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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Not so comfortable with that...

Once in a while my travels in India will bring me into contact with members of the older generation who remember life under the British Raj.

WhIle there is ample evidence that the country as a whole has no problem referencing and even actively channeling certain cultural touchstones from that era, I can't imagine that anybody is particularly keen to recall or relive the level of subservience that was common (even obligatory) between the local people and representatives of the colonial power.

So it catches me off guard - and honestly makes me uncomfortable - when a taxi driver, shop attendant or doorman calls me 'Sahib'. 

It happened again last night as I got out of the cab.  When I poked my head into the window to pay the fare, I responded with a modern phrase I learned recently; 'Jai Hind' (roughly, 'Victory India').  Probably equally inappropriate for a foreigner to say... but I wanted to convey a soft protest that in this day and age, a white foreigner shouldn't be kowtowed to... especially by someone who is old enough to recall meaner times.

File this one under cultural confusion.

Posted by David Bogner on January 21, 2010 | Permalink

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Yeah, give me an old black lady in the States calling me "baby" any day over an elderly black man calling me "ma'am" deferentially.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Jan 21, 2010 6:41:56 AM

Don't know if this helps, but sahib comes from Arabic:

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sahib

and therefore is related to the Arabic word sachbak, meaning "friend", which is also used in Hebrew slang, and has a very casual connotation.

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Jan 21, 2010 7:20:39 AM

Maybe you misunderstood him. What he really said was "Hey Heeb."

Posted by: Jack | Jan 21, 2010 8:17:27 AM

I think it's generally agreed that the Raj was a big net plus for India.

Posted by: Nachum | Jan 21, 2010 8:37:35 AM

By the way, are you sure it still has the connotations of respect? There's a famous story about a NYT reporter who claimed that Arabs had to address Israelis as "my lord", when he was mistranslating the Hebrew "adoni", which simply means "mister."

http://mideastoutpost.com/archives/000466.html

http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=AA0vAAAAIBAJ&sjid=U6UFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5612,1142884&dq=shipler+adoni&hl=en

http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=35&x_article=966

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Jan 21, 2010 9:20:03 AM

Interestingly, I worked for seven years amongst NRIs (Non resident Indians) and was never once called Memsahib. I did however, find my Indian co workers very respectful people - not overly familiar. I think "sahib' in today's context would be used interchangeably with the way we would use "sir", especially in a customer service context. I wouldn't be too sensitive about it.

Posted by: Noa | Jan 21, 2010 7:55:30 PM

I am wondering what your answer provoked.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jan 21, 2010 10:03:41 PM

Are, Bogner-saheb, Hindostan-me kia hai?
Kol thik thak?

Posted by: At The Back of the Hill | Jan 21, 2010 11:44:54 PM

I never knew what to do when the guards at my hotel in Delhi saluted our car every time we entered the gates. I saluted back, President-like, only later to realize that it's not a "military" thing. (I'm not in the military either.)

Next time, I think a nod and a smile will do.

Posted by: Lisa | Jan 22, 2010 12:32:46 AM

' What he really said was "Hey Heeb." ' Jack, this guffaw is for you! ;o/

Trep: I've just gotten used to the odd Mexican around here calling me "boss." I'm not going to go out and buy a white 3-piece suit complete with hat and start smoking stogies or anything, or calling anyone "boy."

In fact, I am probably on reflection, amused by such things, in the "if they only knew me" way. ;o/

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Jan 22, 2010 5:43:53 AM

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