Foreign negative writing about India and Indian reactions

Mother India

Posted on 1-July-2012

"Keep a critic close by; build a hut for him in your courtyard. For, he, without soap or foam, cleanses [your] nature."

                                                                                                                       Abdurrahim Khan-e-Khanan, Hindi poet and a minister in the court of the Mogul Emperor Akbar

     When, in 1927, Katherine Mayo, an American journalist and writer, published her quite negative book about India, Mother India, most literate Indians at home and abroad reacted strongly and loudly. In some places her effigies were burnt and others called for a ban on the book. Since the book appeared at a time when the Indian nationalist movement had started calling with increasing urgency for freedom from British rule, it was seen by many as a deliberate attempt to show that Indians were not fit to govern themselves. For this reason some of the more chauvinistic reactions at the time were not entirely strange. Gandhi called it a drain inspector's report, so much so that this characterisation has ever since been remembered by people in India as an appropriate dismissal of Katherine Mayo, who in the minds of many has become an archetypical foreigner who , to use a common Indian cliché, shows India in a negative light. Very few in India also remember Gandhi's advice that all Indians should read the book.

     Denunciations of Mother India notwithstanding, inspectors of Indian drains, foreigners and Indians, have continued to thrive and multiply. At least concerning one slice of life, that pertaining to the basic biological function of the evacuation of human bowels, Gandhi himself was no mean drain inspector. He talked ceaselessly and wrote reams about simple, inexpensive, hygienic latrines, about people cleaning their latrines themselves and about ending the custom of human beings removing human excreta, prudishly called nightsoil in Indian writing in English, from the dry latrines of houses of those who can afford them and carrying them on their heads to a van, a carriage or a disposal site. For some unknown reason the practice is called scavenging in Indian English and the carriers of the excreta, scavengers. India, ever so proud of its spiritual tradition, did to Gandhi what it has always done to all its teachers: place him on a divine pedestal and ignore his teachings. Gandhi's inexpensive hygienic latrines did not catch on and millions of Indians continue to defecate in the open, often without much regard for the surroundings. Cleaning one's own latrine remains an alien concept for most Indians--even at Sabarmati Ashram on the periphery of Ahmedabad, presumably manned by committed Gandhians, it seems the residents do not clean their own latrines except ritualistically once every year on Gandhi's birthday. And according to many media reports scavenging and scavengers continue in many parts of India including Delhi in spite of a legal ban instituted years ago.

     Another notorious drain inspector was V.S.Naipaul who cannot be accused of racism against India and all whose writings about India are tinged with disappointment that this land which his forbears remembered almost as a lost paradise should be so disorderly, dirty and incompetent. For the most vocal sections of Indian intelligentsia Naipaul became a loathsome India baiter after the publication of An Area of Darkness--curiously few in India talk of India: A Wounded Civilisation and India: A Million Mutinies Now--and remained so until he redeemed himself by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and by doing so became a badge of Indian national pride. Late in 1997, I had to listen to such a long and inane harangue by a very senior Indian diplomat against V.S.Naipaul as representing the kind of man who makes a career out of writing negatively about India--showing India in a negative light as the cliché goes-- that, had he not provided a comic relief by denouncing Shiva Naipaul while he meant V.S.Naipaul, I would have had trouble suppressing yawns. The only thing missing from that harangue was froth at the mouth. Already in the late 1960's denunciations of V.S.Naipaul were commonplace in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.

     From the days of Katherine Mayo, two things in the Indian situation have not changed. Drain inspectors have continued to inspect and write their reports mentioning the same squalor, filth, pervasive stench of urine, dung and faeces and disorder on the streets and in public places. Some more recent drain inspectors' reports add chaotic traffic, poor infrastructure and corruption to the old list. Over the years Indian reactions have followed the same pattern and they fall into three groups: denunciatory ( the writer is a habitual India baiter, he betrays typical western racist prejudice, he is a disgruntled Indian or, he is an opportunistic Indian out to please his western audiences), cultural relativist ( the writer, a foreigner is judging a different culture and civilisation by the standards of his own culture and fails to appreciate both the fine points of Indian culture and the difference between his culture and Indian culture) or chauvinistic (the man must be demented to notice only what is negative in India and not what is good, not India's achievements of which the most important is India's democracy and India's prowess in computer software, not India's glorious art and architecture, nor India's history and India's priceless contributions to world civilisation such as the concept of zero, the game of chess, Sanskrit the mother of all languages, and the practice of yoga). Indian denouncers of the drain inspectors are rarely ever able to point out that the filth the drain inspectors report about is not there or that the drain inspectors are falsifying their reports. Indian voices holding that the drain inspectors may be right are not heard or are drowned out. Not only does the intelligentsia seem to have forgotten the wisdom in the lines from Abdurrahim Khan-e-Khanan with which this essay opens, its far too frequent panglossian responses to criticism create the impression of smugness and unwillingness to change and more damning than reports of filth, squalor and the general messiness are conclusions that Indians just do not care at all about the ills of their society and do not wish to change. The tragedy is that most of the drain inspectors' reports are true. It is also a tragedy that as a nation, India has failed to take note of the way critics look at the country and to act seriously, as opposed to indulging in tokenism, to remove some of the shortcomings. If India had, the tribe of drain inspectors would have decreased and the quality of life in the country would have been much better than it is.

     I do not know who should be the most to blame: those who like me have despaired of any improvement in the social ethics and public behaviour of my countrymen, those who dismiss the drain inspectors as uncomprehending foreigners or disgruntled Indians or those who do not feel enraged at the disorder, the squalor and the filth, prefer not not notice them and see no need for change for the better. In the mean time, India, the home of one fifth of humanity goes on, indifferent to the opinions of its critics, like the stars and the galaxies moving on pathways carved for them by gravity, indifferent to the existence of conscious, thinking life forms observing them or, to use a familiar Indian simile, like an elephant moving ponderously forward, unperturbed by the bark of street dogs.  


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Also on this site:               Introduction to The Waste Sad Time             The Waste Sad Time






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