Talking about India to the World
Part of the job description of being an Indian abroad is fielding questions on rapes, caste, spices, sarees, poverty, software outsourcing, dancing and religion with exhausting regularity. How on earth does one answer these? With what proportion of detail, truthfulness, patriotism, defensiveness? Truths are always multiple and often contradictory, but try telling that to most people.
Talking about India to other Indians and discussing it with “foreigners” are like tofu and paneer. Indians have earned the right to criticize their country. They have lived the quotidian injustices and paid the price of their birth in myriad painful ways, from surviving typhoid and dengue fever, to carrying the guilt of having to ignore hollow-eyed child beggars tapping on rolled-up car windows.
But they have also known the visceral joys of their culture: its traditions of hospitality, the lively chatter of neighbourhoods that act as extended families, the syncretism of its storied architecture, the festivals and movies, the 100-watt smile of a grubby child hitting a six while playing gulley-cricket, the taste of a hot ginger-spiced tea on a chilly morning, the passionate debates about politics and those first drops of warm monsoon rain after a parched summer. When discussing India with Indians there is shared knowledge, context, and a real stake in the outcome of those discussions, aka: skin in the game.
But what about when you have to serve as international brand ambassador for your hyper-populated, dystopic, garrulous, frightening, endearing mess of a country? How do you reply when confronted by that dreaded moment when a German earnestly asks you, “what is your caste?” or someone from China demands to know why your government “allows” people to have as many children as they want?
I never know whether to answer lightly with the tempting lie, that is not fully a lie when applied to my personal context, that we’re hardly aware of caste in the cities anymore. It’s true that I grew up entirely blind to caste. No one had ever asked me up front what my caste was, and nor had it ever occurred to me to ask the question of anyone else (of course I realized later that this was because of the rarefied social circle I inhabited, coupled with the fact that my surname was in fact a caste name that announced my caste background even before I could open my mouth).
Or, should I subject them to a soliloquy on the pernicious politicisation of caste that has certain groups in India lobbying to be labeled lower caste than they had traditionally been, in order to access sops from the state? Or should I tell them about the continuing brutalities of upper-caste policing of caste boundaries that include the most heinous incidents of rape, arson and murder?
And should I just smile and change the topic when confronted by my Chinese interrogator, or talk of democracy or perhaps of the demographic dividend and the economic benefits of a young labour force? Should I inform her about how my Indian friends almost all have only one or two children and that several have chosen to have none? Or should I tell her that I agree that my country is so overpopulated that every national resource is stretched beyond breaking point?
In matter of fact my answers depend on my mood, on whether there is wine involved, the demeanor of my interlocutor, and their nationality.
I am patient with people who come from developing countries where the general population is poor and lacks the privileges of travel and a cosmopolitan education. Their questions, moreover, while often pointed, are usually free of moral censure.
But Europeans of a certain mien get my goat, even when they come from what to them is a place of good intentions or honest curiosity. In their naïveté I see a lack of self-reflexivity. In their tendency to feel pity for, or horror at, poorer countries I see an unacknowledged sense of superiority, of riding a moral high-horse from which emanates a lingering whiff of the White Man’s Burden. There is little understanding of the roots of inequality in the world. There is an erasure of the consequences of colonialism. And ultimately, a focus on the horrors of far away lands is often an easy way to avoid examining the grim realities of their own “developed” societies.
Underlying even “innocent” statements there is often a pernicious sense of their culture being the idealized norm against which the rest of the aberrant world is judged. In Indonesia, for example, the French spouse of a diplomat who had lived in an African country before being posted to Jakarta, looked at me and without a hint of self-consciousness said she was hoping to be posted to a more “normal” place next. In Brussels the pediatrician I took my then 10-month old baby to see told me that he could eat most fruit except “exotic” ones likes mangoes. If I counted the number of occasions Europeans had used the word exotic when discussing India with me, I’d have scant time for writing this newsletter. A Nordic friend once arrived for a Diwali-party I was hosting in a belly-dancing outfit- because it was the only “exotic outfit” she had.
Then there was the time in Tokyo that I met a Polish writer at a literary festival who smiled and told me she had been invited to visit India several times but was too afraid to go. And I’m constantlyasked whether my parents objected to my marrying Julio. In fact the objections were all from his, Spanish family, but it never seems to occur to anyone that “enlightened” Europeans might baulk at a cross-cultural liaison. Oh, and a French literary agent got back to me regarding a book I’d written on the challenges facing contemporary Europe saying that publishers were unlikely to be interested in an Indian’s prescriptions to Europe’s problems because they associated India “with rapes.”
Here are some of the reactions my presence provokes in people in Europe:
· They show me their “OM” tattoos.
· They ask me why the Indian government doesn't do more to help poor people.
· They tell me that they love spicy food, or alternatively that it doesn’t agree with them.
· They ask me if I’ve watched Slumdog Millionaire.
None of this is racism in the sense of a deliberate attempt to discriminate or hurt. It is usually a friendly overture that doesn’t compute how the “exotic” person being addressed might decode it. And let me add that the habit of stereotyping is often most egregious in countries that are less accustomed to western-style political correctness.
At some point I’ll do a post listing the different racial stereotypes that everywhere holds about everywhere: Indians about Chinese, Chinese about Japanese, Japanese about Koreans and Indonesians about Australians to name but a few. Here’s a quick sampling:
At my wedding in India in 2005, which was attended by several friends from China, an uncle of mine came up to me and used his fingers to stretch his eyes into slits while guffawing, “How come your eyes haven’t become like this after so many years there (in China)?” I have rarely been less amused. Then there was the time when a Chinese girl I attended a tango class with in Beijing, asked our Argentinean teacher who had a prominent proboscis, whether everyone in Argentina had a nose like his. And at the British school in Tokyo I was approached by a member of the staff to teach Bollywood dancing to primary school children as an extra curricular activity (I assume she imagined I was qualified because as an Indian I must spend my spare time dancing around trees).
But to return to the subject of talking about India to foreigners, at the heart of the problem are several contradictions. There is the tension between wanting people around the world to love my country, because I love it, and wanting them to know the truth, which is often ugly. There is the conflict between feeling embarrassed by the reality of India’s failings but feeling complicit in those failings if choosing to dissemble. There is the desire to refute stereotypes, but the problem with stereotypes is that there is often a large kernel of truth to them, and yet truth without context can lead to false impressions.
Aaargh! How do you guys feel? I’m pretty sure other Indians have experienced similar dilemmas. Is this something non-Indians relate to as well? And to the Europeans reading this post- I am sorry if I come across as harsh. But I hope you understand why I feel this way a little better after reading this post :-)
Oh and for the record on the caste issue: my parents are from different castes which would make me half-caste = not a good thing. Technically I should have been disadvantaged - but in fact I came from a family with considerable cultural capital, economically middle class, but socially privileged. I hope that's cleared things, and if it hasn’t- ask me again over a bottle of wine :-)
Please let me know your thoughts in the comment section and if you enjoyed this, do consider sharing on social media and/or with your friends. Hasta proxima semana!