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Reducing the “Indian” in the New York Times

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on March 2, 2011 4 Comments

INDIAMr. Manu Joseph pens another Letter from India for the New York Times, this time on the “Uncompromising Practicality [that] Could Be India’s Downfall.” I covered his previous letter here, noting the gaping flaws in his argument about the spread of English in India. This time, he serves up what he describes as a quintessential Indian trait: “the uncompromising practicality of the individual, an untamed form of great personal freedom and informality,” which, if you read his article, is code for unadulterated self-servingness.

Traffic runs amok, people hang from doors of trains (for more ventilation…?)…and all this is evidence that:

Every person, irrespective of his level of education or social background, will do what is most convenient to him in the short term. All rules and systems are subordinate to the sheer force of practicality.

As Mr. Joseph’s previous piece also made clear, he has a passion for reductionism: “Every person…will do what is most convenient to him in the short term“; “All rules…” It is unclear how, in a country as diverse as ours-with over a billion people, with hundreds of languages and ethnicities, any person-especially a “journalist”-can map out a space where every individual thinks and acts the same. Contrary to that statement, I certainly don’t spend my life doing only what is most expedient for me, and I do not consider myself above the law; neither do my parents, my sister, nor my friends, and we’re all very much Indian. The Indians I know-contrary to Mr. Joseph’s misrepresentative caricaturing-don’t spend their lives bending the law to their will, or focus  singularly on their own self-interest and short-term perspectives to the exclusion of all else.

He further informs us that this “practicality” has its roots in the people’s struggles in a “difficult nation”:

Practicality is a crucial survival tool in a difficult nation. Many Indians who have managed to achieve comfortable lives today distinctly remember the poverty of their parents. The history of prosperity is India’s shortest history. The full benefits of economic liberalization that began in the early ’90s have only recently begun to materialize.

India’s history spans a few thousand years, and I imagine he’s here referring to relatively recent times by saying that the history of prosperity is India’s shortest. I am also not entirely sure who is reaping the “full benefits” of economic liberalization, for around me, in suburban New Delhi, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who live in stark poverty. I doubt the “full benefits” of liberalization has come to them yet.

Mr. Joseph’s next main point centers around the Hindi term “jugaad,” which he defines as “resourcefulness when the odds are against you“; a concept, he tells us importantly, that even merited a recent column in the International Herald Tribune:

The essay was much discussed by English-speaking Indians. More than the villagers, it is the Indian elite who talk of jugaad with fondness. They think it is cool. Jugaad has entered popular culture in India, and a day may soon come when English papers in the country will finally stop italicizing it.

But jugaad is overrated. In fact, jugaad is the problem.

The category of “English-speaking Indians” is a hazy one, since last week he noted that “a lot” of Indians “understand” English, “many” can read it, and “very few” can write in it, but he refrained from pointing to how many people actually speak it. The oddness of the juxtaposition between the “English-speaking Indians” and the “villagers” and the “elites” makes the paragraph a cauldron of confusion. Who is he surveying, and how? As for the term entering popular culture, it’s not a term that I have seen being used often, if at all, in the Hindi or English news channels in my last two and a half months in India. And an India Google News search for all use of the term in newspapers brings up 331 results-for all time.

The nation’s infatuation with its own practicality at every level has created a society that is unable to truly respect values. Values are important not because they are the rules of a supernatural force. They are important because they are good ideas in the long term.

The first line is cringe-worthy: India’s “infatuation with its own practicality at every level”? Does Mr. Joseph get that he is summing up a nation of one billion people? These kinds of sweeping generalizations sound as if taken straight from a mid-nineteenth century colonial travel narrative. And, furthermore, what does it mean to “truly respect values”? Which values? What does it mean to “respect” something “truly”? What does it mean to say that values are critical not “because they are the rules of a supernatural force”? Who claims they are? Values are socio-culturally and historically situated; why does his argument insinuate that they are considered “supernatural”? Ultimately, Mr. Joseph’s claim surfaces with its greatest clarity in this section: that all Indians have no values, because they are obsessed with their own short term goals.

Further along, Mr. Joseph adds, it is not “surprising then that one of the most corrupt institutions in the country is the very institution that the people of India directly create — Indian politics.” So, apart from being selfish, self-serving, short-term goal seeking folks, Indians are also “direct” (not to be confused with indirect) creators of “one of the[ir own] most corrupt institutions.”

Journos are not left out of this count:

India’s self-interested practicality is a cultural smog that has spread far and wide, including the high places of traditional idealism — Indian journalism, for instance. The Indian media are among the very few institutions in the country that would discuss ethics without a guffaw. But commercial considerations have deeply infested journalism, too. In a country where the wink and the nudge of practicality triumph over idealism, editors find it hard to protect their journalistic integrity. Many of the most influential newspapers and television channels sell editorial space, some discreetly, others overtly.

What does it mean that it is in the arena of journalism that “ethics” can be discussed “without a guffaw”? Who in this country discusses it with a guffaw? How does he position this “practicality” against “idealism”? How is practicality at once a short-term perspective, and idealism aligned only with the long term? How does one make such blanket statements about “editors” and “most influential newspapers”, in the nation with such a breadth of print media? Why cite no examples?

The article takes a final turn, noting how practicality serves another purpose: “it is a way of getting on with life in the face of extraordinary circumstances—the harsh realities of Indian life that include natural calamities.” For example:

…in a village near the town of Anjar, a man was sitting on the rubble of his house and trying to cut open a steel cupboard. Buried in the debris below him was his 16-year-old son. But the man was focused on removing his valuables from the cupboard. He had heard that the bulldozers would soon arrive to completely raze the fallen structure. Among his valuables, he said, were perfume bottles.

I read this section several times. This incredible story crystallizes Mr. Joseph’s reduction of the Indian. The man who digs through rubble to retrieve perfumes when his dead son lies beneath the rubble. A phrase that circulates in popular Indian discourse came to me: “We are like this only.” Not just some of us are like that, we are all like this only.  What a claim. What a…claim. I am not clear why the New York Times is renting out space to such a narrow-minded, essentializing, and reductive portrayal of India and Indians, on a regular basis. Mr. Joseph’s writing reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of Indians; the only thing that may be safely said of us is that we defy being defined. Perhaps it is Mr. Joseph’s own short-term perspective-of churning out this column by the week’s end that leads him to wring coherence out of “commotion.” But as anyone stuck in Indian traffic would say, that is an exercise in futility.


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4 Responses to “Reducing the “Indian” in the New York Times”

  1. daveski on: 3 March 2011 at 1:37 pm

    What with all the self-interestedness, it’s a wonder that Indians need politicians or politics at all!

    After seeing this second installment from Joseph and your detailed responses to the claims he makes and the language he uses to do this, I’m most curious about questions you point to in the last paragraph, and those that are left implicit. Why is the NYT running his pieces? What are his larger goals, and–not to give one person more attention than he probably deserves–what kinds of interests inside and outside India does he see himself as giving voice to, or does the NYT see him as giving voice to, or *does* he give voice to?

    And here as I try to generalize from the case of an individual to a broader “kind of interest”, I understand on one hand and am challenged on the other by the (im?)possibility of characterizing the character of a nation and its people. When can we say, and when can’t we, that “Indians are like this” and “the French are like that”? And you know about those Americans…

    Usree Bhattacharya Reply:

    I am not sure why NYT continues to run his Letters. I have had the feeling for the last few months NYT has tended to publish articles on India that almost always depict India in a negative light. Why exactly remains to be seen, but I imagine it is unsettling to see India catapulting on the world stage into a superpower/economy with no signs of stopping (as some discourse has it).

    I know it’s tough to refrain from generalizing about people-whether they be members of a nation, political party, or even just a family of two. But Joseph makes some of the most egregious claims about “Indians” I have ever heard, and I guess it’s the egregiousness of his arguments, rather than the fact that they general. (They are also egregiously WRONG imho.)

  2. sd268 on: 13 March 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Couldn’t agree more. You might enjoy this:

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/saugato-datta/a-letter-from-india-not-by-manu-joseph/10150127852533407

    Usree Bhattacharya Reply:

    That’s a fantastic post, thanks for the link!

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