Crazy Indian Uncles

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Every family has it’s own crazy uncle. Indian families are much bigger and crazier than American families. It stands to reason, then, that now and again you will come across an especially crazy Indian uncle. This is precisely happened, when I stayed at a friend’s house in Gurgaon.

I flew from Lucknow to Delhi for the weekend to conduct research on the Indian publishing market. One of my friends lived in Delhi and extended an invitation to stay with her family. On Saturday night, we took the metro out to Gurgaon, where her uncle and aunt threw a party for neighbors, friends, and family. When I arrived, I discovered that there were many other girls my age at the party, half of them from Delhi, the other half from London.

Throughout the night, my friend’s mom called me Krishna. Krishna is the most famous and adored incarnation of the God, Vishnu. As a child, he is beloved for his mischievous pranks in Vrindavan; as a youth, Hindus share stories of his flirtation with the young ghopis (cowherdesses) by the riverbank.

My friend’s mother noticed I was the only guy at the party, surrounded by young girls. There were also several metal buckets of Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker. Whenever I spoke, she tipsily smiled to herself, and answered musically: Whatever you want, Krishna. Please sit yourself Krishna. How may we serve you, Krishna. It was slightly uncomfortable–not in a cultural way, but in the appreciated, over-doting mother sort of way.

When the party began to subside, my friend’s uncle sat me down in the living room for a serious talk. He wanted to narrate the grand narrative of Indian history.

“India’s main problem,” the uncle said, out of the deep impression his bulky frame had made in the couch, “is that we will not go to war with anyone. This is why we are constantly invaded. We also have too many Muslims. That is why we have not ever attacked Pakistan.”

(India’s Muslim population is the third largest in the world. India could perhaps do little to Pakistan without also incurring tremendous domestic backlash. But nuclear weapons probably have more to contribute to the two countries mutual military deterrence than demographics.)

After summarizing India’s weaknesses (which, according to the uncle, were very few) he jumped into international relations and India’s strengths. “Chinese and Indian students studied harder than American students,” he said, “and have better educations. Americans just wanted to have fun and drink.” He spoke with a tongue heavy with whiskey. “In India, our children grow up with discipline, because we can slap them if we want to. This is a major fault in American culture. In America, if you beat your children, you go to jail.”

He illustrated his points by drawing a comparison between his son and my friend’s younger brother.

“My son has an amazing knowledge of history,” he said, waving his fat hand at his son. His son sat dutifully beside him. “Everything I say now he already knows. You can’t beat that. I’m sorry,” he said, addressing the younger brother of my friend, who sat with his small legs hanging over the couch, “I do not mean to disrespect you or say this about you personally, but you do not get that kind of education in the States.” The boy blinked back at his uncle with wide eyes. He is maybe seven years old.

Uncle went on to explain why China will overcome the U.S. and become the next superpower. China has made investments into solar and wind energy. All of the strongest batteries come from China, and America is lagging far behind in clean, renewable energy development. In China, if there is a house where they want to build a road, they tear it down. In India, you bribe the house owner, and they go away. In America, people have too many rights. You go to court, and it takes a very long time to tear down the house and get the highway made.

“In policy,” my friend’s uncle went on, “America has also been making bad decisions. It is allowing gays into the army.”

Up until this point of the night, I had been willing to listen with detached amusement. The best way to learn is to listen, not to talk. There are bigots in every country, and one can learn equally as much about a country’s culture by listening to the people you disagree with as you can from the people who appear to talk good sense. But my uncle himself had been gay and had fought in Vietnam. Some of my good friends were also gay. There was a lot during his speech that made me bite down on my tongue. I didn’t want to say anything rash, and was also exhausted from my trip with my friend to the spice market in Chandhi Chowk, Old Delhi. Starting an argument with her uncle about homosexual rights would do more harm than good. I told him I needed to go to bed.

The next morning Uncle resumed his lecture. Or rather, continued his history lecture with the help of his son. He recited the story of the foundation of Delhi, it’s many rulers and dynasties; but when he could not remember a fact he swung his heavy brow and rested his hand on his son’s thigh. He did this sometimes to test his son, other times to hide his own ignorance. If his son failed to supply the right answer, he slapped him on the knee.

The uncle also deserved a slap on the knee. He said the Mughal Emperor Akbar, titled “The Great” because of his tolerance for his Hindu subjects, was the son of a Rajput Hindu princess, Jodha Bhai. His daughter corrected him from the other side of the living room, with a tray of tea in he hands.

“She was his wife.”

Uncle coughed, changed the subject.

“Would you like me to tell your future?

He grabbed my hand “Your heart line is crooked,” he said, running his finger down my palm. “This line means you are flexible. You are a good family man, and will have a second strong relationship with a woman. You will only meet her after struggling through a relationship with the first.”

He read my hand for several moments longer. By now the whole family had gathered on the couch in anticipation for my prophecy. They hung over the couch cushion and Uncle’s shoulder, collectively staring down at the fatalistic lines drawn into my palm.

“Family life will be difficult for you. And you have deviated drastically from your life path. You are obviously meant to be a businessman!” he declared. He advised I should immediately pursue an MBA after college. “You will make a lot of money,” he reassured, as if to sweeten a deal he was making. He grabbed my thumb, tilted it backwards. “Judging by the angle of your thumb, you are open to new ideas and cultures. This is why you are here in India speaking Urdu and reading Premchand.” (Premchand is the most famous Hindi / Urdu author, who wrote about village India.) “But because of your extreme flexibility,” he went on, picking up my hand, turning it over under his gaze like a jeweler might a problematic gem, “you are not very stubborn and don’t have much self-confidence.”

I am, however, apparently a very good friend.

“I have never seen my niece like this so happy in her life!” Uncle bellowed, waving his hand at her in proof.

“Mama,” my friend responded (mama is a Hindi word for uncle) “you haven’t even seen me for seven years!

I had more work to do in Delhi that day. The uncle dropped me and my friend off at the metro station. We drove to the metro in his gargantuan SUV. He blasted Maria Carey all the way down.

“I don’t care what they say, I’m in love with you,” he sung in a high pitched squeal. He turned to us in the back of the car. We were pressed back, as if by the volume of the music, into the black leather seats. “She is singing about her love for someone,” the uncle explained, tearing his eyes away from the road for a good ten seconds. “It is hurting her very badly.” Then he glanced back up at the rearview mirror.“I don’t care what they say!”

“Uncle?” my friend asked him. “Have you ever been in a riot?”

He turned down the volume to the music station. It was all American pop music. “I have been in many riots,” he answered, with all the wisdom of the world bowing his head into a heavy nod.

“What is it like?”

“You are there,” he said, turning down the volume, “and you think that YOU are the hero. But suddenly,” he stared off into space and narrowed his eyes, pausing, “everything changes and you are NOT the hero. Then it can get very scary. You should not go to riots.”

We reached the station. I left Gurgaon, thinking the party itself had been quite a riot.

(Initially written in New Delhi, 2012)

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