Although the text book had the right picture, the people sadly got the wrong picture. I am talking of all the ill-conceived and malformed notions first world countries have of us Indians, based on the books they read, the movies they watch (thank you Slumdog Millionaire), and the photos they see. Although I certainly do not blame them, I really wish that someday, someway, the notions people have of us Indians, and of India as a country, changes.
This realization came to me when I was taking courses in the process of completing my Masters in Public Health in Seattle. Whenever the class discussed famine, natural disasters, birth control, or health issues, the textbooks and presentations were replete with pictures of “bhookhe-nange log” (hungry, poor people) from Africa and India. There was a chapter on the prevalence of malaria with pictures of ailing children from rural India. The chapters about wood smoke, indoor air pollution, and associated health issues had pictures of old and sick women bent with age fanning the Chulha (cooking stove), followed by statistics of how many women and children died of wood smoke in India alone. During a class discussion about air pollution, my American professor (who had recently visited India for a few months) pointed at me, “She will have some perspective about the traffic issues and the associated air pollution problems in India. Please enlighten us about the sulfur haze and acid rain as well.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I wish I was the ambassador of my country, enlightening my class about our rich cultural heritage, how Indians bag Nobels and Pulitzers, how we excel in science, technology, and mathematics, about our cricket team that recently won the World Cup, about all our beauty queens who go on to become Miss Worlds and Miss Universes, and so on. I wanted to tell them about Rabindranath Tagore, C.V. Raman, Amartya Sen, A.R. Rahman, Sachin Tendulkar, and Siddhartha Mukherjee.
The class looked at me with anticipation.
Uncomfortably, I started with acid rain, switching to the oil refinery issue and how it was corroding the marble in the Taj Mahal. The moment I mentioned the Taj Mahal, my presentation continued as follows,
“And you must all know that the Taj Mahal is considered one of the seven wonder of the world. It attracts millions of tourists. It is a symbol of love. If you happen to be in Agra, you should also visit the capital city Delhi, the Red Fort and the Qutub Minar. Also, the food in India is awesome. India is famous for its handicrafts too….”
Quite a far cry from the air pollution issue I was supposed to discuss.
To be fair, I do not entirely blame the people. When we were little, our Geography textbooks were full of suffering children, fleas, mosquitoes, plague, and the tsetse fly from Africa, despite its pristine beauty, virgin forests, rich flora, and fauna.
People in my class think that every Indian woman cooks in chulhas, brazening the sweltering heat, coughing blood and dying of lung cancer. No wonder they asked me if my ma also cooks in a similar “cooking device”, crouched amongst a pile of wood and cow dung. My friend Geeta was once asked how Indians keep the doors and the windows of their homes open, since the place must be swarming with bugs and reptiles. The friend had imagined our homes to be in the midst of some Amazon-like forest where we wore clothes made of palm tree leaves and lived in huts built of bamboo shoots.
Reminds me of another professor who was explaining in his class the occurrence of tuberculosis:
“Hundreds of years ago, the Caucasians lived with cows, goats and cattle and thus tuberculosis became widespread. The strain became more virulent and started to develop in humans too. No wonder almost every Indian harbors TB germs in their lungs- latent or virulent”
The professor was working in India for some time, and of all places, he chose Bihar in the summer. No wonder he thinks that every place in India is like Bihar. Nothing is wrong with Bihar really, I love Bihar (I was born there). However, talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Similarly, another professor wanted to do some work on arsenic content in drinking water, and ended up in Calcutta in the month of June. Even I, as a proud Calcuttan, would avoid visiting Calcutta in June. As he dutifully informed us, the sweltering heat and the humidity almost killed him, giving his white freckled face a nicely baked red tan beyond recognition. When another professor’s niece wanted to go globetrotting on her own, she was strongly discouraged to visit India, for reasons of personal safety.
“India? No way. Girls get raped and molested there.”
Sure they do. And people get mugged and shot in the U.S. as well. Italy according to me is one of the less safe European countries I have visited. There are dozens of nations that manifest institutionalized xenophobia. Why blame India alone?
And do not even get me started on the questions I get asked about Indian women practicing Sati and Johar. Yes, we did, a long lifetime ago, and it was unfortunate. Thankfully, all that is history now.
My department thinks that I come from a “privileged family”, because I once told them that our family has domestic help back in India. Since labor is expensive and unavailable in the U.S., most people here cannot imagine that middle class families in India have always been able to afford part-time or full-time domestic help. People have inferred that I belong to one of the richest families who can afford having a maid.
Of course, not everything is related to insects, diseases, and morbidity in India. There are certain things people here love about India. They love the cuisine, the Biryani, and the paranthas (they call it naan bread here). Every side dish is a curry for them. They love the colorfulness of the sari, also known as “that colorful piece of clothing that can be wrapped round and round”. They know about Diwali and Durga Puja. They know about Bollywood and Bhangra. They know about Monsoon Wedding (a movie that surprisingly every American I have asked has watched). But overall, they still have an ill-baked image of India. Not all mothers cook in chulhas. Not all homes are infested with snakes and venomous spiders. Not all people suffer from tuberculosis. Not all girls get molested on the streets. Not all places are polluted and sweltering hot.
There is a lot more to India than elephants, snake charmers, and tuberculosis. I think it is high time people had the right picture of India on the right page of their imagination.