Monday, June 15, 2015
Oindrila Mukherjee - How To Survive a Visit to India: The Ethics of Representation
When I was growing up in Calcutta, during the twilight years of Mother Teresa, my hometown suffered a peculiar ignominy. Its leper colony had already been the subject of French author Dominique Lapierre’s 1985 novel City of Joy, adapted into film in 1992 (starring Patrick Swayze.) Mother Teresa’s hospice for the destitute, Nirmal Hriday (Home of the Pure Heart,) and the work she did in Calcutta drew attention chiefly to the city’s poverty. As a child the only “foreigners” I ever saw (apart from cricketers during tournaments) were tourists with fancy cameras, taking photographs of the slums and the homeless people on the city’s sidewalks. As a child, this filled me with shame and anger. When I left India to attend university in England, one of the first people I met was a gardener who worked the vast college grounds where I lived. As soon as he learned I was from Calcutta, he remarked, “But one hears of so much poverty there.” Looking back, I know that instead of feeling much compassion for those less privileged than me in my country, I was always defensive, always out to try and prove that we had shiny things too, just like the West. We had nice buildings, pretty clothes, posh schools. I cultivated a distaste, along with many of my contemporaries, for any negative portrayal of India by the Western media. This reaction of course can lead to a glossing over of the harsh realities that many Indians indeed face. But before the reaction comes the representation.
The Winter 2015 issue of Brevity, a journal I admire greatly, published an essay called “One Hundred Days In India,” by Jennifer Sinor. At first, when I read it I was certain that it was intended to be a parody of cliché images about India. But I soon realized I was wrong, that in fact the author had intended to write a sincere essay about her travels. As an Indian writer and critic, I was baffled at the thought that even in these times, an academic and experienced essayist could seem so unaware of both questions of authenticity – that is, the very truth which creative non-fiction seeks to unearth – and of the ethics of representing the other.
Sinor’s essay begins with the sentence, “In India, a dog, a monkey, and a cow attacked me.” This is the sentence that made me laugh out loud, expecting a clever spoof worthy of The Onion, a tongue-in-cheek mimicry of the reductive stereotyping that often occurs when Westerners attempt to represent India – think memoirs like Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert or movies like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where the East is celebrated as a bastion of spirituality, where Indian characters speak in exaggerated accents, becoming caricatures of themselves, where poverty is romanticized for Western audiences. This is hardly a new phenomenon, but is all the more disturbing for continuing to perpetuate old imperialist views. Sinor’s first sentence sets up several problematic assumptions. First, she does not specify a city or neighborhood or region, but broadens her experience to be representative of the entire country. The sentence implies that either one or all of these animals attacked her everywhere she went in India. Second, the first reference she makes is not to a single person she met out of the 1.25 billion that populate India, or to the ancient and ever-changing culture, or the landscape, but to animals, as if India were a nation of beasts. She speaks of three creatures that are not commonly seen roaming the streets of America, thus establishing a divide between the two countries. Third, the verb “attacked” suggests acts of violence, hostility, danger, committed against her, the foreign, white woman, a trope that can be traced back to colonial literature about colonized people who are more comparable to beasts than civilized humans.
This first sentence sets up the tone for the rest of the essay which lists, in a matter of fact manner, the many ills India is made up of – slums, poverty, leprosy, dogfights – all images that are negative and unappetizing, including the pasta she and her family are served at a restaurant. (Pasta, incidentally, is the only food mentioned in an essay about India!) Readers may be forgiven for interpreting the essay as a litany of India’s ills. The sentence “The Ganges is the fifth most polluted river in the world” is a stand-alone paragraph that is not narratively connected to the ones preceding or following it. It is simply thrown in there to add to the sense of misery, and national and cultural failure.
The first sight that greets Sinor when she is exiting the airport in Mumbai is that of the city’s infamous slums, which “unroll for miles in all directions.” Now, this is a fact. The slums are apparent, even from the air as the plane prepares to land. Miles of blue tarpaulin roofs cover the shanties that have been celebrated in so much literature and cinema, including the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. But Sinor’s fascination with India’s poverty blinds her to all other realities there. She fails to see the glaring markers of wealth around her in the same city, India’s financial, showbiz, and fashion capital. She makes no mention of the swank clubs and restaurants, or BMWs and Hondas crawling through the city, or the hundreds of towering high-rises including what is now the largest private residence in the world. I do not mention these to demonstrate India’s “bright” side. But how can one fail to notice the irony of such disparity. Why is there no attempt to contextualize the poverty she sees, against the backdrop of the country’s post-liberalization economy? Perhaps the author can only see that which is obviously different and none of that which might remind her – and her readers – of America.
Sinor’s imperial gaze continues when she visits a hill resort in the Himalayas which Indian tourists throng in the summer to escape the heat. They go for rest and recreation. But all she sees in McLeod Ganj are the “hundreds of destitute families” who live there. She is reminded of how good people and pets have it back home. In the West, she reminds us, “dogs had owners and poverty was concealed.” Perhaps Sinor has never been to an animal shelter or seen a homeless person in America. Ultimately, a limited vision about a foreign country is a limited vision about one’s own.
I use Brevity as a textbook in my undergraduate non-fiction class. When I shared this essay with my class this past semester, many students visibly cringed when we read about how the author and her son handed out coins to the poor. “She seems completely unaware of her Western privilege,” said one student. These were mostly young people who had never travelled outside the US, but they recognized instantly what was problematic about the essay. Sinor’s use of graphic images like the leper woman’s stumps to evoke pity among her readers objectifies the poor in the worst possible way. Her act of giving alms to the voiceless beggar in Benares is paternalistic and futile because it does absolutely nothing to eradicate even a tiny fraction of the real poverty in India or elsewhere. Instead it upholds the white savior complex, thus empowering, not the poor victim who is left with no agency, but the wealthy American.
I teach a fair bit of travel writing, often beginning with Jamaica Kincaid’s essay, “The Ugly Tourist,” where she insults the Western tourist with some harsh truths and explains at the very end where this bitterness comes from. The dynamic between the observing traveller and the observed local is always a complex one in travel writing. But it is multiplied when the traveller is from a historically empowered group and the local from a disempowered one. The history of travel writing is rife with problematic representations of colonized subjects by Eurocentric narrators. Historically, this genre has fallen prey to stereotypes and imperial rhetoric, as European colonizers “discovered” foreign lands and attempted to interpret their native populations for audiences back home. Canonical texts such as Edward Said’s Orientalism and Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation have famously criticized Western travel writers for their imperial gaze and for their primitivist representations of other cultures. Contemporary scholars have gone on to complicate Said and Pratt’s theories and methodology, by developing the idea of the persona and point of view, and the concept of travel as a continuous, global process. Both contemporary travel and the genre of writing associated with it have undergone many changes. It is necessary to ask, what responsibility, if any, does the travel writer have when writing about a place that is not native to her? And also, who has the authority to represent the other?
It is by no means only the Western writer who faces challenges when representing India. Several writers from India, both resident and diasporic, have sometimes resorted to cliché or stereotypes when writing about their native cultures, for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay. To answer the second question I posed above, it seems clear that anyone has the authority to represent a place or its people, so long as she is willing to do her homework and examine the historical and cultural context of her subject matter. This brings us to what I consider a critical element in the writing of non-fiction: Research.
Research is not only the realm of the reporter or academic. One of the biggest challenges I have faced when teaching non-fiction is to engage students in research. So often, young writers are content to write about experiences that are deeply personal but not universal. There is a belief, encouraged by reality TV, social networks, and confessional memoirs, that the writer’s personal opinion and experience are enough. Sometimes, they might be. Often, such as when drawing inferences about an entire group of people, it is not. Travel writers have a special responsibility. No writing is perhaps more political than travel writing. It is essential for practitioners to be wary of one’s own prejudices and of the dangers of resorting to cliché.
An essay published on Essay Daily a few months ago, by Lawrence Lenhart, called “Tigris! Tigris! A Species Loneliness” is a good example of how to do this. Lenhart demonstrates acute self-consciousness about his status as an American visitor to the Sundarbans, the mangrove forests that spread across both India and Bangladesh. He goes there hoping to see a tiger but returns to America without having seen one. His failure to see the expected animal is anti-climactic but real. Just because you go to a forest in the Indian Subcontinent that is famous for tigers does not ensure that you will see one. When a fellow tourist makes the joke about needing to “disorient,” Lenhart chants “Said said Said said Said said Said said Said said Said said Said said ” to remind himself not to give into any impulse to exoticize. When he encounters a religious shrine in a village in the Sunderbans, he inquires about the origins of the myth, thus giving a voice to the local people who, ironically, are not sure about the response. There are no easy answers for Lenhart, only questions. His essay does not pin the tiger to South Asia, but traces its existence in Western literature, music, and other media. His is an exploration of the tiger across the world. This universality enables him to blend with his characters and subjects. The tiger is de-exoticized and belongs to the entire world. What helps his essay immensely is his research. Admittedly, it is easier to incorporate research into a longer essay than one under 700 words. But brevity cannot be an excuse for lack of nuance.
On May 30 this year, NPR ran a piece called “Mary Ellen Park and the Caged Prostitutes of Mumbai,” celebrating the deceased photographer’s project published in 1981. The photographs of the prostitutes of Falkland Street, Mumbai, are stunning, and prostitution indeed exists in Mumbai (as it does elsewhere.) But Born Into Brothels, the 2005 award-winning documentary by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, about Calcutta’s red light children, was also a well-made and poignant film highlighting the plight of some of India’s wretched. It is when we start to stack up these creative projects by Americans about India, that a narrative pattern emerges. India is a country of miserable poverty and social ills, and it is up to the white savior from the West to champion its cause and in the process win critical acclaim. In an essay in The Huffington Post called “5 reasons why ‘poverty porn empowers’ the wrong person,” Emily Roenigk writes: “Poverty porn tells donors that because of their position in society and because of their resources they have the ability to be the saviors in vulnerable communities they might know nothing about.”
On May 28, The New York Times published an article called “Holding Your Breath in India” in its Sunday Review section, by Gardiner Harris who served as South Asia correspondent in Delhi for three years. In the article Harris complains about India’s pollution, sewage system, heat, tropical disease, traffic and so on. He says, “When I became a South Asia correspondent for The New York Times three years ago, my wife and I were both excited and prepared for difficulties — insistent beggars, endemic dengue and summertime temperatures that reach 120 degrees. But we had little inkling just how dangerous this city would be for our boys.” He lists the difficulties they were prepared for, but never tells us what they were excited about. He describes Delhi as “one of the worst public health disasters in the world.” As an Indian who has spent much time in Delhi I have to agree with Harris. But this is not the place to discuss Delhi’s pollution levels. Those are facts, increasingly well recorded. What strikes me as a bit odd is that over the period of three years Harris and his family lived in Delhi, they seem to not have registered any positive or even enriching experiences in India. No Indian friends or rewarding work experiences or travels or cultural experiences find a mention in his piece, which, significantly, is not a news report but an editorial, a genre that has room for much analysis and critical thinking. Harris does not take advantage of this and the result is yet another one-sided, predictable personal essay about India.
The representation of India does not appear to have altered much in the last hundred years. EM Forster’s colonial characters in A Passage to India, published in 1924, complained about the heat in India and the predatory impulses of Indian men. In the middle of the 20th century, American hippies depicted India as a nation of mysticism and spirituality, an equally reductive view. Visit any urban metropolis in the country today and you will find, at least on the surface, little semblance of spirituality, as young people race to collect more electronic gadgets, bigger cars, and more real estate, to become, in short, as Americanized as possible.
A writer does not have to be an activist (and writing alone is not real activism anyway,) but essayists do owe it to readers to examine the truth in all its nuance and complexity. Those of us who also teach young writers share an even greater responsibility. Ignoring the politics of representation means ignoring the truth that we essayists must strive to examine. It is not separate from craft but an essential element of it.
What Sinor’s essay has really done is create a persona that is liable to become a subject of ridicule. Imagine a white American tourist surrounded by Indian pilgrims in the famously religious Hindu city of Benares. For dinner, her family orders pasta. Then they walk around the city, expressing shock and awe at the sight of every street urchin that cleverly asks them for American money. They hand out coins to everyone they see and then fold their hands in an elaborate Namaste, and procure a bottle of polluted, nasty water from the Ganges, ask for everyone’s sins to be washed away, and head home so she can write about India’s problems for American readers. I am not the one who came up with this caricature. It is a cliché of the author’s own making. Surely we owe it to our readers to represent not only others but also ourselves in more complex ways.
Oindrila Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Grand Valley State University. She holds a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. Before moving to the US she worked as a journalist in Calcutta. Currently, she is working on a novel and a collection of stories. You can follow her on twitter at @oinkness.