As a ‘natives’ of what is still considered today ‘The Third World’ sometimes we get asked the silliest questions, as my students and I were discussing today. It never fails to amaze me how deep and inanely hilarious — where hilarious is the new heartbreaking — stereotypes are. Especially when they are as sensitive as, “Have you ever seen an American toilet?” or “Eaten waffles?”. Another popular one is the assumption that Indians smell of dogs with rabies or something more pungent; we laughed when I brought this one up today but I remember it wasn’t nearly as funny when my friend called me in tears from the UK where some woman got up from her seat just so she could be ‘saved’ from the obviously Poisonous Emissions Of The BrownPeople. Another favourite anecdote is when a woman told me “I didn’t know people could be so educated in India” after I’d given her directions in fluent French. Or when in movie after movie, Indian culture is exoticised, appropriated and eventually reduced to the country that “makes that pepper thingy”, my skin just leaps up in joy. I am not talking about how my pride as an ‘Indian’ — whether I will ever be able to say ‘nationalism’ without sarcasm is an ongoing experiment people of the Olde Interwebes — is tarnished when I hear or am asked such questions but rather how tiny and contained my ‘box’ as this ‘Indian’ is.
Last year, I was sitting at a coffee-house, reading a book and a woman walks up to me and starts inquiring about the book in a rather loud tone. Then she asked me if I could understand the book considering it was in American. Surely, now I cannot think of this anecdote without openly laughing but then I felt as if she was talking to a different version of me, preferably one that was three centuries removed from the present time zone and I was expected to be that way. Frustratingly and sadly these aren’t the only instances of such blatant Othering I can remember. And I’m surely not the only one with such experiences, I’ve heard similar accounts from many people all highlighting that “we” as a culture are somewhere lost in the space-time continuum and can only squeak out a few words of English when addressed to in an ear-shattering decibel and/or accompanied by hand gestures. The point here isn’t how incriminating these remarks are — well not too much anyway — but how people are so ready to stereotype and box people, cultures and ethnicities. Readers of the Olde Interwebes, you will probably defend yourself by saying, “I don’t stereotype people!” or even better “I’m an extremely progressive person with Liberal leanings. Surely I don’t fit into these slots” to which I can only say, let the LadyBrain explains what she means.
When thinking of India, probably the first image that comes up is hordes of people gathered in a crowd, preferably looking uneasy. Or the global favourite — The Charmingly Poor Indian Who Squats In The Mud With The Flies Around Zie’s Face. One assumption is that somehow all Indians squat in the mud, for the longest amount of time; as if squatting in the mud is something that we do, regularly, professionally and perhaps even recreationally. I will not say that we never squat in the mud but just that it isn’t exactly a hobby, to put it delicately. There are hordes of Indians that set out of their homes with a small bucket of water each day, squat on railway tracks while pooping. Again, this isn’t a choice or even remotely entertaining. Instead of considering Indians to be ‘mud-squatters’ it’d do people good if you look at the conditions behind the said mud-squatting. Perhaps tiny annoying facts like neo-colonisation by capitalist markets, cultural imperialist reasons that allow some people to exploit other broken backs, acute and harsh desperation will make one see how mud-squatting isn’t as culturally neutral as it seems. That way, tourists won’t specifically ask to see ‘slum people’ and then proceed to take their photos as one would for a biology study. At least, I hope not.
Despite all your vehement denials, most liberal spaces — virtual or otherwise — even the ones specifically dedicated to ‘Radical Inclusion’ will reserve seats for the ‘limbless handmade paper maker’ (preferably with a few flies always abuzz his face) but will have no space for people that fit into my demographic. This barrier can be easily overcome if I can possibly procure old and historic looking documents that would affirm that I do descend from the MudSquatters as well, hereby reaffirming my comfortably exotic status, ripe for exoticising and appropriating as one wants. Attempts at pathetic humour aside, I get many comments and e-mails that praise my ‘good grasp of the Western world’ along with a remark or two about how UnIndian I ‘seem’ like because apparently I don’t talk like someone who spent their whole life huddled in the corner of a ditch. Or in some backwater place where all sorts of germs and diseases have infested my body. For what use is a healthy person of colour? But, I digress.
The point is, for a person like me i.e. educated, occasionally smart, comfortably affluent and searching ways to negotiate my colonised body and psyche to a space with as few ‘isms’ and ‘ists’ as possible, I (or my ilk) get either spaces dominated by the Canon, White discourse or a space culturally so removed — ironically all the ‘tokens’ of my culture are present there — that I end up feeling alienated. I’m not condoning the activity of encouraging less privileged people as the ever attractive MudSquatters a chance to voice themselves but rather displeased that this middle point of access that I currently embody means nothing to so many people. I used to teach at a school for children of low socio-economic background, donors would request me and other teachers to give whatever they wanted to offer only to the ‘truly needy’. As if the kid who is slightly better off economically speaking doesn’t deserve the perks the other ‘truly deserving’ — another phrase that has yet to be said without sarcasm — get. Even in popular media, either the plot revolves around a rural setting or the extreme élite. The middle-class representation is evidently missing, as if this stubble called the ‘middle ground’ never existed. Similarly, as a WOC, I’m expected to fulfill Cartesian roles : Either to be as far removed from my culture as possible that I’m ‘assimilated’ into the bigger White default discourse or be so ‘exotically’ and ‘consumable’ that my culture becomes a marker for all that I am. It all comes down to ‘To Squat In The Mud Or To Not To Squat In The Mud’. There are no easy answers, except for this one thing I firmly believe in — No matter how much I represent ideal Indianness or not, I’ll never ever be able to do anything just right to anyone’s specifications. So to end with the ever quotable Dorothy Parker, this is my message trying to fit anyone in a cultural box so tiny that even Matthew Arnold wouldn’t like —
” But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you!”