How I Stopped Being an Indian

… and couldn’t turn into anything else. Wonder if it’s my private tragedy or whether I have compatriots in this very special circle of hell. In the Divina Comedia, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno begins with the Limbo and proceeds over Lust & Greed & Violence et cetera to Treachery. We expats remain in our limbo, which is exile.

Limbo is the First Circle of Hell where unbaptised but virtuous pagans live, as Wikipedia will tell you (I just checked ‘God’ on Wiki and was blown away!). These virtuous pagans are not sinful, even if they did not accept Christ (convert to Christianity i.e.). Trust an Italian poet of the late 13th/early 14th century to describe the state of mind (if not existence) of an Indian expat in Germany in the late 20th/early 21st c. And I’m in good company: the ancient Roman poet Virgil, who is Dante’s guide on his journey through Hell, personally resides in the Limbo, so quite a classy neighbourhood, I should think. Virgil lived before Christ, so he couldn’t possibly have been anything other than a virtuous pagan. But let us not split hairs.

Germany, where I landed more by chance than by choice, also proved to be a classy neighbourhood. It is one of the richest and best organised countries on earth. After their excesses in the earlier part of the last century, the Germans have created one of the most efficient economies together with one of the smoothest running democracies and one of the most liberal & tolerant societies anywhere on earth. It is not Frau Merkel who is drawing all those hapless people to Germany, it is the country itself, the country that I privately call Jesus Wept. Jesus would weep for joy if He saw what this country does for an unmarried teen mother who is a school dropout with a punk hairstyle and five instances of broken off vocational training. It is a country where shelterless persons picked up from the Bahnhof toilet with alcohol poisoning – and like-as-not without a health insurance – are treated by the head physician of the hospital on a priority basis, since the state pays for it. There are saunas, table tennis rooms and private rooms for couples in prisons in this country. Lastly, it is a country where I have lived for three odd decades without ever having to ‘ring up somebody’ to get something done. It is a country where you walk into a government office as if they owe you money.

So do I have the right to be unhappy in such a country? Should it not at least be the Earthly Paradise for me – which sits atop the Purgatorio – leaving out Paradiso for the moment?

But I am not a Christian and I come from Kolkata. Any Calcuttan turning up at Heaven’s gate is simply waved through, since he is coming from hell – that is an old joke and certainly not one of mine. Dante should have visited Kolkata at the height of summer or during the rains – unfortunately Kolkata was founded 362 years after he finished the Comedia, so it’s neither his nor Kolkata’s fault. Had he been ‘born and brought up’ in Kolkata like me, his Latin would have been like my English and Dante Alighieri would have been another unknown blogger whom (how long haven’t I had the chance to write ‘whom’? Even Saint Obama says ‘who’) – to repeat, Dante would have been an unknown blogger whom Facebook suspects of writing spam from time to time. He should thank his stars he was born in Florence, though I’m not too sure about dying in Ravenna.

To hell with Dante – eh? – what about me? In my grander moments I rail in front of my German friends: ‘Who will integrate me? I have two continental plates rubbing against each other inside my head. I am the Invisible Man, I am the Man Who Does not Cast a Shadow. What do you know about me, huh? What do I know of myself? Am I German, am I Indian, I mean am I a German, am I an Indian, after all these years?’ ‘Half and half?’ one German onlooker – onlistener? – dares to comment, which is the German phrase for minced meat, half beef and half pork – I nearly eat him up! ‘D’you realise that I come from a country where the Hindus do not eat beef and the Muslims do not eat pork?’ ‘What do they eat?’ ‘Chicken, and the rest are too poor or vegetarians.’ ‘Do you miss India?’ ‘Miss India 2016? Priyadarshini Chatterjee? Isn’t she an eyeful? And a Bengali, like me!’ I declare proudly. ‘Bengali? We thought you were an Indian…’

It took me thirty odd years to make up my mind – and then I applied for the German passport. They tested my knowledge of German and Germany – whereas I am yet to meet the German who can pronounce my family name correctly: mostly it is Shouduri or Showduri, I’ve even heard Shovduri and Hovduri, and for the particularly adventurous, Khovduri! The ch at the beginning, the w in the middle (which is actually a v in German), followed directly by the unpronounceable dh, which is d with an aspirant laid on it; finally the inexplicable y. They had no choice except to give up and declare somebody to be a German & a countryman whose name they cannot pronouce and never will, even if I and my progeny were to populate the country with Chowdhurys.

Which is why I took to calling myself Der Inder, which means The Indian. At the dry cleaner’s, at the hairdresser’s, at the baker’s, at the local supermarket, I am known as der Inder or Herr Inder – Mister Indian. They write it on the bills & the vouchers, and in their appointment books. One point two billion of us, and the redoubtable task of representing India in Plittersdorf had to fall on my arthritic shoulders. When I have been a German for the past five years.

Try telling that to the Germans.

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Expats & immigrants

The trouble started when a good friend of mine from my/our schooldays back in Kolkata rang up from America to tell me, among other things, that an expat was not the same thing as an immigrant, at least so far as the US was concerned. And I was reminded all over again of the racial/colonial connotation of these terms which I’ve been using so freely and at times interchangeably on my blog.

The word expatriate comes from the Latin patria for one’s fatherland or native land – ‘native’ again! We Indians see red if we so much as hear the word, after our colonial experience. And it’s not just colonialism but apartheid which is at play (funnily enough, it’s the Germans who say ‘at play’ while the British say ‘at work’) behind that apparently harmless word – expatriate. Expatriate, it seems, is reserved for white men – and women – who have chosen to leave their native country and live somewhere else, even Oxford gives the example of American expatriates in London. Imagine talking of Indian expatriates in Southall or Bangladeshi expatriates on Brick Lane.

What? It’s my fuzzy-oozy thinking again? How true. Then the immigrant is defined as a person who has come to live permanently in a foreign country. It’s the intention behind the whole operation, see. The American expatriates in London fully intend to go back to Chattanooga or Colorado Springs when their business in London is done – whereas the Indians do not go back to Chandigarh and the Bangladeshis do not go back to Chittagong. They have come to London not just to see the Queen but to stay.

That would seem to make us – including someone like me who got stranded in a country somewhere in the middle of continental Europe for the major part of his life – immigrants. But what if I feel like an expat – the way Joyce must have felt in Trieste, Zurich and Paris? Joyce ‘emigrated permanently to continental Europe’, as Wikipedia will tell you. Operative word: permanently. He returned to Ireland twice or thrice more, in 1909 and 1912, after which ‘he never again came closer to Dublin than London’ (Wikipedia again; who needs Richard Ellmann when we have Wiki).

Joyce was 30 years old when he saw Ireland for the last time and he lived to the age of 59. So was he an expat or an immigrant? Let’s have your bet on that but be careful: Joyce called his one & only, albeit unbearably bad play “Exiles”. Albert Camus’ collection of short stories is called L’exil et le royaume or “Exile and the Kingdom”. Exile seems to have been the buzzword in those days.

And then we come to the most devious/insidious differentiation/discrimination of them all: between immigration and emigration; between the immigrant and the (much more rare) emigrant, not to speak of the noble émigré. Imagine an asylum seeker from Asia or Africa telling his hosts in Europe that he is an émigré, and you’ll know what I mean. Or to take another example, Papa Joyce was certainly no émigré because he did not leave Ireland for political reasons. He left his native country for personal and artistic reasons.

Joyce is a perfect example of a backwards oriented writer, that’s someone I define as a person who prefers to sit looking backwards on a moving tram or train. Joyce’s creative life was like the smudged, mirror version of his past, ‘real’ life in Ireland – of the kind you get when you fold a sheet of foolscap paper in two before the ink has dried on the written half. (Can happen with your printer as well, but then it’s like-as-not the roller or the cartridge, which is why we decided not to ‘modernise’ the image).

To put it more simply, Joyce is the kind of expat who drives down memory lane in back gear – though naturally infinitely more clever and a genius and all that. And just as they make fantasy films and video games as ‘real’ as possible these days, you’ll find Joyce writing to an aunt of his (if I remember correctly) asking about the colour of the tram ticket on a certain route in Dublin in or before 1904. Must have needed it for Ulysses, the second unreadablest and unreadest book of them all, after Finnegans Wake – except for Joyce scholars, and I’m just a Joyce admirer, from afar.

All I’m saying is that both Europe and America have a history which is in half a story of exile & immigration, and in half the story of colonialism & expatriates & six feet of earth will always be England for me – which always made me feel like asking, if six feet was all that you needed, why did you have to take the whole ruddy subcontinent and three-quarters of the globe for it? Ah, you were carrying the White Man’s Burden, were you? I know where you unloaded that one!

Joyce was an exile in Italy & Switzerland & France. He was an exile in civilised & sophisticated & liberal Europe from his ‘native land’ which he described in the Portrait as an ‘old sow that eats her farrow’. I don’t think Joyce ever had the intention of returning to Ireland, except in his books, in which he did nothing else. Finally, Nora said napoo to the Irish govt. when they wanted Joyce’s bones back in Dublin. That, if nothing else, makes Joyce an immigrant.

Just as he was an expat because Ireland was all that he ever wrote about, even if he was talking Italian with Nora at home. I talk German with my wife at home and I write about India – in English. I’ve lived in one place dreaming of the other place until both places have exchanged places without my even noticing it, leaving me high and dry in a space-time continuum of my own. And still that does not make me the surrogate subcontinental Joyce of every Indo-Anglian author’s dreams; it just makes Joyce a wee bit more like the rest of us, an expat by intention and an immigrant by compulsion or default, we’ll talk about the artist some other time.

With memsahibs in India (2): Water of India

When I arrived with my newly acquired ‘family’ at the old family ‘home’ in Kolkata – a ground floor flat in South Calcutta which had just been inundated – the living-cum-drawing-room-cum-my-father’s-chambers-cum-study was a sight (it’s just one room that we’re talking about). The water had seeped up the walls so that they’d had to whitewash the whole room, in blue this time (how can you whitewash something in blue?). But the plaster had retained most of the moisture, which had made the whitewash/bluewash come out all patchy & blotchy (like Itchy & Scratchy in the Simpsons) as if the wall (or the house) had liver problems.

I still remember Kasia’s face when she saw that ‘outer room’ of ours for the first time. It’s not as if she was disappointed: I’d told her all about our ‘residence’ in Calcutta (after having shown her a picture of the Vicotria Memorial as the place where our family summered) – she’d thought that I was only joking and that I had a nice sense of humour. What I hadn’t told her was that you didn’t need a sense of humour if you were from Kolkata, Kolkata being a joke of almost historical proportions. After all, Job Charnock had picked the most unsuitable site he could find for his camp so that the enemies of the British would not be able to approach the ruddy place (did they say ruddy in the 17th c.?) – not that anybody would want to approach such a mosquito-infested swamp where one could catch malaria or kala-azar or dengue the moment one set foot upon the morass. Three centuries later Lenin would be making the sage pronouncment that the road to world revolution would lie over Calcutta. It was just his way of saying that the world revolution would never take place. Hadn’t wanted to sound that pessimistic, I suppose.

‘World revolution? In Kolkata? During the rains? Vladimir Ilyich must have been joking,’ Kasia was not laughing.

On the day of our arrival @ we’ll leave out the address for the moment and substitute it with #home, Kasia said something to Laura – my stepdaughter – in German. I think I heard the word Armut, which means poverty – upon which Laura asked where we kept the heilige Kuh, which means the holy cow. I’m joking, of course, but in those days most Germans thought of India in terms of poverty & the holy cow. It’s like thinking of Germany in terms of sauerkraut & the pork knuckle, but I’m not complaining.

Kasia was stepping out of the magic circle of poverty & the holy cow for the first time and getting to know the Calcutta monsoon, which is like a dress rehearsal for the deluge. Conscientious as she was and unaware of the fact that even a family as ‘poor’ as ours had maidservants, she had washed a couple of her things and Laura’s things right on the first day & hung them on the clothes line in the verandah (you don’t hang your clothes outside during the monsoon, unless you’re mad or a memsahib) to dry. To dry? She was checking the washing conscientiously every day for the next three days & the washing was just as stubbornly and obstreperously wet – one result of the hundred percent humidity in which you could see the sweat drops appear on your skin like morning dew on rose petals the moment you came out of the shower. Kasia was fascinated.

The joke is that memsahibs do not sweat, having been born with an air-conditioned skin like the expensive upholstery of foreign cars. Kasia and Laura did not suffer in the humid heat of Kolkata as much as the prodigal son, a son of the soil, did. I thought I was going to die in that stifling heat – while the memsahibs laughed. My memsahib, for example, surprised everybody by finding every Bengali dish too bland – I couldn’t explain to the family or to our hosts of the moment that here was a memsahib who ate lettuce – as tossed salad – with chilli pickles. It made me sweat just to look at her, while she remained as cool as if she was used to dining with the Devil over fire & brimstone.

But we had landed in Calcutta in the middle of the monsoon and my memsahibs had had their first taste of flooded streets & open manholes – I’d scared the sh** out of them by telling them how many street urchins got sucked out to the Bay of Bengal through the woolly underground, some of them still alive (I’ll pay for my sins one day, I know). In expiation, I took the memsahibs to Puri and put them up in the Bengal Nagpur Railway hotel, where they were fascinated by the chameleons in the garden & the crows at the breakfast table (in the room, thanks to room service) who pinched the sugar cubes unless you guarded them like the crown jewels – hope they all got diabetes! Laura helped a toad find its way down the long corridor to the steps, hopping like the amphibian all the way. And then there was the nulia, a kiln-burnt, tribal version of David Hasselhoff holding Laura’s hand and leading the blonde & blue-eyed child into the raging surf with the equanimity of an antediluvian Neptune. Meanwhile, a vendor came along rolling his cart on tiny wheels with ball-bearings – turned out to be a videotheque on wheels; the man was asking me with a wink whether I was interested in ‘blue’ films. ‘Wow! They’ve got video carts here!’ Kasia was exclaiming. The word she used was Videokarren, on the pattern of Ochsenkarren, which means a bullock cart in German. ‘There’s India for you,’ I told her, brimming with pride.

A couple of years later there was that trip to Salkia on the Hooghly river where we were having a picnic to celebrate the fact that both my brothers had got married on the same day so that their expat elder brother & his zenana would not miss the fun. The venue for the picnic was a deserted, derelict jute mill right on the river, a caterer providing the food. I’d told Kasia repeatedly that she should go nowhere near the drinking water which had been carried up in barrels, the water consisting of cholera & typhoid germs in equal parts. Kasia had followed my instructions to the ‘T’, except for washing the forks & the spoons – specially brought along for the memsahibs – in the water from the barrel. Oh yes, Keya was with us too, having been born a couple of years earlier.

They nearly died, the memsahibs, all three of them, they were so sick. We had to prepone our flight & return to Germany three days earlier. Kasia has refused to watch Dr. P.C. Sorcar Jr. perform the Water of India trick ever since, saying that it reminded her of the Salkia water and the rainwater on Calcutta streets and every other kind of water in India except aerated water, no, make it coconut water, will you?

I shall.

With memsahibs in India

I cannot deny it and I cannot call them anything else: travelling in a country like India with a memsahib in tow used to be anything but easy – unless you were rich, so rich that people almost expected you to marry a memsahib, just as they expected you to drive an expensive, imported foreign car. Riches allowed you to isolate yourself and your memsahib from the masses. They could admire you from afar but you didn’t get to hear their rude remarks – well, at times you did, but you could always tell the memsahib at your side that they were saying something complimentary and put up the window.

I had to give up my job – the Indian Foreign Service – in order to get married to my memsahib. So we were poor as church mice (in a place like India where even the temple mice are richer) – when she arrived holding the hand of my future stepdaughter, who was not just blonde but had blue eyes at the time, thus compounding my troubles. Here was an obvious loafer, possibly jobless, running around in scooter taxis and patakas with a full- and a half-blown memsahib on either arm. What was he planning to do, sell them?

A full ten years before they took that picture of Lady Di at the Taj and a full 34 years before Kate and William put in a repeat performance, I was occupying the same seat with my two memsahibs, having asked some passer-by – for want of paparazzi – to take our picture. By the way, my advice to all royals is: don’t let them take your picture in front of the Taj. You can look as tall as the Eiffel Tower or shore up the leaning tower of Pisa but leave the Taj in peace. Whichever dynasty you belong to, a memorial like that is a size too large for you. Or if you don’t think so, why don’t you build the Black Taj, the Taj in black marble, on the other side of the river, as Shah Jahan was planning to do? Then couples like me and my memsahib would be able to go from the White Taj to the Black Taj and back again, provided the ferry is working.

I felt so proud showing my memsahibs the Taj that I forgot that I was jobless and that India was a poor country.

I told my memsahibs all about the lady whose mausoleum it was: Arjumand Banu Begum of Agra who became the third wife of Emperor Shah Jahan and received the title of Mumtaz Mahal from him. She was 19 when she got married; she died when she was 38, having borne him 14 children. She died at the fourteenth childbirth.

There’s no better way of confusing memsahibs than to show them the Taj and then tell them the story of Mumtaz Mahal. They simply don’t get it: ‘You said he loved her? I mean, fourteen children… And then the Taj…’

I had other things on my mind. There was this gang of young, unattached males following us around and delivering a running commentary of the kind which no memsahib or her Indian consort should be compelled to hear, except as a form of waterboarding. I was in sandals and carrying a Shantiniketani sidebag made out of cloth – no proper ersatz for ermine and the royal sceptre. So the loafers felt they could say anything they liked about my memsahib’s desirability or my great good luck in having been able to dupe her into marrying me or living in sin with me or whatever our legal or illegal status might be.

I’m not the fisticuffs type so I adopted the method the Germans call Flucht nach vorne, which means rushing into battle: I started translating whatever the loafers were saying for the benefit of my memsahib to my memsahib and my memsahib started laughing as if it was all a big joke. She said she’d heard worse things from drunks at students’ parties during her university days in Communist Poland – somewhere in today’s Województwo Wielkopolskie, that’s all I’m allowed to say. And then she turned to the loafers at the Taj Mahal, Agra, and gave them a regal smile which would have done credit to Jadwiga, the first female monarch of Poland who reigned in the last quarter of the fourteenth century (the Taj was built in the seventeenth, the Mughals having invaded India towards the beginning of the sixteenth). But what finally made the lafangas beat a retreat was when my blonde-haired and blue-eyed (future) stepdaughter – who was six at the time – took a step towards the young Lochinvars and said something – friendly – to them in German.

I could hear Arjumand Banu laughing as if she was nineteen all over again.

I was much braver at the supermarket in Connuaght Place, New Delhi. We’d just bought some heavenly alphonsos from the mango-seller and I was on the point of paying the ‘memsahib surcharge’ without demur – when I heard the man remark in an undertone to his sidekick: ‘Murgi fañsa liya.’ The implication was the same as with the lafangas at the Taj: I did not derserve the memsahib but must have managed to get hold of her through some mean trick or deception – I might have told her that the Taj Mahal was our family grave, for instance (I’m a Hindu & we Hindus are cremated but d’you think a memsahib would have known the difference before the refugee crisis?). All of this and more was implied in those three words (four in English) spat out through the corner of the mouth: ‘Murgi fañsa liya. Snared the dumb hen.’

It roused my ire. He should be ashamed of himself – I berated the mango-seller, in Hindi. Here I was, a strapping young man of his country, decent, well-behaved, well-educated. Was it not the memsahib who had fañsaoed the murga – snared the dumb rooster? As a patriotic Indian, how could he even think that I had snared her and not she, me? My Hindi got a bit mixed up at this point. Where was his pride? I asked rhetorically, warming to my theme.

The mango-seller was listening to my tirade open-mouthed. His reaction was to give me two more alphonsos for free, as an apology. But he should have waited till we were out of earshot. I had my back turned towards the stall and still I heard the little exchange between the man and his sidekick with explosive clarity.

“Why did you give two?” mangoes i.e., the sidekick was asking.

“One for the murga, the other for the murgi, fair is fair,” explained the old fox.

CID (2)

… “Yes, madam?” the kind marriage officer was asking. The bride kept silent. The marriage witnesses were waiting. The bridegroom was sweating. Will she, nil she – read the oath in English? Pindrop silence in the room – it’s the Tis Hazari Court building in Delhi, remember? Otherwise there’s no such word as ‘pindrop’ in English, I just checked in Oxford. Neither as a noun, nor as an adjective. Must be an Indian coinage.

The electric fan did not squeak. It was a new one and whirled at half speed gently stirring the papers on the marriage officer’s desk, while the accused as well as convicted criminals, for all I know, shuffled past on the corridor outside. And then the bride spoke. She continued speaking. I don’t think the Indian marriage oath – in English – has been read in a more sexy German-Polish accent in the history of civil marriage on the subcontinent. I could have married her for that marriage oath, for that accent alone.

What does that have to do with my CID, my cultural identity?

CID or C.I.D. is the abbreviation for the Criminal Investigation Department of India – as also the title of the famous 1956 film with Dev Anand in the male lead. Since then, there’s not an Indian dead or alive who has not hummed Leke Pahela Pahela Pyar while having a pee or while NOT having a pee, not everybody having a bathroom to sing in, in India. But check the song out all over again on YouTube or wherever and you’ll realise that it’s Indian rock n’ roll at its best, it rocks, it rolls, it’s pure rhythm, it makes you dance – from the days before the bhangra beat conquered India and the West in a kind of double whammy of reverse colonialism… where was I?

There should also have been a Cultural Investigation Department of India, for example, examining the bhangrification of Bollywood film music. This CID should have had a foreign wing operating from the embassies and authenticating the cultural bona fides of NRIs and PIOs and all the other phrases and abbreviations for expats that the Indian govt. comes up with from time to time.

The cultural attaché at the embassy could issue the CIDs, for example, to people like us, stating it in percentages: thirty percent Indian, twenty percent German, ten percent illiterate and forty percent dalda instead of ghee. Or the attaché could ask one of us Non-Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin to read an oath of cultural allegiance in our respective mother tongues, such as Oriya or Bengali or Hindi – would be almost like K. reading the marriage oath in Tis Hazari. Can I or can’t I? Read Bengali after all these years, I mean. You see, school, college and university were all in English, and it’s been German ever since. You don’t seriously expect me to read this thing – out aloud, for God’s sake! – in Bengali, do you?

I had no difficulty reading the oath – in English – at Tis Hazari. It wasn’t half as sexy as K. reading it but she seemed to like it, so who cares. And who cares that I, we, didn’t have our big fat Indian wedding. We’d submitted our papers a month earlier and pushed off to Goa for our honeymoon – before the marriage? There must be a mistake somewhere. My stepdaughter – naturally not ‘our’ stepdaughter, silly – was with us. We stayed at a ‘holiday village’. It was in the middle of the monsoon, with the eight mile beach entirely deserted and nobody venturing to set so much as a big toe in the raging Arabian Sea, with armadas of cumulus nimbus rolling in to conquer the Indian peninsula in a swift two-month campaign. I took pictures: sea and sky all in black-and-white, as if before the discovery of colour film. The colour was all on the landward side, dark green and velvet because of the monsoon.

Mira Nair should have seen it.

CID

Hankering back, hankering for the past, hankering for that which is not – that’s what the Americans call it. Used to be called nostalgia, in our days. They call it the Big Fat Greek Wedding syndrome since 2002, somebody was telling me.

Basically, let’s assume that you are one of the lucky ones who made it; you made it to the prosperous & liberal & secular & democratic White Man’s West – or maybe you didn’t even have to try, your parents made it – in any case, you’re living in the West and having a slight problem with your cultural identity, are you? Join the club.

There are two sides to that, the external and the internal, the objective and the subjective, I’d say – still talking about your CID, your cultural identity, so don’t buck. Let’s say we’ve reached the stage where YOU have practically started thinking that you’re an American, or a Canadian, or even a German, or whatever, in whichever country you might have landed, or your parents might have happened to land – in all over again? Tell an Indian that English is a foreign language and see what happens viz. he goes up in smoke.

Well, landing and take-off, those are two essential operations or activities in the lives of all migrants, from bird to man. You take off, you land; and then you take off and you land again, back where you started, unless the fox has eaten you in the meanwhile.

You lay an egg or eggs, as your parents had done, on foreign soil – and watch it (or them) turn into a bird very unlike you! You feel culturally cuckooed, though it’s just nurture screwing up nature – well, be thankful you don’t feel culturally castrated, as I do at times. They took away my child without even trying. She grew up into whatever young women – out here in the West – grow up into. ‘You don’t agree?’ my wife says: ‘Didn’t you marry one?’ Who or what is she talking about? Ah, that intercultural disaster, our marriage. She was so pretty and sexy and clever and free at the time, you see, I got carried away.

So what happened to my big fat Indian wedding? You know, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. Came a full year before the Greek one, as a matter of fact. Repeat: so what happened to my big fat Indian wedding? I’ll tell you. It was in the Tis Hazari Courts Complex in New Delhi: criminal cases being heard all over the place, lawyers in black coats scurrying down corridors, the accused or the convicts being led around in handcuffs. My future wife – near future, just minutes away – my future wife wanted to have a pee. Was she nervous? Funny, I simply can’t pee when I’m nervous. Incompatibility, see?

Well, there were three scruffy and dejected looking men in handcuffs squatting in front of the closed – and padlocked – door of the toilet. So no pee for my future wife. Marriage yes, pee, no. That was her big fat Indian wedding, right in the middle of the monsoon, believe it or not! And almost twenty years before Nair made her film. She should have asked us.

And then my future wife – what future? It was all happening right then and there, in that small room in the Tis Hazari court building, with a Muslim marriage officer administering the oaths, the two parties to the marriage being a Hindu and a Christian, resp. All we needed was a Buddhist clerk and it would have been a marriage of religions to please the Pope.

And then it happened. That moment of stillness, that sudden cold shiver down the spine. The marriage officer was asking my near wife, my imminent wife, to read the oath – in English!

You see, we’d known each other for three years by then; we’d been lovers for two years and ten months; I knew she spoke German, Polish and a bit of Russian (learnt in school); we’d always spoken German with each other – but English? She’d had English in her lycium, why they chose the French word to designate a high school in Poland, I’ll never know, just as they call the tram tramway, pronounced tram bhai, which would be Brother Tram in Hindi … where was I?

What if she said, ‘Sorry, no English’ – in German? Or Polish. Or Russian. Can you imagine how long it would take to get a German or a Polish or a Russian translation of that marriage oath? We’d be old men and women by then, all our seven children born out of wedlock. That is what I was thinking.

‘Yes, madam?’ the kind marriage officer was urging…

(To be continued)

E.P.

Was Spielberg really influenced by Satyajit Ray’s 1967 script, The Alien? I wouldn’t know and it’s none of my business anyway. But E.T. touches me in a very different manner. I see myself – and all expatriates – in E.T. Only that the story of E.P.s like us does not have a happy ending, making me think of what Maurice Maeterlinck said about fairy tales, that those last words – ‘And they lived happily ever after’ – already contained the seeds of a tragedy.

When I first started ‘phoning home’ from Germany in the early eighties, it was costing me four Deutschmarks a minute, that’s a bill of forty D-marks for a ten minute chat with my mom. E.T. wouldn’t have rung home and Spielberg wouldn’t have made the film under those circumstances.

Compared to the mobile telephones and PCs plus Skype and WhatsApp of today, our long distance trunk calls were very much like E.T. calling from the woods. It used to be a funny sort of conversation. I’d tell my mother all about life in Europe and she’d only be interested in knowing when I was coming home.

There was no question of anybody sending a spaceship from Calcutta – Kolkata these days – since even E.T.’s spaceship would have refused to land in Calcutta. In Kolkata neither. Would have been swamped by the slum kids – very unlike Elliott and his gang – who’d have stolen the very nuts and bolts so that the spaceship would have fallen apart in flight like a demure maiden being unclothed in public – I still love them, those bustee kids, used to be my friends and companions, after school hours.

What I mean is, you leave your family and your job to go to an alien country – hey, I thought I was the alien? – because you’re madly in love with this one woman in the universe… Now, what kind of a plot would that be? E.T. coming to earth and falling in love with an earthwoman to teach her Kama Sutra, galactic version, while she teaches him fifty shades of grey – will you stop mixing things up? Grey did the teaching, I’ll beg you to remember.

Being the E.T. who couldn’t go home, who’s still carrying around his glowing Bible card of a heart and the revived chrysanthemum, the only realisation that could save me – and did – was: how many of us, the E.T.s or the E.P.s, the extra-terrestrials and the expartriates, are out HERE, on earth, and not out THERE, in outer space. And we’re growing in number all the time, it seems. Poverty, wars, oppression, persecution, terror sends us scuttering to other countries and other shores. Or maybe just the hope of a good life? What an alien dream!