Orientalism and India

“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate” is a famous quote by Edward Said which perfectly summarizes the concept of orientalism.

Orientalism is in simple words an excuse given by an empire to rule over land that does not belong to it and over people who don’t need to obey this empire. The excuse is the whitest of lies, that the empire is ruling over this “colony” to help it grow and to educate the people of this colony and help them become civilized. Orientalism paints a picture in the mind of every person unfortunate enough to understand it from the point of view the empire that the land this empire is ruling over is inhabited by uncivilized lunatics who are in desperate in need of help. And that it is the empire which is doing the country (colony) a “favor” by ruling over them. Oh the whitest of lies, by the whitest of men.

Such is the case with India. After becoming an independent country nearly 70 years ago by throwing the British Empire out of our country, we are still looked down upon by the western world. We are to the western people what the Britishers presume us to be – filthy and poor. We were and still are portrayed as people incapable of making the right decision, people crying out to be saved. My heart aches every time these white people look at us with disgust and mind is filled with anger. I call them “white” because that is what they want us call them, superior white people. But soon my hatred turns into laughter. I pity the people who believe these white lies told by white people, believing the story told to them as they are doing what we were doing for 200 years, listening but not thinking for ourselves.

The Danger of a single story is a beautiful speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which highlights the danger of knowing a story only from point of view of a single person or community. The people of the western world are under the illusion that Britain made India a better place to live in, that it introduced the people of the India to civilization, that it introduced to many different cultures as if India did not have a rich culture of its own. On the contrary if one asks a 75 year old Indian or reads even an “Amar Chitra Katha”, he will understand the pain and suffering of the country and its people and the countless lives that ever sacrificed to end the dark rule of the British. If you want to understand the struggle of being ruled by men who don’t know your culture and don’t care about it, watch movies like “Rang De Basanti”, “Lagaan” and “The Legend of Bhagat Singh”.

Visual presentation of a story is the most effective way of conveying the gist of the story. Through movies, TV shows and Youtube videos reinforce the idea of India being a poor nation, its people suffering from poverty. We are a so called “Developing” Nation but are portrayed as a nation which is vastly underdeveloped. Look no further than one of the most popular Sitcoms of all time, “The Big Bang Theory”. The show revolves around 4 scientists trying to understand the way a society works and trying to fit in to be a part of that society. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that out of the 4, Raj, an Indian is portrayed as the most desperate of them all. The show first aired in 2005 and Raj has ever since been portrayed as a stereotypical Indian man. From the clothes he wears (particularly the awful multi-color sweater he always wears) to the way he talks (thinking he has a zero chance to ever converse with girl because of his origins), Raj even admits in an episode that he never wants to return to his awful homeland. He says that he cannot eat beef in his country, which is one of the reasons he never wants to return and that his family tricks poor people into being servants forever. On “The Tonight Show” most recently, Indian actor Priyanka Chopra was challenged to eat chilies by the host. Now it may have been just a fun challenge but brings into light another stereotype about India, it’s cuisine. Indian food is always associated with being something spicy, even on huge shows such as Masterchef US. Now, India does eat food lot different from the western cuisine but there is a difference in having a lot more flavor and being plan spicy. India has a variety of food from the spiciest of the spicy to the sweetest of the sweet and it’s a pity that people only look at a particular type of food when they look at India.

There is a scene in the movie “English Vinglish” which best depicts the way the western society has come to think of India and its people. The protagonist of the movie is an Indian mother who, in this particular scene, is trying to order something in a café but is finding difficulty in doing so due to her inability to understand English. The impatient, irritable tone the lady at the counter uses tells the entire story. Instead of helping somebody who just needs help to understand what to order, the lady’s behavior makes the Indian mother cry and feel completely useless. Now the reason for this behavior is the lady’s perception about Indians. This perception is that all Indians are fools and beneath the citizens of western countries, a perception which is shared by millions. Had this been an Italian or Spanish mother with a European accent, would she have used the same tone and behaved in the same manner? I wonder.

Maybe at this very moment a boy is watching Big Bang Theory and laughing as Howard is imitating Raj and his accent and thinking a boy like me to be exactly how he sees Raj or rather how someone wants him to see Raj.

If only that boy had visited India and seen that the people here are smart and have great jobs and are not snake charmers before forming his view about Indian people. If only that boy had watched “Dance India Dance” and seen Indian dancers do hip-hop before forming his view that Indian dancing is only about Belly dancing. If only that boy had met so many of my intelligent friends before forming the opinion that they are all stupid. If only that boy had tasted my mum’s delicious “Gulab Jamun” before forming the opinion that Indian food is only spicy. If only that boy had watched “Namaste London” and watched Akshay Kumar talk ever so proudly about India and its history so proudly after a Britisher had insulted India instead of watching Raj berate his country in “Big Bang Theory”. If only that boy had heard my grandfather talk about the pain of being ruled by the Britishers instead of his grandfather talk about how the Britishers helped by ruling over us. If only that boy had come to a party with me and seen the different kind of clothes we wear instead of forming the opinion of us wearing bright colors all the time after watching Harry Potter. If only that boy had met me before forming the opinion about who I am.

If only he had not, maybe I could’ve been the best of friends with that boy but because of orientalism I already know he looks down on me.

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