It was 2005 and I found myself in Mumbai. I had only been in India for a few weeks and I was still grappling with a bad case of culture shock. One evening I attended a function at the British Deputy High Commission and I was introduced to a British Asian guy. We were talking about how different India is from Europe, and how sometimes it can take a little while before you get used to the place. ‘Well, yes,’ the fellow said, scratching his bristly chin, ‘sometimes it can be a bit difficult to adapt to life here – unless, of course, you come from somewhere like Gibraltar, in which case it won’t be so difficult for you to adapt to all this, will it?’ I thought: ‘what the ….? Have I just heard what I think I’ve heard?’ Resisting the urge to dramatically lower the tone of the conversation, I asked my acquaintance if he had ever visited the Rock. ‘Well, no,’ the guy admitted with a surly look on his face, ‘but I went to Spain in 1982 and I tell you what, it was not far different to what Bombay’s like today. Gibraltar and Spain are more or less the same thing, aren’t they?’
At the time I thought that the bloke was a wind-up merchant and that he was simply trying to rile me. But after a few more weeks in India I was forced to concede that there are parallels between Gibraltar and the subcontinent. First, there are the undeniable similarities between the Gibraltarian/Latin temperament and the Indian one. Indians, for example, are naturally friendly, can be very talkative, love to joke and mess around, enjoy flaunting their wealth, take great delight in their food, and are prone to bouts of weepy sentimentality – all typical Latin traits to some degree or the other. However, those were not the only parallels that I discovered. A far more important link between gigantic post-colonial India and little colonial Gibraltar is the ‘template of Englishness’ which hangs over both territories.
This sense of Englishness is obviously not as overt in India as it is in a British Overseas Territory like Gibraltar, but it still makes an appearance from time to time. Drive past the Indian law courts at Flora Fountain, and you will see robed and periwigged Indian judges just like you find in Gibraltar and the UK. Pick up an Indian telephone directory and you will find that many of the main government institutions – the PWD, the City Council, the Income Tax Department, the Passport Office – share identical names with their colonial counterparts in Gibraltar. Most importantly of all, I think, a percentage of Indians and Gibraltarians show a kind of automatic deference to Englishmen and all things English.
Social anthropologists in Australia have come up with a wonderfully descriptive term for this internalised inferiority complex: they call it ‘cultural cringe.’ ‘The view that one’s own national culture is inferior to the cultures of other countries, especially to the culture of the United Kingdom.’ In a city like Mumbai the ‘cringe’ manifests itself in a number of ways – from individuals standing aside for white Europeans in the street to local bibliophiles preferring the novels of Ian McEwan and Sebastian Faulks over those of Marathi authors like Kiran Nagarkar.
Perhaps things may not be as bad in Gibraltar in this respect, but I still think that we go out of our way to accommodate – and sometimes even fawn over – anybody with a well-honed British accent. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that two experts on a random subject – one from Britain and one from Gibraltar – appeared one evening on the GBC TV news. Even if both gentlemen were educated to the same level, many Gibraltarians (at least many Gibraltarians of the older generation) would be inclined to take the former more seriously than the latter. That’s the power of the ‘cringe’ for you. Whether he is talking rubbish or not, the expert who speaks with a British accent will always sound more persuasive than the expert with the strong Gibraltarian accent….
M. G. Sanchez has written nine books on Gibraltarian subjects, among them novels, short story collections, books of essays and autobiographical memoirs, all of which are available on Amazon. More information on his writing can be found at www.mgsanchez.net/media or on his Facebook page. He also tweets under the handle @MGSanchez.