We South Asians are in the horns of a conundrum. Our society thrives in contradiction, and this subject deserves a chhota dekko.
Here we have a rich and vibrant culture going back millions of years (ok, thousands) and the Immigration Officer at Indira Gandhi International Airport grooms his nose in a rich and vibrant manner as passengers on BA 262 from London disembark. And when you visit Mohenjodaro, a khaki-clad security guard is attending to a private itch using a technique handed down (pardon pun) from generation to generation, and has changed little since the zenith of the Harappan Civilisation.
In an area of the world that saw the dawn of the Great Hydraulic Dynasties where ancient Kings could build irrigation canals that traversed the countryside for 15 kilometres or more in a gradient of two centimetres without any help from the World Bank, we have citizens lined up against the wall at bus stops attending to IDD calls from nature.
In Allahabad, descendants of the authors of the world´s first love manual take gender sensitivity very seriously indeed as they let their hands roam inside crowded buses.
The denizens of Dhaka have decided to turn their city into the Shutdown Capital of South Asia just when it was earning a reputation for being the Chinese Food hub of the subcontinent. Our advice to Bangladesh´s squabbling politicians: you can´t have your Dim Sum and eat it too. You either have to open up your city, or close down the Chinese restaurants.
Compared to their shutdown cousins back home, Bangladeshis overseas are real busybodies: carpenters in Kathmandu, successful slum dons in Bombay, and in Manhattan every other Indian ´restaurant is run by Bangladeshis. And just about everywhere else, Pakistani restauranteurs have no problem calling their cuisine “Indian”. And the Indian running a Nepali restaurant (called Gorkhaland) in Washington serves fried vegetarian momos that look and taste surprisingly like plain old samosas.
And look at how much we have cross-pollinated. At any given moment there are 1.5 million Nepali migrant workers in India, about the same number of Indians in Nepal, Biharis in Bangladesh, Bangladeshis in Assam, Sri Lankan dentists in Male, Bhutanese in Nepal, Tibetans in Mysore, Afghans in Pakistan, Urdu-speakers in Sindh, Sindhi-speakers in Punjab, Punjabi-speakers everywhere else, Malayalis in Delhi, Goans in Bombay, and Germans in Goa.
With so much in common, it is difficult to see why South Asians can´t get along. Outsiders see us as one race, so why can´t we? When skinheads dewog neighbourhoods, they don´t ask which side of Punjab your grandfather came from. And what of the rich heritage of myths that binds us together?
God men of the Ramayana went back and forth between India and Nepal without passports and visas—an honourable practice that continues to this day. And when Ram marched down to Lanka with his trusted Hanuman to show guerrilla king Ravana who was boss, he had to invade Jaffna—another endearing tradition that was reenacted recently.
Hanuman was the levitating simian lord who yanked out a whole hunk of the Himalaya, carried it across the subcontinent and deposited it at Hakgala in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka near Sita Amman Kovil where Sita was held in detention until her daring rescue. After the victory, Hanuman forgot about his mountain, and as far as my research shows there is no historical record of this piece of Himalayan geology together with its flora and fauna ever being returned to the rightful owners. A question of intellectual property under the International Biodiversity Convention might or might not be raised, depending on which way SAARC amity progresses.
What use have the Sri Lankans put the slopes of Hakgala to? If it is tea gardens, the people of Uttarakhand would like a rebate on chai imports. If hydropower is being extracted, howsoever micro, let there be power lines from Serendib to Shangrila.
And while talking of regional peace and friendship, does it do for Nepalis to gloat, as they are, over the latest excavations at Lumbini which prove conclusively that Siddhartha Gautam was indeed born in Nepal? Let me hasten to add that although the place of birth entitled him to Nepali citizenship, we cannot tell for sure what nationality he opted for when he grew up. For all we know, and going by evidence provided by the great Italian historian, Bernardo Bertolucci, he could have carried a Bhutanese passport. (Isn´t it weird? When Nepalis become famous they suddenly don´t want to be Nepali anymore: take Tenzing Norgay, Udit Narayan Jha, Arniko.) And don´t ask me why Hanuman was wearing a coat and tie. Perhaps that´s how air cargo executives dressed even five thousand years ago.