March 16
A writer who has to write JAVA code for a living but dreams of someday reaching the elysium where letters would be all that she would need to exist.


SEPTEMBER 11, 2009 4:30AM

A tale of two Man Booker prizes

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I am feeling a little patriotic of late so kindly bear with me.

I recently read a book by an Indian author a few weeks ago, that had won the Man Booker prize ( don’t ask me which year) and that is what sparked this patriotic fervor. This book had a story, a good one I admit. What caused my indignation was the fact that two years ago I had read another book by another Indian author. There were two striking similarities between these two books, one was the Man Booker prize and the other is what gets to me, like flies on a fresh and open wound. To break the suspense, what offends me is that to me it seems that somehow both these books are stories which ride piggybank on the glamour of the poverty and squalor in my country. And what wounds me is the fact that the world seems to have patted them on the back for living up to its expectations.

You may try to vehemently deny it, but it is true, you can’t deny it that even today the thing you find most glamorous and notable about my country are the poverty, the omnipresent filth, the illiteracy. That is perhaps why you hail Slumdog Millionaire as one of the best works of cinema to have come out of my country ( I know technically it isn’t an Indian movie but it was all about India). Don’t say you don’t because if not why would you give it 8 oscars when you reject cinema which is as good if not better than that year after year.

This sentiment has been boiling inside me for some time now but I never could give it a form and shape. But yesterday while reading Paulo Coelho, I came across a line which resonated so deeply with my unformed emotions that they suddenly developed firm contours and almost became a physical presence. He said ( I am paraphrasing here) that people from the west visit India to see the poverty on the streets of Calcutta and feel better and smug about their own lives back home. They visit my country as one would go to an orphanage from school to see the suffering of those less fortunate and thank the Almighty for what one has already.

 I agree that we are poor, I agree that our roads are dirty, our leaders are illiterate and corrupt. I agree that by your standards we live like cattle but I refuse to acknowledge that we are only our poverty, our illiteracy and our dirty streets. I have come across dozens of conversations at this place where contributors deign to ignore the “dark” India and cry out their love for the Taj Mahal, Buddhism, Om and snake charmers.

Just like we are not just all about beggars, unhygienic railways and filth as our own writers will have you believe ( one of the Booker prize winners was only Indian because her parents had Indian genes, does that make her Indian or just another brown foreigner who rides on the coat tails of those brown genes to establish herself as the literary ambassador of India), we are also much more than just a nation of snake-charmers, Buddhists, temples and oh-yes call center employees ( it may seem incredible but yes there are young people in this country who have other jobs).

If you cannot acknowledge us as we are then at least stop congratulating people who show you pictures of naked fakirs, brainless call center employees and dirty beggars. It is not much different from encouraging pornography, seeing something beautiful and miraculous only to extract the basest pleasure out of it.

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my country, india, patriotism

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Moana, this isa post born of frustration. There's obviously a real problem, but you're not speaking to me.

I haven't seen Slumdog Millionaire; but from what I hear, it's not so great.

I derive no pleasure from contemplating the poverty of your country or any other. For that matter, I have no desire to tour orphanages, nor do I think it would make me feel better about myself. I do hope to visit India someday, but not all all for the reasons you've described.

I don't deny that the attitudes you describe exist. Stereotypes abound about every nation on the planet. As an American living in an East Asian country, I get subjected to them from both sides.

Please realize that, in generalizing about non-Indians' attitudes, you've inadvertently fallen into the same stereotyping you blame others for.

I look forward to reading more of your posts. I AM curious about your country. Peace.
Great post, and hopefully it will be well read. There's lots of frustrations for these stereotypes all over the place. You're right, people don't want to watch a movie or read a book where the main character isn't a poor beggar on the streets of Calcutta. Those kinds of stories don't get the 8 oscars(by the way, I didn't give Millionaire 8 anything, it was alright, but I fell asleep about half way in!! :) )

Moana, I watched Slumdog only a bit and left the room.
I lived in Toronto Canada for two years. Many of my neighbors and co workers were from India. I shared roti and food daily with them.
Ihave always wanted to go to Punjab district and tour the food growing and see the fields that have been planted many, many years.
I love India for many reasons. I wish I could sit with you and share a meal.
I am sorry you feel this way. Your country has much to offer. So do you.
I am so sorry for the way this came aross.

Benjamin I am not talking about foreigners and the stereotypes which they believe in. I believe in many steotypes about countries foreign to me.

What I am trying to lash out against is literature/art by my countrymen, the only purpose of which is to thrive on the sensationalism of these stereotypes.

I agree I put every non-Indian into a single category in this post. I am wrong. I apologize. I am speaking to only those of you who think Indian art/literature is to be appreciated only if there is poverty or corruption in it. Only if they focus on the bleak "realities" of an existence in India.

What I am trying to say is that next time you read the next Indian born literary sensation contemplate whether he/she is telling a story which happens to be set in a poor country or is trying to sell to you a mediocre story made sensational and interesting beacause of it's realistic background.
"our leaders are illiterate and corrupt"...better than the US, where illiteracy is no excuse for their corruption.
Moana, it's go good to see a new post by you. I'd be very interested to know which books you're talking about.
wow, you tell us and them, girl. this is an excellent rant/post. i really understand. i have another friend who lives in India who has similar feelings. well, i don't understand completely. sorry for saying that. i'm just very happy to see you posting. you're my janie's twin sister, after all. i've noticed that phenomena, of people visiting your country and talking only about the poverty or only about the ashrams or only about the call centers, without really taking in the beauty and the daily lives of those who are not about any of these elements. i'm very patriotic for a bleeding heart liberal jew so i have similar feelings when the US is portrayed as full of greedy fat people or whatever the stereotype du jour is about us. like your country,m this one is a big melting pot. there is vast poverty that people don't like to talk about but there is also creativity and passion and so much taht is good. love love lveo and gratitude for your passion and patriotism!!
Did you catch this, Kavita? It looks as though Slumdog Millionaire has opened the way for a wider range of outlooks on India in foreign cinema.
Thanks Matt for the link.

I am so glad you got my point. I love the way the columnist put into words exactly what I wanted to convey,

"the culturally condescending, poverty-fixated, cliché-ridden Western vision of a populous nation of a million contradictions undergoing marked dilution"

Thanks again :)