“This is NOT fair”
– said my boss as the door slammed in his face, just moments after it was held wide open with a welcoming smile by the colourfully dressed, macho-moustached durbaan of a 5 Star hotel, for me, a minion!
“Well, you gotta be fair to the guy; like me” I said. However, I wasn’t smirking when I visited the Taj Mahal in Agra soon after. Indians- Rs. 25, Foreigners- Rs. 300… whaaaat, no mention of White Indians!? Jokes apart, I had to present more than a couple of government issued ID’s, “converse” (curse) in chaste Hindi before the person behind the ticket counter reluctantly sold me the ticket for Rs. 25 muttering under his breath –
“Yaha aakar Hindi seekh lete hai, aur…”
My wife found it very amusing –
“you gotta be fair to the guy, Strang; like you”
The name’s Strangway Orridge aka Strang. However, I’ve also grown up with Strong, Strange, Stranger, Shaun, Stan, Stang and Strangy. I’ve never forgiven my father for naming me Strangway Orridge… I mean, who does that??? Just because his father’s friend happened to be an Irishman named Strangway O’leary?!
I was born in Dehradun off parents whose own parents were British Subjects of the Crown – serving in the Army and the Railways. I’m sure my parents also had an interesting childhood growing up but that story is for another day. This one is about the adventures of this White Indian.
Life for me began in Dehradun with the initial few years in Rishikesh. Most of my childhood was spent in Modinagar- then a small and booming industrial township about 50 kms north-east of Delhi. And then on to St. Stephens College in DU. The last two places are where all the adventures happened; at least the ones I remember!
Me growing up in Modinagar was akin to sticking out like a sore thumb all the time. In a small township like Modinagar, surrounded by villages where the main occupation was farming, a little white boy with fair hair and light eyes really stood out. It was intimidating to say the least. To be stared at and to be called all sorts of names from Gora, Bhoora, Angrez, firangi, chikna, and likes of it.
Initially, I didn’t understand most of the words but the way they were said was enough of an indication. As I grew older and my Hindi got better, I began to understand the full impact of my looks and the reactions it elicited. For years, I tried very hard to blend in, and the only way I thought I could, was to dress and behave like the people surrounding me. I remember so clearly that there were times I wished I was any color but white. Imagine a white boy swearing and cursing in chaste Hindi- more to build a protective shield and to blend in than to intimidate.
Being an athlete, I travelled a fair deal representing my school, District and the State of Uttar Pradesh in Basketball. Most times it worked. And the times it didn’t, fights broke out. As they say,
“sometimes you win and go home with just a shiner. Other times, you went to the doc to patch you up before you went home; till the next one.”
Important life lessons. As always, life carried on..
I began to observe a very interesting pattern. People around me were naturally very curious but most also just jumped to conclusions and assumed me to be a “foreigner” and that dictated their behaviour, which in turn was also very interesting. Some just wanted to have fun at my expense. These include friends and colleagues who also found (still find) it amusing, completely ignorant how tired I am of hearing the same old shit and deeply detest it.
Some didn’t even realize they were being nasty. But then there were a few who wanted to know me better and became lifelong friends. It helped that I was also desperately looking to make friends who would stand by me. And they did! It made me feel grateful and relieved to have them around. In thick or thin, I could always count on them, and they on me. This taught me to value true friendship and fierce loyalty – another life lesson.
When people approach me, they almost always choose to talk to me in English. Not their fault. It’s the way I look. But what’s even more interesting is that they continue to do so even after I respond in Hindi! I don’t think our brain registers a white guy speaking chaste Hindi. In CP, one of Delhi’s most popular hangout places, this one time someone approached me for dollars –
“Sir, Dollar Dollar. Exchange?”
My exasperated “Nahi hai, bhai” fell on deaf ears as he continued chasing me…
“Sir, best rate, Sir”
And of course, there’s the classic – “Hello Sir, which country, hain?????” which always elicits the same old reaction –
“Yahi ka hoon, bhai… kisi aur pe try maar!”
A recent incident happened at a “star hotel” near Chennai. The lady at the reception asked for my passport as ID while I was checking in. I offered my election ID card and the look on her face was priceless! Even more when I showed her the voter’s ink on my finger. Without a word she goes, “purportedly” to get a copy made but takes her own time returning. This time with someone who looked like her senior, who very politely asked me for – you guessed it, my passport! I kept my cool, reasoned in Hindi and finally convinced them that I was – INDIAN!
All this while standing by and enjoying the show was my colleague- most of them are now used to these reactions. And like I’ve mentioned earlier, ignorant of the fact how deeply I detest it. These incidents, not surprisingly, aren’t limited to India only. Once when travelling by ferry from Singapore to Bintan (Indonesia) I got stopped at the Immigration Counter because the officer refused to believe I was an Indian! He kept insisting for me to show him my second passport and also spoke to me in what sounded like Spanish. I was gently interrogated by two officers for a good 15 minutes before they let me pass. Again, the colleagues I was travelling with watched with amusement and patiently enjoyed the show. In another case, here in India, I got told to
go back to my country if I didn’t like it here!
– this when I asked them to not park in the middle of the road and block traffic! Then there are some incidents are just too personal to narrate here.
What all these incidents did to me was elicit fear of any such encounters where I had to prove my nationality- no matter where in the world. And I am always over-prepared in anticipation. To this day I carry ALL my IDs on me at all times (Except for my passport, unless of course I’m travelling abroad). But just like the two sides of the same coin, there also have been pleasant experiences – Like getting preferred treatment at hotels (The cynic in me insists it is in anticipation of larger tips), easily starting conversations (I’ve realized my name is a conversation starter), westerners easily placing their trust in me – even when I’m bullshitting. (Aakhir, dil hai Hindustani!) I’ve also had fun when out shopping and the shopkeepers discuss prices to quote assuming I don’t understand Hindi.
“Rakhi ne ye angrez kahan se pakad liya, Radha?”
asked my wife’s aunt off her sister at a family do – blissfully unaware I understood every word and its nuance. I think my mother-in-law wished the earth would swallow her whole at that moment. But worse off was the aunt when she was told. Of course, I didn’t make it any easier for her and milked it for what it was worth, speaking to her in Hindi only.
Growing up white wasn’t easy (I’m still white, btw) but experience is a great teacher and I learnt fast. I’ve learnt to take advantage of a situation should one present itself. I’ve also learnt to accept reactions when I encounter them, and move on. But most importantly, I’ve learnt that assumptions can turn around and bite you in the ass!
No better lessons than those that life teaches you, here are a few that have stood the test of time –
The value of friendship and fierce loyalty; Relationships matter!
The value of not taking yourself too seriously; One life… learn to laugh, or as kids like to say – YOLO!
The value of having a sense of humour; Helps de-escalate any situation.
Know a little more; assume a little less.
We are all unique. Accept it. Be Genuine.
“Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” – Anonymous