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.