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.)