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.