So I sat there. An inviting glass of wine stood before me, while the scent of scrumptious chicken wafted through the air.
Taking it all in, I rested my hands on the table and smiled at the next unknown friendly face. It’s a strange mix of people you encounter at Indian business lunches abroad. An odd motley bunch is what you see all around.
First, there are the high-powered, suited-up blokes. You never see them without a gadget in hand. Something’s always buzzing around them.
A typical conversation with them generally tends to begin with an energetic greeting. That’s quickly followed by a patronizing nod or two as you introduce yourself – they know that you can never be as awesome as them. And then comes a quick chuckle – perhaps at a joke in their own heads.
But soon after the first two sentences, it all fizzles out. Holding focus, apparently, isn’t a strong suit for them, and so they pass you up for the next fellow. With a polite wave, they let you know that it’s not nice for you to be greedy. There is only little time and only so much of them to go around.
Then come the mystics. These folks are generally found scouring the field for an audience. Apparently, they can smell a spiritually starved soul from a mile away. They are fierce predators, seeking an unsuspecting prey – someone to impart their busting-at-the-seams knowledge. Caught in their trap, you can end up doubting everything you’ve ever learnt.
It can, however, be a real learning experience, in that it does teach you relativity of time. If you focus hard enough during the moments you spend with them, you can hear the billions of clocks around the world ticking and tocking ever so excruciatingly loudly and slowly. It is indeed a spiritual experience; you glimpse eternity, surpass the limitations of time and space.
For all their mysticism, nevertheless, common sense and non-verbal communication seem to be concepts that are a mystery to them. A quick note of caution: colour of hair, wrinkles and attire are useless as guides in such cases. They come in all shapes, sizes, and age groups.
Now if you’ve managed to steer clear of these two, although I highly doubt that you can, you are faced with the third, and far more complex creature. The closest parallel that one can find for them are the shapeshifters of folklore.
Unbelievably cagey, they can seamlessly blend into any environment. Depending on the context, they can move from being Marx to Keynes, Gandhi to Hitler; Dawkins to the Pope; Obama to Osama with frightening ease. At best, these folks are innocuous and entertaining; at worst, they lull you into a false sense of security as you prepare for future engagement.
However, there’s little that you need fear. There’s one sure-fire way to identify these creatures. Like vampires that stand no chance before a mirror, there’s one aspect that can help you discern the modern shapeshifter. Invariably, during your conversation, they will, and I mean will, engage in gloating about an imagined ideal India and its culture while bashing all the vile modernity that exists there.
It starts innocuously. “Did you read this?” “Did you see that?” Or if there isn’t a specific event to talk about, then there’s the “Look at this picture, the Chinese have built such a beautiful bridge. India can never do this.” That’s usually followed by a robust slap on the neighbor’s thigh, or just a smug smirk for everyone’s pleasure. With that, you’re enticed into an orgy of self-flagellation, which eventually glorifies the past cursing everything present and future in India. Well, apart from Bollywood. An increase in pelvic thrusts can only be celebrated; they transcend the generation gap.
Moreover, just like their conversations, they will vainly display every sign of modern consumerist capitalism, but cringe at the thought of the lost ‘purity’ of the homeland.
Anyway, so as I sat between them, sipping my wine, I played the perfect, I-am-too-cool-to-engage-so-I-am-gonna-just-judge-you bloke – another annoying creature. And then something happened. I turned my gaze inward, and decided to let my guard down. ‘There’s a speaker moving to the podium; he seems to have prepared a speech on health and holistic healing and diet. Let’s listen and stop judging,’ I told myself.
Microphone adjusted, the gentleman took the stage. “Good evening, everyone. I am here to talk to you about the ancient science of Ayurveda. But before that, let me ask you one question. Do you all drink milk?”
Mumbles of yes were heard amidst sounds of munching.
“Good,” the speaker continued. “What kind of milk do you drink?” The precise answer to that question should have been: ask the wife or the maid. But silence would do for now.
“I bet it is buffalo milk,” the speaker continued unmoved by the quiet. “You see in ancient times, we in India used to drink only cow’s milk. But then the British came and they forced buffalo milk on us. It was a clever ploy, because buffalo milk makes us slow in the mind and body. So we had buffalo milk, became slow and daft and the British had an easy run at ruling us then,” he completed to an appreciative roar.
‘Oh sweet mother of God’ I winced, demanding a refill. There ain’t enough wine in the world…