Tuesday, November 17, 2015

From ‘Through Brown Eyes’ by Prafulla Mohanti

[went to England in 1960]

I was disappointed by Buckingham Palace. I was expecting something spectacular. The kings, queens, and emperors of ancient India lived in magnificent palaces and I could not imagine how the Queen of the British Empire could live in such an insignificant building.

When I saw Tom and his mother entering the kitchen with their shoes on I thought it was unhygienic.
Later I saw dogs sleeping in kitchens. In my village the kitchen is the most sacred place in the house; it is where the ancestors live. Nobody is allowed to enter it without having a bath and putting clean clothes on. Dogs are not kept as pets and when a stray dog came into our kitchen my mother said all the food, including the clay pots, was polluted and had to be thrown away.

His secretary brought us coffee. While drinking it he said, ‘We have employed Indian architects before, but never black architects. We don’t want to offend our South African clients.’ Later on, when I moved around London, I saw notices in estate agents windows: ‘No blacks, no Irish, no children, no dogs.’
I was amazed that educated professional people could have such views and express them openly. The architect was honored by the Government for his contribution to religious architecture.

I never saw the famous architect. He was guarded by his secretary who was in her fifties and unmarried. She was extremely bossy and ordered everybody about. ‘That’s the trouble with old spinsters’. Tony used to say. Indian women were always kind and affectionate, particularly to men and those younger than themselves. …….This office was also managed by a middle-aged spinster who was bossy. I thought all the architects’ offices in London had secretaries who were bossy spinsters.

I knew I was being paid less than English architects doing the same work. Other Indian architects working in London told me of their experiences, which were similar to mine.

When I was a boy I was told that Muslims ate beef; so a villager would never knowingly sell a cow to a Muslim.

It was a strange experience to live in a block of flats and not know the neighbours….. Sometimes I met people in the lift and wished them ‘Good morning’ ….but that was all. Tom told me it was the English custom to respect another person’s privacy. In my village, life was intimate and everybody knew each other. The doors were never closed. Neighbours came in and out without warning and were always welcomed.

….it was difficult for me to understand the British mind. Travelling….by train I watched people hiding their faces behind newspapers. They rarely talked to each other….

I found that many did not even look after their own parents who were old and helpless. In India it is the duty of the children to look after their parents and old relatives. While serving a meal my mother always gave food to the old relatives and children first and ate whatever was left over. The old never felt isolated. They lived with their families and contributed to the happiness of the house.

I had come to England to study modern architecture but I had found nothing but apathy. People were more interested in antiquities and old buildings. Architects lacked vision and new ideas and the public showed little interest in their environment….ugly buildings went up everywhere.

…….Amsterdam …..I wished him ‘Good morning’ and smiled back. It was a refreshing change from England where I seldom saw people smiling. When I looked at somebody in England and smiled I usually received a frown back.

Had he really meant to invite me? I thought of my experience in England where people often said things they did not mean.

I soon discovered that the Germans liked England and the English language. I did not hear any adverse comment about England. I could not understand why there was a kind of campaign against Germany in England.

There were long conversations in German. I noticed an air of formality mixed with the friendship, which I had not seen in England.

When I reached Florence I understood why the officer had given me special attention. In Italy architects were highly respected.

….train to Rome. It was like being in India again. The compartments were crowded with friendly passengers, talking, laughing, gesticulating, and sharing food with each other.

….Italian. I soon learned a few useful phrases and I found it came more naturally to me than German.

Rome …..a fundamental difference between temples and churches. The inside of a temple is simple, without carvings and paintings. The deity is the sole attraction. The external walls are carved with figures depicting all aspects of life, and crowds of pilgrims go round looking at them after worshipping the deity. In contrast, the interior of St Peter’s was like a museum, richly decorated with stone carvings and paintings of religious scenes. In India the pilgrims are all worshippers. In St Peter’s the constant stream of sightseers who had not come to worship disturbed the atmosphere of peace. ……I noticed office workers waving at me from the balconies….my friend …..said, ‘Italians think it is lucky to see an Indian; it is such a rare sight for them.’ In England people hid their curiosity. It was not considered polite to ask questions, I was told.

While looking at museums and churches I saw many English tourists. They looked clumsy beside the graceful Italians.

…..a room of my own in Leeds. ….I felt alone and lonely…..suspended in a space where I thought people were hostile to strangers. I missed my village and my parents and their love. For the first time I realized what love really meant. I received so much of it in my village that I had taken it for granted. The expression of love is natural in India.

In my village people turn up at any time of the day or night and are always welcomed. Problems are discussed openly with each other and there is always someone to listen and sympathize. This helps to reduce tension and mental anxiety.

The babies in my village are massaged every day with a mixture of turmeric paste and castor oil and bathed in a bowl of water, warmed in the sun. The turmeric paste keeps the skin soft and protects it from heat and infection. Men and women used it regularly but now it is considered old-fashioned.

The non-British staff worked hard but were made to feel like beggars, with no right to expect justice. I found the incidents disturbing because in India it is taken for granted that the British are just, honest and fair.

When he was interviewed for a trainee course in financial management the interviewing officer explained to him that white workers would not like to work under a coloured officer…. ….he saw white officers of his rank, who came after him, promoted to positions of responsibility while he was passed over. ….It became apparent to him that he could not expect justice and fair play in the civil service. There were two nations and he belonged to the wrong one.

There is a saying in my village, ‘If the protector becomes the oppressor, even God cannot help.’

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