Throw out the Hindi phrase books, the capricious software. You don’t need ’em. All you need to do, citizen of the world, is to master one simple yet profound gesture: the Indian head waggle.
The waggle’s effect is something between a nod, a shrug, a dog’s tail wag, and flipping the bird at someone when their back’s turned. From experience, it appears to mean:
- I acknowledge your existence, underling
- I’m doing your bidding, madam, but with extreme lack of enthusiasm
- That’s impossible, but I’m damned if I tell you that
- I have no idea what’s going on
This ocean of meaning gives rise to some minor ambiguities in social interactions. Indians, as my (Indian) friend generalised wildly, hate to say no. Is the hat shop that way? Yes, madamji, if you want it to be that way. Do you still have train tickets left? All truth is relative, madamji, and we are but motes of dust in the timeless eye of the Universe. This culminates most mornings in my house with the maid and I locked in mutual incomprehension, bobbling away at each other passive-aggressively over the toaster.
My favourite bollocks explanation for the head bobble was put forward by an Indian management consultant:
For well over 400 years, Indians were ruled by the British Empire and before that it was all monarchy. And people were afraid of saying no as an answer… They would just nod their head this way and leave it up to the other person to judge whether it’s a yes or a no and leave it there.
Certainly the Indian education system seems designed to inspire boredom and mindless deference. Hindi is also full of little responsibility-evading techniques. Lack of knowledge, strong and unruly feelings like regret, love, hunger, and diarrhoea often happen to you in Hindi (mujhe dast hai, mujhe bhukh lagi hai, etc)—we humans are mere ants facing a powerful and hostile world/our passions/loose bowels. But compare this with Indian drivers’ psychopathically aggressive use of the horn, surely the basis of Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. Apathy and va va voom coexist… land of contrasts… melting pot much like a curry or a slum or a curry in a slum… schizophrenic elephants… etc etc. What I’m trying to say is that the head bobble is a cunning and sublimely useful manoeuvre—imagine its potency when deployed against an unfairly nosy supervisor or indulging in some light bigamy—and I intend to use it religiously from now on.
You too can become fluent in the waggle. Imagine your head is ludicrously gigantic, like a Thunderbirds doll or James van der Beek. Keep your face entirely expressionless (resigned eye-closing optional): we’re talking reluctant subordinate ‘tude here, not African-American diva. Relax your neck and dip your left ear precisely 15° and then precisely 15° for the right ear. Repeat smoothly for several minutes. Practise in all social situations for the rest of your life.