"Do not judge a book by its cover."
We learned this in school and yet, everyday we let our minds make immediate assumptions about people based on their dress, speak and mannerisms. This was one of the hardest things for me to understand and then take into account when I started to work in a team in India. The nice thing about America was that you were granted the benefit of the doubt as far as your character assessment went. You were free to shape an opinion of yourself in other people based on your interactions with them; while your past could be used to colour your personality landscape, it was just a little dab of white. In India, regretfully, I feel that we do not do this. From marriage alliances to rentals to office interviews, a thread of prejudice remains.
We carry around a format of how the world should be and each person we meet has to fit into a personality type defined by our cultural and moral perceptions. Veg vs non-veg; brahmin vs non-brahmin; south-indian vs north-indian; muslim vs hindu and the list is endless. Each of these items forms part of our mental list and is given a certain weight depending on our view of the world. I believe that we do this so unconsciously that we don't even realize it. Often I have had to catch myself from using my list to make up my mind about people. I have also been at the other end and I know that there's a breakdown in this checklist when I announce that I have no last name. Because nestled in that innocuous question, is an entire sub-section of items which cannot be immediately answered, but would have to be drawn out of me. And I, devious and devilish, do not wish to be categorized so I make all attempts to be truthfully evasive.
Where were you born? In Rajasthan. We moved about a bit as kids since my dad was in the Air Force and fiercely non-traditional, my father insisted that my sister and I be born where he was stationed as opposed to my mother being sent to her parent's home. So, this too is a dead end. What's your mother tongue? My mother speaks six Indian languages fluently, but she counts in Hindi. No, no, what's your native language? Oh, that would be English. No, no, what is your house language? Kannada. You don't look like a south-indian. By this point you can be sure that I have already found a niche in their people-canvas. Ah, but now the tricky part where questions cannot do. How to reconcile how I look, speak and gesture with the fact that I am a no-last name south-indian who speaks Hindi fluently? The tactless ones will also remark about the colour of my skin not fitting in with the profile. The interrogation now takes on another hue to determine my social pecking order. Veg or non-veg? Both. Siblings? One. Married? Yes, to a Sikh. The plot thickens. Are you from Bangalore? Yes. Which part? Indiranagar. Now some mental arithmetic follows where these are computed in the person algorithm. Beep. Bo. Beep. Enter.
A smile follows. Despite the absence of a last name, I'm not a threat to their world view. Ah, but if only they knew my secrets...