Friday, 6 February 2009

Incredibly stupid India

Incredibly stupid India ‘What on earth is going on?’ Pertie sounded intrigued but I could tell he was also exasperated. It was past midnight and there was an edge to his voice. “Have we all gone mad?”
As you know, this is how Pertie’s rhetorical conversations usually begin. So though I was tempted to reply flippantly, I bit my lip and kept silent.
“They’re attacking women for drinking in pubs near Bangalore. In Bombay they’re closing down shops called Karachi Sweets and banning the sale of Pakistani books. Elsewhere, courts are issuing notices to the producer of Slumdog Millionaire on the grounds the name is offensive. Doesn’t it seem as if, suddenly, everyone’s lost all sense of balance and perspective?”
“Oh come, Pertie,” I replied soothingly, trying hard not to tut-tut. “These are separate and isolated incidents. You can’t add them all up!”
“And why can’t you?” he shot back. “Have you thought of the damage they’ve done? They’re undermining the most important elements of India’s image. First, Bangalore is supposed to be India’s window to the world. It’s thought of as modern, liberal and welcoming. Well, your Sri Ram Sene has effectively put paid to that. Now it’s being compared to Jeddah, Khartoum and Teheran.”
Pertie, of course, has a point but I felt he was over-egging it. I tried to gently demur but I doubt if he heard me.
“Now turn to Bombay. First they resort to censorship and then, in the name of Indian nationalism, the twits from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) have ripped apart India’s claim to be the original country of the subcontinent. The truth is it was all India before Pakistan was created. Pakistan, of course, doesn’t always accept that and now the MNS has corroborated their view that the land west of the Indus is different and separate. What a fabulous self-goal.”
This time I found it harder to disagree. But much like my earlier feeble interruption Pertie didn’t notice my silence. He was in full flow and, like a steam-roller, carried on.
“And then there’s Slumdog Millionaire. After Gandhi in 1982, no film has done more to make the world aware of India. It’s a runaway success. Yet what’s the response in India? Some foolish politicians think the name is offensive and at least one court has taken them seriously enough to issue formal notices to the producer. Talk about getting the wrong end of the stick.” Suddenly the penny dropped. Each of these was bad enough on its own. But together they made the outcome a lot worse. “What’s the world saying of us?”
“For many we’ve become a joke. People don’t know how to respond to girls getting beaten up for having a drink or shops forced to change their names because a handful of goons don’t like them. They’re laughing at us. But, sadly, the damage is deeper. It won’t be long before people start asking awkward questions.”
“Oh,” I replied, mystified. “Such as?”
“Such as: India is supposed to be a tolerant, liberal democracy. So how come we can’t accept a name like ‘Karachi Sweets’ and buy Pakistani books? Or: Hinduism is supposed to venerate women, we supposedly elevate them as goddesses. So how come we thrash them if they walk into a pub? And then: India is supposed to be an aspiring and dynamic society. So how come a rather clever name like Slumdog Millionaire can’t be appreciated but is, instead, considered offensive? These are disturbing questions.”
“And how will they be answered?” If Pertie had further insights I wanted to hear them.
“I don’t know,” he replied honestly. “But what I can tell you is that they underline the glaring difference between India and mature, self-confident countries. They’re tolerant and accepting. We’ve just exhibited fatuous levels of intolerance and a perverse inability to accept recognition. It could make people realise that the real India is not in the smart-talking drawing-rooms of Delhi and Bombay, but in its insecure, quarrelsome back-streets and in the nit-picking litigations of its carping politicians. And if that happens, it could take the shine off the India story.”

An idea called Obama

Let me begin with an admission. On Tuesday night I became a convert. To put it simplistically, Barack Obama has one more fan. I must be number 3 billion, 451 million, 346 hundred thousand and whatever. But the story I want to share with you is how this came about. You could call it my conversion on Obama’s road to Washington.
A year ago, my position was very different.
When Hillary Clinton still stood a chance of winning the Democratic nomination, I was rooting for her. I believed that it was time for a woman president. Even when Obama won, I felt the presidency was beyond his grasp. America, I argued, was not ready for a Black president. Obama’s candidature would only ensure a McCain victory.
I suppose my transformation began with Obama’s acceptance speech in November. Though it was bright daylight in India, his soaring oratory, the musical cadences of his delivery and the poetry of his expressions had the magical qualities of a dream. I had tears as he spoke and I wasn’t ashamed to cry. It felt like cleansing. More importantly, I felt being a part of a community, one that embraced members from within America and also internationally. Obama was speaking to all of us. And for all of us.
On Tuesday, as I watched millions gathering on the Washington Mall in freezing cold for Obama’s inauguration, the penny dropped. Obama was not just a president and he was far more than an icon. He was an idea.
Like all powerful ideas, we interpret this one — and then believe in it — as we want. In fact, Obama, the idea, is a part of us. It could even be, in part, our creation. That’s why we hold to it with such passion and raw emotion. And that’s why Obama, the person, has become so important and, yes, so beloved. He is the living embodiment, the very personification of that idea. He is, therefore, a reflection of us, not what we are or could become but what we’d like to be. We see in him the ideals we value, the perfection we seek and the person we want to be. Obama, we believe — or pretend — is us.
If this can be the case for a once-disbelieving Indian, watching from 10,000 miles away and at the other end of the world’s time zones, can you imagine what Obama means to his fellow Americans, and to Blacks in particular?
I would say he is at once the clearest and the most focused expression of their collective desire for change. But I would also go farther: they despise what they ended up as and they want to be very different. Obama both personifies that sentiment and he has been elected to realise it.
Now, of course, all successful politicians represent an idea. Some even symbolise it. But Obama is the only one I can think of who, in my lifetime, has come to embody an idea. In fact, he has become the idea. That’s why Obama’s appeal spans continents, languages, races as well as a vast range of levels of economic development and intellectual sophistication.
Obama speaks in English but he can be equally effectively understood by those who only know Swahili, Serbo-Croat or Sinhala. Language, in fact, is not necessary to grasp what he’s about. All you need is a sense of romance, a craving for justice and a belief that there is a better way.
In other words, you only need to be a human being with dreams to see him as their means of realisation.
I can’t say Obama will make the world a better place. In fact, it could end up the other way round. But I do know that he will end up changing the world. That process began with his election. It will continue and accelerate with his inauguration. That change will be Obama, the idea, realising itself. And the world he will leave behind — be it in four years or eight — will have that idea written all over it.
All we can do is wait to find out what it will be like.