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?
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