neighbour’s hedge were laughing as I walked down to the shop yesterday morning. Small fragrant white things, splashed with sunlight. There was something about the skies too – pale blue and wide, and filled with laughter. Maybe it was moment when my brain lapsed into one of its neurological peculiarities. But it was a joyful moment.
When I reached the shop, though, I had to focus my mind on a more mundane matter – buying salt. After looking for it for a bit, it became apparent that there was no salt on the shelves. I asked one of the shop assistants. He looked quizzical at first, and then laughed, uncomprehending. Soon a little group of people gathered and I tried to explain what I wanted. They didn’t understand either, and they all began to laugh. It was most annoying. They ought to have been helping me.
It is a reaction I have often found when people don’t understand English. And since I do not speak any Thai, the only option left is for me to join in. Which can be a surprisingly easy thing to do, once I let go of feeling tetchy. Perhaps it is something to do with being an outsider that makes it easier to laugh with them. It is easier to give in to the urge to conform to norms you are not familiar with.
At home, it hasn’t always been so easy. One time at University I was roundly ticked off by a colleague for being vegetarian. It was totally unexpected. There I was chatting away about what I had had for lunch and before I knew it I was listening to a barrage of accusations. I couldn’t get a word in edge wise. Vegetarians, they said, always took the moral high ground – and how could they? It could well be that plants felt a lot of pain when they were ‘slaughtered.’ They were right of course, but I could not laugh at it.
That memory of tetchiness comes back to me with articles on the beef ban in some states resurfacing on the social media. I also wonder if I had had an experience involving microagression. Except, at the time, it didn’t seem so ‘micro.’ Perhaps I need not have been so surprised – ‘ragging’ is a pervasive enough phenomenon on Indian campuses, and I ought to have expected a smidgen of hostile behaviour.
The uncomfortable question of cultural acceptance was made simpler and lighter for me when I rediscovered George Mikes’s How to be an alien. I say rediscovered because I had read it a long time back and it popped back in a very timely manner into my reading orbit again. Mikes (pronounced Mik-esh) was Hungarian but lived in England – long enough to write a (mostly) affectionate, ribbing account of the English and their ways of doing things. It is divided into short chapters – sometimes only a few paragraphs – on different subjects such as ‘Tea,’ ‘How not to be clever,’ ‘About simple joys’ and so on. This makes the book very dip-worthy. You can read chapters without reading previous ones. Mikes makes broad brush strokes across the nation, but also pointillistically observes its oddities. You have to be an insider to understand all the references but you will get carried away because it is so funny.
One reader,Mikes says in the introduction, threw the book into the fire because the writing was sheer ‘impertinence.’ But that response I think, was an exception. The book was, for the most part, embraced by the reading public.
Some pieces are sardonic, like ‘How to be a hypocrite.’ It almost seems as if Mikes is turning into a native himself, with images of violence used with nonchalance! He begins to unconsciously mimic the English tendency to understatement.
I chuckled over his description of ‘The bloomsbury intellectual’:
“…they all hate uniforms so much that they all wear a special uniform of their own: brown velvet trousers, canary yellow pullover, green jacket with sky-blue checks. The suit of clothes has to be chosen with the utmost care and is intended to prove that its wearer does not care for suits and other petty, worldly things…A golden chain around the ankle, purple velvet shoes and a half-wild angora cat on the shoulders are strongly recommended as they much increase the appearance of arresting casualness.”
There are also little whimsical gems like “An Englishman, if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.”And “if you go for a walk with a friend, don’t say a word for hours; if you go out for a walk with your dog, keep chatting to him.” They had me breaking into a smile as I read.
If the chapters, or sections in ‘How to be an alien’ are short, the number of themes Mikes writes about makes up for it. My favourite of the many off-beat themes is ‘How to plan a city.’ “An English town is a vast conspiracy to mislead foreigners.” Its lay-out is eminently higgledy-piggledy, and you could easilty get lost. And, it resembles Toyland!
“First of all, never build a street straight. The English love privacy and do not want to see one end of the street from the other end. Make sudden curves in the streets and build them S-shaped too; the letters L, T, V, Y, W and O are also becoming increasingly popular. It would be a fine tribute to the Greeks to build a few П¤ and Н�shaped streets; it would be an ingenious compliment to the Russians to favour the shape ПЇ…”
And so on and on. For the most part, the humour is gentle and ironic. I am equally puzzled and thankful as to why he does not he does not comment on the famed scatalogical humour of the English. That sort of humour has never quite appealed to my sensibilities.
Arguably you have to be a little bit of a lover of England to appreciate the book fully. That is not an easy thing to have in the current global scenario. But the overwhelming feeling I came away with was one of lightness. And the realization that it takes a certain kind of freedom of thought to laugh at one’s own ways of existing. To not allow a random remark to bring all that tetchiness bubbling back.
How to be an alien was published in the 1940s, at a time when race and culture were not ferociously current topics as they are today, and social media did not exist. Had he written in the current context, Mikes might well have had his very own Je suis Charlie moment…