Many years ago, stencilled in large, block letters on the end-wall of a pub in Burlington, I spotted the following phrase:
“EACH ONE OF US IS UNIQUE”
And, scribbled just below, in small letters was stated
“Just Like Everyone Else”.
Born in India and now residing in North America after having traveled through, lived and worked in different Asian and European countries, I have concluded that while external characteristics might differ, generally speaking inherent human traits are similar the world over. Each of us aspires for a safe and clean environment, a happy and healthy family, decent livelihood and friends that we can enjoy all this with. These are basic needs, although varying degrees of contentment and satisfaction determine how one manages these expectations.
On the other hand, it is fascinating to notice how cultural nuances come into play. People jostling for elbowroom in heavily populated countries are largely unaware of the concept of personal space. This latent attitude poses a problem here, where one bears silent witness to the unstated tension in crowded elevators as some people inadvertently encroach on others’ circumscription. I remember my rides in overcrowded commuter trains in Mumbai (then Bombay) in the 1980s. Reading the paper or a magazine, it was not uncommon to espy fellow passengers straining to catch a glimpse of a picture or scan a news item, over my shoulder. I would stop halfway while flipping the page, turn around and smile inquiringly at the closest gawkers and nod as if to ask if I had their permission to turn over the page. They would smile back sheepishly, providing assent.
Living in India, one did not call ahead to visit family and friends. Showing up unannounced around meal times, there was no question that the visitors would not join their hosts to partake of “whatever little we are eating.” Meeting friends from the Indian subcontinent for dinner in any country worldwide, it does not take long for men to inevitably gravitate to one room while the ladies end up in another part of the house. Children accompany their parents to these gatherings for meeting other “uncles and aunties” and “stay in touch with our culture.” Kids of different ages learn to keep themselves entertained, playing video games or watching cartoons and Bollywood movies, enabling parents to save on babysitting expenses.
It is fascinating to be a witness when cultures intersect and generate an interesting outcome. Back in the 1970s my father was posted in a place called Sindri (in the eastern state of Jharkhand, carved out of the state of Bihar in 2000). The Fertilizer factory he worked for, was hosting collaborators from Toyo Engineering, Japan and two of the visiting senior Japanese executives were invited home for dinner together with some of my father’s colleagues. In conformity with Japanese characteristics, our guests remained most courteous and formal through the evening. At the conclusion of the meal the guests noticed the silver salver with “paan” (betel leaf with areca nut and other condiments, consumed as a digestive) on a side table. As some Indians helped themselves to paan, the more senior of the two Japanese officials, not wishing to appear rude indicated he would take one. My father tried politely but unsuccessfully to dissuade him, suggesting that it was a very acquired taste. Nevertheless, this gentleman picked up a paan and placing it in his mouth gingerly bit into it. Noticing his expression, my father quietly gestured that I should direct him to the washroom, which I did. He rushed to seek refuge in this sanctuary, shutting the door behind him while I waited outside. Suddenly, I heard a muted scream from inside. I knocked on the door and inquired if all was well. I cannot forget the look on his face as he pointed to the basin, very distraught and saying over and over again, “BLOOD!” He had spat out the paan and as the juices from the condiments had turned his saliva a deep shade of red, he thought it was blood. Once the confusion was sorted out however, he could not stop laughing and said his family would never believe what Indians can eat!
“Kuchh puurab pachchham farq nahin
iss dharti par haq sab kaa hai”
[Whether East or the West, there is no difference
Each person has a right to this land] – Ibn-e-Insha