I met Girish Karnad for lunch along with other colleagues when he came to Seattle in 2008. This was the first year of my job as a professor, fresh out of college. Perhaps my demeanor and body language were too informal and not sufficiently respectful. I remember that the first thing I told him after being introduced to him, was that I was teaching a class on melodrama. Somehow that rubbed him the wrong way. Perhaps he expected me to sit quietly and answer questions when asked. I can’t tell in hindsight what exactly ticked him off, but I know he was cold and aloof the rest of the lunch and then in my attempt to talk to him after his lecture as well, when he said he wouldn’t have the time to chat again, which was…well, my loss. I mean that sincerely, not sarcastically.
We are all products of our social worlds and the social hierarchies through which we build our sense of self-worth. Now I’m reminded of other occasions when I had rubbed people the wrong way by not appearing sufficiently deferential: uncles in the family, older husbands of first cousins (damaad/older brothers-in-law types), unrelated Microsoft tech-pioneer South Indian mamas I’ve met at parties. I’ve learned this through experience.
If you’re a younger man in an Indian context in front of an older accomplished man, humility, circumspection, reserve are required modes of comportment. That means for instance, don’t argue if lectured about responsibilities towards parents as you get ready to leave for higher studies abroad, as it happened to me when I was in my early 20’s. Don’t sit cross-legged and leaning back – actually don’t lean back, man-spreading or cross-legged. It means you’re relaxed and that’s just wrong in front of an older uncle. Don’t laugh too loudly if they say something jovially. It crosses a subtle line of authority. Don’t disagree, for god’s sake if some uncle starts to talk of how Indian movies are vastly inferior to Hollywood because Indians lack sophistication. Since I’m 46 now, and these rules of decorum and etiquette continue to apply, let me rephrase: If you’re a younger uncle in front of older Indian uncles, act sufficiently respectful.
The punishment can be swift and brutal if you don’t. Laughed too loudly? Expect a series of rhetorical questions right away about the total worthlessness and lack of “practical value” of something like film studies. Crossed legs and sat on the couch in front of Microsoft mama? Forget about being offered whiskey and peanuts. Instead, drink up the perungayam and karivepilla-flavored mooru (asefoetida and curry leaves flavored buttermilk) and watch while all the other 70-something mamas are invited to have more whiskey and discuss plans to go to Scotland for high-end scotch-tasting vacations, while you wonder how much it would cost to drive two hours away for a couple of days on your 1998 Honda Accord. Argued with older husband of first cousin? Expect nasty sarcastic comments each time you return to India (“thank god he’s back to see his father at least once a year!”)
Anyway, so this is not really about the recent death of a justly famous and accomplished life that I’ve had the honor of meeting all too briefly. But I wanted to reflect on how my encounter with that person is meaningful (comically so, and not without regret, I think) for me personally.