personal narrative

Mera Bharat Mahaan
- Mariam Karim

When we are at home in our own country, we criticize it, laud the developed countries, lament our backwardness, try and ape the West.

But strange selves surface when we go outside. Especially Westward.

One self that feels sexually liberated: freed from the shackles of Indian morality.

One self that suddenly gets a fit of Mera Bharat Mahaan.

There are other selves that emerge, very positive ones, but here we shall discuss self two, the Mera Bharat Mahaan Self.

One year on a teaching fellowship to France I was travelling around with a group of Indian teachers of French. We were taken to educational institutions from the Alps to the plains. We were a colourful group, representing many communities and regions of India. I was perhaps the only member who had lived and studied in France earlier.

I found that food was the biggest problem for most of the Indian teachers. Many were vegetarian and the French are omnivorous, to put it mildly. So salads and breads and cheeses (often too smelly for our palate) made up a large part of their diet. They longed for dosas and chutneys and parathas and spicy sabzis. There were frequent discussions on vegetarianism, and the non-violent nature of Indians. Which made us feel very exclusive and unh petty puh superior.

Now the French are a genuinely curious people and also well informed about the world, (unlike some Americans who might still think Indians are all tribes and live under trees and charm snakes). The French ask many questions and are constantly seeking insights. To the extent that sometimes you feel like a butterfly pinned for examination!

This was the summer of the year 1987 ... and the French knew about the Hashimpura massacre. They also knew of course of the Delhi riots of 1984. So wherever we went people questioned us about the divisive nature of Indian society, where rape, murder and mayhem could be ignited at the drop of a hat. This didn't match at all with the holier than thou vegetarian, non-violent image we were trying to project. What was more surprising was that many of the Indian teachers did not know about the Hashimpura massacre, where nineteen policemen had taken away boys of a certain community, forty of them, shot them in cold blood and dumped them into the Meerut Canal. A few days later the bodies were found floating there.

So, although we were the esteemed guests of the French, we had travelled Club Class on Air France, been served Champagne and caviar, many curious French were chasing us with virtual butterfly pins. The Parsee ladies responded to pointed questions saying, 'Oh we Parsees are a very peaceful people , we never get involved in communal tensions.' So they were out. Besides they said at some museums we visited, as if it were somehow connected, Parsees possess such exquisite family heirlooms adorning their very homes!

The others said ...but we are vegetarians, how can we be violent? But ... but, said the pin bearing virtual entomologists (VEs), how then did the massacres take place, only last month in Maliana and not to speak of in 1984? Oh but the majority of us are peaceful! And the caste system? – continued the VEs. It hardly exists! – cried out the veggie ladies in despair.

I was quiet as I did not want to disagree with my compatriots, which would have looked ever so ill bred, and would have given such a bad impression of Indians, but I cannot say I wasn't peeved by their vehement denials. Were they truly ignorant or were they simply in the throes of Mera Bharat Mahaan, which excused all refutations?.

My chance at venting my peeve came sooner than I had expected. We were at the industrial town of Oyonnax, (pronounced wah-yone-ah) in the valley of the Jura mountains, and it is the second most populated commune in the Ain department in the Rhône-Alpes region in eastern France. After our customary visits to schools and the homes of latchkey kids, the erstwhile mayor of Oyannax invited us to lunch at a typical French restaurant where the waitresses wore dresses of the same material as the curtains and the tablecloths, pink checks if I remember correctly.

Typically the gentleman had already had his midmorning shot of wine and was quite excited to host a bevy of Indian teachers of French. The latter were appropriately awed by the post he had held and spoke in hushed tones. He became particularly interested in a pretty Parsee lady and wouldn't stop talking to her. In his doubly affected state he was oblivious to hesitant references to vegetarianism and non-violence. We were ushered to a long table and asked what we wanted to eat. The good Indian women didn't want to be too fussy, even the vegans, and said they would eat whatever he considered good. The mildly inebriated gentleman was delighted to be of service and ordered a steak tartare each for two of the most vocally vegan ladies. I think I was even more delighted than he at this unexpected turn of events and their ignorance of French cuisine. I ordered a salad, held my peace, and waited.

Steak Tartare is raw beef topped with a raw egg. I leave the rest of the story for you to imagine.

Mariam Karim