On Being A Coconut

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It was a routine superficial conversation with a stranger.  You know the type. ?Hello, How are you? Are you enjoying yourself?  What do you do?? Perhaps our answers were not interesting enough to hold his attention because after a few minutes, he excused himself to speak with others.  I do not remember much else about that meeting but what I do remember is my best friend?s comment about this fellow when he was out of earshot.  She said rather matter of fact, ?He is such a coconut.? 

Now, I had been living in Canada for well over 6 years.  I thought I had acquainted myself with all the new vocabulary reserved by Indians for Indians; words like Fob and Desi but this one was new.  Coconut?!?  That did not sound like a term of endearment.  She saw my puzzled look and decided to elaborate. ?He is like a coconut, brown on the outside, white on the inside,? she explained.  Still seeing my quizzical look, she continued. ?You know, he has no Indian values.  There is nothing Indian about him.?

Interesting analogy.  He was a coconut.  Hmmm..The brown was referring to his skin colour.  The white?.the white was referring to his attitude, which resembled the perceived general attitude of most individuals in North American society.  So what she was saying is that there is a disconnect between his attitude and his visual identity.  I was very interested in this man now for no other reason other than what he could have done to make my friend call him a coconut.  If you are thinking my friend was rather harsh in dismissing him as a ?coconut? in two minutes, she was not.  She had not come to this conclusion in the two-minute conversation we had with him.  She knew him previously, attended university with him.  They weren?t good friends, no more than acquaintances at best but she was aware of his attitudes.  Since that meeting with my first coconut, I have come across many others and the more I meet them, the easier it is to spot one.  All of this brings me to a discussion of attitudes?
For those of us living outside India, the closest real living link that we have with our country is our fellow Indians.  So it is a disappointment to us when we do run across Indians and find no semblance of our country inside them.   What are we looking for?? And why are we so disappointed by coconuts?? 

India is a vast land, with a diversity of peoples and cultures.  So how can you say with certainty this is what it means to be Indian?  Still, there is an essence that is Indian.  When I visit an Indian house I can never leave without having something to eat or drink.  I am having chapattis and parathas at my Punjabi friends house and idlis and dosas at my Tamil friend?s house.  The purpose of my visit to their house does not matter, I leave their house feeling overly stuffed and overly welcomed to the point of being embarrassed sometimes by their hospitality and often feeling guilty of rejecting it.  There is no denying the warmth and hospitality of Indians.  Some feel it to be the best part of Indians.  So, coconuts don?t effuse the same kind of hospitality and warmth that we usually feel when we are around other Indians.  They display a cool nonchalant behaviour towards your doings that is welcomed by you during your need for privacy and disliked by you in your time of need. 

The other thing to note about coconuts is their ambivalence towards familial relationships.  Living in the world of the West, one is struck by the rather vague notion of duty imbibed by most Westerners.  If it is not vague, then it?s non-existent. The obedience of one?s desires to the point of selfishness, the ultimate consequence of which is seen with the shuffling of parents into retirement homes at the slightest inconvenience is something that goes against the grain of Tagore?s great poems of Indian virtues.  Attitudes like ?Whatever?? or ?Forget it?? embody the response to discipline and structure one receives from elders and the community.  Along with the attitude comes an unhealthy dose of disrespect and lack of appreciation of truly well intended actions.

So what does it mean to be Indian?  Well, that?s like asking what is the meaning of life? Tough question.  However we arrive at the answer, we will find that there is a meaning to life?.  Just as there is an essence that is Indian- an essence that can be felt, admired and absorbed completely.  I would like to tell you what a friend of mine told me only recently, ?Being Indian means never conquering others and demanding respect and love, but it means loving and working with others; commanding that respect and love.?  Certainly, to do any less would mean being a coconut.  And as I have come to understand, coconuts can be found anywhere and everywhere, with and without conscience, and yes, plenty of coconuts can even be found in India.

Author: Tanya Pinto- Canada

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