No, I Don't Know the Girl from Slumdog!
Yes, some of my ancestors are Indian. Yes, I have seen Slumdog Millionaire. But stop asking me so many inane questions about life in Mumbai. And that’s my final answer.
"So have you seen Slumdog Millionaire?" Yes, I reply, it was great. You can see them building up to their next question.
"So where are you from?" If you could hear my thoughts, this would always be marked by the sound of a heartfelt sigh.
"London." I know this is not the answer they want, but I enjoy making them work. They pause, awkwardly. "But where are you from before that?"
"I was born in England, my parents were born in Uganda, in Africa, their parents were born there too." The answer is quick because I've said it so often that it's muscle memory for my tongue and vocal chords. But this is still not the answer they're looking for. Awkward pause number two. "But you're Indian or something, right?"
No one ever asks my German friend, Ole, whether his mother makes good sauerkraut.
Yes, if you want to look at it that way, I am. My ancestors are, I think, from somewhere in Gujarat. No I don't speak the language of that region, though I can understand it. Yes, my mother sometimes makes curries. No, I don't really like Bollywood films. Or that R-and-B song with Indian-sounding words in it. No, I don't want to meet your friend who's Indian unless he or she is interesting in some way apart from his or her ethnic origins.
The question I really dread is, "So when were you last in India?" Inward sigh, deeper this time. "I've never been." Cue inevitable admonishing.
Often standing next to me in these exchanges is my friend Ole. He is of German origin and has a German passport. His grandfather died on the Russian front while serving in the German army during World War II, his mother speaks with a German accent, and he was born in California.
No one ever asks him whether his mother makes good sauerkraut, whether he speaks German, or why he doesn't hang around with more German people or sleep exclusively with German girls. No one expresses dismay at his infrequent visits to Hamburg, or asks him his views on the films of Werner Herzog or the music of Kraftwerk. When Downfall or The Lives of Others or Valkyrie came out, people did not seek his insights, assuming correctly that his life probably wasn't analogous to any of those stories.
On a long cab journey, once, the driver kept asking about my religion. He refused to believe me when I told him I was an atheist. He simply could not grasp that I did not want him to face his cab to the East, or assemble a shrine to Shiva on the seat next to me. He even asked me why I was lying to him.
Another time, in a bar in France, a man who had once lived in India kept offering me a cup of tea in Hindi, a language I do not speak. I think he expected me to thank him for hitting me repeatedly with this olive branch. The bar did not serve tea, so there's no other explanation.
To avoid further awkward scenes like this, I'm going to answer some of the regular questions here and now:
Yes, I have seen Slumdog Millionaire. No, I have no experience of the slums of Mumbai. Although I have read Shantaram and that thing in the New Yorker about slum life.
Yes, I have read The Namesake. No it does not reflect my life much more than A Farewell to Arms or The Remains of the Day or The Cat in the Hat.
No, I am not going to have an arranged marriage. I think it's ridiculous and antiquated, but to each their own.
No, my parents did not expect me to become a doctor or a lawyer. If I had decided to deal crack they would have sent me articles they'd looked up on cocaine-cooking techniques, and asked their friends if they knew anyone looking for a dealer.
Finally (and although most never enquire) yes, I find it offensive when you ask me these things. Unless you're also going to question my friend Rob (Scottish, long ago) about his love of Braveheart, where he keeps his kilt and his tips for cooking haggis. Or email the White House with questions on daily life in Kenya for Barack Obama. Please, if you have a heart, stop patronizing brown people just because you've seen a film featuring 50 or so of them.
Ravi Somaiya writes on topics from ping-pong to politics for the Guardian among others.