My last blogpost gave me the idea to do a series on India, as I find I have a lot to say about living here. Many of you will disagree with me, and others might feel horrified. You might wonder if I at all have anything good to say about India (I do, and I might post about that as well) and you might hate me for saying these things. It’s problematic, belonging to a Third World country you hate and trying to talk about it without devolving into a “India sucks, the west is awesome” rhetoric. I don’t know if I have managed to do that, but I am trying.
I’ve been back in India for a bit more than 2 months now, and for the first time in my life, I’m really observing the country. I spent the first 25 years here being as detached as I could; I’m still detached, but I’m a detached observer now. Working in media is different from what I am used to as well. A lot of my time is spent reading news concerning startups, entrepreneurs and technology. (It’s not as bad as it sounds, it’s actually a lot of fun!) And yesterday I started wondering what it is about India that makes it so moribund.
Part of my job involves reading about upcoming startups and interviewing the ones I think are promising. One of the ways in which you decide that is by looking at their websites. And almost every single Indian startup I’ve seen has a site that looks like someone designed it in MS Frontpage in 1998. A couple of days ago, we tried out a group messaging app called Zoho at work. It failed to deliver and had a horribly ugly interface to boot, so we switched back to Gtalk. Yesterday, while reading an article about why Indian startups fail, I found out that Zoho is an Indian product. And suddenly its crappiness made sense. I realised that Indian products are mostly characterised by their ugliness and failure to work and I couldn’t figure out why it had to be so. I kept thinking about it and finally had a lightbulb moment of realisation in the bus back from work. It was this: India consistently fails to deliver in almost every field because we prize mediocrity.
Take your brighter-than-average middle-class Indian child. Let’s assume it’s a boy because people still don’t care a great deal about educating girls, even in the middle classes. This kid will learn to read at an early age, probably in English if his parents are rich enough, but will only be encouraged to read till he learns the language well enough to get good marks at it in school. After that, he will be directed towards maths and science and not given books outside textbooks. Anything that detracts from the pursuit of excelling academically in those two disciplines will be banned. From a very early age, he will be taught at school from textbooks that try their hardest to turn even the most interesting of subjects into a collection of statistics and formulae. He will have to memorize the contents of those books and reproduce them exactly, word for word, three times a year when he is tested. Veering away from exact reproduction will lose him precious marks. No one will encourage him to be curious about the world around him. No one will encourage him to think. His most prized quality will be accurate memorization and reproduction of facts. Gradgrind would be happy to meet him.
If he shows any aptitude for art/music/sports, he will be sent to specialised classes for them where he will again be subject to standardized tests. In all probability, he will not be allowed to continue with any of those pursuits after the age of 8 or 10. He might still have 40 minutes of one of two of those activities at school every week if he is lucky, but not after the age of 14. From around the time he is 8, he will be sent to private tutors after school in order to score even higher marks. His average day, once he is in high school, might consist of one special lesson before school, two after he comes back home and 3 on each day of the weekend. He will have tutors for every subject except languages unless he is either remarkably weak or remarkably good at them. At 16, he will sit for a state or nation-wide standardized test which he would have spent the last two years preparing for. This test will be an exercise in rewarding mediocrity. At 18, he will sit for another similar test, and then he will enter University. Like 95% of his peers, he will study either medicine or engineering. 4 years later, he will graduate and become a Gradgrind in his own right. In all his 20-odd years of education, he would not have had single original thought, not one single creative idea. But he will be an expert at reproducing facts.
Sometimes, one among thousands of children will demonstrate some actual creativity, and a desire to deflect from the stifling path of mediocrity, and be crushed by the system. I was one of those kids. From the time I was sentient, there were two things I loved: I loved to draw, and I loved to read. I was encouraged in these pursuits until I entered high school, and then I was flung into the meat grinder* that is the Indian education system. I would wake up at 7 and go for private lessons with tutors, go to school, go straight to two more private lessons from school, come back home, do my homework and sleep around 2 am. I did this for a year or so before I finally cracked. The rest of my high school career was spent in vicious fights with my mother concerning my grades. Every year, when I won the prizes for English and art, my mother would come with me to the prize-giving ceremony and on the way home, sneer at me about how ashamed she was sitting next to the mother of the boy who got the highest marks in everything. I was regularly excelling in the disciplines I liked in a class of 900 students, but since those disciplines were not science, my achievements were meaningless.
I was talked into taking up science for my plus-twos since I had started loving biology by then, thanks to an excellent tutor I had in the subject. But I hated science, I hated every moment of it. Physics and chemistry and maths all went over my head, and I would end up getting something like 2 out of 200 in them. There were a few others like me, kids whose talent lay elsewhere, and we would compare our science scores on results day. Whoever got the lowest would win. I started skipping classes to go to the library and read the books I wanted to; I was lucky to be in a school whose library had been very well stocked by at least the founders, if not the people who took over later. One day, I was at the library during classes and looking at a book on fashion history, utterly fascinated. Some teachers came in and turfed me out of that section, claiming it was only meant for teachers. They then proceeded to sell sarees to each other. The next day, the chemistry teacher gave us a talk on how he was going to help us prepare not just for the plus-two exams we had to sit for, but also the “competitive exams” which enabled you to get into engineering and medical schools. I was singularly uninterested, since I had decided by then that I was going to study literature. He noticed me and pulled me up and said “Oh Ragini is not interested ofcourse - she only wants to read fashion magazines!” This apparently educated, intelligent man had no clue about the difference between a fashion magazine and a book on the history of clothes from the medieval times to the 20th century.
I lucked out in general though. My parents never stopped me from reading books and bought them for me all the time, and when I was 15, my mum married my stepdad and I moved into a house filled with literally thousands of books. Despite being a failed academic, my stepdad is one of the very few people I know who lives for learning, and he encouraged me to do what I was passionate about. At Uni, I ended up in a literature department where I had oodles of fun, learned something new everyday, was taught by some brilliant people, and came out a lot wiser than I had gone in. But almost NO Indian kid gets these advantages while growing up. This is why we don’t produce scientists; we produce engineers. We don’t have designers; we have code monkeys. Doctors instead of medical researchers. And anyone with any talent runs off to the west like I did because India stifles our creativity and forces us into a mould that drains every original thought from our brains. It’s the problem of being a wretchedly poor nation. We want security, not brilliant ideas that lead to financial uncertainty. Indian parents want their kids to get steady government jobs - they don’t want them to be entrepreneurs. Tumblr’s David Karp has been in the news a lot recently, thanks to the Yahoo takeover. There’s a reason he’s American; no Indian could ever have done what he did. His mother took him out of school when he was 14 and homeschooled him so he could spend more time working on what he really loved: computers. An Indian mother would have taken his computer away and bullied him for not scoring marks at school. My stepdad teaches kids English for a living, and it’s his daily complaint that none of them ever read books. When he tells their parents that they need to read books, the usual response is, “Oh I tell him/her to read the newspaper but he/she never listens!” The newspaper. Because it’s filled with facts. And facts help you score marks.
It’s not that I haven’t known academically brilliant people who are also truly intelligent, but it’s the exception, rather than the rule. Things, however, seem to be looking up in recent times; I have met Indian people who dropped out of Uni, a rare and shocking thing to do in this country, and gone on to do the things they really wanted to. One of them makes games, another is one of my bosses. Cities like Bombay and Bangalore have turned into centres for talented people who were being crushed by the system to escape to and excel. It’s hard to deviate from set paths in a poor nation. For any concrete changes to happen, the entire education system needs an overhaul, but it’s a huge expense for one, and in any case, India’s government is a moribund one, headed by old, corrupt men who want nothing more than to line their pockets while blethering on about the sanctity of traditions. We hate embracing new things in India; we are scared of change. But who knows, maybe my generation might do better. Till then though, we are stuck with making things that look like this.
*I borrowed my analogy from this video - the album it’s from is one of the biggest musical influences of my life and changed my world when I was 14.
An Indian woman covered head to toe in 40 degree heat
I’ve always hated India. From the time I was tiny, I fervently believed that one day I would be able to escape its clutches. I never fitted in, even when I was young. Indian girls are supposed to be short, skinny, pale and docile, subservient to the wishes of men and elders. I was never any of those things. It was a society that rejected me, and in turn, I rejected it. After I finished high school, I worked on minimising my contact with Indian society as much as I could. I spoke to no one outside my very small circle of friends (usually numbering 2 or 3 people), I didn’t use public transport, and I never went out anywhere. In 2008, I dropped out of my MA course and relegated myself to my attic room, cutting off all contact with the outside world and spending my days smoking pot with my then-girlfriend. I spent two years doing nothing else. I was completely isolated. I had come to a point in my life where even my limited contact with Indian society as a fat, tall, outspoken woman had eroded my self confidence to nothing. In order to get something of myself back, I needed utter solitude.
And it worked. By 2010, I was confident in my body and even believed that guys would want to date me – something that was impossible in India. When I went to the UK that October, I was ready to finally begin my life. In the end it turned out that I never actually began the life I had dreamed of, seeing as I remained introverted as ever, but so many things happened that I never thought could happen. I had a blog which was actually read by people and appreciated, I could dress in the clothes I had always wanted to dress in and not feel uncomfortable, I met other fat people like me and felt a sense of community for the first time in my life, and I even had a relationship with a guy. A relationship where I was happy, where I felt sexy and desired and loved. It felt like the culmination of all my dreams, like I was finally being rewarded for all the awfulness I had gone through. But eventually that ended, and a while later, so did my time in the UK. And now I am back in India, and navigating the terrain in a way I have never done before.
I can’t hide in my attic room any longer. My ex-girlfriend who I used to hide with is getting married and I have to work for a living. Every morning I get up at 8 and take the tube and 3 autos to work. The tube ride is something I have to brace myself for every. single. time. It’s not the crowds, although those are bad enough. Indian people violently lack in civic decency, so it’s usually a case of shoving someone out of the way to get on the train and being shoved aside by someone on the way out. That’s not the worst part though. The worst part is what happens on the train. India is a severely, wretchedly misogynistic society. If you have grown up in the west, it’s hard to envision the sheer scale of violence that is practiced against women here. A woman in India has no human rights. Let me repeat that. A woman in India has no human rights. There are half a billion of us living here and we have to literally wrest out some sort of life from the clutches of the patriarchy on a daily basis. You will be lucky to escape rape in India if you are a woman. To Indian men, a woman is no more than a sentient piece of meat designed solely for their gratification. Indian men don’t know how to look at women without mentally undressing them. Your body is not your own. It belongs to the public. It is the sole life aim of every single Indian woman to pass undetected under the radar and at the end of the day thank one of the 300 million gods that she wasn’t raped or harassed that day. We believe that our bodies are somehow “indecent” and can “provoke” men if not covered from head to toe at all points. So in 40 degree heat, we go around in full sleeves and trousers, holding our bags in front of our chests, trying to avoid eye contact with any man. I am lucky. I am bigger and taller than most Indian men, and so they avoid harassing me. I don’t escape the attention of the women though.
Today was the second time in less than a week that I was fat and slut shamed on the tube. It was a woman who did it, just as it was a woman who did it the first time around. Let me elaborate. In India, I don’t dress the way I did in the UK. My work attire is a plain cotton tee and a pair of baggy, shapeless jeans and flip flops. It’s the most unobtrusive outfit I could think of, without going into salwar kameez territory, because I’d rather immolate myself than wear one of those. But even an innocuous t shirt and pair of jeans is not demure enough for the Indian public. The women, they call out to me loudly, and tell me to cover myself up and append that statement with something on the lines of “one woman’s shame is every woman’s shame” or “we feel ashamed to look at you”. And the worst part? They act like they are doing you a favour. Maybe they really think they are. Maybe they think they are helping you not get raped by “provoking” men in such slutty clothes. It’s the way things always have been. The patriarchy has the country in its iron grip and the women collude with it. To speak out is to live a life of singular daily harassment and eventually die a terrible, violent death. We don’t question it. We stick to our “traditions”, traditions which dictate that female fetuses be routinely aborted and female newborns murdered, transwomen spend their lives on the streets, begging for a living and 2 and 4 year olds raped, disembowelled and left to die on train tracks. And that’s just scratching the surface. All this happens because women in India are no better than chattel. We, and our bodies belong only to the men in our lives, and if they want to brutally rape and murder us, well then, that’s just “tradition”.
I don’t know how to fight back against this. I don’t even know if anyone is fighting back against this. The only Indian feminist I know is currently in Binghamton and due to move back to India end of the month and justifiably apprehensive about it. As for me, I just dream of escape. When I was 17, I tried dating Indian guys and was so traumatized by the experience that I stopped talking to guys altogether for 7 years. I spent the years counting down to the day I could go to the UK. And now I’m back in the same position again, counting the days till I can do my TEFL course and escape to Europe/Australia/South America/ North America/ anywhere but Asia, obviously never to come back. Could I stay and fight for my basic human rights? Yes, I could, but that is not the life I want. I don’t want to wake up everyday to a world where simply existing is a constant struggle, and compounding that struggle by speaking up against the things people take for granted around me. Some people aren’t meant to be activists – some people don’t have the spoons and only really want a quiet, happy life with a loving partner and children. Both of which I will be denied if I stay in India. So I’m running away again, as I once did.
I’ve been back for barely 2 months, and in that short time I feel like I have been reduced to a shell. It’s hard to find peace; the only things I look forward to every day are my joint and my wank. Those are the only times I can feel somewhat content. Every time I venture out of the house, I feel like India is eroding away at what little is left of me. I have no more self esteem anymore. I don’t wear nice clothes, or makeup. I put on the same clothes everyday, clothes in which I try to hide and fail, scrimp my hair back, shoulder my backpack and pretend to be invisible. I feel like Arya in Game of Thrones when she was at Harrenhal – a wolf turned into a mouse. If I continue to live in India, I will soon be a ghost of my former self. I don’t know how other Indian women do it. I see my best friend living here happily, and my sister, and I marvel at them. I don’t doubt that they are happy, because I can clearly see that they are, but I do wonder what it is that makes me so different to them. They have lived here all their lives and they have thrived. I, on the other hand, have barely survived, and that too by isolating myself. Yes, not everything was great in the UK, and I had plenty of reasons to complain – mostly because of the racism woven into the very fabric of society there. But it wasn’t relentless. I never felt like I was being annihilated. Yeah, university made me feel stupid, I was pretty lonely, and a vein of subtle racism ran through it all, but I was allowed to be myself. And I wasn’t punished for it. In India, you are punished severely if you deviate from the norm even a little bit. It’s the reason we produce vast quantities of engineers but no scientists.
I used to hate NRIs – Non Resident Indians, or what Indians living outside India are called. They always seemed to be to be the very worst examples of humanity. They are the kind of people who would come back to “the motherland” laden with duty free crap and pretend that they were bringing gifts from the very gods, and go on about how wonderful the west is at every opportunity, showing off their consumer durables and clothes, and drinking only bottled water. I still hate them. And by extension, I hate myself. Because I seem to have turned into one of them. I studied postcolonial theory because I thought it would help me understand these things better. But I am no wiser now than I was when I first entered university at the age of 19. I still don’t have answers to the questions I had back then. Why do we, as a culture, reject the concept of personal autonomy? Why do we rape/abuse/kill our women at unprecedented rates? Why are we so corrupt? So incurious about the world? I don’t have an answer to any of this, and the questions just keep on piling. So I just try to shut out the world and plan my escape. It’s the only way I can survive. Fly across a continent, an ocean or two and never, ever look back. I have that option because I’m middle class, well-educated and speak better English than most speakers of English on the planet. I’m selfish and likely a hypocrite. It’s people like me who are one of the biggest reasons behind India’s misery and privation – instead of trying to make things better, we plan our escape routes as soon as we can. Escape is seductive. Escape is the dream of a world of untold luxuries, populated by the people we have been trying to be like since they first colonized us. I will escape. But most of the half a billion women I will leave behind here never will. Maybe they don’t want to escape though. Maybe their experiences are different. Maybe they are thicker skinned, more resilient, or maybe they have just given up hope. Maybe they are fighters. And maybe I’m just a twisted product of a postcolonial culture, brimming with self loathing, anxiety and trauma, and trying to patch up things in my head by rejecting what’s my own.
I don’t know. I don’t have any handy answers. All I can do is run away and keep running.
ETA: I’m disabling comments on this post because I am in NO mood to be flamed by Indian people who believe that I’m symbolic of everything that is wrong with the country.
(The kind of photo any white person would take in Calcutta)
So the infamous racist Lena Dunham has been to India and made some incredibly callous remarks about us. I am not even remotely surprised. White people over generations have been coming to India for naive and unformed notions of spiritual redemption/ discovery and making equally uninformed remarks about us. What it did though, was put me in mind of something I read last year.
Last year I read this book called The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, who, on the strength of his earlier novel, Middlesex was one of my favourite authors. But The Marriage Plot changed all that. Not only did it contain an incredibly othering description of mental illness (bipolar, same as me) but one of the protagonists also went to India. Specifically to Calcutta, my city. The description of Calcutta and it’s people and especially the white attitudes to it made me feel sick. And not because it was described as a filthy, diseased armpit of the world - I am used to a bit of filth, I grew up there during the time the novel is set - but at how it was fetishised. Like these was this frenzied description of dirt and filth and germs, it felt like the author was revelling in making it as alien and disgusting as possible. It sounded only marginally like Calcutta, not because it’s my hometown and a place I love but because the Calcutta Eugenides describes is a fantasy and a phantasm in the his mind. I wanted to cry. Is THIS how white people who see Calcutta for the first time see it? As this disease and poverty ridden wasteland? Like it is a place that humans can’t inhabit? The storyline was about a young University student who runs away to India to “find himself” (quelle surprise) and then ends up running back to the good old States where the people are bright, shining WHITE examples of humanity. It was a plotline set in India, but none of the characters were Indian. The only Indians you got to see are the diseased and dying Indians in the home for the sick the protagonist volunteers in. They are utterly dehumanised, treated no better than diseased animals by the author.
Reading it, I remembered something I had come across on the internet the year before. I think I was looking for something on Calcutta to show my (white) boyfriend and came across this one site. Some white guy who was with the American consulate had lived in Calcutta for a while in the early 90s and written a host of (really bad, execrable) poems about it. And I read them and I thought, is this all Calcutta is supposed to be? Is our only function to act as creative (and spiritual) inspiration to white people, so they can write really bad poems (and really bad novels) about how we are the Other? Why don’t we have a voice of our own? Why, growing up, was I given books written for little English boys and girls to read and not books about my own culture, my own country/city? Colonization is not just about taking away wealth and agency, it is about erasing voices, erasing histories. There is no voice in the larger literary sphere that speaks about India in a non fetishised, othering tone, all the voices that do are drowned out by white voices because the world is largely West-centric. I wish there was an alternate voice, one that would describe my country and my city with rationality, with love. But voices like that are drowned out.
To conclude, India does not need your naive unformed ideas/ideals projected onto it. We are perfectly capable of conducting our lives on our own. We don’t need your ”compassion”, we don’t need your pity and we certainly don’t need you to fix our lives. We have been living happy, fulfilling lives in our own country since time immemorial, strange as it may sound to your white ears. We don’t need to be ”brought up” to your standards, we have our own, thankyouverymuch. Now, get the FUCK out of our country; we turned you out once in 1947, don’t make us do it again.