The dualism begins with language. Most of us in a certain socio-economic class are fluent in at least two languages – English and one other – though the reality is usually three or four. Each of these languages brings it's own cultural references, literature, folklore and behaviour systems. My Little Pony and paccha kudhira* share the same paddock peaceably. See? The Indian is already two-ply and not yet old enough to go to school.
As he or she grows, this is only reinforced by the greater exposure – books, music, movies, clothes, jokes. We speak one language to our friends and another to family. And again, one language to our cousins and another to our grandparents, and we enjoy being with both. Neither is a false front. They're both real and they live comfortably side by side, except for a few rough bits in the teenage years.
The two plies replicate themselves into subsets, permeating every little part of our psyche. It becomes (literally) second nature and so it's hard to answer questions from non-Indians about large matters of "conservatism and liberality in Indian society". Giving absolute answers to anything about India is a nightmare anyway – the minute you make a firm statement – even as you're making it – you remember fifty things that contradict it.
This is especially difficult in Dubai, where the non-Indians you meet are by and large throwbacks to Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad or life members of the Stereotype Or Die Society. One mad friend used to enliven Friday brunches by insisting aggressively: "My traditional Sunday breakfast is the same as yours – eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast". But the hash browns may have been called aloo tikkis and he would have added dosa to the mix, whenever on offer – and without it being in any way out of place.
(This particular friend headed West to spread the word, most recently heard telling Torontonians: "I am not East Indian, I am Indian. There's only one kind. Columbus could not read a map and neither can you." A few months earlier he made a visit to New York more interesting by contending that "the term doesn't even make sense. Africa is a continent, with 53 countries, not a concept for you to adopt. You're American." He survived. We expect to see his name in the Birthday Honours list any day now. Or some list, for sure.)
Anyway. Reading about India's protocol problems with Sarkozy and his girlfriend, I grinned and thought about the quaintest manifestation of them all. When you invite your girlfriend or boyfriend to stay at your parents' house, you will sleep in separate rooms, because the alternative is unthinkable. Yet, you will go on holiday together and send back photographs – which your parents will naturally, happily add to the family album.
How thin and sparse our lives would be without this duality, like a warp without a weft.
*Green horse. A very long and involved Malayalam fairy tale a nanny used to tell us. Never completed, ever.
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