“Eww, Is that a Hindi Book?!”: Why the Indian “Elite” Disses Everything Desi

Social Commentary

“Eww, Is that a Hindi Book?!”: Why the Indian “Elite” Disses Everything Desi

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Istill remember the day when during school library hour, I picked out a book of Premchand’s short stories from a pile of Hardy Boys and Ruskin Bond novels. As I sat down to read, a friend – more an academic rival – tittered, “Is that a Hindi book?!” She said “Hindi” how cat-lovers say the word “dogs” and how our PM says the name “Gandhi”.

“Indeed it is,” I said to her, with a point-blank look that basically said that there was no further explaining to do. “You chose that out of so many books?” she sniggered in response. “Of course, I chose to read one of the greatest Indian authors of all time, whose stories we’ve all grown up listening to – unless you’ve never heard Hamid’s tale, in which case I’d excuse your literary knowledge,” I shot back.

I consider that to have been my first encounter with an Indian elitist millennial – a pseudo angrez.

The pseudo angrez is a special creature. It flaunts a flagrant repugnance toward all things Indian, but holds off buying those coveted headphones in wait for the big billion sale. It speaks English with a sprauncy accent that reeks of privilege, but resorts to maa-kis and behn-kis in moments of rage or even minor annoyance. It loves weird memes and cat GIFs, but cannot comprehend why old people are into WhatsApp forwards.

More often than not, the pseudo angrez is this high-handed privileged internet citizen in the streets and a confused cultural mess in the sheets. I should know; I came to know so many of them over the years that I became one.

I’m a child of a bourgeois household. I was born in an era, in a country, and in a family where technology meant home appliances and hamara Bajaj. Unlike my intellectual and culturally aware friends of today, I did NOT grow up reading JRR Tolkien, or even Roald Dahl. My parents, two humble government servants, believed that non-academic reading was an unnecessary distraction. I remember the day I bought the first two Harry Potter novels. I was so engrossed in reading about the trio’s escapades into the Chamber of Secrets, that I skipped homework hour in the chamber of studies. My mother obviously did not like that, and novels were henceforth banned from our household.

I was forced to find my “leisurely reading” in the editorial pages of The Hindu and secretly, in my dad’s political magazines, diary excerpts from his books, cutouts from old newspapers, and his sole subscription to fiction – Hans, a lit-political Hindi magazine which was originally started by Munshi Premchand in the colonial era to unite Indians against the British, and later revived by Rajendra Yadav. Written by mostly unsung Hindi authors, and occasionally established writers – like Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Mahadevi Verma, and Sumitranandan Pant, who many of us read in our school Hindi curriculum but few went on to remember – the poems and essays and stories of Hans gave me my thirst for culture: Desi culture.

She said “Hindi” how cat-lovers say the word “dogs” and how our PM says the name “Gandhi”.

The pain of separation of love first came to me not in the words of Eliot, but in the lyrics of Shiv Kumar Batalvi. His love was both carnal and born of the tragedies of the partition. “Multitudes of lovers walked by,” he wrote, “but never did I forget Jhang, my motherland, never did I pierce my ears.” Today, when a Bollywood song hits the charts with Batalvi’s lyrics, be it “Ajj Din Chadheya” or “Ikk Kudi”, I revisit that little part of my childhood with a little pride, perhaps even affection.

As late as at 17, I got the internet, and thus began, a new era of cultural exploration. I saw my musical preferences shift, and gradually evolve from Linkin Park to Coldplay to Pink Floyd to Radiohead to Daft Punk. I left behind the sorrow-laden ghazals of Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh, the versatility of Manna Dey and RD Burman, the sufi verses of Mehdi Hassan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. More and more, I found myself surrounded by friends who had never heard of these stalwarts. Kumar Sanu was to them the benchmark definition of the Indian mainstream, and I laughed along at their jokes while secretly reminiscing about the saccharine romance of “Tera Mera Pyaar” and “Sochenge Tumhe Pyaar” that had latched onto my teenage heart.

While the girls in my school couldn’t stop raving about Titanic, I was looking forward to going home to watch Sanjay Dutt lament for Madhuri Dixit in Saajan. Fun movies for me back then weren’t Toy Story or Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, they were Bawarchi and Haathi Mere Saathi. “Intellectual” movies for me back then weren’t The Godfather or Shawshank Redemption, they were Guide, Anand, and Abhimaan. And yes, I can confess today that my favourite movies of all time are neither Pulp Fiction nor Taxi Driver as I might have claimed in the past, they’re Mera Naam Joker and Arth.

The truth is, that within a few years of finding myself on the internet, I’d realised that nobody who was cool was talking about Indian art, and nobody who was talking about Indian art was considered cool. Western tastes were instantly linked to nuance and intellect, even though many of us who claimed to be connoisseurs of rock music or Nolan and Tarantino movies were pretending, or just trying really hard to fit. I did, too. And the internet made it easy. It shoved into my face ample American sitcoms and talk shows, cinema and music, and literary classics for me to never go back to Shabana Azmi or Saadat Hassan Manto or Mohammed Rafi again.

I realise this is truer for my generation – which discovered the internet later in life; this probably doesn’t reflect the experience of the “digital natives” of today. There was a time when I used to regret not having had this “exposure” earlier in life. I used to wish that I’d been allowed to read American novels instead of being forced to play. I used to wish that my teenage self had got the luxury of internet instead of the simplicity of dad’s cassette-player. All these regrets were because I mistook my lack of awareness of American culture as lack of cultural awareness, because nobody was talking about Indian culture – our cinema, our music, our books, our poems, our TV shows.

After years of struggling with this dichotomy – this part western, part desi disposition of my innermost intellectual self, I have learnt that there is a special joy in knowing a bit from both ends of the world. That I can enjoy Coltrane and Mingus and Brubeck with the same fervour with which I enjoy Shankar Jaikishen’s little-known Jazz renditions of Indian ragas has helped me embrace my own pseudo angrez-ness. I am no “patriot”, but I’d admit, there is a certain joy in staying connected to one’s roots.

Perhaps, if all of us in the Indian millennial elite spent a little time in exploring the history and art produced by this subcontinent, we might be able to do away with the cognitive biases and insecurities that subconsciously lead us to believe that we are in anyway less “cool” than the rest of the world. So go on, read Premchand and buy the headphones at the heavy discount.