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Friday, March 7, 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? 


Anonymous said...

EXTREMELY well written!

One more masterpiece from Sri.Swapan Dasgupta !!

Everyone should read it. I recall many Indians were calling Swapan Dasgupta (sic) " a troll" for refusing to fulminate at the British,
UAE etc etc.

My HEART has always liked the BRITISH & AMERICA ( add Europeans China etc) as my mentor is my father. And India comes LAST.
But I was denied the right to even like Britain as our schools to everything groom our minds to glare & glare at the BRITISH.

Many NRIs harbour nothing but malice towards America , UK & so on. No amount of readings & discussions helped me.

ONLY Ramana Bhagavan ALONE (tautology justified ) with His "WHO AM I" worked like Dynamite to bust all confusion & muddled thinking.

As far as MUSLIMS are concerned almost all hindus are told (sic)"they are barbarians/asuras" blah blah. Here again Ramana Bhagavan ALONE uprooted TOTALLY all hostilities.

I had to really EXERT myself reading Ramana Bhagavan's WRITINGS.
Along with elucidation of UPANISHADS done SCINTILLATINGLY by Swami.Omkarananda (Theni) as His are in Tamil. BUT He is well versed in Sanskrit & has a clear grasp of Dharma Shastrams.

And Sri.Nochur Venkatraman.

India was rightly defined by Sir.Winston Churchill.

Hence it makes enormous sense that America , UK , China & Gulf countries play a meaningful role in governance by working with Sri.Narendra Modi & Smt.Jayalalithaa.

Trust me , indians, most of them are VERY VERY useless.

Despite having "Let Noble Thoughts Flow To Us From All Directions "
we indians alone have this habit of reacting angrily & "taking offence".

Harsh said...

Extremely we'll written. Our PM only got worried about his image after nyt and Time article. So was earlier ABV after infamous Time article. It seems that foreign governments might be using these publications for influencing Indian policy. I am not saying directly but through briefings and sharing colored information. Recently saw an episode of West Wing American tele drama where Indian prime minister takes forces out of Kashmir because of friendship with UK PM because of their Oxford days. I know this is not serious but it tells about perceptions of India in foreign popular culture. Though, one should not overemphasize also. Institutional mechanism in India can take care of this bias beyond a point. Interestingly, I see on NDTV website a news item titled" foreign Media on .........." After very major News story.

Anonymous said...

Readers might like to know the truth behind the "genial" Dalpimple: see indiafacts article by Arvind Kumar on dalrymples-incurable-colonial-hangover.

Pyar Mohabbat said...

Well written. We all have our biases, and yours show

1. An extraordinary fondness for British, if I may say so.

2. On William Dalymple, Rajiv Malhotra & yours twitter exchange, which I read with interest, I find you use some words like cretins that I've never seen you use for a white man.

WHile I enjoy the way you pen your thoughts, just pointed out some concepts that triggered exteme emotions in you, that cloud objectivity. Hope you see this as constructive criticism that it's meant to be

Subra said...

Posting Rajiv Malhotra's response along with a complete summary of the twitter debates, the goal of such debates and the conclusions.

Sudhish said...

totally useless writing ..

just misleading .. biased approach.

Anonymous said...

// I find you use some words like cretins that I've never seen you use for a white man//

Comment posted above.

Why should Swapan do so? To mollify the ever petulant indians I suppose?
You further PROVE what Swapan Dasgupta has managed to convey through this article.

British are highly capable of laughing at themselves.They do it in such subtle ways what we approvingly call "British dry humour".

Whereas indians lack this quality.
It is not "inadequacy" but HUBRIS.

Watch the shoddy indian hindi remake of Italian Job.A PLAGIARIZATION to start with.

It is downright crass where white men & women are insulted. I have been seeing this same GROSS manifestations in many hindi movies.

Another movie has Deepika Padukone & two bollywood heroes. White women are portrayed as "longing for love" from these bollywood good for nothing heroes.And that they are "frustrated" beings. True to bollywood traditions are spurned. Then comes this padukone ( do not forget all these padukones , aishwarya rais , sonam kapoors , bipasha basus are but lacklustre imitations of ORIGINAL Hollywood / Western women) suddenly giving a SLAP to that white female screaming " one more slap...your plastic surgery remodelled face would come apart" blah blah. Akshay Kumars & Johnny Abrahams are adequately humoured.

Almost all bollykolly filmstars sridevi included have gone for plastic surgery (nose , breasts , posterior.....entire anatomy).

Had America done the same ( that they do everything with lot more STYLE & PANACHE is also important one more reason I like America) entire india would have screamed "anti pooopulll down down with hegemonyimperialistic.......we are the greatestoldest civilization discovered zero....".

This time during OSCARS I felt very grateful to GOD as not a single GRACELESS indian was there including AR.Rehman who but recycles Carribean music.

Anonymous said...

When Shobhaa De commented about aishwarya rai's costume that had creases etc amitabh bacchan another uber arrogant indian filmstar retorted:-

" Why talk about ash....why not talk about wrinkles on the face of Gwyneth Paltrow..".

This is how mean minded & JEALOUS indians are.

None can outdistance indians in HYPOCRISY. The same aishwarya rai acted coy (like sridevi did when Steven Spielberg ALLEGEDLY approached her) refusing to "kiss" some bollywood hero in yet another PLAGIARIZATION of Hollywood movie (West Side Story).

But when she was cast in some forgettable movies made abroad did STRIP & KISS repeating the BORING cliche " the role demanded i went ahead & executed them".

In her interview with Simi garewal aishwarya bacchan STEALS the lines of JANE FONDA who said much earlier
(when complimented on her looks):-

" Well ...there is a whole lot of people who have contributed to this ....".

That is indians. No originality , no creativity. STEAL , COPY . CHEAT but strut around as the most beautifullestest mostest intelligent creatures.

Anonymous said...

I think Swapan D Gupta is a hopeless anglophile. Fortunately for India, newer generations are not so impressed by the II world nation, Britain.

It is time for a new generation of self confident Indians who are not enamored by the pretentious, supercilious Brits, who still think that they lord over India.

Also Swapan Da, Wendy claim to fame is that she is chosen by the WASPs with a WASP pedigree and hence her books get automatically included in the US libraries and schools. Her book is the prescribed text for Hinduism in US Universities and her critics voices are not even in the reading list. This asymmetry and monopoly is the issue. And you chose to ignore this elephant in the room.

Anonymous said...

Fuck you bastard...

Anonymous said...

( via Rajiv Malhotra )

A) I want to hold Swapan in high regard and give him the benefit of doubt regarding good intentions. I also sympathize his plight having to oscillate just to prove he is not a "Hindu radical". Such are the times.
B) My real targets are twofold:
(1) the Western nexuses of various kinds of specialties - several of which I have targeted in my separate books and more of them will be targeted in forthcoming books.
(2) the Indian sepoys (of various sorts, various levels, in various capacities) who serve as the ones carrying out the same kind of work as the sepoys who fired in Jallianwallah Bagh under General Dyer's command.
C) Therefore my criticism of sepoys, potential sepoys, and fence-sitters is for the following objective:
(1) Expose those who are solidly entrenched in the Sepoy Army, especially in influential positions. Let Indians beware and not get duped.
(2) Warn those who are fence-sitters that social media is disrupting the cushy & unchallenged positioning enjoyed by such forces, and there is a price to pay if they sell out.
(3) Pressure those who are duplicitous and who pretend to be on the side of Dharma Civilization while enjoying the patronage-funding-protection-direction of the foreign nexuses. I want such persons to make a clear choice and not thrive on mumbojumbo, hocuspochus doubletalk.
D) I wish Swapan the very best and hope he will make choices based on loyalty to his dharma more than to his short-term career opportunism.


Champak Roy said...

" 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."

So, those are the instances that Swapan Dasgupta retails where Indians have over reacted to western outputs. Makes you wonder at the blinkers that this gentleman wears. How did you contrive to miss out the "Satanic Verses" episode ?, Surely , that was the instance where the " overall lack of equilibrium" was most apparent.
And then Swapan goes further and misses out the most grotesque piece of all--- Full 7 states of India banning The Satanic Verses film and book combined. The Hindu Swapan Dasgupta is not taht easy to fool.

Anonymous said...

Swapan is a very deceptive person...I would say