankfully, the annoying Karate Kid didn't make the cut but his mentor, Mr. Miyagi, did. He could catch flies with chopsticks, which was cool. Good skill to have. The ancients did it for a living but today, it's a dying art form. So we've given Mr. Miyagi a "Lesser God" status. Oh, don't worry, these Gods are still allowed to have "small things," so as to keep that Arundhati Roy woman happy.
At a personal level, our family was grateful to the whole Bruce Lee phenomenon and its fallout. My dad, a practicing surgeon, could count on a regular supply of neighborhood kids hurting themselves as they tried out Bruce Lee's latest moves.
While treating one bruised aspiring martial artist, my dad discovered nasal cartilage fragments embedded in his patient's fist. What really irked my dad was the fact that this other, more seriously (and more profitably) injured sparring partner sought medical aid elsewhere!
Between Prabhu, my friendly neighborhood idiot kid, periodically hurling himself off his garage roof with ambitious flying kicks and other local, like-minded martial art aspirants, my dad could count on a steady practice. My dad liked to think he was helping the neighborhood with their "martial" problems. Somewhere, there's a court missing my dad as its jester.
Bruce Lee embodied, nay radiated coolness, even in his bright yellow, one-piece "Game of Death" jump-suit (or was it a onesie?). He showed us how martial skills could be elevated to the level of a true art form. His lines were as cool as his moves—"My style is to fight without fighting!" and "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times!" If he doesn't kick your ass, his math will. See, martial art operators are non-commutative12, and it took Bruce Lee to teach us that.
You see, Bruce Lee had a thing for for numbers—"one-handed, two-fingered push-ups," "one-arm chin-ups." Clearly, there was a lot of math behind his madness. At the time of his death, he was rumored to be working on his magnum-opus, the "one-pinkie hand-stand," to be performed after his "angry three times head-shake." Ah, how can we ever forget his "angry three times head-shake"?
Bruce Lee even showed us what pectoral muscles were. No one told us that those existed! More than one terrified aspiring assailant has kicked his own ass on seeing Bruce Lee unfurl those oversized pectorals, like an enraged cobra. And that's not even saying anything about his nun-chaku13 skills. Now, that was a skill-set to die for! We would gleefully have traded our precious Camel Geometry Set for a pair of nun-chakus, any day of the week.
It is, therefore, fitting that there are hundreds of people named Bruce Lee, merrily running around in present-day India. As per linkedin.com, there's even a Bruce Lee who, strangely enough, works for the Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi. You have got to love his parents, for this public display of their dedication to martial-arts and comedy.
To name your child Bruce Lee is to show a lifelong commitment to both fields. I'm sure their one-time investment has been paid off with innumerable repeat episodes of: "You want Bruce Lee, the martial artist? Ah, very sorry, my son is just Bruce Lee, the human rights activist. Yes, yes, no worries, this happens a lot. The only bars he'll be bending anytime soon are the bars of irony! Ha ha ha."
More than one Microsoft Indian engineer, including a close friend of mine, has made a Hajj pilgrimage to visit Bruce Lee's grave in Seattle. There can be no greater Indian confirmation of Bruce Lee's lasting legacy than that. Well, it is either that, or it's because the bloody Seattle Space Needle is way overpriced, at $19 per ticket.
1 Adam Savage: star of the Discovery Channel show Mythbusters.
2 Khadi: homespun cotton, promoted by Gandhi as a means to reject colonialism.
3 Terylene, Nylon, Rayon: first names of 80's Indian C-grade actresses Terylene Teresa, Nylon Nalini, and Rayon Revathi.
4 Lungi: South-Indian garment, resembling a skirt, worn by men. It has two modes: full-skirt and half-skirt.
5 Tom Alter: American of Scottish descent who penetrated Bollywood and then proceeded to butcher Hindi for a living.
6 Arjuna: mythical Indian whose archery skills are legendary. Like most Indian sportsmen, he narrowly missed winning a bronze medal in the ancient Olympic Games but was later given a job in the Indian Railways.
7 Vedas: the oldest Sanskrit texts, available only in four-volume CD box sets.
8 Various overrated Indian movie actors from the 70's and 80's.
9 "Mile Sur Mera Tumhara": patriotic Indian song sung just before participating in group hugs during team-building events.
10 Pali: ancient Indio-Aryan language.
11 Ahimsa: Gandhian philosophy of non-violence.
12 Commutativity: mathematical property describing binary operators.
13Nun-chaku: If you don't know what a nun-chaku is, are you sure you should be reading this article?