My stereotype is better than yours

In case you were holed up in your cave for the last few days, here is a recap. Oprah Winfrey landed in India earlier this year to shoot a two-part documentary A few months later a TV channel aired the show in which she proceeded to display her ignorance of the country she had visited. And the country reacted by groaning so loud that police officers were wondering how on earth the 65 decibel sound limit was ever going to be enforced again.

“She did what!? She visited slums and asked patronizing questions to poor people?”

“She asked what? ‘Do we still eat with our hands?’ Do we use Indian-style toilets and wash our bottoms? This sort of stuff is highly-objectionable. These are the stereotypes which Western media outlets like to reiterate instead of the positive messages about India Shining. Why can’t they show our high-tech industries and call-centers and resurgent population freed from the shackles of imperialism?”

I hear you loud and clear, offended compadre. We of the brown skin and funny names have all been there. In America, a well-meaning, but uninformed acquaintance once asked me about snake-charmers in India. I told him that snake-charmers were the least of our worries: our snakes actually turned into charmers. He looked at me incredulously, but then again he has yet to see the voluptuous Sridevi in Nagina.

More recently, a man who I had just met at a casual gathering mentioned that he had just recently visited India. Not meaning to be rude, I asked, “How did you like it there?”

“Oh. It was awful. We went to see the Taj Mahal. My word, Agra was so dirty! Then we went to Jaipur and my wallet and my passport were stolen by a pickpocket,” he said. And then he paused and looked straight into my eyes as if expecting me to apologize on behalf of some questionable people out of a billion plus others who just happen to share my nationality. As you would expect, his idea of India, and Indians had been colored by his experience there.

Then there are those with the diametrically-opposite viewpoint, with what I consider a sort of Thomas Friedman malaise of exuberant praise with the unexpected consequence of causing embarrassment to the listener. I’ve met those people too. Genuine folks who are so enamored with their impressions of India that they accost you on the street to strike up a conversation on yoga and garam masala, when all you want to do is mind your own business and walk home in the rain as fast as you can. They want to talk about the jungles brimming with wildlife and the palaces on the India Incredible! tourism ads that lured them to India, and how they love chai with a bit of cinnamon and “oh, do you have a good recipe for dal?” Because every Indian knows how to make dal.

My point in shooting off a spectrum of stereotypes I’ve come across in meeting people from across the world who are curious about India is not only to amuse you, but to challenge you with a simple statement: in a land of over a billion people, any reductionist approach is going to result in clichés. What is being labeled a “stereotype” is usually one we are uncomfortable with, which is, for lack of a better phrase a “bad stereotype”- one which talks about issues we are not comfortable addressing ourselves, such as slums which are representative of poverty and in our minds, our past. On the other hand, most of us are happy when others expectorate about India Shining “good stereotypes” of spick-and-span institutes of technology churning out cleancut engineers and MBAs, who represent our future.

India runs the gamut: there are poor people who don’t know where their next meal will come from and people who have servants cook, clean, and do laundry for them so they have the time and the energy to outrage over poverty stereotypes.

Given the opportunity to pick stereotypes, it is understandable that any group of people will choose those that portray them in the most flattering light, reality, balance and all that jazz be damned. I am not the slightest concerned about that. What I bemoan is the lack of self-confidence in our own abilities that makes us flinch at the slightest unflattering portrayal.

Could it be that despite our new-found place under the sun, we still yearn for the recognition of those we claim we’ve freed ourselves from? Deep down do we suffer from an inferiority complex in which everything desi is still measured by how it stands against everything phoren?

I’ve seen signs of this type of cultural schizophrenia, but one telling example comes immediately to mind. When Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was released there were many who were disgusted because it depicted Indian poverty. (The accusation is not new and has been leveled against Indian directors, such as Satyajit Ray as well). When Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars, there were people who felt that the recognition was unwarranted, and that the film was critically recognized because it fed into Western stereotypes. I am not disputing this accusation: this may be perfectly valid. What I found amusing was that many of those same people were “proud” of A.R. Rahman for winning Oscars for the soundtrack: in their minds, his intrinsic worth increased because he won a highly-coveted Western award. If his music is good, then why does it need the stamp of approval of those who are apparently only interested in our negative stereotypes? Why do we lack the courage of conviction to say “yes, crazylady, we still eat with our fingers, and yes, many of us also eat with cutlery and chopsticks when appropriate.”

One last comment for those still shocked by the hotly-debated TV documentary: Oprah works for TV –a one-dimensional forum where programs of a finite duration, punctuated by commercial interests cater to those with limited attention spans.

Last I checked, those searching for nuance, didn’t watch saas-bahu serials or sansani tez news programs where the loudest voice prevails or recycled foreign sitcoms: they read books.

The distant nowhere

Someone loved you so much before you were born that she shed her inborn reticence to take a long journey through strange lands filled with unknown people to be with you. Tears were shed. Suitcases were lost. Flights were missed along the way. You will not remember.

I distinctly recall how your grandmother cradled you in her arms soon after you were born, her face glowing with an unmistakable fondness. She soothed you when you were inconsolable. She rocked you patiently in the middle of the night when your inexperienced parents voiced their frustration. She spoke to you and played with you and you smiled. You will not remember.

And as soon as she was here, it became time to go. While she packed the tiny outfits which you had outgrown, she deeply inhaled your lingering, faint smell. She packed the photos of you documenting moments from your first few months, but she did not need them: these were moments she had memorized.

“Do not look at me like that, my darling. I must go, though it tears my heart.”

I think of another woman, who had never traveled alone in her life, who decades before you were born, fearlessly took a train to New Delhi to be with her son and her expecting daughter-in-law. When the time came for her to be separated from her beloved grandson, she too had been heartbroken.

“The interest is more precious than the principal, my dear” she once told me. I intuitively comprehend what she meant even though she is gone from me forever now.

You and I do not remember. We occupy the other end of an impassable maze of reservation charts, passports, visas, waiting rooms, and boundaries at a distant nowhere.

Our power struggle

I called up the only hotel in a thirty-mile radius which had rooms available according to a popular online booking site. “Do you have electricity at your hotel?”

“Yes, sir we do.”

“Do you have any rooms available for tonight?”

“I’m afraid not sir”

I suspect that prospective boarders do not usually ask the Arlington Hilton staff if their hotel has electricity, but the past few days have been hardly usual.

After what seemed like an innocuous series of lightning strikes late on Friday night, millions of people (including yours truly) have been out of power in at least seven states in the United States. I say the storm was mostly harmless as someone who has experienced quite a few cyclones growing up in eastern India. What happened on Friday night didn’t wake me up. I may be a sound sleeper, but even my four-month old wakes me up. Suffice it to say that a cyclone keeps me up.

Usually, when I’ve experienced a power outage in India, it has been restored within a day. Yes, we had frequent outages, especially during the monsoon and the brutally-oppressive summer, but we also always had a Plan B for these situations. People who can afford backup power sources such as generators and batteries keep them online for our frequent bouts of loadshedding. Before we had a generator in the house I grew up in, we had hurricane lanterns and hand-fans. It gets oppressively hot in my hometown, of course, but there are thick wooden windows, thick brick walls and as Kipling said “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

The situation is vastly different if you live in a hermetically-sealed high-rise with glass windows like I do in Arlington, Virginia. In 40 degree Centigrade temperature (which is what we’ve been experiencing recently) air-conditioning is needed just to keep the apartments from turning into greenhouses.

On Saturday morning, in a suburb of supposedly the most-powerful city in the most-powerful nation in the world there was chaos. The mall right next to our high-rise shut down. Most shops were shuttered. The few that were open were taking cash but, not taking credit cards. ATMs were out of order. The major phone companies were down without any service.

By Saturday afternoon, the situation was even more precarious and our apartment was indeed turning into a furnace. My four-month old son was incessantly vomiting from the heat. Babies have very small surface area so they don’t radiate heat as well as grownups do. Due to the kindness of two close friends, we were able to stay where there was electricity so the baby was able to sleep. A number of friends and strangers offered to open their homes to us and for that we are grateful.

The following day, we were able to get a room at the Hilton: we decided to stay there primarily because the work-week had been looming and there had been no indication of when power would be restored. Thankfully, the baby has recovered and we are a five minute walk away from home.

It was the worst possible time to be traveling. On Saturday, I realized that I needed to cancel flights I had booked after checking in baggage at an airport. After that what followed is a masterclass in how not to do logistics. I was assured by various airline staff that my bags would be physically removed (since there were 8 hours before my scheduled flight) and held at the baggage service office. I decided to grab lunch. When I arrived later to pick up my bags, I was informed that my bags had somehow flown to New York City! Over two days of pestering followed in which various employees including a few desis have shown various levels of incompetence. Airline staff typed a lot and made a lot of stern faces, but nothing really happened. Finally, it was a sympathetic desi presumably at a call-center in India who put in an expedited request for my bags. At the time of writing, I am told the bags have returned to Washington DC on a flight and are somewhere on a truck.

Latest estimates are that it could take up to a week for power to be restored, though the front desk of our building has informed us that we might get back power today if we are lucky. Some folks never lost power. Others got it back within minutes.

Close to 3.5 million people lost power due to a series of storms that were literally not on anyone’s radar on Friday afternoon.

I am not claiming that my situation is either unique or representative. I am not saying that the power companies are not faced with a daunting task of restoring power. But when you take something like electricity for granted, you usually don’t have a backup plan. Next time, for there surely will be a next time, I hope there is backup.

Postscript: we got back power over 100 hours later.