Firangi’s Fortunes

He was breathless, panting, with bulging eyes. What was amiss? Was he having a heart attack? would I have to scramble around in my messy brain for the First Aid Training from over 40 years ago?

He was completely speechless,  flummoxed and didn’t know what to do.

But relax dear reader it wasn’t a life or death situation.

He’d unexpectedly met a foreigner.

Foreigners

We’re often asked by guests at Mysore BnB why, as foreigners travelling in India, do we get so much attention? Whether it’s wonderful hellos, gorgeous smiles, penetrating questions, endless photos, now the ubiquitous ‘selfie’ and almost constant stares.

 

When I first travelled in Kerala,  I found myself with a Frenchwoman in a small Elephant procession but it was us, the foreigners and not the Elephant that seemed to be the main attraction. It felt as if we were the first foreigners these guys had ever seen but that was patently not true.  We are so often the centre of attention.

How could  that be with such lovely specimens…..?

It hasn’t changed that much after living here seven years.

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I often wonder who’s watching who? It’s sometimes unwanted and annoys some people  but its pretty harmless. But why? As always and especially in India there is not one, nor easy or consistent answer.

A blessing

On one of my first visits to Mysore. Early one morning, I’m sitting at a corner watching the city come to life.  An elderly Indian lady walks up touches a cow (which of course is a god!) and then touches herself as if to take a blessing. She then does exactly the same to me! How come?

Some may see us as special even exotic and there seems to be at least, a certain reciprocity there.

One of the downsides of all this, is of course, that it relates to seeing someone with lighter skin as better and in that case it should be relegated to the dustbin along with the ‘fair and lovely’ creams. But it’s not quite as simple as that.

Guest is God!, but not always…

Nowadays

Just last week we went to see another (first floor) house to rent.

Manjula had called the owner to get details and the price. It sounded ok. So we arranged to see it. It didn’t quite go to plan.  We hadn’t revealed that I, a foreigner, was involved. This was to help ensure we’d get a fairer Indian price. The owner pulled up outside the house of his two-wheeler. Manj and I were waiting and the ladies from the downstairs house were hanging around and chatting.

He’s the guy I began to describe at the beginning of this piece.

Let’s say he was speechless but it might best describe his initial response to say he was shocked and stunned. When he slowly began to gather his senses (OK don’t expect too much here) he said it was “only available for vegetarians”. The shocking foreigner before him obviously was a rabid Christian carnivore. Well, I’d got him there, I’ve been a veggie for 40 years.

sorry ….. the cogs whirred a bit more

“It’s for family and not bachelors.”  Well as I’m nearly 60 with grown up kids I’m not exactly family but neither am I bachelor and I’m not planning to have all night parties. So I sort of hit him with that in my inestimable western logical sort of way. I must admit though I wasn’t winning him over.

Finally we got it. It wasn’t available to a foreigner. It’s the Firangi Flop. End of story so we’re not just special!!  I gave him a bit about being a guest in his country (Famous saying Atithi Devo Bhava: ‘Guest is God’  clearly didn’t apply here), that I’d been renting from a member of his ‘community’ (this guy is a vegetarian Lingayat as are my current house owners) for seven years, kept a clean house, paid rent on time, blah blah blah. To no avail. So that house is off the list and he’s not getting a Christmas Card! 😉

We tried it again with a lovely small house just down the road, same problem.

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It does however reflect a common fact here, not unlike elsewhere. Traditionally, local people’s friends are quite rigidly defined, social networks and milieu are of their community, a term which locally means: where they are from, who they worship and their caste. No difference from the rest of the world eh? but prejudice here is incredibly transparent. They haven’t learned to hide it behind ‘politically correct’ camouflage. Appealling to ‘vegetarians only’ is code. Outsiders need not apply. It specifically means:  it’s only for higher caste (Brahmin), Jain or Lingayat. In this case, it’s based on even more prejudice and only available to people from Rajasthan , who are themselves, of course, in-comers or oft-comers as we’d say in Yorkshire.

So we’re special but we’re also outsiders.

In my view its part of the iceberg which  also relates to extreme politics, we’re seeing  around the world and that touches on people being disconnected from each other, xenophobia, anti-immigration and intolerance,  but that story is for another time.

Maybe, as always, I leave the last word to Manj.

Here’s Manjula ‘s view from a couple of years before working for me.

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over nine years ago, the time when I lived at my brother’s place. Once my brother’s wife and I were out to purchase something from a shop, it’s a small village, it comes after Hassan, it’s called Salgami. On our way back home we saw 2 foreigners, a couple, they were cycling. My brother’s wife said in astonishment, “Look how these English people are cycling in our village. I think they like to see villages.” She continued, “If you work at an English person’s house you will earn well enough, they’ll offer you good food, nice and rich food. Imagine, if I was not married, I would have worked at an English person’s house. I would have eaten the same food as they did, I would be happy and jolly. “
I said, “Ayyayappa! English person’s house? A big NO to their house. They eat insects, they eat all kinds of meat, they eat cow’s meat, pig’s meat and what not! And a few also eat insects.” I said this as I had watched in television; in a few shows which showed them eating many creatures “
She said, “It’s not necessary that everyone eats. The ones who eat will eat and there are the ones who don’t eat at all. “
Later we reached home.

After 6 months, I came to Mysore. Look what happened with me? The same thing what my brother’s wife had said, I got a job at an Englishman’s house! I remember Stephen had asked for a maid for this house, a girl or an old lady. I was lucky to find his house and he was lucky to find me.
I was wondered thinking about all kinds of meat I might have to cook. Later I heard it from Vasanth that Stephen was looking for only vegetarian food to be cooked. “Thank God!” I was relieved.
I eat chicken, mutton and fish. I can cook them all but if it was any other meat I wouldn’t have touched it. I would have reluctantly said “NO” to cook any other meat.

so we’re special, crazy, outsiders, or maybe…

We’re just weird…

Farrell Factoid

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The final section above is taken from the digital recordings that Manjula has made in Kannada and have been transcribed by our good friend Vidya, for me to share via the blog. This is the first quote from this treasure trove.

 

 

 

Firangi is an old term for Foreigner, usually white, westerner and possibly British now we’re referred to, rather boringly, as plain old ‘foreigner’ or even “American’, I think it was originally Persian and Jonathan Gil Harris describes some in the ….

The First Firangis

the not so local locals

Foreigners who’ve made Mysore their home

In Mysore there’s quite a few foreigners living here. They seem less like the type you’ll find in Bangalore, who knows!

Here in Mysore, some of us have homestays, manage subsidiaries and have set up our own businesses, one even exports Henna/Indigo to south Korea!

One of these oddballs is Victor Len Bailey, he’s 75 nearly 76.

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We’re just back from a trip to visit him way over the other side of Mysore. He’s a bit of a mix!

This visit to Len is poignant as he’s likely to be back in the UK in the next few weeks to finally leave India after being here for the past fourteen years, most of them in Mysore.

On this occasion, he was remembering his first trip to India.

In a former dry cleaners Bedford truck, he’d converted into a mobile home, him, his Anglo-Indian wife and their two kids travelled overland to India, in 1970. He’d been working as a mobile crane driver, his wife in an Indian restaurant (he lived above when they first met) and there were a few others travelling with them who had paid for their passage. That helped pay for their trip.

Christmas 1970, he was aged 30, a bit old for a hippy, as he declares! Here he is, that January, ‘turning native’

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You can just see the truck in the background. They travelled along the great trunk road, the last stage being from Lahore to Nagpur to a stone that marked the very centre of the Indian subcontinent. Then they hit the road again to take in the south visiting Mysore for the first time and including: Ooty, Coimbatore and Chennai. A total trip of six months.

The return journey, normally reckoned to be 22 days was more like 40 days. Being stuck in the mountains, with snow storms, broken roads, picking up distressed back packers, breaking down, running out of money and a coming to the aid of a local newly wed bride. The mobile home continually being  a magnet and attracting locals, especially children fascinated by the fluorescent lights, generator, toilet and shower, and probably, the odd people 😉

He remembers Afghanistan and that Kabul was the nicest city, laid back, friendly people with some sadness because of how it’s been damaged by the interference of foreign powers. He recalls stopping for coffee and snacks and making Instant Whip for the Children from the Kuchi Tribe that had gathered around.  I ask you …. of all the things to give 😉 well anyway. They’re eating it in the plastic containers he’s provided with teaspoons and slowly stepping backwards until they could just slip back and run away with their well-found souvenirs.

Road conditions were so poor in places, they would be lucky to make a 100 miles in a day.

He remembers another vehicle, a bus from the UK with plenty of paying customers, a version of ‘Magic Bus’ just 21 days to Delhi “roll-up roll-up”, which had all its windows fall out through the incessant shaking.

There was no guarantee you’d arrive!

I could have been one of those innocent travellers. A few years later, still in the 1970’s in my gap years before and during university, I’d hoped to follow in the footstep of the hippies. I’d managed to get just over the European border onto the Asian side of Turkey (what a wimp) but I never succeeded in fulfilling that burning ambition in getting to India until just ten years ago.

Len has so much depth, a self-made man who can hold forth on an unlikely range of subjects in phenomenal detail (so not like me at all), a genuine guy with guts, determination and a heart of gold. He also has links back to the early days of the Labour Party so he’s also 100 years plus old 😉

During their stay in Teheran it was obvious that society would not last. The rich would spend the equivalent of someone’s annual income on a night out and it was fashionable to buy obscenely expensive things such as learning to fly helicopters. Big gaps between the rich and the poor, ostentatious demonstrations of wealth. Ring any bells?

I wonder how he will find going back to the UK and its current austerity with slashed public services and near bankrupt local authorities. He really has little choice financially. But how will he manage? The different culture, the weather, the cold? He is a bit frail and has no accommodation to go to or places to crash. Maybe he’ll just dump himself on the doorstep of the first London Borough he arrives at…  Southall which also happens to be the place where the majority of the residents come from the Indian Subcontinent!

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We’ll miss you Len, you’ll leave a gap and we hope your re-entry to the land of your birth will go well.

Len at 17.

Yes he got his snaps out!

It strikes me after listening to some of Len’s stories about how many  memories we have of experiences that help create who we are and how that will in time disappear as if it’s just a puff of smoke

…. or will it?