Very early in my life, when roaming the back-alleys of seaports all over the world, I realised that as Indians privileged enough to have reasonably large amounts of then scarce foreign exchange in our pockets, we had a few choices –
- Stay back on board and save our money for better use back in India. Learn nothing.
- Go ashore and spend our money on beads and baubles. Learn a lot.
- Do some private trucking and multiply the funds, and spend some. Learn a lot more.
Ideally, some of us managed to do all three, especially those of us who could give as well as we got – in different types of countries. In the then all-important Western-dominated world, this meant being able to talk back in English, and also knowingly about, for example, popular Western music, sung in English. I was right up there then with the neo-Colonials and it was great fun slanging back, sledging as a term was invented subsequently.
Do recall – this was a day and age when rich English speaking countries, our Colonial ex-Masters all over the world had figured out that hiring people who did not speak English was the easiest way to save money. To wait on tables, or cook in kitchens, or clean toilets, for example. And here we were, from one of the then poorest countries in the world, ex-slaves, speaking better English than them, earning more than them too, but they still viewed us as menial servants. Whether we were seafarers or cricketers, for many of them, we were like Manuel from the wildly popular sitcom, FAWLTY TOWERS. Fit to be waiters, at best, but suddenly elevated to equivalence in cricket and seafaring. And engineering. And medicine. But linguistically backwards, all the same, in English.
“We knew you had the Atom Bomb, but we had no idea you could speak such good English” is what I have personally been told in the then non-Silicon Valley but same Bay Area part of the West Coast of USA in the mid ‘70s, and there was no way I could have predicted that Indians in multiple different languages would be rocking not just Fremont but almost all of the West Coast just about 20 years later when I set up my own office in Santa Clara.
We were, actually, in the early years, under the impression that the World was organised and operated by English speaking people, and that there was only one Royal Family in the whole White World. And that they held the keys to all the wisdom of the World. As well as money. And that we had to wear ill-fitting suits to impress them. Lord Haw-Haw, yes.
Till I sailed on a ship with over a dozen Nationalities – co-workers, supernumaries, mercenaries and trainees – of which more than half were non-English speaking people – and we managed just fine mostly because we had a job to do and a difficult one at that – carrying massive quantities of heavy arms and ammunition for countries variously at war. Since we were all curious, we would read up the manuals and instructions inside, which were all in non-English.
The mercenaries especially were very helpful. And tried to recruit some of us. It was very easy to apply for the French Legion if your ship called at a French port, for example, or similar Belgian or Dutch options. You didn’t need English. So it was part of the process, for example, that once the heavy stuff was off-loaded at ports unprepared to receive such heavy lift parcels, using ship’s gear, it was kind of expected that we also knew the basics on how to get them running.
(Which is also how I managed to operate hovercrafts, not an easy job, after discharging them from deck onto the water over-side, and then onward, gingerly and very slowly, onto a beach. They make it look so simple in movies, right? Let me tell you that it once took us almost 48 hours to get a heavy hovercraft off the ship, into the water, started and then slowly edged on to the beach.)
I know fellow seafarers from our sub-Continent who joined as mercenaries or support services for colonial “peace-keeping forces”, or simply to support unknown wars in far away countries, often recently independent. Decades later, thanks to the internet, they would track those of who remained in India, and re-connect. But abroad, with new names, and new Nationalities too.
These were seafarers, mostly, who saw opportunity to jump multiple levels in the English dominated social barriers globally, and then re-invented themselves – and still did not speak English. A particularly good friend, who escaped a bad marriage, connected with me in California about 15 years ago, speaking perfect Spanish, Bengali, and Portugese – and still almost no English.
Today, from what I have seen, the globetrotting Indian, across social and class barriers, regardless of cash in pocket or not, is well ahead of the game in terms of being multi-lingual. We were taught that trying to speak the language of the port visited was the best form of giving and getting respect. The modern Indian traveller is way ahead of the game with devices doing all the hard work.
So last week I was sitting in this German food restaurant in a Spanish coastal island resort where the local dialect is a mix of Spanish, French, Italian and Senegalese. With a lot of Arabic words thrown in. We are being served by a Punjabi waitress who grew up in Tamil Nadu, and is married to a man from Uttarkhand. The owner is from Sindh and takes a lot of effort to tell me how important the family system is for him, and how all these people working for him are his family, including the Berbers outside trying to get people to play the potato-in-3-cup-which-cup scam game.
And they all speak German as well as Russian, because these are the two main tourist streams. How about the Indians, I ask them, and they tell me that the Indians are the smartest, they eat mostly 2-3 streets away from the beach, at a variety of Indian buffet locations. But for alcohol, and they tend to buy the best, they come to the beach where they sit for hours, slowly soaking in the atmosphere as well as the (watered down) hard liquor.
And they all speak multiple languages.
Today, the usual comfort of travelling as Indian tourists to English speaking countries is waning, not least of all because of the huge problem with tourist visas. No longer is the Indian tourist viewed as low spending. Sure, many Indian tourist groups travel with their own cooks – I don’t blame them considering the high costs and low quality of most tourist food in the West.
And yes, at any airport, in the whole world, if you want to know where the free water coolers are hidden, you have to only ask the Indian looking people huddled somewhere and eating their own food. Beats paying 2-Euros for half-a-litre of RO water and 10-Euros for a small smelly stale burger.
The Indian tourist abroad, today, in my observation, is probably the most street-smart tourist in the world. Leap-frogging directly from a regional Indian National language to a foreign non-English language is one huge step in the global Indian’s arrival. Putting aside the English speaking countries like the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand, whose tourist visas are expensive as well as difficult to get, there are another 180+ countries which work very well for Indian tourists – who incidentally also have the cheapest prepaid global roaming rates, voice and data.
There used to be a concept known as the Ugly American abroad. There is now a concept of the Smart Indian abroad. And the Smart Indian abroad is no longer dependant only on the English speaking countries.
Note – it took me 3 working days to get a Spanish SHENGEN visa with no attitude, minimal fuss and zero intrusive documentation. UK, on the other hand, had a 3-week period, which grew to 6-weeks and is now 9-10 weeks, with attitude – and still no visa. In my lifetime, I have been to the US, Canada, Australia, UK, Western Europe and Eastern Europe over 4 dozen times, maybe more. I guess I am not applying for the UK, Canada and US anymore. Like many other Indian tourists, I would probably head for where my money and languages are welcome, without attitude.
(Veeresh Malik was a seafarer. And a lot more besides. A decade in facial biometrics, which took him into the world of finance, gaming, preventive defence and money laundering before the subliminal mind management technology blew his brains out. His romance with the media endures since 1994, duly responded by Outlook, among others.)