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Mistaken Identity in a Tamil Street Cafe

Smile for the cameras…

This is a story about television and fame and begins in the unlikely setting of a humble eatery in South India. I was famished and stopped at the first street-side cafe or dhaba that I came across. It looked cheap and grotty, and it was cheap and grotty. The cook was frying pieces of something in ghee in a huge, blackened wok-type container or Karais near the entrance. As I entered, he looked up and wobbled his head from side to side in acknowledgement, then shifted his glance back to the wok. I noticed that before immersion, the bits of food had already been fried, possibly hours or even days ago. I thought of blocked arteries and heart-attacks. Maybe he was just making sure that the food had lost none of its super-saturated fat flavour.

He was wearing a T-shirt that had probably once been white. But that must have been a long time back. It was now layered with grime. His protruding belly indicated that it had seen more than its fair share of excessively fried tit-bits over the years. Strangely enough, there wasn’t a bead of sweat on him. It must have been 35 degrees outside, but the flaming stove cranked up the temperature to about 40 inside. I was dripping before entering and was now absolutely oozing. I pointed to the ceiling fan. He obliged by switching it on. I was the only customer and sat at one of the four tables. They had obviously been cleaned quite recently – no doubt with the oily rag next to the sink judging by the greasy wipe-marks.

I would not have thought it possible but the walls were covered with even more grime than he was. The floor was blanketed with dust and discarded pieces of food. Hygiene must have been a long lost concept to this man, but then again that suggests that he had discovered it in the first place. A guide book may politely describe the surroundings as having “character” or “charm”; others might say, filth and cobwebs. The mosaic of flaking paint and patches of dirt on the walls was interrupted by a board containing around ten light and fan switches, and a shrine with a model Ganesh situated on a shelf. I did not want to look at either the walls or floor for too long for fear of seeing thousands of roving insects. Eventually I did look but didn’t see any. How could such a room be insect-free? That is when I got worried. Maybe that’s what he was frying!

He said something to me in Tamil and guessing that he wanted to take my order I replied “meals”. “Meals” is the catch all word that usually implies rice, and various vegetable dishes and dips. I knew instinctively that there would be no bits of fried “thing” that he could slip in. I would easily detect them.

He lifted a “thing” from the vat of oil, looked at me and shouted “Samosa?” I thought about cockroaches and shook my head vigorously.

A few minutes later a banana leaf was placed in front of me, which I sprinkled and wiped with water using my fingertips, then rice and various dishes were set out. As I began to eat, someone else came and sat at one of the other tables, smiled at me and said “Good morning”. Then he said something to the cook in Tamil and turned to say, “Are you famous Hindi movie star…”

I interrupted by saying “Sanjay Dutt”. He laughed, the cook laughed and I groaned inwardly while smiling.

I must hear someone tell me that I look like the Bollywood hero Sanjay Dutt about four times a day. The person telling me always thinks that he is the first person ever to have told me. But it is a something of a rarity to be told this in Tamil Nadu. And it is very rare to be asked if I am actually Sanjay himself. As if Sanjay Dutt is going to be eating a rice meal in the kind of grot-shop that I was in. Anyhow, the Tamil speaking world has its own film industry centred in Chennai, and Sanjay or Bollywood are not as big in Tamil Nadu as they are in other parts of India. Alas, on this particular occasion Tamil Nadu provided little sanctuary.

If I had ten rupees for every time that someone has said that I look like Sanjay Dutt then I would be as rich as Sanjay Dutt. Apparently, according to half of the Indian population, I look like him. There may be a slight resemblance, but surely not enough to merit the almost constant barrage of “You look like famous Hindi movie star…”. The only other occasion when someone asked if I was him, as opposed to just saying I looked like him, was on a platform whilst boarding a sleeper train. There was as much likelihood that Sanjay would be travelling in an ordinary second class sleeper as there was that he would be eating in a street cafe in Thanjavur.

I suppose being told that I look like a film star should be flattering. If I was told that I looked like Brad Pitt or Mel Gibson back in the UK then it would no doubt feel good. Unfortunately, feeling flattered is a phase long since gone. The Sanjay thing has become rather tedious and my response is now accompanied with an inner sigh, and a smile to hide my exasperation.

In India I am famous without really being famous, yet back in England I am on TV everyday. I walk down the road – I am on screen. In the railway station, I am on screen. And in every shop on the high street – yes – I am on screen. Some people would give their right arm to be on TV, but not me. I am not talking about the type of TV that everyone watches in comfort or for entertainment, but the kind where someone gets paid to monitor and evaluate your every move. I’m talking about Closed Circuit TV. The almost ubiquitous arm of “law and order” that has found its way into every nook and cranny of public life in the UK.

CCTV came into its own when people’s rights were being stripped away in the name of producing a “flexible” and “cost-effective” workforce. The legacy has been a permanent underclass of people who cannot “pay their way”. They couldn’t become fully paid up members of the consumer society – they were sacrificed on its altar. Now they are surplus to requirements, the “not really wanted” generation whose spending power is minimal. It was impossible to wall them in on their housing estates, and I guess that at one time or another this had been considered, so CCTV became the next best option. The authorities regard them as a drain on welfare resources at best and as a potential threat at worst. In order to root out the “unsavoury” elements, everyone in Britain is now on screen. We are all under suspicion. British paranoia at its finest. A case of being on screen, but without the fame.

As I scooped the last bit of rice into my mouth, I looked around the cafe and thought that sanitised British high streets and CCTV were a million miles from the tropical, banana leaf world of South India. And I thought that Sanjay would probably have been luxuriating in his five star world somewhere. I have all of the attention and “fame” but without the fortune or wealth. But it could be worse. I once saw a Hindi film and one of the main actors had a shaven head with great tufts of hair sprouting out from his ears. At least people do not tell me that I look like him. Or worse still, Karishma Kapoor! (A female star for those who don’t know.)

Being a westerner attracts a fair share of stares in India. It is bit of an ego boost to be looked at all the time. But the stare factor goes way above and beyond the norm for a Sanjay look-alike. And the feelings of self-importance that it brings are a lot different from the negative ones associated with the gaze of CCTV in Britain. All the world has become my stage. But on which stage would I rather be? There is the Sanjay-friendly one where I can revel in pretend fame. And then there is the paranoia inducing one with life being lived through a lens. A good old slice of Bollywood pretend fame, or an unhealthy dose of British paranoia? There’s no contest. Thank God for Sanjay Dutt.

Colin Todhunter

Colin Todhunter is an English travel writer whose book Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, was a bestseller in India. He followed up the book with a series of articles for the travel section of the New Sunday Express (the weekend edition of the New Indian Express). His travel articles have also been published in the US based socio-political magazine Newtopia, the Chennai based women’s magazine Eve’s Touch, Fitness First Magazine in the UK, and in the New Indian Express. Before branching into travel writing he wrote on a range of social issues, including disability rights, community development, healthcare and ageism. He has been published in the academic journals Disability and Society, Social Research Update, the Qualitative European Drug Research Journal, and in Clinical Medicine and Health Research. Colin is also a contributing author of the textbook The A to Z of Social Research.