Shan, a regular commenter here, posts a link on his Facebook page, an extract from a “travelogue” titled “To Hellholes and Back” [Link] which in essence says that India is the “most annoying place in the world to be a tourist” with “sleazy dishonest” merchants, of the type that presumably cannot be found anywhere else in the Milky way.
And if this piece of “hellhole” bit of writing was not enough of the imperial Macaulian “those poor annoying subhuman bastards” perspective of India for a week, we had insanely popular US talk show host Glenn Beck (who unfortunately calls him GB) on the cable news channel Fox News saying that India does not have flush toilets, their doctors graduate from their less-than-reputable institutes and that Ganges sounds to him like the name of a disease. [Link]
Now this does not surprise me in the least. People like the “funny travel writer” and Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire have a definite image of India they want to market to their audience. They go looking for muck and they find it. Anything they find that does not fall inside the “hellhole” tunnelview is ignored. Their aim is to make their largely Western audiences feel superior, enabling them to laugh at, feel pity for and sneer at the “dark countries” and in order to do so they use different modes of message delivery—-Boyle uses cinema, people like the travel writer use humor and Glenn Beck uses pure and simple hatred because his audience might find it tough to parse anything more subtle.
What however never ceases to amaze me is the reaction of us Indians to such characterizations of our people. When Shilpa Shetty gets a bit of racial abuse in Big Brother, the reaction is “We Indians are the most racist people in the world. How dare we point fingers?” When Danny Boyle unleashes a gutter inspector’s report redux (the original being Mother India), the reaction is “He is holding a mirror to India and we are uncomfortable seeing how horrible we are”. When a travelogue makes sweeping negative statements about our country the reaction is “Geez. This man is soo right. We do treat foreigners horribly”. When Indian students are assaulted in Australia for their race, we are told that the Indians provoked it. And I am waiting for a comment saying “But yes desi-style commodes dont have flushes” in response to Glenn Beck.
This is what I had said in the review of Slumdog Millionaire.
But wait. Do Hindu saffron-clothed Senas not run havoc through Muslim slums? Do street kids not get taken in by beggar gangs and maimed? Doesnt rape happen in India? Are those slums specially constructed sets? Why do you, third world denizen, get so defensive about your own country? Chill.
Well yes these things do happen in India. However the problem is when you show every hellish thing possible all happening to the same person. Then it stretches reason and believability and just looks like you are packing in every negative thing that Westerners perceive about India for the sake of “crowd pleasing”. Because audiences and jury members “feel good” when their pre-conceived notions are confirmed. On the flip side, nothing disquiets a viewer as much as when his/her prejudices are challenged. So Boyle does the safe thing.
Let’s say I made a movie about the US where an African-American boy born in the hood, has his mother sell him to a pedophile pop icon, after which he gets molested by a priest from his church, following which he gets tied up to the back of a truck and dragged on the road by KKK clansmen. Then he is arrested and sodomized by a policeman with a rod, after which he is attacked by a gang of illegal immigrants, and then uses these life experiences to win “Beauty and The Geek”.
Even though each of these incidents have actually happened in the United States of America, I would be accused of spinning a fantastic yarn that has no grounding in reality, that has no connection to the “American experience” and my motivations would be questioned, no matter how cinematically spectacular I made my movie. At the very least, I wouldn’t be on 94% on Tomatometer and a strong Oscar favorite.
In the same vein no one would deny the existence of pestering beggars and sharp merchants in India. No one would say that foreigners are not harassed or they are not cheated. But here is the deal. It happens in every country in the world. A few days ago I was in a conversation where someone was saying how she was assailed by beggars in Cambodia and how children are disfigured by parents and made to beg (Sounds familiar?). In South America, organized gangs kidnap tourists, take out money from their ATMs and have been known to make kidnapees initiate wire transfers before killing them off.
A colleague of mine was ripped off by a taxi-driver in New Delhi of Rs 5000 who charged him that amount for going from one terminal to another. Similarly a taxi driver in Italy once drove our family round and round the city, running up a huge bill and then dropped us off two blocks away from where we had hailed the taxi because the hotel was there and we did not know it.
I have been accosted by panhandlers in Detroit, walking besides me threateningly and persistently. I have been abused racially in multiple cities in the West. A friend of mine was mugged by two people in Paris, one of whom pinned him down to the ground while the other cleaned his pockets. Another friend of mine was punched and then had his face spat in a German city in front of people, who stood silently. And I personally have had certain merchants not based in a country that can be referred to as a hell-hole who putting fraudulent charges on my account. How about that Funny Travel Writer, who seems to think “The irrepressible over-ambition of the country’s (India’s) merchant class stalks you like a disease”? At least the merchant class’s over-ambition in India did not drive the world into a recession did it now?
Lest this seem like I am trying to do to Cambodia, South America, Germany, France and Italy what people are doing to India, let me make it clear that I am not. These are all excellent places to visit.
Of all the places I have been to, the US is the most courteous and non-prejudicial when it comes to treating foreigners where I feel orders of magnitude safer than in Europe.
No two ways about it.
What I am saying is that that bad things happen to tourists and in general to people everywhere, perhaps more so in the poorer countries in the world.
Not that it makes what happens to tourists in India any better or justifies it. (Intentionally made bold, because I have seen people sometimes have difficulty in understanding this line)
It is just that we are not the exclusive hellhole or much worse than average as we are made out to be by certain Western observers and by many Indians themselves.
It is this last part—the “self-perception” which to me is the most important. Glenn Beck’s statements, if you bring up in front of an American crowd, will be brushed aside with a “Glenn Beck is an ass. No one pays any attention to him” without any attempt to generalize what he said as an opinion held by people at large. This is exactly the way it should be.
If however you bring up Rimi Sen’s despicably racist statement [Link] in a conversation, Indians will more often than not say “We Indians are the most racist people in the world. This is exactly how most people feel in our country” rather than “She is a marginal actress who is airing her own personal prejudices. No one pays any attention to her”. Though one can argue that Glenn Beck’s statements are more alarming than Rimi Sen’s because while Ms. Sen is opining as an individual, Glenn Beck is speaking from a pulpit provided by a corporation. And he is not blustering in an off-guard moment but in a carefully scripted way designed to appeal to his base as a representative of a mainstream media outlet, an outlet that has in no way disassociated itself from these despicable comments.
I have struggled to understand our innate ability for self-flagellation. Is this a legacy of colonialism? Or does it originate from a need to appear “liberal” and “exalted” in order to distinguish oneself from uber patriotism, which is frequently associated with the “uncool” Hindu right?
I really do not know. I guess a bit of both.
In conclusion, while we as Indians should be able to see our faults, we should not confuse “criticism” with attacks on us that stem from a feeling of superiority, a “We are better than you” kind of attitude which implies that all horrible things, the most dishonorable of merchants, the most flooded of toilets and the worst of doctors are found, most frequently, in India.