Thursday, March 06, 2014

Take Offence

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are many Indians who take every word written or said about the country in media overseas a shade too seriously. The same lot that peers at the global media through a microscope is equally inclined to treat every positive remark as a testimonial and every unfavourable review as a conspiracy of hate. Just as Mahatma Gandhi over-reacted to Katherine Mayo’s infamous Mother India, and Indira Gandhi went apoplectic over an episode of Louis Malle’s documentary Phantom India, Indian nationalists in particular tend to confer an extra touch of authenticity to foreign writers on the motherland. At the grave risk of sounding flippant, I would argue that had the now-controversial Wendy Doniger written under a suitably Indian pseudonym, her pronouncements on Hindu traditions would not have generated the same amount of heat. It was her foreign-ness that acted like a magnet, inviting the exacting scrutiny of all those who see themselves as custodians of the faith.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that this overall lack of equilibrium has a great deal to do with a larger sense of national inadequacy. This is most marked among those who use national sovereignty and, by implication, the defences of Fortress India to shore up a measure of astonishing mediocrity. When it comes to prickliness—an attribute that was elevated to the level of a foreign policy principle by, first, the irascible V.K. Krishna Menon and then, with greater effect by Indira Gandhi—there are few who can equal either the lesser bureaucracy or Indian academia. The biggest threat to their assured positions stem from the imposition of exacting global standards to measure performance. Consequently, they invariably fall back on a form of protectionism that involves acceptance of venal shoddiness.

For example, I was slightly taken aback at the venom that was recently poured on the writer William Dalrymple, who I like to describe as Delhi’s ‘White Moghul’. Apart from the familiar charges of racism—an occupational hazard for anyone who is a co-organiser of the Jaipur literary jamborree—and being anti-Hindu, which too is becoming distressingly routine, Dalrymple’s histories have been debunked by those Arun Shourie taunted as the “eminent historians.” The reasons for their hatred of this genial Scot are three-fold: Dalrymple writes readable narrative history; his books sell and has made him a celebrity; and in burrowing through dusty archives for untapped sources, he has exposed the inadequacies of the tenured cretins.

This is not to suggest that everything that originates from outside the national boundaries of India is necessarily more robust and virtuous than the home-grown variety. Over the past year, as the UPA-2 government increasingly ran out of steam, there was an exaggerated attention paid to the coverage of India overseas. It began with a local edition of Time magazine, a publication whose best days are behind it, putting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on its cover. The scrutiny continued as more serious publications such as Economist proceeded to dissect the BJP prime ministerial candidate. In an editorial that seemed comically pompous to the uninitiated but seemed a matter of course to its editors, Economist wrote in December last year: “In the next five months Mr Modi needs to show that his idea of a pure India is no longer a wholly Hindu one…,  that he abhors violence and discrimination against Muslims… Otherwise, this newspaper will not back him.”

With barely 70 days to go before the verdict of the electorate is known, Modi hasn’t demanded that the Constitution be changed to make India a Hindu Republic. Nor for that matter has he even mentioned pre-existing religious faultlines in his many, widely publicised speeches. Will the editors of Economist now do the unthinkable and ask its readers—at least those who have a vote in India—to vote for the BJP?

Not only is that unlikely but it is not even expected. For a start, the foreign media in India—like foreign correspondents in most parts of the world—live in a ghetto. The Embassy or High Commission, the Foreign Correspondents Club and, in January, the Jaipur Literature Festival constitute their happy hunting ground. Their information on India is principally culled from three sources—the local English-language media, the expatriates working outside government and a small handful of well-connected individuals in Delhi and Mumbai who are inclined to apply the liberal parameters set by The Guardian and New York Times to India. And, of course, there is the ubiquitous taxi driver without whose earthy wisdom no despatch from the native quarters is ever complete. No wonder they very often fail to grasp emerging trends.

True, there are the exceptions. The business and financial journalists do end up meeting people beyond Nandan Nilekani and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and often have a good feel of what is either driving or stalling India. And, of course, there are those who have gone ‘native’ like Sir Mark Tully of Nizamuddin, Ian Jack and John Elliot.

That all those I have named are nominally British isn’t exactly a coincidence. Call it a colonial hangover or Anglophilia but, as a rule, I have found Britons better able to get under the Indian skin far better than continental Europeans and Americans. Last week, for example, I read Delhi: Mostly Harmless, a vastly amusing account of life in Delhi by a young Oxford academic Elizabeth Chatterjee. Many Indians, however, are likely to find her cruel irreverence very patronising. But that would be missing the point. When we read an outsider’s account of India, we don’t necessarily expect to see the country as we see it. We seek to understand how India appears to people with a different set of cultural assumptions. A legitimate point of exasperation would be if the account was uninformed, superficial and needlessly judgmental.

There are many silly accounts of Indian happenings and Indian life. Like most things, the insightful blends with the banal and the jaundiced. But it prompts a very different set of questions. Why don’t Indians write about other lands and other societies, as Pallavi Aiyar has done on China? Is it because we are incapable of transcending India? Or is it because we too are incapable of understanding the foreigner? 

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