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On The Outside, Looking In

On The Outside, Looking In

May 28, 2012

Desi debates – what are the rules, and who gets to play?



I grew up with an interest in India, and an awareness of a distant connection, being raised by a single parent Anglo-Indian father, and living next door to an Indo-Fijian family. My grandfather took his family and fled Karachi to escape both the horrors of Partition and a drastic demotion in the newly nationalised Pakistan Railways, but thanks to my father having been born in Meerut and my still having family in India I am technically eligible for OCI. Sadly, my personal circumstances mean that I have never been to India, and reunification of the subcontinent is infinitely more likely than my ever making it there. Which is why I have worked hard to learn more about India from my distant location, and how I came to wonder about India’s attitude toward critical analysis.

All generalisations are dangerous, but every opinion is shaped by one’s experiences and mine have left me with the distinct impression that there is something qualitatively different about desi debate. Whatever the subject, it’s hard to escape the impression that absolutism and exclusivity are common traits of South Asian thinking. From the macro, like the ferocious animosity between India and Pakistan, two countries whose history as separate entities is short even by the fleeting nature of human history, to the micro, like arguments about whether Lata or Asha is the better singer, the trend is the same, everything is yes or no, black or white.

Some examples: A recent article about the way India is perceived outside of India complained that India is only thought of as poor, corrupt, overcrowded and with substandard infrastructure. The author said instead that India should be seen as the land of Tagore and Tendulkar, among others. India alone has more people living in poverty than all of Sub-Saharan Africa, but that’s not representative of the real India in the view of the author. Apparently one can not see India as BOTH a land of astonishing cultural riches and diversity AND a nation faced with staggering challenges related to its size and complex societal difficulties. It could be seen only as one or the other.

Language is another example of this absolutist and binary thinking. On the one hand, people like Katrina Kaif are derided for their accent when speaking Hindi, on the other, many Indians look down on their compatriots who don’t speak English and routinely lambaste Indian English for daring to be different from other “prestige” variants. Some friends of mine from Pune once derided Kerala’s remarkable literacy rate to me by saying “it’s only in Malayalam, literacy only counts if it’s English or Hindi.” Coming from fiercely patriotic Indians who had often been told to “go home to Pakistan” because they were nominally Muslim, the irony of their viewpoint was amusing, but a discussion of it was not possible because of the exclusionary nature of their opinion.

What makes this yes/no, black/white, all-or-nothing mindset so frustrating to interested outsiders is that it robs us of the opportunity to be a part of the breathtaking wonder that is the subcontinent. Instead of welcoming debate, the tendency seems to be to insist on picking a side and staying there, hurling abuse at those on the other side:

SRK was a drunken egomaniac who deserved to be banned from Wankhede/The MCA & Deshmukh are low-class morons who are abusing their power.

Satyamev Jayate is a powerful tool to drive public consciousness of serious issues/It’s just Aamir indulging his ego in a pointless superstar talkfest.

Everything in Kashmir is Pakistan’s fault/India’s fault.

Reservation is vitally necessary to address historical injustices/It’s a scam that robs the meritorious

Indian cinema should be more like Western cinema/it should stick to its traditions.

There are endless subjects for discussion and analysis related to the subcontinent, but there seems little place for, or even grasp of the concept of, the dispassionate observer.

That same lack of objectivity can be seen in the way desi fandom expresses itself. I grew up following from afar the exploits of Sunil Gavaskar and Imran Khan, then later Akram and Yunis, Azharuddin and Tendulkar. It was a distant affection, an objective admiration of great skill and often of commendable personal characteristics. It was not worship, blind, scary devotion to a person as if they were truly a god. Later, I started teaching myself Hindi and fell in love with old Hindi films, especially the sublime lyrics of Sahir Ludhianvi and the magic of Mohammad Rafi. But again, it’s admiration and awe, not the sort of uncritical adulation that one sees in the comments on every filmi clip on YouTube. T

he way desi fans worship their idols is something unique to the subcontinent, it seems. As popular as George Clooney is, as Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant were, I’ve never read that any of them had fans literally performing sacred worship rituals outside their houses regularly. This literal idolisation has an ugly downside too, of course, iconoclasm. When one’s gods don’t deliver, they tend to be hauled off their pedestals or altars and smashed. I doubt there is a single member of the Indian national XI who hasn’t at some time gone from being revered as Rama to being reviled as Raavan, sometimes repeatedly in the same series.

Again, the frustration is that this mindset stifles creative and stimulating debate. It’s not possible to discuss the respective merits of various Pakistani and Indian cricketers because they are seen simply as “the others, therefore evil”. It’s not possible to discuss the different strengths and styles of Mohd Rafi, Manna Dey and Hemant Kumar, or Asha, Lata and Shamshad, because their fans are all-or-nothing. The object of devotion is the all, everyone else is the nothing. One doesn’t simply adore Rafi, one attacks and maligns the others.

The relationship with the Western world is complicated too. In films, the current drive is for commercial blockbusters that either blindly copy or at least strive to emulate Hollywood megafilms. Aggressive PR campaigns tout the Hollywood style SFX and storylines, and reams are written about Indian cinema beating the West at its own game. On the other hand, films that do well outside India are stigmatised as “flops” based solely on their domestic box office returns. NRIs are “non-returning Indians” or “not really Indians” while Anglo societies are simultaneously blamed for (neo-)colonial evils and held up as aspirational models of achievement. Films like Slumdog Millionaire are written off as orientalist voyeurism while artists like Deepa Mehta, MF Hussain and Arundhati Roy all have their “Indianness” questioned for not presenting an orthodoxically flattering picture of India to the outside world. Sanskrit is revered and seen by some as the mother of all Indo-European languages (it’s not), while a gora 12,000 kilometres from India can surprise desi friends by being able to read Hindi in Devanagari and struggle through Panjabi in Gurmukhi while their kids cannot.

One of the blessings of the Internet is the chance to make friends with people without meeting them. One such is a remarkable young desi friend who made the move from India’s sprawling megapolis of a capital to NZ’s picturesque village of a capital, via a TINY country hamlet along the way. She is fond of quoting Walt Whitman to me whenever I “catch” her in an apparent inconsistency: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” The subcontinent is mindblowingly large and contains multitudes of multitudes, will it ever feel secure enough in that all wonderfully complex, contradictory diversity to welcome the voices of interested outsiders who want to join in its ongoing self-discovery?

Photo credit: allamericanblogger.com 

22 Comments

  • untue
    By
    untue
    06.06.12 09:52 AM
    Great post at Indian Mentality | Fanaticism | Attitudes | Prejudice | Absolutism. I was checking continuously this blog and I'm impressed! Very useful information specifically the last part :) I care for such information a lot. I was seeking this certain information for a long time. Thank you and good luck.
  • icyhighs
    By
    icyhighs
    03.06.12 11:52 AM
    All good points. As a Keralite, I found that anecdote about literacy especially amusing. :)

    When I was living in the UK, I found that ppl were so scared of causing offence that they tiptoe around expressing any strong opinions at all. If anything, I missed black-and-white points of view -there was at least scope for some debate, and proof of human emotion!
  • stuartnz
    By
    stuartnz
    29.05.12 04:06 AM
    @bhavana - Thank you very much for your kind words, even if I would dispute their validity. My background is stultifyingly dull. I'm just a reader and an observer - watching the world has always suited me more than being in it. That and my fondness for words means that I enjoy asking questions,and trying to understand the way others see their world.

    @Prasanna I'm very pleased that you enjoyed my post, thank you. I very much appreciated your analytical response, and I see much validity in what you say. I'm sure that distance, whether mental emotional or geographical, is needed for some sort of objectivity, and that I would not be so aloofly objective if I were closer to the subcontinent than I am. I do try to read widely and converse widely on all things related to India, to get as kaleidoscopic a view as possible, and will increase my efforts to do so on your kind suggestion.

    @nakhrewali you know me - my "personal narrative" is all this stick-in-the-mud has to offer, if I didn't present that, all that would remain would be blessed silence. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, hai na?
  • Prasanna Raghavan
    By
    Prasanna Raghavan
    29.05.12 12:53 AM
    It is a great post. Honestly I am inclined to believe Nakhrewali when he says 'perhaps Indians are pre-disposed to absolutism and exclusivity,..''.

    If I many give my answer to why this is so?

    India is still a conservative country, divided and practising apartheid. Anything one can think about in this world is observed there as a dividing line; caste, religion, god, belief, wealth, education, social status, geography, language, colour, culture the list goes on. Beyond this, the national, the cultural or the political leaders who always claim to be above the general majority in terms of their birth do not try to create an idea what truly India is as a nation.

    India has no history apart from what has been fabricated by the above leaders.

    When you combine all these you get a situation where, 'are you with me or not' is the key question that determines one’s life and destiny from childhood on, be it at homes, schools; in friendship, relationship, academic and professional field, politics, religion, caste, faith, u name it.

    So there is no middle way, or the answer to everything should always be yes or no or there is no dialogue. A kind of a heard or a gang mentality prevails.

    At the same time if u are able to dive deeper evading the lies that presently constitutes what India is in terms of its history, you can see this wonderful India of multiplicity and diversity emerging in the most attractive and colorful manner.

    I can say I never new what India truly is/was until I came out of India. For people outside india, they know India mostly through the writings on India. Though not all of them are true, they contain some elements, which helps one to re-assemble what India is. (here also one should have a sound judgment). But when u try to fit this re-assembled image on the present India comes in the contradiction.

    I salute you for taking interest and time to pose some of the non-prevalent but serious questions about India. And I hope that the Indians, myself included, take it to their heart not as insults but as honest observations.
  • bhavana
    By
    bhavana
    28.05.12 09:38 PM
    Stuart, what is background? You write with a depth and insight that I always crave for in blogs but find in the dense language of academic journals. You have managed to convey a complex topic in a gentle and accessible way without sacrificing the complexity!!! Wonderful post. Yes, the cartesian duality is killing but it dominates existing thought all over the world--subtly or garishly. Our ability to remain a mestiza, to walk the line of in-between has not yet come...
  • Nakhrewali
    By
    Nakhrewali
    28.05.12 04:58 PM
    And I hope we continue to debate about this and many other topics in the future, especially if that includes you writing wonderfully articulated posts! I say it each time but the personal narrative that you bring to your writings is something I enjoy a lot.
  • stuartnz
    By
    stuartnz
    28.05.12 03:14 PM
    Thanks for the refreshing ambivalence, nakhrewali! As this is far from the first time we've had this conversation I've had time to try to refine my waffle each time, yet you still manage to come up with a valid "perhaps, But" every time. It is, of course, precisely that lack of certainty and dogmatism so well expressed in your reply that I was musing about being absent from desi debates in general. The critical analysis I mentioned wasn't specifically in the artistic sense, more in the "Swiss" sense your brother mentioned - taking a step back to to consider possibilities, on any topic. Exactly as you did in your reply, so once again, thank you!
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    28.05.12 03:03 PM
    @stuartnz,

    I agree I contributed much to leave you confused. May be because I have lived outside India almost all my life though I was born there. May be I have gone through to be influenced by other cultures I have lived through.

    I am glad we do understand us better.
  • Nakhrewali
    By
    Nakhrewali
    28.05.12 02:38 PM
    I remember having a conversation with you ages ago about the differences between fandom and Indian fandom. At that time I thought that Indian fandom isn't any different from say tennis fandom or Harry Potter fandom etc. Fandom is often a polarising place - folks become so invested in certain works or certain people that for them these things become almost too sacred to question or criticise. Granted in India sometimes this takes the form of literal idol worship but even without this the mania inspired in other types of fandoms isn't that much different.

    Anyway that's what I thought prior to readind this article. Having read it, I'm thinking perhaps Indians are pre-disposed to absolutism and exclusivity, even outside of fandom, but I'm still wondering - is the degree to which this happens any greater or lesser than in any other society? Ofcourse whenenver people feel strongly about things there'll always be extremes, but I think your observation is that it isn't just A topic, but that in general the average Indian tends towards one end of a scale or the other on any and every topic? Perhaps it's hard to be objective when things are happening at sub-conscious level which is why I am unable to say "yes! you are so right!" or "no, what are you even talking about!?". On the one hand I think Swiss folks are always stereotyped as neutral (my brother is always fond of telling me 'Federer was being so Swiss about xyz while the rest of the players felt...') so maybe Indians are the exact opposite and that there are some pervading cultural attitudes at play here, on the other hand though I keep wishing there was an actual quantitative study that someone would do on this - something along the lines of Geert Hofstede's analysis of national cultures (http://geert-hofstede.com/national-culture.html) so we could find out for sure. I want to know whether such a study would find that Indians tend to be quite emotional people, so maybe once emotionally invested, this plays into us putting certain things as beyond reproach or analysis?

    As for India’s attitude toward critical analysis, I can't say for sure about every domain but it does seem that our culture of arts criticism, be it literay critique, filmi, or any other kind, is less expansive compared to western society, though this is changing and it isn't non-existent.
  • stuartnz
    By
    stuartnz
    28.05.12 02:33 PM
    No, Rajpriya I took no offence, it was just plain old dullwittedness on my part that left me confused. A fairly routine state for me, sadly. :)
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    28.05.12 02:26 PM
    @stuartnz

    Your post was an excellent description of “India’s attitude toward critical analysis”.

    That’s what I was saying or wanted to but because of my own ignorance may be I led you into thinking differently by my choice of words. It was in agreement with all you have written. I did not mean the slightest of offence.

    I hope this clears any misunderstanding between us.
  • stuartnz
    By
    stuartnz
    28.05.12 01:31 PM
    Thanks, Sharell! "retort with a personal insult towards the person instead of actually debating the idea" it was nice to have my perception of a tendency toward ad hominem confirmed by someone "on the ground". Much obliged!
  • Sharell
    By
    Sharell
    28.05.12 01:10 PM
    Great article! Based on my experience of more than 6 years living in India, I do think it raises some valid points. When it comes to desi debates, something I've really noticed is that they get personal very quickly. ie. if someone doesn't agree with what's being said they'll retort with a personal insult towards the person instead of actually debating the idea.
  • Jayanth Tadinada
    By
    Jayanth Tadinada
    28.05.12 11:44 AM
    Great article :)

    Everyone chooses their delusion. Everyone picks their side and sticks to it. It is human nature I guess.
  • Alfaazi
    By
    Alfaazi
    28.05.12 10:52 AM
    A great post on something that I see around me everyday.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    28.05.12 10:47 AM
    A type of logical fallacy that involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered. Some understand and others don't.

    All conflicts on this earth I believe start based on this this.
  • stuartnz
    By
    stuartnz
    28.05.12 10:33 AM
    Thanks for your patient assistance. I'm not very bright, but would "facts always hurt some and make sense to others" be close to the meaning here?
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    28.05.12 10:24 AM
    @stuartnz

    fathom: to penetrate to the truth of; comprehend; understand: to fathom someone's motives.
  • stuartnz
    By
    stuartnz
    28.05.12 10:10 AM
    Sorry, Rajpriya, I'm not familiar with "fathom" in the context you use it. Could you take pity on my ignorance and explain its meaning in this setting?
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    28.05.12 10:07 AM
    @stuartnz,

    Facts always hurt some and fathom others. You will see this soon.

    Unfortunately no hawk eye has been invented to judge human reasoning. Have you seen it being engaged in tennis. The ball could be in or out by less than the breadth of a hair.

    I would gladly join you to invent one.
  • stuartnz
    By
    stuartnz
    28.05.12 07:05 AM
    Thanks! If I manage to annoy and/or offend both sides, then perhaps that will show that my piece was balanced. :)
  • A Singh
    By
    A Singh
    28.05.12 06:14 AM
    Great piece! Very thought provoking.

    No doubt it will divide readers squarely into two camps:

    The author has hit the nail on the head and provided a valuable insight into the Indian mindset / The author does not know what he is talking about and is guilty of an offensive stereotype on a whole nation!

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