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Everyday Mornings On The Indian Railways

Everyday Mornings On The Indian Railways

July 06, 2010
Barnaby Haszard Morris

Most of the folks on my daily commute in Kerala are happy to see me, but I can't always respond in kind...

Taking advantage of the extraordinary Indian Railways is a regular component of my life in Kerala. Being a hardworking Technopark salaryman I have to catch the train to and from work most days, which in and of itself is not all that remarkable; people do that all over the world, from Tokyo to London to New York. What makes my journey unusual, as I've mentioned before, is the fact that I'm the only regular who is a white man – the saip in their midst. How much I should interact is a constant dilemma as I try to balance the expectations of whoever it is I talk to, the many others watching, and indeed, the expectations I have of them.

A typical morning's train jaunt begins first with the students. There are always hundreds of young males commuting to their Thiruvananthapuram schools in the morning, constantly on the alert in case there's a cute girl, another friend, or a person who looks strange. I fall into the latter category, and as such, one of their cliques will always notice me before anybody else. Their standard modus operandi is for one of them to spot me, turn to all his friends with a huge smile on his face, and speak two or three sentences in Malayalam including the word 'saip' five or six times; they then all look to me, taking turns to train their gazes and grins on my face.

Occasionally they call to me – “Hello Saip!” – to which I usually respond with a smile and a muted “Hi” before putting my headphones in. There are a number of reasons why I rarely engage in conversation. It's not that I'm particularly anti-social, or even that the attention makes me feel uncomfortable. There are just times that I like to keep for myself, and the hour-long journey into work at 7 in the morning is one of those times. In any case, if I do allow conversation, it normally takes 15 minutes to get anywhere remotely interesting: that's how long it takes for me to convince them that I'm not a tourist and actually, I've probably been taking this morning train for longer than you have. So there.

Whatever happens, I know my lot can't possibly be as bad as what the habitual fish-carting ladies of Carriage 3 are going through. One look at their embittered, weathered faces tells you all you need to know: you do NOT mess with these women. They have been through more than you and they are stronger than you. One morning, someone managed to open the door to their closed-off compartment and let the masses in, including a friend and I. Their ensuing tirades were apparently as foulmouthed as they were impassioned, my friend turning to me and whispering, “phew, thank God you don't know Malayalam”.

My level of engagement also depends on my mood, of course: if I've done some yoga that morning, for example, or my girlfriend made a great cup of coffee, I might very well shake an outstretched hand and let its owner quiz me to their hearts' content. If, however, I missed my alarm and had to run out the door to get to the station on time, the stares make me feel like an animal in a zoo and, for a moment, I truly resent them. In that moment, I feel like the concept of the word saip completely overrides the concept of the word human. Even though I know that I would haved done the same had I been in these folks' position, had I lived their lives, it irks me to the point that I would prefer to close my eyes and have Kings of Leon or The Field keep me company until I'm sat at my workstation.

Before you queue up to take shots at my supposed holier-than-thou Western perspective, let me say again: not every day is like that. Living as a very obvious outsider in a foreign country bears all kinds of challenges, and just as regular people do in those cities I mentioned at the top of the article, I sometimes have a bad day. Much more often, those morning train expeditions are a reminder of my good fortune at having such a free pass in a culture that is not my own. In the end the frustrations will fade, and the beaming smiles, peals of high-pitched laughter and earnest curiosity will remain.

20 Comments

  • Blue Lotus
    By
    Blue Lotus
    15.10.10 03:59 PM
    I had a season ticket.And the biggest joy it gave me was,I didn't have to stand in the long long queues for tickets.
    And I guess the joy of not using overbridges cos you can just walk across the tracks to the other platform.That happens only in India..
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    11.10.10 01:19 PM
    I think there's a place for respecting elders/seniors and even hierarchical constructs in society, but it can definitely go too far. I still remember when my boss sat me down and showed me how to write a formal letter in India. It was completely different to what I was used to, particularly the language!

    The rest of what you wrote about words in other languages and their evolving meanings is just fascinating. Thank you for taking the time to tell us.
  • Daisy
    By
    Daisy
    11.10.10 12:22 PM
    It's not so much the colour of your skin, but the remnant of a colonial hierarchy, where the White man happened to be the ruler and had replaced the pre-colonial Sahib, who was brown but enjoyed a good office.

    Gradually, it became a collective noun for all Caucasian men.

    But I agree that in a democracy the colonial mindset should be abolished - as also the Indian way of writing an official application to a government official. The language is a remnant of the colonial hierarchy and reflects the hierarchical equation between the ruler and the ruled.

    A comparable example is from the ancient India, when the Greco-Romans used to trade with India. Initially, they came from Ionia, thus lending the Sanskrit word "Yavana," or "an Ionian."

    Because black pepper was a major trade item, the Sanskrit word for it became "Yavanapriya" or "beloved of the Greco-Romans." Yes, it's feminine gender in Sanskrit. :-)

    Gradually, Yavana began to be used for all outsiders who came from the North-Western frontiers of the sub-continent and there was a whole lot of them - Greeks, Romans, Scythians, Huns, Arabs, Africans, Mongols, Turks, Persians and so on.

    As most of these people came as military warriors, the term Yavana acquired a derogatory meaning.

    But in the north, instead of "Sahib," "Firangi" is more likely to be used. Originally, Firangi meant the British, but gradually came to be used for all Caucasians. The less educated still use "Angrez" (or the British) for all Caucasians.

    These terms are not value-laden with hierarchical equations like the Sahib. So, "Saip" seems to be typically Malayali.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    11.10.10 10:20 AM
    That's absoutely right, it's derived from 'sahib' (thought it is actually spelled and pronounced this different way in Malayalam) so its origins are respectful. That, of course, is both a blessing and a curse in my eyes - I'm happy that the word used for foreigner doesn't have an inherently negative meaning, but I don't want to be accorded more respect just because of the colour of my skin.
  • Daisy
    By
    Daisy
    11.10.10 07:39 AM
    "Saip" - I think it's "Sahib," a well-placed man in pre-colonial times. They began to use it for the White man in the colonial period. Perhaps their accent makes it sound like "saip."
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    03.08.10 12:44 PM
    Aha, nothamilton, you're onto something... but now, it's FULL FACE BEARD for the win! Huzzah!
  • nothamilton
    By
    nothamilton
    02.08.10 05:49 PM
    Such serious comments - can't help but think, if your profile photo is still accurate, that is a handle bar moustache that would garner stares/admiration on any countries public transport.
  • Paul
    By
    Paul
    16.07.10 11:54 AM
    Barnaby: It is very interesting to read this article. The view point expressed by all commentators revealed something new to me. Thanks for sharing
  • LEB
    By
    LEB
    15.07.10 12:51 AM
    Very well written. It is fun to see the India through your eyes. I am sure you will be fine when you get back to your country.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    12.07.10 02:08 PM
    Now that's something I'm dreading - returning to my home country and feeling a total outsider. If I'm away much longer, I'm sure that's what'll happen. Your colleagues sound like no fun whatsoever! Believe me, I know how punitive people can be here if you're perceived to fit at either end of the bell curve. Hope it never got you down too bad.

    As for 'saip', my thoughts on the word and its use are pretty well summed up in this article and comments: http://johnstanger.blogspot.com/2008/10/foreigner.html - check it out.
  • Afshan Mujawar
    By
    Afshan Mujawar
    10.07.10 07:43 PM
    You know, as an after thought, its not just a person's face or skin color that attracts this kind of attention.

    When I returned to India after spending most of my life in Dubai, I looked different despite being Indian. I dressed differently (All the way way to my footwear!) and my body language was uncommon. I used to be considered 'arrogant' at work because my accent was different, I didn't sound Indian despite being Indian, so people presumed I was purposely trying to show off that I was 'foriegn returned', while I was not, thats just how I spoke.

    I had to change a LOT and become more of an INDIAN Indian to be accepted. Just thought I'd share that experience here.
  • Maria
    By
    Maria
    10.07.10 04:35 PM
    Barnaby,
    Being a Mall myself , I can imagine how discomforting the peoples stares can get :)
    I love train journeys n I used to get stared at too...for being a girl n for being an OK looking one..hehehhe
    Ur article was lovely n descriptive. I have seen the faceless idetical school kids n d nasty fish-folk too..M pretty sure 'Gods Own Country' must be quite an experience to u :D
  • Afshan Mujawar
    By
    Afshan Mujawar
    09.07.10 03:26 PM
    Barnaby:Oh! That sounds...well, quite racist actually! I'm not sure whether they mean it in the sense, I hope they don't.

    I guess people in more cosmopolitan cities around India, seeing a foreigner is a little more normal than elsewhere. I mean, they are colleagues at work, you see them at popular leisure joints and bazaars. In Bangalore, I actually make it a point to observe how people behave around foreigners, and although there are always SOME people gaping, most people avoid it. Like I said, we need more foreigners around :D
  • Slag
    By
    Slag
    09.07.10 12:50 PM
    Abhishek - when someone from India goes to the West, they are virtually unnoticed as they have been preceded by so many of their countrymen!

    Seriously though, I think Westerners (or at least, the adults) are generally more reserved than Indians are when reacting to strangers in their midst. This Western reservedness masquerades as 'politeness' or 'good manners', but it certainly isn't as honest as the Indian way!
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    09.07.10 12:38 PM
    Slag, I think you'd feel it more acutely if you came here, then not feel it at all when you returned to the West.

    Helen Back, it's because everyone respects their elders :)

    Afshan, 'saip' is the Malayalam word for 'white man' - as such, I hear it quite literally up to a hundred times every day.

    Yeah, I'm totally aware that I will remain the odd one out for the foreseeable future, and I learned to accept it pretty quickly as a matter of curiosity above all else. It's very, very rare that any of those stares turn threatening or devious. I just had to acknowledge how awkward they can feel.

    Abhishek, you're having a conversation with one right now!
  • Abhishek Bhardwaj
    By
    Abhishek Bhardwaj
    08.07.10 10:10 PM
    pls add know after don't in last line as i missed it.
  • Abhishek Bhardwaj
    By
    Abhishek Bhardwaj
    08.07.10 10:08 PM
    Foreigners are a matter of curiosity here.
    To my whole life i wanted to have a conversation with one but any how i have not fulfilled this yet.
    But i don't whats the case when some from here goes to west ?
  • Afshan Mujawar
    By
    Afshan Mujawar
    08.07.10 12:59 AM
    Whats a 'saip'?? I haven't heard of that one...yet.

    One can't blame you for feeling odd at times, the stares will not cease no matter how long you have been here. I guess we need to have more foreigners around for one to be considered 'normal' in a railway carriage. So long as you know that no harm is meant!

    Well written.
  • Helen Back
    By
    Helen Back
    07.07.10 02:35 AM
    I am now invisible most of the time here in the west. Older people are not really noticed anywhere which can give one a lot of freedom.
  • Slag
    By
    Slag
    06.07.10 02:58 PM
    I pretty much always feel like the odd one out, particularly on public transport. I wonder if actually looking different to everyone else would make me feel this more or less acutely?

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