Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Snake-Charmer Effect

What is it about the NY Times that makes perfectly rational, intelligent people produce little more than misrepresentations and grotesque caricatures when they write about India?

I've always had a reasonable amount of respect for Ramachandra Guha. I read India After Gandhi a couple of months back and thought it was interesting and insightful; not quite as objective a historical account as I might have hoped for (and to his credit, Guha acknowledges this in his introduction), but a book I would recommend to a friend.

Except then he goes and produces this piece of blithering idiocy for the NYT. Never mind the stereotyping (all Punjabi landlords are crooks who steal electricity from their tenants in order to fill their Swiss bank accounts), or the exaggeration (you have to go to America and hang out with Pakistanis if you want to meet a Muslim), and let's not even start on how Guha's idiotic paranoia, or his dreams about his Pakistani friend, are at all relevant here. What makes this piece ridiculous is the implication that the BJP and the forces of communalism get their primary support from rich Punjabi immigrants looking to overcome their insecurities about the future. Ya, right. Because Delhi has always been a stronghold of the BJP. Because all the people attacking the Babri Masjid or rioting in Gujarat were clearly fat Punjabi landlords. Because unemployment, lack of economic opportunity for young people and the feelings of insecurity and emasculation those produce are not what Hindutva is designed to channel, directing the frustration and inadequacy of upper class youth against a convenient Other - no, no, not at all! it's successful landlords with Swiss bank accounts who are really frustrated and insecure. Sheesh.

If an American journalist had lived in India for 6 months and written this I would have considered it sloppy. Coming from Guha, it is criminally obtuse. He might as well have added a paragraph about how the VHP is actually a group of unemployed fakirs who've forgotten how to do the rope trick and are taking their frustration out on innocent Muslims. Oh, wait, that must be next year's August 15th 'thought piece'.


ggop said...

His account of his time in Pakistan sounds like what that guy who wrote
Shantaram would have written..

Szerelem said...

I read that op-ed a few days back and was majorly pissed off. It's shoddy writing and seems more like introspective notes rather than an op-ed. I also thought that it seemed to have been written maybe a few years back and was lying with the NYT who decided to run it now because, you know, 60 years of Indian and Pakistani independence so lets have an oped that deals with the religious divide, partition, war etc etc etc. Totally wouldn't put it past them....a lot of their articles of late h ave been driving me up the wall.

The Peripherally Blind said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neha said...

@ggop, what is that supposed to mean?
Haven't read Shantaram, am on the fence whether or not to pick that book up.

"blithering idiocy" is such a wonderful phrase. I guess there is something that most editors do, read a whole book that fits the description in the first para.

Anonymous said...

this is exactly how the "Other" feel when they are blithely labeled as "terrorists". how come no one throws such a royal fit when "Islamic-terrorism" is used together as often as snake-charmer is?as if it were a figure of speech.
try and step inside the shoes of a Muslim in India. you will feel instantly better about Guha's piece.

Falstaff said...

ggop: If you say so - haven't read Shantaram so can't comment.

szerelem: I don't know. It's not as though if this had been published a few years back it would have been any better. My theory is the opposite - they probably got him to write this last minute after they realized that the New Yorker was running Pankaj Mishra's piece, and this is the best he could cobble together on two day's notice.

peripherally blind / neha: Glad you're amused. Just calling a spade a spade.

anon: What rot. How does one act of stupid stereotyping justify some other act of stereotyping? And why would being a Muslim in India (and you're assuming, btw, that I'm not) make me any more willing to accept incoherent bilge like this? This isn't even about stereotyping, it's about a fundamental misunderstanding of where the roots of Hindutva lie.

And for the record, I've always maintained, both on this blog and elsewhere, that it's ridiculous to claim that Islam and terrorism are directly connected and / or to propagate the stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists. So you don't get to guilt trip me about this. Take your whiny non-argument somewhere else.

Nitin said...

Great post! One quibble---it should really be the NYT effect, "Gray Lady effect" or suchlike.

GreatBong calls it Sominism.

Why blame Snake Charmers?

Anonymous said...

as a matter of fact, i do feel better about such crass stereotyping.gone are the days when i was a "secular idiot". whiny or aggressive, a non argument is a non ditto to you.

rs said...

:) it is not often that you see someone telling falstaff his posts are aggresive and his contentions are non-arguments rather than lovely or great.
and as far as ram guha is concerned, anon may want check up his views on kashmir. he writes beautifully but ideologically plays it safe I think

Falstaff said...

nitin: Oh, I don't know. Gray Lady just sounds too drab.

anon: Whatever. It's still crass stereotyping. I'm happy for you if it makes you feel better, but the rest of us civilized folk can live without it. And the lest time I checked, the purpose of the NY Times wasn't to make bigots like you feel better about themselves.

rs: Not true. To give anon the pleasure of some crass stereotyping - annoying gnomes who can't follow the logic of the argument and insist on adopting a ridiculous position just to be difficult are a dime a dozen.

Anonymous said...

"Bigot" and "Uncivilized"-- no wonder you don't enjoy crass generalizations (by others).gives you competition. but don't worry, i think you are better at it.

Falstaff said...

anon: How is it a 'generalization' to call someone who claims to enjoy crass stereotyping and rejects the idea of secularism a bigot?

Thungachi said...

I completely agree - the piece was pretty awful. And I couldn't get through Shantaram for the same reasons (although I'm a huge Depp fan, and yes I'll probably watch the movie when it comes out...Sigh).

This also reminds me of a time when CNN once ran really old b-roll behind a piece they did on Bombay a couple years ago. The background video (b-roll) was so old that a couple people actually called into the newsrooms to note, "umm - that doesn't exist anymore..." :D

As far as American journalists spending time in India... Well.. From the TV standpoint it'll never happen. From a print standpoint, you'd hope that their correspondents were India-based to begin with.

Keyword: hope. :)