Art & Culture

How the West still views India through a colonial mindset

Sandeep Balakrishna
Sandeep BalakrishnaFeb 09, 2015 | 23:17

How the West still views India through a colonial mindset

Heartrending stories of utter destitution inside a slum and/or on the pavements? Check.

Soul crushing tales of a poor/oppressed AIDS or terminally ill patient? Check.

Tales of police brutality and/or bureaucratic corruption endured by a helpless person? Check.

An elaborate account of a superstitious ritual? Check.

An even more elaborate account of the caste system and present day caste wars? Check.


An exposition of the Hindu-Muslim conflict with mandatory mentions of the Babri Masjid demolition, and more recently the 2002 Gujarat riots? Check.The last two items probably gave it away.

I'm talking about the typical themes that feature in a book written about India by Western writers. It's as if these writers have an India-writing template that they need to compulsorily adhere to. Of course, these aren't the only themes but they occur in almost every such book. Other common themes include accounts about temples, different facets of medieval Indo-Islamic culture, contemporary politics, and rural India.

India's embrace of globalisation has reawakened the West's interest in India, and one major consequence has been an explosion of books about India written by Westerners to such an extent that it qualifies to be called a separate genre in itself. And almost without exception, every such book in this genre reflects the same biases, is uniformly superficial, is ignorant of history, and in some cases, openly dishonest. Equally, almost every writer of this genre declares either in the preface or the afterword that he or she dearly loves India (for a humorous take on how this sort of thing works, this is a great piece to read).  And so the questions persist: what kind of love compels them to regurgitate biases, reflect ignorance, and reinforce the image of India as a poor third world nation which seems to have nothing but endemic poverty, filth, squalor, superstition, oppression of Muslims, and the ugly caste system? Is it that India has absolutely no redeeming features, not one positive whatsoever?


A sense of history is a very reliable guide to unravel seemingly complex issues of the present. And so when we trace the roots of the biases of today's Westerners writing about India, it quickly becomes clear that they are colonial biases or extensions thereof. Add to this the heady mixture of Indian English journalists and academics explaining again, a colonial view of India to them, the bias comes a full and vicious self-reinforcing circle. For good measure there's plenty of first person accounts these authors had with Indians from various walks of life in the course of their India-story hunting jaunts and in cases where  these accounts don't serve as good demonstrations of their aforementioned love for India, they serve to reinforce those aforementioned biases.

We need to fast forward from the ancient Greeks to about 1600 when the Dutch first set foot on Indian soil. The 17th through early 19th centuries were truly heady times both for Europe and India. All of Europe wanted to trade with India, the land of opportunity, the place of plenty... every European was a potential Indian Green Card aspirant. Fast forward slightly. You had all sorts of European travelers entering India - not entirely different from the Western writers on India today. And so - in no particular order - you had the French traveler cum doctor Bernier and his companion Tavernier who travelled in and wrote extensively on India during the later years of Shahjahan's rule and during and after Aurangzeb's reign. H.M. Eliott's masterly The History of India as Told by Her Own Historians was published in 1867 and still counts as a definitive work of firsthand insights gained from keen observation whilst traveling within India. James Todd’s Annals & Antiquities of Rajaputana, published in 1920, is second to none both in its scope and the vastness of its coverage. Thus, between when the Europeans discovered India and finally when the British left it financially impoverished and culturally devastated, you had writing enough to fill a few mammoth libraries. No subject was spared by Westerners then interested in India: warfare, politics, education, medicine, magic, religion, culture, Sanskrit, society, art, literature, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, grammar...


Early Western scholars who wrote on India were almost unanimous in declaring that India had touched the pinnacle in almost every sphere of human activity. Schopenhauer and Emerson swore by the Upanishads. But this admiration didn’t last long because military successes and industrialisation also brought with them the deadly virus of racism, which made rapid and spectacular inroads everywhere including India. In an astonishingly swift period, those who had knocked on India's doors as trader-supplicants suddenly realised that they were the world's superior race because of their skin colour. Christian theology served racism very well when it was recast as a tool to aid and abet colonialism.

The consequences of this for India were disastrous. Suddenly India was a land which only had a history of being conquered, had no original culture, was primitive and superstitious, was a society defined and divided by caste, had no literature, had not contributed anything to world civilisation... A new crop of colonial writers and officials emerged with the express purpose of "civilising the natives". They set about refashioning almost every aspect of India to suit the colonial project — its history, religions, society, education, and so on. Macaulay's Policy on Indian education is perhaps the iconographic representative of this project. And it is this refashioned India that most of today's Western writers rely upon as a foundation for understanding India. Add to this the Marxist takeover of Indian academia and media post-Independence, and we have a comprehensively distorted picture of the country in almost every aspect.

As we see, this distortion is faithfully and confidently depicted in contemporary Western writing in the India genre. In my reading, the most representative of this distortion is the hugely popular India-genre writer, William Dalrymple whom Hartosh Singh Bal characterised as a "pompous arbiter of literary merit in India". However, Bal’s superb piece barely peeks through the curtain. What lies behind is pretty grotesque.

William Dalrymple

In the garb of professing extreme love for India, Dalrymple has consistently repeated every colonial bias there is about India and has presented a one-sided, and in some cases, a distorted version of its history. Constraints of space don’t permit me to examine his entire body of work on India but his 1998 India travelogue, The Age of Kali, is a fair example of said grotesqueness.

Dalrymple’s bias and/or his flawed understanding of India shines through right on the tenth sentence of his preface. He misrepresents the goddess Parashakti as one "seated on a throne of five corpses." And he repeats the same mistake in the chapter that deals with Parashakti. The accurate meaning translates to "she who is seated on a throne of the Spirit (as in “spiritual”)." And so it goes on, this string of ill-informed observations and deductions about ancient Hindu traditions, gods and goddesses. Elsewhere in the book, he simply can't stop gushing about all those superstitious Indians thronging at the Madurai Meenakshi temple. Nor can he stop waxing repeatedly about the Goddess' fertility and her powers of seducing her husband, Lord Shiva. Throughout, the undercurrent of Hindus-as-superstitious plays on like a broken chord. Now these temples, rituals and traditions date back to centuries and have solid philosophical and cultural foundations. If only he had cared to read the Shasanas (temple inscriptions) or the sthala purana (local history of these temples preserved unbroken for centuries), his understanding of Madurai Meenakshi would have perhaps been different. At any rate, it's clear that Dalrymple has made no effort to learn them but then he doesn't allow his ignorance to come in the way of his confident pontifications.

In another essay, he hunts down a poor woman, a victim of gang rape and manages to coax her story out. The point here is not about her heartrending story but the phenomenon of what's called "misery journalism", which does precious little to alleviate the suffering of the victim but does wonders to the fame and wealth of misery journalists. And Dalrymple indulges in misery journalism not once but thrice in the same book.

And these misery tales quite obviously, have generous doses of caste, which according to Dalrymple is "central to Hindu philosophy." Dalrymple needs to show us exactly one work of Hindu philosophy that discusses caste. There are works in other realms of Hinduism that talk about caste but caste has no place in the philosophical realm, which chiefly investigates impersonal and abstract concepts. Interestingly but unsurprisingly, Dalrymple's idea of caste emancipation is a covert approval of Lalu Yadav's 15-year-long goonda raj not to mention Mulayam Singh Yadav's equally brazen criminal enterprise masquerading as Government. Columnist Sankrant Sanu accurately calls out this deception for what it is: 

The Mandalization of society deepened caste conflict. The audacious rape and murder by Yadav boys in Badaun of two young Dalit girls was born of the arrogance of "their" government being in power and of knowing that "their" Yadav policeman would not act against them… the secular intelligentsia’s attempt to make Badaun into a cultural crime of Hindu society side or blaming it on the patriarchal Yadavs sidesteps their own responsibility in aiding and abetting the resurgence of caste-based parties… 

The Age of Kali abounds with such serious factual inaccuracies made worse by not backing them up with even a shred of evidence. However, there's something worse: distorted history. For instance, on page two, Dalrymple claims that Buddhism was wiped out in India by what he calls "an aggressive Hinduism." This isn't new — Dalrymple merely regurgitates an old Marxist lie. From Ambedkar to the Communist scholar Rahula Sankrityayana, almost every scholar is agreed on the fact that it was the medieval Muslim invasions that extinguished Buddhism in India. Equally, Dalrymple claims that over 2,00,000 Muslims were killed by the Indian army when it liberated Hyderabad in 1948. As for evidence, he again provides none. He also glosses over the barbaric Portuguese Inquisition at Goa as if it were an event of no consequence. And then he shows himself to be quite a believer of the absurd when he parrots the lie about how "the miraculously undecayed body of St. Francis" was put on public display. This was proved to be a fake and reported in the media. So one wonders why Dalrymple chose not to mention both sides of the Francis miracle.

But I've merely scratched the surface. Almost every other essay in The Age of Kali is guilty of factual errors or ill-informed assertions or historical distortions or unsubstantiated opinions or all of the above if you take the book as a whole. Dalrymple's claim that his book is a "product of personal experience and direct observation" cannot be a justification to evade accountability for his cultural, factual and historical misdemeanours. In the end, one wonders why Dalrymple is unable to find a single positive aspect in this vast country; it appears as if he finds only filth wherever he travels in India.

What Dalrymple accomplishes in his travels throughout the subcontinent, Katherine Boo attempts in a slum in Mumbai in her singularly unreadable Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. It seems as if Katherine Boo is William Dalrymple on acid.

Katherine Boo

You name the cliché about India, you find it in almost every other sentence in her book. Caste, Hindu-Muslim strife, the poor, the downtrodden, the beggars, hijras, the lame, the terminally ill, the rotten slums, the corrupt and brutal cops, Old vs New India, venal politicians… all in this Mumbai slum, which Boo likens to a microcosm of India. By the time you reach page 9, you know the book is already doomed because by then Boo's deliberate attempt to wrangle tears out from the reader’s eyes — with elaborate and tortured descriptions of human misery and suffering — is unmistakable. Oh it also contains such gems as "Officer Fish Lips," her attempt at employing sarcastic humor in describing a Police officer. There's also a One Leg-someone.

But she's unstoppable, relentless in her ruthless quest of mining the worst of the worst from this Mumbai slum named Annawadi. Never mind the fact that this slum came up by illegally encroaching Government land — a crucial point, which she tries to gloss over as a minor factual irritant. Boo also takes inspiration from the 70s Bollywood when she writes that "to be poor... was to be guilty of one thing or another," a straight lift from the popular dialogue, "is desh mein gareeb hona gunaah hai".

At the end of more than 250 pages of this kind of stuff, you want to jump from the nearest building. But like I said, misery journalism is pretty rewarding. Boo's book won the National Book Award in the US for 2012.

And then we have Patrick French, the poor India-genre cousin of Dalrymple who wrote India, a Portrait, which is the output of a travel exercise similar to that of Dalrymple.  It may not as bad as Boo's — in fact, it takes serious talent to reach Boo's standard — but it is still a pointless meandering and an unnecessary addition to the corpus of Dalrymplesque writing on India. As a minor detail, Dalrymple acknowledges French’s help in his first book on Delhi.

Patrick French

Indeed we wonder what reaches of genius Patrick French scales in order to call Sardar Patel a Congress power-broker. This in the first chapter titled "Accelerated History" which French liberally peppers with such insidious claims. This chapter tries to compress the pre and post-Independence history of India into a capsule and ends up worsening the disease of factual errors and opinions disguised as facts. It only gets worse from there onwards.

Like Dalrymple, French's quest for scavenging misery is rewarded when he meets a labourer who was rescued from a granite mafia don who had made him his slave, complete with iron fetters. French also uses this story to give his grand version of the Indian Caste System. Except that this version is dissimilar to Dalrymple's only in the matter of word choice.

French's book also talks about the post-liberalisation India and faithfully adheres to all the Western clichés of "New India" - call centers, Bangalore’s IT companies, malls, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, the newly affluent urban middle class and so on. Taken together, the book merely resembles an assemblage of newspaper cuttings.

To be fair, the only passable section is the one dealing with the dynasty politics. Patrick French has handled this area with dexterity and accuracy complete with hard data.

In the end, India a Portrait is a pointless book that retains much of the colonial biases about India, and follows the template mentioned at the beginning of this piece. One wonders why it was even written.

But then, the authors of such books on India know their target audience: the West. They care little if their books are received well or respected in India. And they know they can get away with even the most flagrant errors, distortions and inaccuracies because the academic and intellectual climate of India doesn’t pose a challenge to their own intellectual waywardness. Add to this a section of mentally colonised Indian elite which craves Western approval in most matters and we arrive at a state of affairs where we have all manner of Western India “experts” who are now trying to teach India to Indians.

Compare these books with say VS Naipaul - another Westerner whose India Trilogy is a masterly collection of firsthand travel, experience, research, penetrating observation and profound insight. He shows none of the colonial or Dalrymplesque bias and is honest in his criticism. His note for instance, on the Taj Mahal as a magnificent building that served no function (An Area of Darkness) is a good example of this honesty. The likes of Dalrymple have waxed in rapture for pages on end describing the structural and artistic beauty of much lesser monuments. It is a very seductive technique for the average reader is sucked in by the mastery of prose and picturesque textual narrative. What's lost in these feats of prose are insight and truthfulness, which are ends in themselves. Western writers on India have sadly failed to heed this fine verse of one of their greatest litterateurs even as they continue to pour their India expertise on Indians:

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Last updated: February 09, 2015 | 23:17
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