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.

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18 thoughts on “My stereotype is better than yours

  1. But that’s the thing though. Oprah, she of the book club who got the nation to read Anna Karenina and a major reader herself, could have come across better. But she surprisingly didn’t. Rather she seems to have come across as a reductionist clueless twink who didn’t read up – at all – on where she was visiting. Indians in India are offended. Indians here are kinda surprised she didn’t somehow keep herself from looking like an anpadh ganwar. You know, like the Indian co-worker who announced to me years ago that ”Americans don’t know how to eat vegetables!” Based on? Sizzler, where she couldn\’t eat anything other than the pitiful-mostly-iceberg-lettuce salad. Right then.

    • I have no qualms with being disappointed because it was a lost opportunity, even though I neither care for Oprah nor for her programs. What bothers me is that because of the cumulative discourse on one documentary created by a private citizen of another country, we effectively turned Oprah and our opinion of her into “news”. We should have just shrugged our shoulders and moved on, no?

      • Yes, I suppose. The first four blog posts about it were interesting. Now I’m done. What I’m left with still though, is how she unaware she seems. For all that she is famous and well-travelled, the fact is the world came to her. Now she goes to it more. And we see more of what she doesn’t know. It’s interesting.

  2. I got asked, “Have you watched Slumdog Millionaire?” a couple of times. Indian stereotyping in America is tiresome but tolerable I guess. I got stereotyped in Bombay as South-Indian. It happens.

  3. I pat myself to be intelligent enough to see through your deliberate stereotyping (of ‘book readers’ searching for nuances) in the last paragraph! 😀

    I empathize with your anguish, if I could call it that. 🙂 Objectivity and fairness are scarce, but that helps people live happier lives, no?

    • Haha… Ketan, you are not the only person who has pointed out how that last line doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the post.

      I think I’m allowed one provocative bait every now and then. 😉

      Thanks for reading :).

  4. Ani, great article….

    Although I didn’t watch the Oprah show I think people are being too harsh on her. If the show had only show the gleaming skyscrapers, amazing IT, and modern trains, then you are showing any city in the world. To me (as a non-indian) India is so much more than that and it is the elephants and hand carts alongside Mercedes on the street, the Taj and all of its grander next to slums, street vendors and beggers mixed with well dressed business men/women. I think countries should embrace these great cultural differences and if the only exposure people get to India is through her show, maybe they at least learned something about India and will do their own reading. My two cents.. 🙂

  5. Agree with everything except your disdain for television as a useful medium of communicating to people who are looking for nuances. It’s sadly what television has become (and even what Oprah has become – her biggest strength through the 90’s & early 2000’s was in fact her ability to articulate the nuances of human experiences. Somehting that has shockingly disappeared from her programming now). Anyway, I work in TV and I struggle against this ‘war on nuance’ that has been launched by corporate-controlled TV companies that don’t credit audiences with brains.
    But some good folks at companies like BBC are holding fort. You might want to check out their stuff.
    The biggest strength of TV is that a guy sitting in Boise, Idaho now knows what houses in India look like – that the Oprah show did such a poor job of translating the experience, speaks more for the programmers than the power & potential of the medium itself.
    I’d be careful of making generalizations 🙂

    • I am allowed an occasional bait every now and then to cut the flow of a dry piece. 😉

      There are many good series on television… by the BBC which you mentioned and their public television equivalent PBS in the United States. Frontline is a news program that immediately comes to mind. The opportunities for television are indeed great. I remember watching and enjoying Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, sometime after its initial run: it was one of the reasons I was interested in science, and in particular, astronomy at a very early age. Here we have a case, where a highly-successful, intelligent television led to an articulate companion book. The same goes for humorous shows like Blackadder and Yes, Minister which have spawned great teleplay books. Closer to home, I still cherish getting the opportunity to watch Malgudi Days on Doordarshan as a child. That was quality television.

      You could say, therefore, that the rant at the end does not have to be television specific. It can be used to describe any form of popular culture; but the flip-side of the benefit of having a guy in Boise, Idaho watch houses in India, is the pervasiveness of television. It simply is not possible for hundreds of channels with 24-hours of programming to have only quality shows: the economics do not make it possible, even if the intent and the market exist. So we have a medium which is easily available in our living rooms, not often engaging, and can cater to both the highest and lowest forms of entertainment.

  6. I do agree that deep down Indians need approval of the west and get or outraged when the West only talks about our poverty. I believe it is time we start feeling secure about our own abilities as a country. One negative word from someone and we are ready to backlash and end up sounding like people with an inferiority complex.

  7. Stereotyping is over-simplification and over-generalization. It’s convenient and easy. Saves a lot of time too. Knowing everything and searching for the Truth is difficult. Very difficult. It’s a conversation breaker!

    Destination Infinity

  8. True.. it was a lost chance. She could’ve done her homework better than trying to repreent the 70s version of us. We, on the other hand, shouldnt really have gone all bat-crazy just over these remarks.
    I don’t know why but I kinda had a different picture of Oprah in my mind after all these decades of watching her show – I figured she was more knowledgeable than she came across – its silly to suggest she hasnt eaten with her hands… even in America, you still eat your KFC/Mc Donalds or home made fried chicken with your hands,rt ?

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