Monday 13 July 2020

X is for Xenophilia

For millennia, India has been susceptible to outside influences. First the Greeks, then the Moghuls, the Portuguese and finally the British have all left their distinctive stamp upon various aspects of the country and its life. Perhaps it was a question of politics: the lack of unity among the fragmented Indian states - which were often either squabbling or else sealed off completely - always made them easy prey for invaders. Whatever the reasons, the Indians retain to this day an honest curiosity and openness towards foreigners. And to none more so than to the British.

In part this can be attributed to, hazy nostalgic memories of the Raj. Most Indians have been touched by the British Empire, either directly or through their parents. Even more seem to retain a fond affection for the race, despite the past imperialism, and despite the patronising acts of political clumsiness which British ministers continue to wreak on them. Although the British can be blamed only too easily for the massacres which followed partition, they might also be praised for limiting religious friction so adroitly in the century before. Perhaps it is this, in part, which people recall. In an uncertain world, nothing is treasured so much as the memory of stability.

Attitudes to the British are complicated by the widespread use of English as the language of intellectual debate, of commerce, and of national politics. The very act of speaking English is so freighted with cultural baggage that Indians are almost inevitably impressed when a Briton talks. Particularly since, rightly or wrongly, British English stands as the yardstick of correctness. Any utterance, be it never so banal, strikes the Indian with all the force of wisdom engraved on stone.

But this goodwill is so widespread, and passes so far beyond cynical deference to affluent tourists, that a deeper cause than history or linguistics must be sought. It is not hard to find. Watch Indians dealing with Indians. In the interminable queues, neither the clerk nor the queuer ever seem to lose their placidity; both accept that neither is to blame for delays and problems, and that both are victims. Travel amidst the madness of Delhi's rush hour as rickshaws and bicycles swoop across on-coming traffic: horns are blown continually, but there is rarely any real ill-feeling. Everyone, everywhere, preserves their equanimity.

It is tempting to ascribe this to some profound Hindu passivity, or to the effects of centuries of downtrodden serfdom bleaching out any spark of resistance or protest. The real reason is surely much simpler: the Indians enjoy a natural and deep-dyed good humour. Being pleasant in daily life is one manifestation of it; liking foreigners another.

This makes staying in India a joy. As well as the constant unofficial welcome which is pressed on the visitor, even the hotels manage to convey something of the same spirit. At the best of them - like the Imperial in Delhi - service is raised to something akin to customer beatification. Whether amidst elegant surroundings of old Raj splendour, or enjoying the simple hospitality of a Kashmiri home, the question of who likes whom the more - guest or host - becomes totally and blissfully academic.

A Partial India A to Z

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