You can speak Indian with him?

A common question: can I speak Indian?
 Variations on this theme are: Can I speak Hindu? 

The most recent time this happened was this morning, as the rental car place was bringing a Mercedes to our house. Pause – this is a rental for my husband for our year anniversary – we are not keeping it (yet, after my darling drives it for ten days, I think we’ll be in the market for one).

In any case, they were delivering this beautiful machine, to an address I had already written out for them. Granted, there are no references to street signs in Qatar, so this might be difficult IF we weren’t only one turn away from the rental site. About five minutes, tops. 

The guys were lost. 

Apparently there were four of them: one driving the Mercedes, one driving the follow car, and the manager, and an extra.

The manager is the one who said to me on the phone when I called to see where they were, “Can you speak Indian with the driver?”

The Mercedes was a “surprise” for my husband who was an unheard of fifteen minutes past his normal departure time for work, pacing the entry way, wanting to know what was so important he couldn’t leave. Between his restlessness and the manager’s cultural obtuseness needless to say, I had no mercy on the poor lost manager.

“First of all, there is no language called “Indian” so, no, I can’t speak it. Second of all…” and then my tirade on how they were late despite the fact we are only one turn away from the rental facility.

India is a now a democracy but for centuries it was a land mass populated by individual rules. Kings – maharajas – were lords of their own countries. The British came and changed all of that: pitted weaker kings against each other, bribed powerful ones to allow them to trade within the country. So a very disparate people came together under the Empire.

India is like the United States – the North and the South are completely different – regional influences are particularly strong. Dress, clothing, food, all of this depends on what state you’re in. Many of the stereotypes are the same. The South is the center of religious identity with more temples than any other part of the country. The North is the seat of fashion and that harbinger of modern culture, Bollywood.

But the incident this morning reminds me of another conversation I had in graduate school (remember: this person was educated and becoming more so).
“I’m from the south of India,” I explained, “a state called Tamil Nadu.”

My friend digested this. Then, very honestly she said, “I didn’t know that India had states.”

I blinked at her. Was this just a monopoly of the U.S. in her mind? Or was this just another version of all-brown-people-are-the-same, why would they need smaller governing bodies?

“I mean, why didn’t they ever tell us this in school?” My friend continued.

I contemplated her question then and now see another round of it in the manager’s this morning. If it’s India, and everyone’s Indian, what’s the big deal? Well, the deal is that those two assumptions override the complexity and richness of life not only in India, but also another entity which is ever more haphazardly lumped together: Africa. We talk about “Africa” like it is one country, not an entire continent, one that is massive if you look at maps printed to proportion. North America suddenly seems tiny in comparison. People talk about Africa as though it were India: a federation of states. The fact is, Africa is even more diverse than India because it is not a country-continent, but rather a land mass that houses many people who look alike to the casual eye.

Lets stay with India: There are sixteen official languages in Indian and many more unofficial dialects. There are twenty-eight states and some non-states called union territories, but let’s keep it simple. State pride is taken very seriously. This is why although I speak Tamil (the language of Tamil Nadu), I don’t speak Hindi, as it’s rarely used in the south.

It’s not uncommon for people to speak a variety of similar languages – although they might share a few features, each of the 16 are in fact separate syntactical structures – people from Tamil Nadu, for example, often speak Malayalam which is spoken in the neighboring state of Kerala and vice versa. Same with Telugu and Karnataka which are also southwestern languages and bordering states.

These are communities of people who have their own language films, and movie stars they follow, martial rituals and communities within which they prefer to choose partners for their children, and in essence strong local identities.

The irony is that the manager was from the Middle East – Lebanon I would guess – a region just as collapsed in terms of differentiated understanding of individual identity. The ME is like Africa in this sense: a place, not a country, that is homogenized based on religion.


But, after visiting Oman, Dubai, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, I can tell you, no two of these are that similar. 

It is the human experience to be different and unique. With a little more effort, we could understand and appreciate these nuances. And perhaps become more aware of our own?

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