bottu – the bindi

Visited Cardiff… a very pleasant small city with a big bay.

I just sat there on a bench on the dock and watched the world going by. An old man come up to me pushing a bicycle, and it looked like he wanted to say something but was hesitant to do so. Finally he asked me “Pardon me if I am being impertinent, but may I ask you something?”. I greeted him with a smile, and that encouraged him to proceed “I see a lot of Indian women with this dot on their heads, what is the reason for that?”

In any country, a foreigner is usually seen as an ambassador or a representative of his country. Hence whatever I say especially in such a situation in most probability will cause a notion created in the mind of the listener, which will be held as the truth for the rest of his life. Maybe until he comes across another source of information which he considers as more reliable, and even then he will only try to merge the two sources to get a new notion. And he will also share this notion with his friends, who will believe this as true because they believe him, and consider this as the fact about India and Indians.

So considering those factors, whatever I replied should have been very profound and accurate. But at that time, the words that actually come forth were not quite so. “They’re called bindis, and they’re a fashion accessory” I replied.

He seemed to be extremely surprised. “Fashion! Is that all they mean!” and I could see that he clearly had expected a much sophisticated answer. At the back of my mind… I was racking my brains… what is the correct answer??? I could not bring myself to say “It means more to them than that but Im not sure about exactly what”. Because the expression on his face was so earnest and he really wanted an answer. I corrected myself “Ok, theyre not just a fashion accessory, its also a traditional custom.” This answer seemed to satisfy him only slightly more, but then he replied “But I have seen some Indian ladies wearing it, but some other Indians don’t”. So he had got me there. I tried to justify my earlier answer, while thinking of an answer for his latest question. “They are considered as a fashion accessory and that’s why they come in all colors and shapes”. He still had that attentively listening expression, waiting for me to add something more. Atlast it flashed “Its used to indicate that they’re a Hindu”… and a sudden understanding dawned on his face… “ahhh that’s it… so its used by a Hindu lady to indicate that she is a Hindu, and that other Hindu ladies can identify her to be one so its ok for them to talk to her!!” So he seemed to be satisfied with that answer but had added his own intelligience to muddle up the information. I tried to correct him “no, its not that Hindus ladies talk only to other Hindu ladies, we are a very open society in India” but I wasn’t sure if I had made my point. Then to add confusion to his clarity I added helpfully “Even ladies of some other religions wear it too” recalling Jigar’s Mom who was a Jain. But it seemed that the keyword Hindu was all that mattered to him, as if it was the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle which fitted perfectly into a complex picture he had been trying to solve for years, and he needed no other. Anyway we ended up chatting a bit, found that he was a Welsh sailor, aged 78. I swore to him that I would never have imagined he was 78! He said, “yes, my health has been in good condition so far… touchwood… but I think its time to retire”. He said he lived in Bristol, what a coincidence! We chatted for some time, but as we spoke, I noticed he was shifting his bicycle a bit and felt that he had his answer and wanted to leave. I felt like asking him many more things, but decided to wrap up my end of the conversation, and only replied to whatever else he asked without putting forth any more questions of my own. Sure enough, in a couple of minutes, he said he should be on his way… and we parted exchanging greetings. It was a good thing he left… because ten minutes later, there was a heavy downpour and though I had my umbrella, I hoped he had reached some shelter.

The weather for the rest of the evening was quite dull and rainy and I just walked back to the railway station to go home. I thought about my conversation with the Welsh man. I’ve started to reconsider what used to be a ridiculous notion that my life is not just a set of random events. So though it sounds unnecessarily dramatic, I did wonder if at all there was some message that the man had given me. The one thing I could see was that it showed me how hollow my understanding of my own culture was. Surely I should’ve known more about the idea behind bindis?

6-Aug-03: When I came back to Bangalore I asked my fellow desis about it. Shashi gave more or less the same answer as me. Venkat had a more elaborate explanation which might’ve made the Welsh man happier or more confused: “Bindis are marked on the forehead where all nerve endings in the body meet and it forms the center of concentration. So it improves the concentration of any person who looks at the lady.” There seemed to be some logical flaws but I could vaguely guess the basic idea. He further added that it should be red color because its more prominent… (same principle used by traffic lights) so that it grabs the attention more. Hmmm.

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