Ketan Tanna on the embarrassing way in which India likes to appropriate achievers
THE PANTHEON: Bobby Jindal, Sanjaya Malakar, Sunita Williams and Norah Jones
We love to laugh at the nouveau riche and the silly way in which they flaunt their baubles: driving up in a flashy red sports car, wiping themselves with branded toilet paper, wearing ice-cubes on their chunky fingers, and most depressing of all, dropping names like so much dandruff. Sure they may have arrived but they can’t stop jingling their moneybags and getting the world to take notice.
India, on the road to being a global power, seems to be suffering from this disease. The most tiresome symptom being the unthinking way in which we appropriate any achiever with even the most tenuous connection to the motherland as Indian. It makes us feel better, bigger, first-world and truly global. There is not so much as a prickle of shamefacedness at the fact that India has done little to further their careers or their talents. In the last couple of years, at regular intervals, the media has been choking with reports about “Indiansâ€ such as Bobby Jindal, Norah Jones, Sanjaya Malakar, Sunita Williams, etc who have all done the country proud in the USA or in space. Indian schoolchildren light diyas (lamps) or fast, villages and towns in remote corners of India distribute sweets, dance in joy, and the cameras chase the drivers, aunties, uncles and village postmen for sound bytesâ€”all because the son or a daughter of a former resident who quit the country fifty years ago has achieved a modicum of success thousands of kilometers away.
But, at some point, reality bites. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal’s father, Amar Jindal, left Maler Kotla in Punjab for the United States almost 40 years ago and settled in Baton Rouge,
Louisiana. Bobby Jindal, 36, has never visited his ancestral home and has no plans to. Nora Jones who â€œgrew up in Texas with a white motherâ€ said after winning the Grammy that if anything, she felt more Texan than New Yorker (India did not figure). In fact, Geethali Norah Jones Shankar dropped the first and last extensions of her name when she turned 16. Sanjaya Malakar, the American Idol contestant whose father was an Indian, thanked his maternal Italian grandfather in his interviews. Sunita Williams was born in the USA to an Indian father (who became an American) and a mother of Slovenian heritage (the Slovenian press reproduced articles about how India was trying to appropriate their daughter of the soil).
Historian Ramachandra Guha says he is revolted by this â€œcraven desire of Indiansâ€ to shine in reflected glory. â€œThere is something lopsided and imbalanced in all of this,â€ he says. â€œIt is nothing but pathetic insecurity and an inferiority complex. I blame the rudderless trans-national middle class for such hype.â€ In Delhi, Professor Mushirul Hassan, the vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia endorses Guha’s view that this is nothing but the urge of a middleclass keen to join the rat race to prove itself. â€œIt is a way of saying we have arrived. An expression of new-found confidence. And when there not enough persons in India, you look outside,â€ he says.
Equusâ€™ CEO and advertising professional Suhel Seth calls it a â€œreverse globalisationâ€. â€œIndia is very territorial in its emotions. We want to capture territories overseas. For us Indians, the grass is not only greener but sweeter outside India. We have shifting sands of respect and shifting sands of recognition. We seek role models from outside India and appropriate them even when they are not comfortable. Take Amarnath Bose (of Bose Electronics). I don’t think he wants to be called an Indian.â€
There is certainly something surreal about the whole hysteria, agrees Sunil Khilnani, professor and director of South Asian Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and the author of the acclaimed The Idea of India. â€œThis is not a healthy signâ€”our admiration and adulation for the overseas success of whomever we can claim (however tenuously) our â€˜ownâ€™: itâ€™s perhaps quaint, but also selfdelusional,â€ he says. â€œWe should perhaps think harder, focus more closely, on the many millions of those whom we condemn to failure, who really are our ‘own’ fellow, though far from equal, citizens.â€
What really grates is that much greater achievement within the country goes unnoticed or is downplayed. But once the West gives its seal of approval, the drum roll just won’t stop. â€œIndian scientists who were ignored in India suddenly get talked about if they get recognised abroad. Even Mother Teresa became Indian only after she got the Nobel. We are a land of hypocrites. R K Pachauri suddenly shot to fame only after he got the Nobel Peace Prize. Till then very few would even give him appointment. And now suddenly he has become an Indian scientist,â€ says Seth.
Prof Hassan adds that success is always seen as suspect: â€œWe don’t recognise the worth of person who has achieved something or done something worthwhile. We attribute it to tikdam (machinations). We don’t think that it could be an intrinsic part of the person or hard work that has contributed to his/her success. When I go abroad, people talk about how Indian scholars, historians are making great advances. But here we don’t talk about them. We are in awe of someone who has studied in Cambridge but the moment you say you have studied in India, the interest wanes. This is an inferiority complex.â€
Guha blames the media for feeding this kind of false pride. â€œThe media should not be so obsequious about the West,â€ he says. â€œA few years ago, a magazine said that they did not put Vishwanathan Anand on the cover because he came second in the world championship. Bismillah Khan’s death and even M S Subbulakshmiâ€™s death were covered sparsely. Sunita Williams got ten times that coverage in the media. If great artistes like Bismillah Khan or M S had died in France, there would be half-hour programmes every day for a week if not more. Look at the way they covered Pavarotti’s death. And here in India we cover our national heroesâ€™ death while reading out what the President of India has said about him or her. But Bobby Jindal wins the governorship of a small state in the US and he gets excessive coverage.â€
Congress MP Milind Deora says that before celebrating the success of Indians abroad their Indianness needs to be verified. â€œTake the example of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Austria celebrates his success and that is genuine because he was born there and grew up in Austria before migrating to the USA,â€ says Deora. â€œWe celebrate these achievements because we have a certain affinity for them. The affinity is not derived from citizenship or from accent. America is full of immigrants but one does not find Europe celebrating each and every success of an American who is of European descent.â€
Another ‘Indianâ€™ who only has nasty things to say about India is V S Naipaul, who was born in Trinidad and lives in England. India counts Naipaul amongst its Nobel winners. Naipaul, who hates to be asked what he considers â€˜homeâ€™â€” â€œI refuse to answer that question one more time,â€ he snapped at Crosswords in Mumbaiâ€”has this to say about the three countries he is associated with. â€œIndia is unwashed, Trinidad is unlearned and England is morally bankrupt.â€
The criticism is evenly handed out but perhaps we should reflect on what the â€˜Indianâ€™ achievers across the pond think of the country before we roll out the red carpet and smother them in it.