Friday, 28 September 2012

simpering for whitey

If you watch a lot of old Hollywood movies, the kind of things TCM shows, you'll notice that whenever a black character shows up there's suddenly a lot of teeth. Those old Hollywood chiefs sure made their occasional African-American employees grin and guffaw and speak in the most exaggerated accents to earn their pay.

I kind of get why those actors subjected themselves to it. They had chosen a profession and, well, those were the roles they were offered. While there has been a black cinema scene in the US longer than most people would imagine, the real money was usually in cliched walk-in parts in something like D.W. Griffiths' 'The Birth Of A Nation'.

And maybe that's why a lot of Indian writers and journalists, when they get the chance to write for a western audience, ham it up and exoticise themselves - they know or think that's what the western audience wants. In the process, they sure do come out with some Grade-A bullshit.

Look at this crap Booker-winner Aravind Adiga spewed after the terrible November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai:
One of the differences between India and other countries is that a lot of our civic space is contained within the five-star hotels.

They have a different function here for us, they are places where marriages happen, where people of all economic backgrounds go for a coffee. For the Taj Mahal to be attacked is somewhat like the town hall being attacked in some other place, it is really something that is quite extraordinary.

 The only real remark this deserves is WTF, but let me expand. I don't know what bizarre subculture Adiga exists within (actually he's a middle class Mangalorean boy who should know better) but this is pure hocus-pocus, creating a race of naive, joyous Indians who flock to the local 5-star hotel for coffee, no matter how poor they are. No sorry, Adiga, that's crap. Only a very select, elite slice of Indian society would be able to afford coffee in a 5-star, let alone be granted admission. We get that the attack on the Taj hotel was a terrible thing - but do you need to  paint a quaint, false picture of Indian life to make that point?

Or did you just think no one would ever call you on your bullshit?

Second case in point: this article by journalist Manu Joseph on Salman Rushdie. Attempting to quantify Rushdie's legacy, he launches into this remarkable observation about my hometown:

In Madras, now Chennai, where boys were preordained to become engineers and literature was considered the refuge of the handicapped or the effeminate, the news of a rock star "Indian" writer made literature suddenly look respectable.
 To begin with, he's oversimplifying: Madras boys can also become lawyers and doctors. Literature, like music and art is respected in a slightly condescending way; as a vocation it is Fine For Others but if your own son or daughter wants to become a writer, you remind him or her to Be Practical (and quite rightly; writers are paid peanuts). This attitude hasn't changed either, whether or not Rushdie is considered a rock star. Joseph has, like Adiga, mixed a few cliches and stereotypes together with total nonsense randomly pulled out of his ass to come out with an amusing, yet fake, slice of life for his western readers.

It's possible to be responsible and accurate, to use the opportunity you've been given to paint a more accurate picture of your country for a foreign audience. But time and again we choose to deck ourselves out in saffron and sandalwood paste and simper for whitey. That's the power of a stereotype; even the people it misrepresents start trying to live up to it.

1 comment:

Gaurav Palle said...

As somebody who lives in 'Madras, now chennai' I agree with what you are saying.