Saturday, October 30, 2010

Two Minutes Older: The Coming of the Barbarians

On the same day, in different parts of the world, Angela Merkel and Aravinda Adiga unburdened themselves of a similar world-view. In Potsdam, the German Chancellor claimed that the multi-culturalism “concept has failed, failed utterly”. What she really meant was that the Turkish immigrants, having spent one generation in rebuilding post-war Germany, had now outstayed their welcome.

In Karnataka, Adiga bemoaned the filthy lucre coming in from the North (he meant Andhra) that has eroded Karnataka’s culture. He said, “Our sense of who we are has unraveled. There is money, but there is no pride in Karnataka any longer.” Pride, for Adiga, expresses itself by replying in Kannada when people address him in any other language.

‘Seldom differ,” I muttered and allowed my mind to fill in the blanks. (Self-censorship is alive and well even in places that are not Thackeray Territory). To my credit, I also had the grace to blush quietly to myself. This is why:

A couple of weeks ago, a neighbour let her house for a film shoot. It was clearly a large production with big stars, and early one morning, the area buzzed with unusual activity. First, the generator van staked its claim on a large part of the road. Then, an empty plot of land next door became the parking lot (and public urinal). The air-conditioned van for the star of the production had a dish antenna placed outside, though I have no idea what the reception was like. A tailor set up his machine on the pavement and began to make alterations in costumes. Someone else ironed clothes frantically. A prop van disgorged sand bags and the police van further up the road was there purely for decoration.

For the next week, all kinds of people bustled and worked. And I was dismayed. “Why can’t they find some other place to shoot?” I thought. It was clear to me that their arrival signalled the ruin of the neighbourhood. I bristled when I walked past the spot boys, and glared at the pile of paper cups outside my gate.

This is especially ironic considering that not long ago, I was a part of this world where people made temporary homes everywhere and pulled them up when the time came to leave – a nomadic world that accommodated any kind of person from anywhere and in which people from all professions had a place: tailors, carpenters, painters, electricians, accountants and cooks in addition to all the headline-hogging glamour components.

Having left that world, though, I felt resentful and threatened by the cheerful confidence with which the people of the film industry made themselves at home on my street. Somewhere, in some reptilian part of my brain, I wanted to dispense permission and demonstrate tolerance; in exchange, I wanted gratitude or at least some mouse-like behaviour which was not forthcoming.

At the end of a week, when the unit left, I felt enormous relief and welcomed the pristine, original silence as I would a prodigal daughter.

So I ought to sympathise with Merkel and Adiga, right? I ought to find merit in their argument that ‘their’ culture’ is under threat and needs to be reinforced or protected; that this is to be achieved either by compelling ‘integration’ – whatever that means – or ejecting those who do not align themselves with certain cultural identifiers.

But of course I don’t, because, as I said, I have the grace to be ashamed by my temporary knee-jerk reaction to having my little pond stirred.

As countries in the West attempt to put up barriers against immigration, and as areas within India make their case for redrawing state boundaries citing reasons that include cultural ones, we’re going to see much more of this nostalgic yearning for a time when things were better before the coming of the barbarians, whoever they may currently be.

I wonder what Merkel, Adiga, Thackeray and others of their stripe will do if everyone went back to where they once belonged, and if all cultures and languages were stable and border-bound. Will they think to ask, as the speaker does in the closing lines of C.P.Cavafy’s poem, Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?/ Those people were a kind of solution?


An edited version of this appeared in today's The New Indian Express.

(I won't be putting up a link to the column in the epaper because I've noticed that it's no longer active after a week.)


Rahul Siddharthan said...

From what I read of Merkel's comment, she was mainly referring to the fact that the immigrants do not speak German. I have repeatedly heard from Indians in America that Europeans are "racist", and in my two years in France I saw no sign of either racism or xenophobia. What they do have is a pride in their own language and culture -- but they are genuinely uncomfortable speaking English, and genuinely curious about other cultures. They just don't like people assuming that they speak English.

From what little I've seen of Germany, I'd guess it's the same: though Germans (in cities in the western part, anyway) are on average much more comfortable in English than the French, they still would not want it to be assumed that they must know English.

If there is racism (and of course both Germany and France have a huge problem with immigrants and crime), it may be at least partly fuelled by linguistic gaps.

Meanwhile, we are now discovering exactly how "tolerant" Americans are of Muslims -- even of those wearing "Muslim" dress (including kurtas, I assume). I'm not totally surprised at this. I felt quite comfortable wearing kurtas in Paris, and really did not in the "tolerant", "multicultural", "melting-pot" New York -- there is a range of ethnic wear from around the world visible on the streets in Paris, but not in New York, so I felt very conspicuous whenever I wore anything non-Western.

In India, and especially in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad (less so in Chennai), there is an assumption that everyone understands and speaks Hindi. Even if many or most locals do speak Hindi, I can see why they would resent their own language being buried in this way.

And one keeps encountering Indians living in the US who, though they speak English with fine American accents, remain "proud" of the most regressive aspects of Indian culture.

Merkel said that "immigrants needed to do more to integrate - including learning German." I certainly think the first thing an immigrant to Germany should do is learn German. And people living long-term in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai should learn the local language. I think that is all that Adiga is asking for (admittedly the Thackerays ask for more than that, but I think we feed them with our hostility to local language).

km said...

The irony meter just exploded from reading Adiga's article. I mean, a writer who writes in English is arguing for preserving Kannada language and culture? Are nostalgia and a tendency to over-simplify things the root cause of sub-standard politics? Or is Adiga just freaking trolling? I can't figure it out.

But never mind that. This was an excellent column.

JP said...

Huzzah for smuggling Cavafy into TNIE. Is this a first?

How difficult is it for Germany or indeed Karnataka to organise and mandate language education programs for late arrivals, if that's _really_ all anyone is worried about?

Space Bar said...

Rahul: I can't believe I forgot to include links; I've done that now. Merkel's full quote:

"At the start of the 60s we invited the guest-workers to Germany. We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn't stay, that one day they'd go home. That isn't what happened. And of course the tendency was to say: let's be 'multikulti' and live next to each other and enjoy being together, [but] this concept has failed, failed utterly."

So it wasn't just about language. I read it as people who were allowed in on sufferance, because post-war German reconstruction couldn't be done in-house, as it were.

It also comes in the context of other, increasingly right-wing comments which you'll find at the end of the Guardian link.

It's probably true that many peoples' experience of Europe in the earlier part of this decade and before has been a pretty liberal and inclusive one. But that is changing, and it seems to me that more Europeans look at America's strident position with approval.

And while I'm all for people learning more languages if they're in a place for the long term, I think language chauvinism is only the most visible indication of other kinds of behaviour that shows a fear of the erosion of something people have been used to.

Space Bar said...

km: :D thanks.

jp: i try to smuggle poets in on a regular basis, but haven't been for the last few columns. cavafy is a return to intent.

JP said...

As a Kannadiga friend of mine suggested, Adiga is probably just trying to hard to re-assert his Kannadiga identity like many an NRI.

km said...

I think that is all that Adiga is asking for

@Rahul: You are being too kind to him. Adiga is not just talking about learning the local language, which, of course, is a practical thing to do.

Instead, he, like all Defenders of Cultural Identity everywhere, sees a dark future in which the state's culture is destroyed by non-Kannada speaking Indians. And what do you know, the Barbarian invasion will spawn CORRUPTION!

I suppose the thought that Biharis and UP-ites (living in Bihar and UP), who speak their own language and intimately know their culture and still have corruption in their home states did not cross Adiga's mind?

AKM said...

I don't know : a call to ethnic loyalties is generally a precursor to entering politics...conservative abroad, and in India, of the BJP variety : )

Repudiated Brilliance said...

I am a Tamilian who was born and brought up in Bangalore, and consider myself as much a Kannadiga as any Kannadiga you could imagine.
Kannadigas are the warmest of people I have encountered. They generally go out of their way to help anyone in need. People usually try to reply in which-ever language the person-in-need seeks.

Tamil, Telugu and Hindi cinemas run full-house here in a place as central as Bangalore as well as in the border areas of Karnataka such as Kolar and Bellary. Even Kannadigas watch them.

A large number of people from all over India, from all walks of life have been able to make livelihoods as well as great lives for themselves. They have all been assimilated cheerfully. Nobody was discriminated against for their success. None was neglected for their failures.

Can you please name any, I repeat any place (apart from Mumbai) which plays songs of other languages and even enjoys them, in typical Karnataka-related occasions like Annamma Utsavas?(Annamma is the village-deity of Bangalore. Yes, the pubs of Bangalore were all groundnut fields once.)
Such was the rosy picture of multi-culturalism that used to prevail in Bangalore/Karnataka.

However, the golden-egg-laying goose that Bangalore became, the arrival of a new horde of large number of skilled and unskilled labour from all over India (read Andhra, TamilNadu, UP, Bihar, MP etc) was but inevitable.

Now the Bangalorean has to fathom being an outsider in Bangalore. A hotel waiter is expected to converse in Telugu and serve accordingly. Passers-by are expected to render advice on how to get to a place, in Tamil. An auto-driver is expected to understand Hindi directions and drive. And yes, in the case of Hindi, if the locals do not reply in the expected language they are looked upon as nincompoops with no sense of national pride. Atleast other South Indians try English to bridge the language divide, but most Hindi-speakers are as adamant as ever.

How this latest horde of brash guests have been conducting themselves in such fashion has wound up Bangaloreans (not just Kannadigas).

At office, in professional discussions, I have encountered Tamilians speaking to fellow-Tamils in Tamil, North Indians speaking to each other in Hindi, Malayalees speaking to each other in Malayalam, despite people of alien tongues being involved in the discussions. Only Kannadigas, and to an extent Telugus switch over to English in such situations.

As for what Adiga says about compulsively replying in Kannada when someone speaks to him in Hindi, does it not sound fair that you reply in your mother tongue, when someone can be haughty enough to assume everyone they encounter should know Hindi?

Please bear in mind that bearing inconsiderate behaviour and disrespect towards the local ethos for decades (Marathis have encountered this in Mumbai), cannot even be compared bearing it for a week or two as Sridala did.

Although you are not expected to become a Jnanpith awardee in Kannada literature in spite of having a different mother tongue (which greats like Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, D.V.Gundappa actually did), the bare minimum that can be done to respect the local culture is, by atleast learning the basic communication in the local language.

Is that too much to ask for?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

SB - thanks for the links.

SB, km - actually, Adiga says: "A good chunk of the state's population speaks Telugu, Urdu, or Konkani as a first language; my own mother preferred to speak Tamil. It really doesn't matter. If you live in Karnataka, you are a Kannadiga... I appeal to those who have migrated from the north to teach their children the Kannada language, and to learn something about Kannada culture." I really don't see anything wrong in that, or in the bits you quoted (if you find something else objectionable, why not quote it specifically?) In fact, if he thinks someone from Bihar who has settled in Bangalore is de facto a Kannadiga, he is more inclusive than most Indians I know. I know Tamil-speakers who have lived in Bangalore for generations who don't see themselves as Kannadiga, and probably are not seen as Kannadiga by their neighbours, either.

As for Merkel, yes, the bit about "we expected the Turks will leave and they didn't" sounds dodgy. But she is not suggesting that they leave, or that new immigration be stopped, or that Islam is unwelcome (it quotes her as saying "Islam was a part of the nation's modern-day culture"). She says they need to integrate better and not live "side by side" with the Germans. I took that to mean don't form your Turkish ghettos (the equivalent, I imagine, of Edison, New Jersey if you have been there [shudder]).

Now, ghettoisation is not always out of choice, and I don't know what went on in Germany. (Definitely in France, the concentration of the "beurs" in the "banlieues" of the big cities is to a large extent the result of government policy. However, Edison, NJ and Jackson Heights, NY certainly became Indianised out of the individual choices of many Indians.) Still, whatever the cause, the result is a failure, and not surprisingly so, and she is right to say so.

Space Bar said...

akm: I hope not!

repudiated brilliance: I don't think Karnataka has any special claim on being inclusive. Every state in the country can make similar claims with equal truth. The thing about Karnataka - in recent times - is it's BJP's entry point into the south and that makes all the difference to these sudden supposed threats to culture.

Rahul: The bit I specifically quoted has to do with pride in Karnataka and it's unravelling because of money. He also conflates language with culture, as if the two were exactly identical things ("the Kannadiga sees his language and culture being eroded everywhere".) They're not.

Which parts of Kannadiga culture are being eroded? And what is this 'pride' supposed to consist of, exactly? Deference to some authorised version of Kannadiga culture?

That's the problem with Adiga's entire piece. He moans about money. he moans about the erosion of culture, language and pride. But what he really wants is a proper deference from everyone who comes from elsewhere. If someone is Kannadiga by virtue of living in Karnataka, there should be no problem at all, should there? Every Bihari, Andhraite and Maharashtrian is Kannadiga by default if they happen to live in the State.

So if it's really only a language problem he has, there was no need to bring in culture and pride into the piece.

More generally, the problem with both Merkel's and Adiga's statement is a similar rhetorical strategy that attempts to pin every social deficiency on outsiders - whether they're immigrants*, migrants or refugees.

We also need to see these statements in light of unarticulated but anticipated mass movements of people in the coming decades because of political, environmental and other reasons. It's not an 'if' but a 'when'.

*Re immigration in many EU countries - I'm told that refugees are allowed asylum only in the country they first enter when they leave their own country. So say a Sri Lankan Tamilian escapes and wants refuge in Germany. She won't get asylum, because very likely her passage through other countries in order to get there, disqualifies her.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

SB - yes, it's true that language and culture are not the same thing and also that Kannada is not the only native language in Karnataka (he mentions Konkani but there's also Tulu and Kodava, which are as "native" as Kannada). But language is the most obvious manifestation of culture. Which parts of Kannadiga culture are being eroded, you ask. Let me reverse the question. On the streets of Bangalore, if it weren't for the Government-mandated signs in Kannada, could you really tell that you are in Karnataka and not in some other part of India? If so, what gives the location away? I think nothing does.

As RB says above, this has been underway for years and can't be compared to migrant workers inconveniencing you for a week. It is a problem that arises from the arrogance of "dominant" language speakers -- Kannada speakers aren't resented in Chennai but Tamil speakers are in Bangalore. Meanwhile, Hindi speakers are resented in both cities. But, again, as RB points out, the problem is not just ignorance of the local language, but the blithe assumption that everyone must speak Hindi -- because it is the "National Language".

Long ago I heard from an Assamese guy that though the Marwaris are much more prosperous than the Bengalis in Assam, the Bengalis are resented locally and the Marwaris are not --- because the Marwaris speak Assamese. So the problem is not the money. I agree with you that Adiga gets it wrong there, and in fact it is a very poorly-argued piece, but the problem is real: only his diagnosis is faulty.

The importance of language should not be underestimated. It is the most primal thing for us as a species.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ps -
*Re immigration in many EU countries - I'm told that refugees are allowed asylum only in the country they first enter when they leave their own country.

I tried to look it up and couldn't: links? It seems that Europe hasn't (yet) harmonised its asylum laws, and each country has its own. In the case of Germany I can find no indication that what you say is true. I'm pretty sure it's not true in France (which gets asylum seekers via Italy) or the UK (which gets them via France).

Space Bar said...

Rahul: re immigration, this was something that came up in a discussion when I was on that official press trip last year; no links that I can find either. Will look at my notes; it's possible that it's an intention rather than an achieved fact.

Repudiated Brilliance said...

SB - I would not believe that all states have an equal claim to be inclusive. Either most of the states(bar Maharashtra) have not got better circumstances than Karnataka to demonstrate their inclusiveness, or, they simply cannot be perceived to be equally inclusive.
Also, Are you saying all these local culture related issues are being raked up by the BJP?
Are you saying that since the BJP is perceived to be a North-Indian party rather than pan-Indian, the self appointed custodians find their own local cultures threatened?

PS said...

RS: In any case, Hindi isn't the national language. That we have a Rashtra Bhasha is a delusion widely prevalent north of the Vindhyas.