As is the case for any foreigner, my time in India has been packed with invitations to various ‘functions’ and ‘programs.’ ‘Functions’ and ‘programs’ are catch-all words for a party, celebration, commemoration, or gathering. The generality of the word ‘function’ means that I never quite know what I’m getting into by accepting an invitation. Usually, however, the functions I have attended are an apparently endless series of overly long speeches to which no one quite pays attention – sometimes interspersed with song and dance performances. I am always amazed during these functions because while it seems that no one is really enjoying them, instead of the function slowly fizzling out, people are still eager to get their turn to stand up at the mic and talk to a hot, bored crowd or sing their favorite song regardless of their talent level. Indian functions are also famous for the intensely long and boring welcoming procedure for every presenter. Someone from the crowd is invited by the emcee of the event to offer a gift of flowers or some other token to the speaker while everyone claps and takes photos. Again, while almost everyone finds this process tedious, usually most especially the honoree, to not welcome the speakers would be unthinkably rude. From my American perspective, one of the most important aspects of being polite and honoring a guest is to not take up too much of their time. This Ben Franklinesque logic is the antithesis of that which supports an Indian function.
I now know that if I am invited to a function it usually means that I will be implored to stand up and speak, or even more horrifyingly, be asked to sing. Therefore, I usually try to avoid large public functions at all costs. Recently, however, I was tricked into being the ‘chief guest’ of a function in a village in Uttar Pradesh (UP). I planned a trip to stay in the home of a Nagaloka alumna in Lucknow. Organizing this venture was a little difficult only because I have a lot of trouble understanding UP accents, especially over the phone. Therefore, I was more than a little relieved when I successfully met her at the airport. Before I came, she had given me the phone number of a male alumnus who also lived nearby, but who I didn’t know well. I had thought that she had given me his number because she wouldn’t be able to meet me at the airport and she was sending him to receive me instead. The true purpose of his involvement was that he was organizing a function to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti (Ambedkar’s Birthday) in his village nearby to Lucknow and wanted me to attend. I somehow missed these important details in my conversations with him about when I would arrive in Lucknow.
On the day of my arrival, we all went to Maal his village. I was a little bit tired from the journey and wanted some rest, but he was anxious to get us to the village, so we all set off in my friend’s family’s car. Considering that I had no idea that I was going to a function, never mind a function in a village an hour’s distance away, I was shocked at how long the journey was taking. Despite all the hurrying, when we arrived we learned that the function, which was scheduled to begin at 3 PM, wouldn’t be starting until after 8 because the speaker was arriving late. As we sat waiting for the function to begin, someone casually asked me if I’d just say a few words tomorrow about my experience. I told them no, that I didn’t want to. They implored me, so I said fine that I could introduce myself and say a few things. Eventually, my friend, her brothers and I all had to return to their house in Lucknow before the program even began as it had become too late for us to stay.
The next morning, my friend asked me if I wanted to return to the village for the function. I told her that it was fine with me if we didn’t go because I really didn’t want to speak, and I didn’t want to cause trouble to her brothers who would have to drive us all the way back and forth from the village again. Ok, fine, she told me, no problem, we would attend a function in Lucknow instead. A few hours later she told me that she and her brother decided that we had to go back to Maal because the boy would feel very badly if we didn’t come. So, of course I agreed that we could return. I packed a bag with my notebook, recorder, camera, water bottle – ready to sit in the back and mingle with the crowd, listen a little to some of the speeches and talk to some villagers. When I arrived, however, these plans to simply melt into the background were dashed, as instead to my deep humiliation when we drove up to the function I heard my name being amplified throughout the village. When I heard my name being announced I gasped and covered my face. “You’re not happy?” my friend asked me. “No!” I replied in English, too embarrassed to even keep it together enough to respond in Hindi, “Why would I be happy?” A path was cleared for the car and I was ushered straight onto the stage as if I were a celebrity. I felt deeply embarrassed.
Already on the stage was a respected community member and teacher who I knew from Nagaloka. He told me that he heard I was giving a speech, to which I responded that this was the first I was hearing about it. He told me that I was the chief guest. “Why?” I asked him, “I have nothing to say!” He said, “Because you’re English.” “That’s not a good reason,” I said. I felt especially mortified to be a ‘chief guest’ alongside this man who has devoted his life to working for Ambedkarite causes and Buddhism in India and had prepared things to say, while I was pushed onto the stage as a foreign display piece. While the legitimate first speaker was talking, I sat, furious, trying to overcome my embarrassment and figure out what to say. While everything in me felt wrong and horrible, I knew I had to say something in front of this crowd to repay my friends for their hospitality. I managed to string a few lines together about how Dr. Ambedkar inspired me and sat down, disappointing everyone with how sort my speech was, even though they got to eat lunch immediately after I finished.
After lunch, the program continued, and I asked if I could sit with the people in the audience instead of on stage. I was told no, that it wasn’t special if I sat in the audience. I was presented with some commemorative Buddha trophy and was made to hand out scholarship awards to villagers, with which of course I had nothing to do with. Then all of a sudden after a series of further speeches, the emcee announced that I would have to be leaving now and I was whisked off back to the car where people were told to make way and not bother me as I got into the backseat. My friends told me how happy all the villagers were to see me, that I was probably the first foreigner to be in that village since the British left. Naturally, that comment didn’t assuage my feelings.
I know that this is not a unique experience. Nevertheless, it was truly mortifying to be forced to confront all of my worst insecurities about how people understand my presence here. While I know that I’ve taken time to get know people and made some deep connections, it’s still hard not to feel like maybe I’ve done everything wrong when I get this kind of ‘special’ treatment for being foreign. In the end, I had to try to feel happy that these people got what they wanted from me. Hopefully my presence there helped them to draw a crowd who would listen to the other prepared speeches and programs of the day. While I have to say I know I won’t particularly miss functions or programs when I return stateside, they have been a huge piece of my experience here. I told my friend I was writing about functions and he told me that I should mention that at the last function he attended there was a disco ball and that disco balls are an important part of setting the right tone for a function. I’ve yet to attend a function with a disco ball, so perhaps I’ve just missed all the fun ones and there might still be time to change my opinion on Indian functions after all… somehow I think not.