Mumbai may be the chosen city of India World, where everyone of every stripe, caste and origin in the country comes to live, but the lingua franca is possibly not the one you’d expect it to be, 64 years after the British left the place. It certainly ain’t Hindi.
One of the first ‘greetings’ I received when I first moved into the area I am staying in in Chuim village in the Khar Danda area of the city was, “Welcome to India,” immediately followed up with, “Get back to England.”
With the folk memory of the dark, rascist days of Great Britain in the 1960s and 1970s hard-wired in from before I was born, my brain said, “How dare you!?”, immediately followed up with, “You little bastard”. But at the same time, my heart said, “Absolutely goddamn right.”
Typically, one or two people an hour will stop to say hello and find out what your good name is and where you do come from, and it may be too early to say, but so far, the reaction to my answer of, “England” seems to have been exclusively either a grimace and/or a swift exit.
(Of course it’s too early to say, it’s a blog – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?)
And let’s get this right, it is England. ’None of this Impero-peak, ‘Great Britain’, ‘Britain’ or the ‘United Queendom’ ; ’none of that bollocks. It’s England. You know? Fish, chips, cup’o’tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary F-ing Poppins – England.
And yes, it was us, and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry, I really am.
We belong in India about as much as America belonged in Vietnam; just as we don’t belong in Ireland; just as we didn’t belong in the West Indies. The paucity of imagination in presuming that the ‘West Indies’ was just another India, West of the ‘first’ one, is a perfect example of the kind of horrible homogenisation that runs all the way through the imperial enterprise—or, as it has now been rebranded, globalisation—whether it’s the Shemites, the Romans, the East India Company or the Americans with their names on the handle of the poker.
We didn’t belong in Indonesia, just as we didn’t belong anywhere in the Caribbean or the Pacific. We didn’t belong in America, so the French made us have it. We didn’t belong in Surinam or Tangier or Oman. We didn’t belong in Australia. We didn’t belong in Senegal, just as we don’t belong in Canada, Singapore, Ghana, Honduras, South Africa, Madeira, Gibraltar, Afghanistan, Iraq…
“Absolutely goddamn right. Never get out of the boat.”
I felt some of the sting that is presumably absent from the life of the average old colonial in fixing on a name for an individual I enlisted as a contributor to a documentary I was making about hip hop in South Wales in 2002. Having not heard his name spoken properly, and too scared to ask the rest of his crew what it was, I began calling this immense, menacing West African drug dealer, ‘Donny’. If I’d gone for ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Dastardly’ or ‘Dangerous’ it might have been alright but ‘Donny’!? Is there a stiffer, whiter, squarer name in the English language than ‘Donny’? I was relieved when Diamond decided not to crush my head between his hands.
I felt the same way moving in to this family’s home in Mumbai when I misheard the name of the man of the house and scrabbled around at a couple of ‘T’ names before settling on ‘Trevor’. This huge, alcoholic Goan who nicks 5 rupees from me every time we go and fill up my water bottle at his mate’s overpriced shack round the corner is as Indian as Ghandi, but thanks to a bunch of diseased, dick-swinging Portugese egotists his ‘real’ name is ‘Tyronne Mendes’.
As I have found in many situations in Asia, I cannot explain my own apparently bizarre behaviour in any adequate way. I thought in a majority Hindu country I would be bang on masquerding as a de facto vegetarian for a few months, but sure enough, here in this Goan Catholic village, in this Goan Catholic household, with the indefatigable Goan Catholic, Trevor Mendes, I’m as much of an outcast as a vegetarian in Europe (at least in Southern Europe and the more working class parts of Northern Europe):
“You know, teek-hain? Prawns have got a type of iron in them that you’ll never get from spinach”.
Yeah, cheers Trev, normally I’d be trying to put you off yours so I could get more prawns in, but I’d rather not have amoebic dysentery until next week if that’s allright with you, cock. 5 rupees?…
V.S. Naipaul calls the embarrasment of colonial name-giving, “place names in the mouth of a conqueror”. Cassius Clay described ‘Muhammad Ali’ as, “a free name”.
“Firdaus becomes Freddy, Jamshed, Jimmy, and Chandrashekhar, which is clearly impossible, becomes the almost universal Bunty or Bunny”
–V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness, 1964
It was the same story in Hong Kong, and, to be fair it’s the same with lovely people from all over globalised Asia, from the thriving ‘Elvis Presli’ in Indonesia to the inumerable Chinese ‘Candy’s, ‘Pinky’s’, ‘Flower’s and ‘Josephine’s making moves and taking names all over the Pearl River Delta, to all the magnificent, firebrand Thai ‘Susan’s spinning Victorian notions of emancipation into candyfloss. The ubiquitous ‘English name’ is just a concession to Western ignorance, and god knows we need it.
What exactly are we producing at the moment other than over-specialised, lazy, drug-happy underachievers with an inflated sense of their own entitlement, like me?. We elbowed our way violently to that place in the sun, and now the sun has well-and-truly set.
The sun of the British Empire rose in the West and finally set in the East, in India. Not content with perverting the natural order of the world in geographical, political, economical, spiritual and psychological terms, we went for a little astrophysical perversion as well.
As far as India goes, we just simply didn’t belong there, just as we didn’t belong in the Phillipines or Nigeria or Uganda or Jordan or Zanzibar or Qatar or Malta or Lagos or Palestine or Fiji or Kenya or Kuwait. When we eventually realised that we only really belonged on a tiny, rainy island in the North Sea notable principally for its fishing, it was too late, so we had to invent globalisation to keep the dream alive, even when it was dead. And now we’re desperately trying to reanimate a corpse.
“…limited islanders, baptised with mist, narrowed by insularity, swollen with good
fortune and wealth.”
–R.B. Cunningham Graham, Bloody Niggers, in the Social Democrat, April, 1897
I should know, I am one, and yes, my little friend, I am going back to England. We had our chance and we Royally fucked it up, and you deserve all the opportunities available, and all the luck in the world.
It’s your world, mate. We just live in it.