Sunday, July 30, 2006

Why bristle about identity? (July 31, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, London’s Labour-voting smart set, popularly known as the ‘luvvies’, were aghast when a mob of boisterous Bangladeshis forcibly prevented a film crew from entering Brick Lane—the epicentre of the Bangla town in Tower Hamlets. The spat was over the outdoor filming of Monica Ali’s bestselling novel Brick Lane. Indignant Bangladeshi traders—you must not make the mistake of calling them Bengalis—told the media that Ali, of mixed Bangladeshi-English parentage and living in gentrified Dulwich, “is not one of us, she has not lived with us, she knows nothing about us, but she has insulted us.”

The idea of fictional misrepresentation may seem an oxymoron to evolved societies but as the peremptory bans on The Da Vinci Code in Congress-ruled states suggest, the idea of literary license is not conventional wisdom in the Orient. Experience shows that it requires a determined offensive by any organised group to make a mockery of the Constitutional commitment to free speech. It’s all the better if the protestors happen to be classified a “minority”. To date, for example, you cannot purchase a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in a bookshop in India.

It is intriguing that Hindus combine a phenomenally high threshold of tolerance—witness the muted reaction to the July 11 massacre in Mumbai—with astonishing prickliness. One possible explanation of this apparent paradox is our hyper-sensitivity to the views of any ‘outsider’. Germaine Greer, who needlessly intervened in the Brick Lane fracas, has suggested that it was “outlandish” for a person who is more English than Bangladeshi to create her own imagined version of a vulnerable immigrant community. Greer’s central objection, it seems to me, is not that a novelist shouldn’t be entitled to imagine, but that the imagination should be from the perspective of an insider. Ali’s crime, therefore, was two-fold: she was imposing an outsider’s “defining caricature” and she was too English to have such a right.

Greer’s formulation is laced with astonishing condescension—the hallmark of Sixties’ radicalism. She proceeds on the belief that in an unequal world, there are different standards for the coloniser and colonised. It is thus all right for Americans to impose ridiculous caricatures of Englishness on their own Rednecks because it is an engagement of metropolitan equals. However, if Bangladeshis and, presumably, the other wretched of the earth, take offence to an English depiction, the latter will cease to have democratic rights.

What constitutes an “outsider” is, of course, a matter of expediency. A few years ago, Iqbal Wahhab, then editor of a London-based food magazine, was hounded out of journalism for daring to suggest that ‘tandoori’ restaurants in Britain were marred by rude Bangladeshi waiters. Wahabb was of Bangladeshi origin and not an outsider but what he wrote offended a community living off its contrived exotica. He too had to be silenced.

For too long this type of post-colonial claptrap has been conferred respectability for too long by our own establishment. A few months ago, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, a Government-funded body, organised a literary variant of a Non-Aligned Movement summit. The presumption was that Third World writers should exchange notes about the size of the chips on their shoulders. Remember the time when a raffish one-novel wonder had the gumption to misbehave when V.S. Naipaul asked incredulously why colonialism should matter after six decades of Independence?

For a long time, Indians were encouraged to believe that the West was engaged in a monumental conspiracy to deprive us of our identity, culture and self-respect. This may certainly have been the case with Victorian evangelists of another century, but today’s westerner is at best guilty of glib superficiality—a habitual offence in journalism. Otherwise, all the irritating attributes of self-effacement and post-colonial guilt are handsomely present. There are many South Asians—particularly Bangladeshis in Britain—who have perfected the art of preying on this gullibility. Guilt tripping has become a lucrative business for Third World entrepreneurs.

Can India afford to bask in this nonsense for much longer? Today, we claim to be a hub of a global knowledge economy. Our diplomats demand the right to be seated permanently on the High Table of nuclear weapons states and the Security Council. The presumption is that we have earned the right to be treated as equals by the erstwhile colonisers. In that case, we have forfeited the right to be prickly about imagination of the outsider. An independent Indian perception can be as rigorously conveyed with a measure of civility.

(Published in DNA, July 31, 2006)

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