Trashing India sells better for Western audiences

The three unwritten rules for getting published abroad.

 |  6-minute read |   12-08-2017
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If you want to get your book published abroad, there are three unwritten rules.

Rule one, slam India.

Rule two, slam India.

Rule three, slam India.

These rules apply to movies as well. Satyajit Ray showcased Indian poverty to Western audiences with his film Pather Panchali in 1955. He was lionised globally.

More contemporaneously, Slumdog Millionaire by British director Danny Boyle was a rage abroad. The one stomach-churning scene in the movie starring Frieda Pinto, Anil Kapoor and Dev Patel where a child falls into an excreta-filled sewer was played and replayed on foreign television networks with feigned horror. (The excreta was, in fact, a mixture of peanut butter and chocolate sauce.)

Books receive the same treatment. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity which retells her experiences living in a Mumbai slum for three years, sparing no gory detail, was published to international acclaim in 2012.

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness received an equally rapturous welcome abroad as it wended its laborious way through India’s graveyard of troubles: Kashmir, Maoism, poverty, communalism, violence. Roy’s sense of bitter hopelessness about India enthrals foreign publishers.

Now a book by Sujatha Gidla, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, is the latest toast of the West. A Dalit Christian, Gidla tells the story of her uncle Satyamurthy, a Maoist leader who fought the Indian state from the jungles of central India.

In a gushing review, The Economist (July 29, 2017) described Gidla as heralding the “arrival of a formidable new writer.” The magazine added: “Ants among Elephants is an interesting, affecting and ultimately enlightening memoir. It is quite possibly the most striking work of non-fiction set in India since Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.”

The names trip of the tongue nicely: Ray, Roy, Boo, Gidla. Of course The Economist wouldn’t dare review Shashi Tharoor’s excellent book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India which exposes Britain’s horrific crimes during its colonial occupation of India.

Even the British edition of Tharoor’s book was re-titled to make it less offensive to the British. An Era of Darkness became the anodyne An Inglorious Empire: What the British Did To India. In an interview with the BBC for the book’s British launch earlier this year, one of the panelists was dismissive of Tharoor’s evocative and detailed description of the brutalities of the British Empire and the financial ruination it brought upon India.

In contrast, Arundhati Roy’s dark vision of India has been lapped up by newspapers like The New York Times and television channels in Europe and America. Should all of this matter? Emphatically not. India has many flaws – violence, poverty, rape, corruption, casteism. It is right for journalists and authors, Indian and foreign, to write about them.

It is equally right for filmmakers to show the underbelly of India – from the coal mines of Dhanbad to the slums of Mumbai. Sunlight is a disinfectant. Shine it mercilessly on our imperfections. Only then will change take place. The problem though is balance. 

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Where are the films on the brilliant “Team Indus” in Bengaluru making a robotic spacecraft to land on the moon’s surface as part of a $30 million global competition sponsored by Google? Team Indus is one of only five teams, including those from Japan and Israel, left in the contest that ends on December 31, 2017. These stories too need to be told by Indian (and foreign) writers and filmmakers.

Indians are over-sensitive about how India is portrayed globally. Americans didn’t care how their country was portrayed through the decade-long Vietnam war, the illegal invasion of Iraq and the historical crimes of slave trading and lynchings of African-Americans by the Ku Klux Klan as recently as in the twentieth century.

The British didn’t care how their country was portrayed when it fought to retake the Falkland (Malvina) islands from Argentina, sinking in the process the cruiser Belgrano, killing 323 Argentine sailors.

The Chinese don’t care that their country is projected as an international law- breaker by most of the world in its dispute with the Philippines over the South Chinese Sea adjudicated in Manila’s favour by The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

The Western media, so critical of impoverished, upstart India, gives China a free pass on its human rights violations, having co-opted it into the global financial ecosystems.

Few Western journalists ask about the fate of Liu Xia, the wife of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who died last month after years of incarceration and possibly torture in a Chinese prison. She has not been seen since July 15 and is believed to be under unlawful detention in an undisclosed location in China.

Had such an event occurred in India, the editorial board of The New York Times would have been apoplectic. With China, which holds $500 billion in US treasury bonds, the media treads softly, softly.

There has been criticism of Liu Xia’s “enforced disappearance” but global human rights groups like Amnesty International, quick to excoriate India, have been relatively muted.

In its review of Gidla’s book, The Economist gives its Western readers a detailed tutorial on India’s caste system: “One in six Indians is a Dalit, which means 'oppressed' in Sanskrit. That is to say, 200 million Indians belong to a community deemed so impure by the scriptures that they are placed outside the hierarchical Hindu caste system and are commonly called ‘untouchable’. Upper-caste Hindus traditionally treated untouchables as agents of pollution. To come into contact with them was to be defiled, they believed. Indian villages depended on untouchables to provide field labour and clear away human waste. Yet untouchables were excluded from village life.

They could not – and often still cannot – enter Hindu temples, drew water from common wells, touch caste Hindus or even live inside the village. Punishments for breaching caste boundaries are severe. As a young girl, in Andhra Pradesh, Sujatha Gidla remembers adult members of her educated Christian untouchable family ‘scrambling to their feet’ whenever a Hindu materalised before them.”

Like Ray, Roy and Boo, Gidla’s India interests the West much more than the fate of Liu Xia.

Also read: Why I'm in no mood to celebrate India's Independence Day

Writer

Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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