The Talented Foreigner: Akaltara, Rajasthan, India.

‘Hannah Didi, Hannah Didi wake up!’.

I groaned as I woke to the sticky hands of five year old Tuk Tuk talking to me through mouthfuls of Pan.

‘You have to go to the meal! Wake up Blondie, Blondie, Blondie Didi’ she sungs, smearing the red fragrant substance all over my bed sheet.

I had got used to my nickname; it was hard to be subtle about my yellowing hair when I was living in a house consisting of three Indian families in a small village, Akaltara, part of the largest state of India, Rajasthan. Most of the villagers had never seen a white person before – apart from on the television. So, whilst I was joyously photographing the cotton fields and saris drying in the wind, I was part of an ever growing mobile phone montage of ‘that time when that blonde girl came to the village.’

I sat up and shook my head; the fan above me almost magnetising me back to my hot slumber with its lullabic humming. After a sequence of pokes and prods from the rouge stained Tuk Tuk, she eventually ran off to the dressing table and applied my ‘Bronzed Goddess’ to her cheeks with the precision of an elephant holding a paint brush. She then kissed the mirror like a true Bollywood star and left me in peace, dancing and crooning in Hindi as she left.

With the enthusiasm of a sloth, I pulled on my India attire: a long sleeved shirt with khaki trousers and headed downstairs. My Anglo-Indian University housemate Kriti was waiting for me, dressed in a shimmering blue sari and, with a look of uncertainty, she ushered me outside and into the waiting car.

‘Where are we going?’ I asked sleepily. I had been to so many family meals and prayer ceremonies since coming to India with Kriti three weeks ago that I was hardly fazed by the thought of another meal with strangers.

‘It’s just a small gathering. I have to go dressed like this because Dad’s doing a speech about life in England. But you’re foreign, you can get away with whatever.’

Unsure whether to take the comment as an assurance of my bedraggled look or as a powerful insult, I leant back in the seat and attempted to sleep, only being woken up now and again from the occasional pot hole or, more regularly, from the driver dodging a nonchalant cow.

We pulled up outside a large white building. The heat struck my sleep deprived body as I opened the car door and walked up the stairs to a sign which said: 'Welcome to the Singhania family and Hannah Adkins'. I looked at Kriti with a mix of bemusement and confusion; we’d turned up outside one of the only brick buildings in the village which looked suspiciously like a hotel.

Tentatively, we walked in to the familiar sound of Govind, Kriti’s father, speaking. As we were ushered into a conference room by a hotel staff member, we were presented to a mass of people listening to Kriti's father. Govind was talking in Hindi into a microphone and motioned to us to come and join him on the stage area.

Kriti dutifully translated her father’s words into my ear. A powerful smell of incense lingered in the air as Govind described English familiarities which seemed so very far away. England, London, the red buses and the Queen were all presented to a crowd of over two hundred faces with the same sense of mystery and sensuality that an Arabic adventure would receive when being illustrated to a stiff British crowd. He was a preacher talking to the masses; the faces of businessmen, doctors, wives and children were in awe of the man who had made a life for himself in these foreign lands.

Kriti’s translation was quick and with the efficiency of a bi-lingual speaker, but she suddenly halted as my name echoed around the room and her red lips curved into a deep smile. As the crowd went into a starched silence, she looked into my confused face and said:

'They want you to show them how talented you are as our foreign visitor. Sing and dance.’ Her face broke into a wide white-toothed grin, ‘go on, Blondie’, she mocked, ‘they're waiting.’

In that fateful moment the tiny red hands of Tuk Tuk came into my cloudy head. Luckily, or unfortunately, Tuk Tuk had taught me a dance to a song from Ready, a Bollywood movie. Although the five year old had pronounced me ‘rubbish’ and then proceeded to shove and push my limbs until I did it to an adequate standard, that dance was all I had; my only weapon against the mighty fall of the untalented.

Akaltara had a treat that night. There was Blondie, a look of sheer concentration on her face, with uncombed hair and marked khaki trousers, dancing awkwardly to a song they all knew and loved - the presentation of a British foreigner.

And guess what? They all clapped.

H Adkins

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