A sense of humour can be a funny thing handy when it comes to dissipating fear, less useful when trying to counter collective distaste of filth. Sections of the Indian diaspora know this to be unwinkingly true right now, when the world is wrinkling its collective nose at 21st century India’s apparent “filthiness”.
Humour cannot mitigate the situation. This is not five years ago, right after the London bombings, which were perpetrated mainly by Anglo-Pakistanis. All brown people on London’s public transport suddenly seemed fearfully suspect. A few dozen Indians in London understood the power of humour and had T-shirts printed with the words “Don’t freak, I’m a Sikh”. It didn’t change a great deal; no one was rolling with mirth in the aisles, but it did melt the edges of a very palpable tension on the trains they rode.
Could people of Indian origin around the world do something similar now? Yes, goes the joke, they could say they were Sri Lankan and deny all connection with the country that gave an “unlivable” Games Village to Commonwealth athletes.
That is unlikely. In the 1950s, V S Naipaul won no plaudits and much condemnation in Indiafor his clear-eyed view of defecating Indians. “Indians defecate everywhere…they never look for cover…it is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad,” he observed in ‘An Area of Darkness’.
So it continues, 60 years on. Today, as before, much of the 22 million strong diaspora – barring possibly the South African and West Indian – is stuck with the dividend and the downside of being identifiably Indian and overseas. Till yesterday, it could enjoy the ‘new India’ narrative, assume the moral high ground over Pakistan and weld itself to mighty China sans hyphens (Chindia). Today, it must accept the ignominy of knowing that press and public opinion right the way round the world is frankly appalled by Indian standards and horrified by its hubris. Indians in Britain, the US and parts of Europe are privately confessing to friends and family back ‘home’ that they walk with their heads down and avoid eye contact on public transport. To some others, it is humiliating to be considered on a par now with the “Pakis”, i.e. those who seem prone to serial match-fixing and dishonesty. One man says it reminds him of the axiom his Indian-bred grandmother was taught here fully 90 years ago: “Teach a man in India to read, and he will not teach the other illiterates to read, rather he will charge them to read their letters.” Another, profoundly embarrassed young woman said she felt “violated” by the photographs of filthy loos on front pages all over the world, “like it was my bathroom, even though it wasn’t”.
If this sounds overwrought and over the top, it isn’t. Sociologist James Clifford famously described “the empowering paradox of diaspora”, namely that “dwelling here (overseas) assumes solidarity and connection there.” It can be convenient when the going is good, but a curse when the ‘ancestral homeland’ is in the international doghouse. Time was when every Manish who went to the US became “Max” as fast as he could and cultivated a lifestyle and affectations as far removed from India as possible. Then came the ‘India Rising’ phase and the percussive drumbeat of global success – balti food, Bollywood, bright graduates for call centres. Suddenly, it was cool to confess to being “very Indian at heart”. Will that outlive the world’s distaste at something the The Times, London, uncompromisingly calls “not the inevitable failings of messy democracy…(but) of bad democracy”?
‘National pride’ is arguably easiest to entertain if living within the borders of a country. For the diaspora, any diaspora, it is doubly hard justifiably to cultivate patriotism, the emotion that W Somerset Maugham memorably called “prejudice”. Being too manifestly an Englishman in New York, in the words of the Sting song, made him a “legal alien”. As also being too obviously Indian in the international village square. It is all very well to theorise that diasporas are “travelling cultures” with individuals physically dwelling in one country and existing in an astral or spiritual ‘elsewhere’. But it can compound the world’s perception problem with the motherland as when British Indian billionaire Gopichand Hinduja repeated Union sports minister M S Gill’s “monsoon wedding analogy” to the British media as a perfectly reasonable, if exotic, explanation for execrable Games preparations. “It’s only in Europe and America where weddings are planned three or four months ahead, the bride’s dress is ready and the guest list finalised,” he said.
It can also elicit, say, the following affronted outpouring from a British Indian journalist: “And yet, long before an abiding fealty to the land of my birth kicks in, I detect something a little distasteful in the ceremonial wringing of hands that has accompanied its travails, as well as ignorance of the Indian sensibility. The interpretation of this crisis as a metaphor for the irrepressibility of the old India corrupt, dirty, poor, with dodgy infrastructure and unable to match China is wilfully myopic about the new India, home to extraordinary economic growth and social development, albeit too exclusively so.” In those caveats lie that terrible diasporic space the gap between physical reality and a visual or imagined one from far away.