Posted by: Vikram | July 17, 2010

The Indian Middle Class and America: One sided embrace

Almost like the post-colonial caricature in Sagarika Ghose’s blog on the expectations of an English speaking middle class Indian of America, when I came here as a 17 year old, I expected my American roommate to treat me as someone familiar. It wasnt quite like that, and the real hammer came down when at lunch the discussion turned to the World Trade Center attacks and he mentioned how we Indians “must have been dancing on the streets.” I was too stunned to even respond. And this wasnt a ‘Southern conservative hick’ but an urban, libertarian lifelong Democrat who had known me for months. Over the next few years, I was surprised/shocked when good friends mentioned “the hostage crisis”1 and “a village called Kerala”2.

I would like to emphasize again that these were not your usual caricature of conservative or racist Americans. Most of them were staunch liberals who were highly educated. The take home message is that American’s as a mass dont know much about India. This is not the result of some inherent racism or hatred of India but the logical consequence of history and geography. America is 20,000 kms away and belongs to Western civilization. It would make sense that they know more about Germany and King Arthur than they know about West Bengal and Ashoka.

The real problem is not how ignorant or racist Americans are but how we have embraced their life, ‘culture’ and aspirations with an almost religious fervour. Its like falling in ‘love’ with that girl in school, changing your entire life around to impress her but realizing that she doesnt really care. It is one thing for a few Indians to be interested in Hollywood movies just like a few Americans are intrigued by Indian cinema. But its a whole another story when a whole generation is brought to be more familiar with Marlon Brando and The Eagles than Raj Kapoor and Rafi.

The ‘young’ India may pay the odd note of ‘respect’ and be ‘proud’ of Tagore and Ghalib. But at home they are reading Enid Blyton and Shakespeare. The usual rhetoric of expanding horizons does not work. Our attention span is after all limited, and metro India spends most of it on western culture and the rest on a highly westernized Bollywood. The frustration that we feel when the realization dawns that a country and a people eons away in both distance and culture doesnt really care that much is unjustified. They have their own culture and entertainment, we just have to learn to accept our own.

A commenter on Sagarika’s post said globalization and ‘integration’ is a two way street. It isnt and doesnt have to be. Westerner’s did not force India to open its markets, the Indian middle class’s economic interests did. Westerners are not forcing us to name our residential areas ‘Imperial Orchards’ or ‘Viceroy Park’. They are not convincing us to have white models in adverts meant for Indian people. They are not begging us to immigrate to their country. It is ridiculous for us to think that a few Indians seeking greener pastures in America should lead to them accepting our culture en masse. Instead of appreciating and imbibing the freedom and equality that make America great, Indians in India try to make their own lives resemble the materialistic lives they imagine white Americans to be living. If we keep going this way, all we will have to pass on to future generations is a culture without context and memories of a lost civlization.

1: Yes, a lot of Americans dont know the difference between India and Iran.
2: Yes, they know absolutely nothing about Indian states and our diversity.

But this is not very different from what metro India thinks.

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Responses

  1. the trouble with the (only) English speaking middle class is that it thinks that Gurgaon is a suburb of Newyork (or vice versa), Banglore next to Boston, and Mumbai somewhere in Maine !!

    Worse than that they bring up their kids that way. In a way it is colonization. We give them chicken tikka, and they give us Halloween ! Most kids don’t know what or who Tagore is, think that the caste system is dead and gone, and think of India in terms of mass media created generalizations !

    My brother, who lives in DC, came to India a few years ago and commented ‘we are becoming the Americans’ 😦

  2. Interesting post and I agree with you and I note that most Indians don’t know anything about East or South-East or for that matter even West Asian cultures, history or people. In fact actually Indians even seem to be ill-informed about the west and all their perceptions of that part of the world seem to be based on Hollywood or Bollywood. Pity indeed.

  3. Vikram,

    Excellent points.

    I think part of the problem is that many of our cultures have lost vigour. People from a state have lost interest in their own culture or literature. (Excepting perhaps a few states like Bengal. But even Bengal has lost its film industry. I used to think Tamil Nadu was fiercely wedded to its culture but I’m getting the impression nowadays that they’ve given up and begun “embracing” the West.) I wonder whether the hegemony of Hindi, pursued vigorously by a sequence of governments at the centre, has something to do with it.

    Without a strong culture to luxuriate in, people will search for a culture to identify with that is interesting enough. Maybe they are finding that in Western culture. Certainly with its ceaseless self-promotion, Western culture is attractive.

    I strongly believe that initiatives to strengthen our various language-based cultures will help in this. To do this, we must first give up the idea that one language must dominate the others. Then every Indian language and associated culture can be encouraged. The biggest obstacle is the fear that this will lead to reduced national unity. I don’t think that is something to worry about, but I guess we should remain vigilant about it.

    • Yes, Hindi has had a huge role to play in the marginalization of so called ‘regional’ languages. We have established a hierarchy of culture in our country, with western at top, western influenced Bollywood second and the ‘regional’ cultures last.

      We absolutely need a relook at how languages are taught, used and treated in our country. It is really sad to see Delhi wallahs go gaga over French but frown upon Tamil.

  4. Yes, a lot of Indians don’t know much about USA, mainly because we have not had an opportunity in life to be affluent enough, but times have changed.Another few years, Americans will know about India as economic interests will bring them closer to India

  5. @ Harini, “We give them chicken tikka, and they give us Halloween !”

    Even if it were true that chicken tikka mainstream in America, it would be very symptomatic of a most unequal cultural relationship. Halloween is a full fledged festival that requires knowledge of western history and require west-like mass behaviour.

    Why should we just hug American festivals like this ? We have to learn to be objective and look inwards.

    @ odzer, you have made an important point, the lack of knowledge Indians have about their immediate neighborhood. We so desperately want to think of ourselves as western, that we are ready to gulp down their history and culture in the name of modernity, and this comes at the expense of knowing about the countries around us.

    @ Chowla saab, America has deep economic links with Mexico and Japan, that hasnt stopped those countries from being stereotyped and being on the fringes of mainstream culture. It isnt going to happen with India. And it doesnt have to.

  6. The vacuousness of middle class India is scary. Just how little importance we pay to our languages–which is usually the most important component of a man’s identity–is proof enough of how little self esteem/confidence we have.

    Btw, have you read or heard of Becoming Indian by Pavan Verma. I’m told it’s a good read. Here’s a review by Swapan D : http://www.swapan55.com/2010/03/shakespeare-baboo.html

    • Hades, I just finished reading ‘The Great Indian Middle Class’ by the same author. Its a great read, especially if one is not aware of the dominant attitudes of the middle class.

      And yes, languages are a key component of whats wrong with us. A lot of it has to do with structural factors like the teaching of languages in schools, which can be greatly improved. There are other, more subtle factors like social prestige which will require a changing of attitudes.

  7. […] See more here: The Indian Middle Class and America: One sided embrace […]

  8. Nice post Vikram. I think the reason for this one-side love affair is obvious. There are a lot more Indians traveling to (and settling in) the US than the other way round.

    Even if you consider plain tourists, there are very few Americans in India. Most foreigners are Brits, Dutch or other Europeans. Americans hardly venture outside the US, and even if they do, they hardly cross the borders of the first world. They imagine the 3rd world countries as one huge malarial swamp ruled by gun-toting dictators with bad teeth. It is hard for them to get beyond this image, and only a few stereotypes exist outside this that make up national identities (like how the Taj Mahal does this for India). A good example of how this plays out in the American public consciousness is the film Slumdog Millionaire. You can find all the cliches about India rolled up into one – call centres, slums and the Taj Mahal.

    This intellectual laziness of the American to look at India (or for that matter, any country in the world) is an American loss. Only a few academics, hippies and activists in the US build a holistic view about the countries of the world. Even if the Indian middle class tries its best to Americanize itself, it will never succeed. Because the luxury of not caring about the rest of the world doesn’t exist for India.


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