Saturday, March 7, 2009

The brown man's burden

I want to pick holes. It's a task right after my heart. I hold Tarun Tejpal in some respect. He is brave, writes acerbically though sometimes too self-consciously about important issues, and always has a well-defined viewpoint, which he puts out there without mincing words. But this time I'm going to pick holes.

In his essay, "The Missionary Position" in Tehelka dated Saturday 7 March 2009, Tejpal makes "Slumdog Millionaire" and its cheerleaders his target. But every time he thinks he's scored a hit, he misses. Here are a few statements I have problems with in the very first two paragraphs.

1) "Slumdog Millionaire is one more representation of India as the white man sees it, not as we do."

Is the film a 'representation of India'? Does it even set out to be that? Can anybody presume to "represent" such a vast and complex country in a single two-hour film?

I haven't seen the film, but from what I've read, it appears to be no more than a sentimental story (originally written by a brown man, not white) set in Mumbai, with Mumbai characters and Mumbai locations. To my mind that does not, cannot, amount to a 'representation' of India.

Who are these "we" Mr Tejpal refers to? Do "we" have a single view of India? Some "we's" thought Satyajit Ray misrepresented India in "Pather Panchali". Some thought Vijay Tendulkar misrepresented India in "Ghashiram Kotwal". Those "we's" tried their best not to let either film or play out of the country. Yet both Satyajit Ray and Vijay Tendulkar were brown men.

Several "we's" think an entire tribe of Hindi film makers have misrepresented India scandalously and with impunity for years. In Jakarta, a young giggling couple asked me if all the young boys and girls in India dance and sing in parks, on mountain slopes and in the streets. Jakarta was then in love with "Kuch kuch hota hai". I told them it happens in films only. In real life young people are not even allowed to fall in love with each other, leave alone sing and dance together in public.

2) "It's worthwhile to remember we did not tell an Indian story and force the world to recognise it. They told us an Indian story and forced us to applaud it."

Here "we" has changed identity. Now "we" are presumably Indian fiction writers and film-makers. 'They' are presumably western fiction writers and film-makers. Tejpal himself has written fiction. Did he do so to force particular responses? Story-tellers don't do that, do they? Their hope is mostly to entertain their readers/viewers with a good old yarn and occasionally to engage their attention with a perspective they think they have gained on the material or philosophical problems of our world. If they can stimulate thought and feeling in their readers/viewers, they are happy.

But that is not what Mr. Tejpal means, though I wish he'd say plainly what he means. What he seems to be implying here is that, by giving Slumdog so many Oscars, the west forced our hands together in applause. He sniffs a conspiracy there. A huddle of men and women across two continents sat together and, with malicious glints in their eyes said, we shall give all awards, BAFTA, Oscars, Globe, the lot, to "Slumdog Millionaire" to put India down. How neurotic can you get?

3) (This one is long and colourful) "A bit like Thomas Babington Macaulay, who declared from behind the musketry of the colonial conqueror that a 'single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia'. Looking up a long barrel with gunpowder at its end, we quietly acquiesced. Quietly turned our backs on hundreds of classical and medieval texts [a long list follows]. And having acquiesced in our classification by another--ill-informed at that--proceeded to spend the next nearly 200 years hunting for approval."

When Macaulay said what he said, more than ninety per cent of "us" didn't even have a choice between acquiescing and turning our backs on our own great writers and thinkers because we were barred from reading and writing. Sanskrit was the tongue of brahmins. When our bhakti saints dared write commentaries on some of our epics in prakrit, the brahmins tormented them, ostracised them, flung their songs into rivers. But even then, we passed our epics down orally from generation to generation and sang the bhakti saints' songs while we tilled our land, skinned carcasses, pressed oil, worked at our bellows and looms and struggled to survive. We were lucky that people like Mahatma Jotiba Phule, influenced by the white man, opened schools for us. Even then, the upper castes threw cowdung at us and our teachers because the 'great thinkers of the past' like Manu, had created categories of human beings in which we and our mothers were placed alongside cattle. Those who couldn't do the jobs we did, learned Macaulay's English to survive. They went to democratic institutions called universities which the white man set up. There they were given the opportunity to study both Shakespeare and Kalidas.

Tarun Tejpal hasn't liked "Slumdog Millionnaire". He thinks it is implausible. Fine. He thinks it's a specious story. That too is fine. But by locating it in Macaulay's cultural-political space, he has produced a ridiculously specious post-colonial argument that stinks of academic populism.


@lankr1ta said...

Thank you for being so lucid. I am able to understand why Tarun Tejpal's critique bothered me so much.

shanta said...

Hi! Glad I was lucid. I was mildly frothing at the mouth!