Dinner is fun. The restaurant is warm and cheery. Friendly and attentive waitresses, boisterous weekend-evening clientele. My date is a delight, the food's good. Best of all, there's a man playing the guitar and singing folk standards to entertain us: Dylan, Jackson Browne, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez. Still green in the USA, just weeks since I got here, I lap it all up, thinking this is America! This is the American life! This friendly restaurant with its musician playing these songs that have only been tracks on a LP to me before today. (That's pronounced "ell-pee": black discs of vinyl that rotated at 33-and-a-third revolutions per minute. Some cousins rotated at 45 or 78 rpm. Go bug some ancestor to learn some more).
Then the man finishes a tune, leans toward the mike and asks, "Any requests?"
I have one. Actually, several, but I decide on one. The man has been singing Joan Baez, surely he'll know this tune that I have only ever heard Baez do? Well, there were the modified versions we used to sing, like "Atal Behari's cycle had a puncture in its tyre ... so he fixed it up with Wrigley's chewing gum", but we'll leave those alone. Especially because the original has considerably more meaningful lyrics: "He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat/He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat ... As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free."
Not that I know the words well, nor that they mean very much to me -- they don't. For me, it's just a sumptuous tune. So I put up my hand and shout: "Please, could you play Battle Hymn of the Republic?"
There's a moment of complete silence. Then someone laughs. Then the whole damn place is laughing at me. A diner yells from across the room: "What's next, the Stars and Stripes?" Another leans over to me and asks, chuckling: "Hey pal, want us to stand up?" Guitar-man, between near-guffaws, drawls: "You from the South, man?"
My date, bless her, is the only one in the restaurant not laughing. She knows how unused I still am to America. Then and later, she explains: Julia Ward Howe wrote that song while on a visit to the frontlines during the Civil War. Even well over a century on, it has sometimes painful connotations, it carries the weight of that brutal time when American turned on American. It speaks, from the heart, to almost visceral feelings of nationhood and identity.
It's a beautiful song, sure, but not quite one to sing in a restaurant. Especially not in a restaurant in New England, Yankee heartland New England. So asking for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", I begin to understand with my date's gentle words, is like asking for "Jana Gana Mana." Or "Vande Mataram." Hardly a thing to do over dinner.
Or is it?
What if this incident had happened to an American, asking for "Vande Mataram" in a restaurant in Bombay? Would he have been laughed at, and if so, what would we think about the laughers? Or would the guitar-man and the diners have stood up and started singing, and if so, what would we think about the singers?