Tag Archives: India

The Brown Sahibs


A Brown Sahib according to Wikipedia is a term used to refer to natives of South Asia who imitate Western—typically English—lifestyle. It is also used to refer to those have been heavily influenced by Western—usually British—culture and thinking.

When the British came to India they were the rulers of the land and despite making several institutional changes, were unable to make a dent into the social structure. And so, they did what served them well: devious and insidious infiltration into the psyche of the colonized mind. They chipped away at local self-esteem demeaning the authenticity of anything native while simultaneously making “white life” and everything that went with it, enviable. They literally placed themselves at the pinnacle of the caste system, converting every educated Indian into a colonial slave, who longed to be white but was trapped in brown skin, unable to decide between loyalty to the crown and love of land. They imitated western ways and did whatever it took to blend in and be “as British as a Britisher,” but in the eyes of the white man they were always just “darkies”.

And so you have it: the legacy of the Brown sahib…

In “A Rose from a Dream,” Mahadevan fits in perfectly into the role of the classic Brown Sahib. I have also introduced hints of this mental tug-of-war in certain vignettes with Inspector Swaminathan who worked for the British police and faced this dilemma on a daily basis.

The following excerpt occurs after independence when Mahadevan truly examines the inner workings of his psychological conditioning and comes face to face with his own racist beliefs.

Mahadevan placed the medal back in the blue velvet container and sat down at his desk. He wasn’t really sure how he felt, but he realized he was troubled. For more than forty years he had worked as a civil servant loyal to the crown, and his allegiance to the British astonished him. The advent of independence resulted in an upsurge of many conflicting emotions within him, and it was unpleasant and disconcerting because he was customarily clear thinking, and was usually not swayed by his emotions. He wasn’t quite sure if he felt any national pride with the British leaving India. As soon as that thought popped into his mind, he felt guilt and shame, for every citizen in this land longed to be free from the British. Why was he feeling this sense of doom on their departure?  For so many years, by adapting to British ways, something within him remained comfortable and content. He loved his Johnny Walker Red label and Yardley talcum powder and hated bidding farewell to them in addition to the other host of British goods the family had used and enjoyed for so many years now. How foolish to give so much importance to trivia! After all, whiskey and talcum powder didn’t compensate for deliberate depletion of the country’s national resources. Even so, he could not shake off the melancholia that had attacked him like a slow and painful virus.

Slowly but deliberately, he had become a colonial slave. Somewhere deep within him was an acceptance of his inferior status and an admiration for the white skinned. This didn’t happen overnight. Over time they had chipped away at his confidence and placed themselves at the pinnacle of the caste system. The pride he took at being Brahmin paled in significance to being English. Speaking the language, hobnobbing with British officers, being included in the inner circle, had over time become paramount for his self-esteem. Every time he was insulted or humiliated by his British superiors, he silenced that little voice within him, muffling the protest. He could think of a dozen times he stood on the brink of throwing it all away and joining the fight for freedom, but the cowardice within him triumphed each time, never allowing him to act on his bold impulses. Yes, I am a second-class citizen in my own country. He could never allow that thought to manifest and take root within him because pandering to the British, and a deep need for acceptance by them, took precedence. Intellectually he knew he was wrong, but this was an intuitive choice he made without his own volition, and now here he was, wondering if the new India cabinet of ministers was good enough for him. He had turned into an intellectual snob! That was appalling! He cringed inwardly at this consideration.

For the first time in his life he reflected on the values that laid the foundation for his work ethic and wondered how he would adapt to the new way. Change was imminent, and he was the quasi-white-skinned-Britisher looking down on natives.

What were his choices? He could either remain utterly miserable working for those he believed were a cut below his caliber or he could adapt. Somehow the second choice was the prudent one. After all, transforming into a British bumsucker was his way of surviving within the system, and it had worked well for him. He just needed to change his mindset. Work was work. What difference did it make whom he reported to? He would silence the superiority dialogue in his head and move on. It was time for a reality check. The British had left. It had been good for him while it lasted, and now, he needed to ensure his mind was steady. No more audience to those ugly voices that longed for the past and were scared for the future. Just like Appanshayal always told him, he would bring it all back to the present. Now, now, now! That was all he had. And it wasn’t so bad. A great job, an accomplished wife, and three healthy children. Life was good. The mental shackles of colonial slavery needed to be released. Mahadevan sat at his desk and wrote three liberating words.

I am free.

An Excerpt from A Rose from a Dream


Pongalo Pongal

Today on the occasion of Makara Sankranthi I was reliving the time I wrote an entire chapter in my book “When the Lotus Blooms,” about the festival of Pongal.

Pongal is a harvest festival, very important for farmers. For Tamils, it is a big occasion, with lots of preparation and festivity. Initially a celebration of the winter harvest, for farmers who toiled all year in the fields, Pongal celebrates the bounty of nature with great fanfare.

Many people believe it is Tamil New Year but that comes later in the year. I have very fond memories of Pongal which we thoroughly enjoyed especially if my grandmother Rajam was with us, as she was an outstanding cook. That was the only day in the year my mother allowed us to chew on sugar cane which she bought and washed thoroughly with soap and boiled water before serving us. Even though I grew up in Bombay I was never allowed to drink the notorious, diarrhea inducing sugarcane juice on the streets.

What was even more enjoyable was ‘Kanu” the next day. The colorful rice always attracted me and I loved watching the crows and sparrows vie with each other to get at the banana leaf laden with colored rice balls. I also remember how mad my mother got one time when our dog Raja decided to polish off the food! I didn’t realize we must be selective about our offerings.

The scene in the book shows the family gathered around the pongal pot which boils over, signifying prosperity in the future. Velandi the parayan watches the food being cooked, while hunger pangs in his belly distract him. Celebration in one household becomes the reason for envy in another.  The scene exemplifies opposites which continually rule our lives. Hunger and harvest, prosperity and desperation, bounty and death are all juxtaposed, mirroring the duality of perspective. Here is an excerpt from the book.

Nagamma had already put the rice and lentils into the pongal paanai and Sushila added the jaggery. The fire beneath the pot was flaming, burning bright and strong as the men kept adding more firewood so the pongal could boil faster. Balu had his brass plate and spoon ready and waited impatiently for the pongal to boil over. The water simmered as Nagamma added the milk. She turned to the family. “Pray all of you that as this pot of pongal boils over, so does our life boil over with good events and happiness.” She barely finished speaking when Balu noticed the pongal rapidly rising to the top of the clay pot.

“Pongalo pongal!” he yelled gleefully, hammering his spoon against the brass plate. Everyone shouted in unison, “Pongalo pongal!” clapping their hands and shouting as loudly as they could. Rajam stuck her tongue half out of her mouth, rapidly moving it from side to side in a warble louder than Sushila’s. Balu looked at her and tried to mimic her, but no one could hear his soft voice amidst the din. Rapidly removing some sticks of the firewood from under the pot, Nagamma reduced the intensity of the flame. The evil spirits hovering around the house were sure to have been frightened away with the racket they made. Rajam closed her eyes and prayed for all bad events to end and for new happy moments to surround their lives. In her mind she knew she was only praying for that one elusive event to take place.

When the Lotus Blooms has won two awards, one at the Great Southeast Book Festival and the other at the New England Book Festival.

Long and Complicated Tamil Brahmin Names

I had a difficult time deciding which names to use in the novel. Most Tamil brahmin names are long, and I knew a western audience would definitely have trouble getting their tongue around names like Mahadevan, Panchapakesan, and Doraiswamy. Unfortunately, using Jay and Ash; short forms that many Indians in the US have adopted, was not an option. The story had to be authentic.  So I decided to choose the middle path. I shortened some names Rajam, Dharmu, and Siva for example and of course Partha short for Parthasarathy.

This piece shows the anxiety and restlessness that meeting Rajam brings for Partha. Love at first sight only takes place in Romance novels…..or does it?


Partha-Rajam’s husband

He had to meet her.  But how? He was 17 years old, definitely marriageable age. But how was he to approach her? He could not actually go up to her and speak with her directly; that wasn’t acceptable behavior. Then how was he to meet her? His mind whirled with a million unanswered questions popping into his head every second. One thing he knew was, if he were to marry, it would be to this girl. The “Lime and Spoon’ girl.”

The next few days were long and weary, with strategies made, vetoed, and then replaced, as Partha was consumed with finding the right course of action. He sat on the terrace with his math book open, rehearsing walking up to his mother and saying, “Amma, I think I want to get married.” That sounded too brazen. Then he switched to a more casual tone saying, “Amma, do you know Inspector Swaminathan?” That was too random. No matter what he tried, it just did not sound right. He had to make sure that he had an impeccable Plan A, so he did not have to resort to Plan B, which was marrying someone else.

After three full days of practicing, he decided the best course of action was to confide in his brother, Siva, who had been married for many years, and have him plead and present the case to his mother. That night, Partha brought Siva to the terrace after everyone was asleep and talked to him. At first, he felt sheepish and awkward talking about marriage, guilty about being preoccupied with a girl when he should have been studying, but the nature of the problem demanded urgency.

“Siva, you have to help me. I am going out of my mind.”

“Why? Did you fail your exams again?”

“No it’s not about school. It’s about …a girl.”

Siva smiled. “What’s up Partha, meet someone you like?”

“Yes,” Partha said bashfully. “And I need you to talk to Amma about it.”

“Why me? Why don’t you ask her yourself? After all, you are her Chella Kutti. I’ m sure she would oblige.”

“I may be her favorite, but I feel nervous about asking her. You are older and married. Coming from you, it will seem as if the whole thing were your idea. You know how Amma feels about boys loafing around. She won’t take me seriously.”

For the next 15 minutes, Partha talked nonstop about the pros of Siva talking toAmma, and the cons of talking to Amma himself. So intent was he on convincing Siva, he barely took time to breathe.  After he finished a 15-minute monologue, Siva smiled and patted him on the back, urging him to calm down and take a deep breath if he wanted to live to attend his own wedding.

Partha was overjoyed.