Millennium Post

Clash of civilisations

The much publicised comment of Oprah Winfrey’s that many Indians still ate with their hands reminds us of the time when India was regarded in the West as the land of snake charmers and rope trick performers and the main mode of transport was considered to be the elephant or the bullock cart. When we were growing up, we knew about America’s War of Independence and the Civil War just as we know of our own war of independence of 1857 and the freedom struggle. We could rattle off the names of the first five of their presidents in the same breath as our own. And a steady diet of Hollywood films along with our own Hindi and regional films, ensured that we were almost familiar with the urban landscapes and the milieu of the USA.
and Marvel comics, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew shared our shelves with Ruskin Bond and Amar Chitra Katha. But it didn’t take long for me to find out that it was a one way love affair for us Indians. I never failed to be amazed at the lack of general knowledge and the geographical and cultural ignorance my visiting American cousins displayed when they came to India. It was not merely ignorance about India, their NRI parents’ country of birth, but also about the world, about famous personalities throughout history, the flora and fauna of different lands and the food habits of people of different ethnicities, which we were already familiar with from an early age. That was, however, a long time ago, before globalisation and in the last 20 years, with the increased socio-economic exchanges between our countries, one has been led to believe that things have changed. With so many of us going there and India being such a major market for their companies, surely the cultural osmosis that is taking place has ended age old stereotypes and prejudices about India?

Apparently not. All our student exchanges, foreign investments, overseas film distributions, Indian scientists in Silicon Valley, India Day parades  and Festivals of India abroad have still not opened their eyes to 21st century India, nor earned us the respect of a cosmopolitan and modern nation state – at least not in the eyes of one of America’s most admired and popular figures.

Winfrey as one of US’ most popular talk show hosts commands a huge constituency – demographically strong enough to make a difference. She is not just another entertainer. She is a role model who influences millions worldwide and has 15 to 20 million viewers in USA alone. In 1998 she was voted the second most admired woman in America after Hillary Clinton.
Vanity Fair
magazine says, ‘Oprah Winfrey arguably has more influence on the culture than any university president, politician, or religious leader, except perhaps the Pope.’

In Bombay recently, this darling of the millions joined the clichéd ranks of one of the many celebrities who have, over time, exploited the wretchedness and poverty of Dharavi for their own self aggrandisement and pelf, only she did it in her own characteristic style. Displaying callous insensitivity, she walked into the chawl of a poor laborer with her camera crew and proceeded to strip him and his family of his dignity, naked in front of the whole world. Deliberately pointed and provocative questions about his small room, the fact that they took baths from a bucket, that all their clothes fitted on a small shelf, and so on.

Proceeding directly from Dharavi to a wealthy family’s home for lunch, Winfrey expressed surprise at the fact that many Indians still ate with their hands provoking howls of indignation subsequently from the press and social media who called her gauche, snobbish and insensitive.

Winfrey may be all or none of the above, but the explanation for her gaucherie lies in another gem she dropped in that shanty; when asked about what she wanted to do in life, the older daughter expressed her desire to study in London. Oprah gushed, ‘No. Come to America, it’s a lovely country. It’s the best.’ It is a known fact that the Roman Empire considered itself the only civilised place on earth and every other place was ‘barbaric.’ Such is the way of empires. They instill and encourage a belief in their citizens that their world is limited to their borders. In the case of US as evident from the pitifully meagre world view of their citizenry, the confines of socio-cultural experience happen to be from ‘sea to shining sea.’ If one goes by Hollywood films, one notices that aliens from whatever part of the universe somehow always end up in the US, and all great crises that occur over the planet have to be resolved by an American action superhero. That is the world seen through the myopic tunnel vision of a military superpower. Yes, it is true that Americans eat tacos and hamburgers with their hands, [and presumably bread too], and the growing numbers of homeless in the ghettos and under the subways of American cities are no less wretched than our family in Dharavi, but those are facts to be ignored in the interests of a greater good – evangelism. Empires excel in that and the nature of their frontrunners change over time. In earlier centuries we had missionaries of a Caucasian God spreading out far and wide in the dark lands converting heathen converts, bringing it home to them that they were a backward, pitiable and illiterate lot whose salvation lay in embracing ‘their’ way, thus paving the way for colonialism.

Winfrey is well suited to evangelism; she has it in her bones. Her spirituality which begins with the black church of her youth blends well with the politics of neo-colonialism. Eva Illouz, a sociologist, quotes Winfrey as saying: ‘Since I was three and a half, I’ve been coming up in the church speaking. I did all of the James Weldon Johnson sermons.’ Elements of the black church, like its emotionality and focus on justice, pervade The Oprah Winfrey Show, which has taken on the vocation of relieving suffering through the use of speech infused with the rhetorical style of black preachers. Like the hellfire preachers, Winfrey extracts confessions from her subjects mercilessly. The whole plotline of her show revolves around prodding, focusing, naming and decrying until complete submissiveness is exacted from the participants in the familiar ritual turn of confession and ‘rejuvenation’. It is an exercise at surgically removing a subject’s autonomy and self worth. In its place a vacuum is created, an ideal space for motivated mobilisation of vested interests.

Gautam Benegal is a writer, film-maker and cartoonist.
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