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Wrong Picture On The Right Page

Wrong Picture On The Right Page

April 04, 2012

I think it is high time people had the right picture of India on the right page of their imagination.

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”

Ahem !!!

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. 


  • Hermance Lahiri
    Hermance Lahiri
    10.04.12 06:59 PM
    How well I understand Devasmita Chakravorty in her defense of this wonderful country I now live in, India. I was born and raised in the Netherlands and raised my family in the USA. Several times I have defended both these countries when they were attacked by people who only see the negative and forget to mention the beauty of and positives in these countries.

    But to be honest other than the beauty of India, the colorful sarees, the smiles on the faces of these wonderful people, there are unfortunately many negative facts we need to mention also.

    As I said before, I am now living in India and I know what Devasmita is up against: the perception of people that India is uncivilized. And the truth is that India in uncivilized! I live with it every day and it brakes my heart that we can not change these uncivilized acts the Indian citizens commit.This is a country with so many resources, so many possibilities for a golden future. To name a view of these uncivilized acts: urinating at the road; spitting with a stomach twisting sound; defecating while socializing at the road side; leaving garbage behind, wherever you drink a cup of tea or have a pick-nic;cleaning your nose by swiping your thumb over your nose while blowing; then wiping your hand on your clothes; always get in front of someone else in line, in a store, a Dr's office etc. You get the picture. Not to mention the fact that you can not find a clean bathroom even in some good resorts. In civilized countries we are taught not stare at people who are different than we are; not in India.

    Once I was pushed of the stairs going into an airplane while boarding. We all had reserved seats on the plane but this elderly lady had to get in front of me.

    We need to use the example of the Japanese citizens who were standing in line to get their food after the tsunami. They respected each others space; nobody was pushing or getting in front of someone, and this at a many hours long line.

    Or let us look at Singapore where people end up in jail if they pollute, spit or urinate on the road. It is a clean country and nobody will make remarks about Singapore as they do about India.

    To help India get more civilized (if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem) we need to go to the schools, churches and other institutions to encourage the authorities there to teach and be an example. However churches celebrate with decorations along the road and leave the there after the celebration until they rot, In orphanages, where I visit frequently, are no garbage cans to be found and the candy wrappers of the candy i brought, were on the floor. I made the kids pick them up of course. I bought garbage obviously but at my next visit they were nowhere to be found.

    Policemen are not enforcing the laws; they rather except the bribes they are offered than give a fine.

    The answer to all the problems in India is: get rid of corruption, enforce the laws. But since more than 50% of Indian politicians have criminal records, this is difficult to do. I still love India!

    One more note for Devasmita: since 1902 India received 10 Nobel prices, two of these were for foreigners who lived in India. That is not exactly "swiping" Nobel prices. But as I said: I love this country and hope to grow old here; I am not rich but I can afford a driver and housekeeper. How lucky I am !!
    07.04.12 11:23 PM
    Isn't this always a case with people in the west about India and Indians.
  • Rohan
    07.04.12 06:15 AM
    Aah. Very true :)

    I wonder what people of metro cities like Bangalore, Delhi, Bombay, etc.

    I would almost laugh if a recently constructed house did not have a hob or a chimney!!!

    And there are hardly any insects even in my college hostel, which in a village(in RJ), not even a town.
  • Tushar
    05.04.12 08:18 AM
    Nice post!
    As some of the others have pointed out, some of us are to blame for this as well... When we come abroad for studies/work, we automatically become ambassadors of our culture. What we often don't realize is that our non-Indian friends are seeing India through our eyes and forming an opinion. Perhaps I am stereotyping, but I've noticed that we Indians love to complain/laugh about the problems in India when we gather together: the roads, the hygiene, the poverty, the crimes, the caste system ... As you pointed out, this is just one side of the story. A part of India is truly "shining". We should make an effort to present a politically correct picture.
  • Dr_idli
    04.04.12 08:39 PM
    oh Devasmita , you committed a " capital crime " by not including " caste " and its reservations that behold india in your essay :) How will you set the "right " picture on that ? And it's no way it's going away like sati ?
  • beinghindu
    04.04.12 06:08 PM
    :D One right article on the right page at right time......
  • Ruchita
    04.04.12 04:32 PM
    Well said... Enjoyed every bit of it :)
  • Sushil
    04.04.12 03:27 PM
    Hello Devasmita,
    Your article highlights many ills that are prevalent in the Indian Society and India as a whole.
    Of course, I do not wish to contradict what you have said above but would like to put my points forward as follows:
    Yes, vast majority of Indians still use wood or cow dung to prepare their food. You only have to go to several states such as UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Whole of Bihar and, of course, West Bengal to witness it. So, if the rest of the world has the perception of us Indians being rather backward and still trapped in the medieval period then we should be humble enough to accept it and try to do something about it. India does not live in Mumbai or other major cities of India.
    Yes, rape is endemic and New Delhi has been designated as the Rape Capital of the world by none other than Indians themselves. 51/53% of the Indian girls have suffered incestuous rapes and abuse. They do not report it to the authorities because of the family honour and no law exists in India to punish these culprits. You only have to travel in the Metros of the major cities or on foot around towns and cities of India to experience the lewd comments and physical encroachment to understand it. So, one should not hide from the facts as these are. Is it not the case that instead of blaming everyone else other than Indians for our ills is simply burying our heads in the sand?
    You say that “I wish I was the ambassador of my country, enlightening my class about our rich cultural heritage, how Indians bag Nobels and Pulitzers”. Really?
    You say “How we excel in science, technology, and mathematics?” How many of my fellow Indians are there to substantiate this claim? If there are any then how come we never get to hear about them?
    You say “About our cricket team that recently won the World Cup.” Where are they now? Where are Indians when it comes to other sports? Cricket – a game played by only handful of nations.
    You say “About all our beauty queens who go on to become Miss Worlds and Miss Universes, and so on.” Well, I am not that proud to see Indian women being exploited. Artificial claim – would you not admit?
    You say “I wanted to tell them about Rabindranath Tagore, C.V. Raman, Amartya Sen, A.R. Rahman, Sachin Tendulkar, and Siddhartha Mukherjee.” Well, is that it out of 1.2 billion people?
    We Indians have slave mentality because we have been ruled for 1000 years by some one or other. Our culture, which could have been so good and beautiful, is now at its’ lowest and corrupt. We Indians are absolutely selfish, self cantered and I accept it because that is what we are. I do not go and sit in the coffee houses of Calcutta and solve all the problems while whole of West Bengal is being run by people of other states.
    Your article is very thought provoking and would require one to write the whole book to counter argue your points but I would suggest that please accept the way things are and do something about it rather than to criticize the foreigners for our ills.
  • Jyoti
    04.04.12 12:29 PM
    A great post Devasmita. I believe a part of the credit goes to us and our NRI Indians who cannot stop cribbing about how they hate the power-cut, sweat and bad hygiene every time they visit India. Of course movies are a big culprit too.

    But again in India every second person believes that every teenager boy in US is a drug addict and every white woman is easy to sleep with. This happens when only one side of a culture is portrayed in front of the second party.
  • Sampada
    04.04.12 12:24 PM
    Thanks Devasmita for such a true post.. I don't understand why the poverty and violence of India is so tempting for foreigners and expats.. if you are an Indian, you should have been raised by an abusive father and an oppressed mother( frequently touched by a lustful uncle), you were not allowed to talk to boys or go to school, if you were a girl you were married off at 13-14.. but what if I got a proper childhood, education etc??? I am either thought to be a part of the 2% elite or brushed aside as an exception..

    Its like while talking to an American, all i do is remind him of the Iraq war and Guantanamo Bay.
    I guess the most to blame are our own books/ movies - the likes of Monsoon Wedding, The White Tiger and God of small things have increased the misconceptions about India.
    And then there is this self-hatred we are bugged with. A foreigner friend had gone to an Indian party. The host's son, while flirting with her (as his wife stood in a corner, sulking) told her how Indian men were flirtatious and that she should stay away from them!!
  • Remya
    04.04.12 10:59 AM
    It is indeed sad to note that most people in the West have the wrong picture of India, more because of the negative portrayal through various means, sadly by Indians themselves in certain cases,. But it is good news that this is not the case in the Middle East & Africa, where Indians are considered to be the intelligent lot and India is deemed to be a beautiful place bestowed with a lot of natural beauty,. Im proud when I hear this from people who have visited India or planning to do the same, but unfortunately this is not always the case with the West,..
  • Shahana
    04.04.12 09:20 AM
    I agree with Stuart from NZ - what IS the 'right' picture? There's a bit of truth in every stereotype and an exception to every rule.

    Every culture faces stereotyping (... not that it makes it right). I have many Bengali relatives who think every American is a war-mongering capitalist trying to take over the world, and has had three marriages and a couple kids out of wedlock. (Oh, and American = White.) And what about the way many Bengalis capture the rest of the world in one monolithic phrase - 'non-Bengali'? :-)

    I have found myself first vehemently and then gently correcting people in both my 'homes' - India and America - and eventually, I have realized that being defensive like that only furthers the narrow-mindedness and judgementalism. I've found that it is both more generous and effective to help people from different cultures understand better by (skipping the skepticism and) investing in real relationships with them, rather than employing academic or political discourse.
  • Isabel
    04.04.12 08:46 AM
    Unfortunately every culture has its stereotyped ideas of other cultures.
  • Cathy
    04.04.12 07:55 AM
    Beautiful post ! Get it out there what India really is I love it !
  • satish
    04.04.12 07:45 AM
    Very nice post....and in a unique way every Indian abroad is acting as an Ambassador(small technical error though: Taj Mahal is not one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.)
  • stuartnz
    04.04.12 06:08 AM
    The US is famously introspective, though, especially on matters of geography and geopolitics. Stereotyped imagery is the easiest to recall, and of course it's an over-simplification, but it's something everybody does. What is "the right picture" of India that you would like people to have? All the elements you mention, good and bad, are *part* of the picture of India, hai na? NZers have a similar problem with outsiders thinking we all have a thousand sheep and were extras in Lord of the Rings.

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