Monday, October 11, 2010

Let's Stereotype

When people find out I'm from India, one of the topics of conversation is about how different the place is from Europe/US or South America. Most people I have met have been very open-minded and ready to accept that their notion of India is probably very wrong. Generally, it is... and they have been great enough to hear me ranting about my own little version of how or what I think India is like. (Staying outside & meeting other Indians has made me realise that my knowledge and experiences in & about India are quite limited).

The thing that has begun bothering me is how this image of India (or any place) has propagated. See the photo albums of any person (read as non-Indian) who has visited India. There will be very few pictures of any monuments or historic/heritage sites. A lot of pictures of people in colorful clothing, pictures of busy markets and such. And then, pictures of "cute kids", mostly from the slums, or pictures of cows or animals on the road, or trash littered around.

Are we (= people of India) a museum? OK, I get it that you have never seen half the stuff happening here. But then if I come to the US and take a picture of a Steak n' Shake because there are none in India, why would I be looked at as an idiot? Why do so many people who visit India never find out about historical structures or the nature spots we have. Since I'm from Maharashtra, my examples are going to be - the forts built by Shivaji and the Marathas; the Ajanta - Ellora caves; the hikes in the Sahyadri mountains; the national forests/parks; the palaces built by different Mughal emperors and so on.

How many people who visit Mumbai take pictures of the CST train station? Or go to Elephanta caves and the Sanjay Gandhi National park? The Marine Drive is not as long or clean as the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, but trust me, it is a view you shouldn't miss.

Maybe when we visit some "western" country, we should try to capture the negative stereotypes. Like highlight how firefighters let a house burn in Tennessee, US. Or take pictures of dog shit over the streets in France. Or talk about how dirty the metro in Paris can be at some places. Or take pictures of the dirty subway in Rome. And talk about you can smell urine when you go down the stairs to the subway. Let us take pictures of the dirty, oily canals in Venice. When you go to Miami, ignore the great city-scape and focus on how easy it is to get drugs and talk about the crime.

I've heard that places in New York are dirty and littered too. Mention always how marriages don't last in the US even if it may not be true. Take pictures of drunken college parties and how you see people puking on the streets. Or marvel at how widespread smoking (tobacco and weed) is in France and how easy it is to get it. Marvel at how in a "modern" country like France, you will routinely see men peeing on the streets. Let's mock them because you cannot get anything on a Sunday and you are basically crippled. 

Just a bit of advice before you actually go do these things. I wouldn't recommend taking pictures of kids on streets because you might just be labeled a pedophile. And stay away from the homeless people you see in the US, and don't try to take their pictures, because they might knife or shoot you. It is better to try to approach the homeless and street kids in India.


  1. I think there's nothing wrong with taking a picture of Steak n' Shake. They're friggin delicious.

    People are attracted to what they don't see often so please don't get upset but if I saw a group of cute kids I'd want to take a picture of them too. It's just the natural thing for a tourist to do.

    When I went to Rio I took a ton of pictures of the favelas and the locals thought I was crazy. Did I care? Heck no. I thought they were interesting and I wanted pictures. Maybe you're reading too much into it.

    Now pictures of homeless people? I don't know about all that.

  2. :) I lived 200 feet from a Steak n' Shake once. The shakes have saved my life at 3 am many times.

    Well, this was a rant-sy post anyway, so I'm allowed to be immature and over-think. But on a serious note, the pictures of kids I was talking about were of the homeless / slum kids, who you see in India quite often. In the US, I haven't seen anyone take pictures of kids on the streets (not homeless) and post them online somewhere. Maybe I am wrong... :)

    I don't expect this post to inspire discussions and force a people to change the way they think. That wasn't the purpose. I needed to rant about this and get it off my chest. 99% of the time, I'm not so angry about stuff, nor do I take offense.

    Now that it is off my chest, regular programming will continue shortly.

  3. Alas, stereotypes are here to stay. We live with them, and we'll die with them. I'm more interested in the fact that you can have a shake at 3 AM???? Wow! Bloody hell, even The City That Never Sleeps is fast asleep at 3 AM! I'd die for the opportunity to quench my thirst with a shake at 3 AM!

  4. Prad, I'm sure you would find something open in Mumbai any time of the day/night. Even Pune has that place (at the Railway station) that is open 24 hours.

  5. One reason that so many westerners have this perspective about India (as well as other non-western countries) is due at least in part to advertising and the media in general. From my own experience as a US citizen who has wasted plenty of time watching US t.v. programming, I can tell you exactly what gave me that inaccurate impression of India: the charity commercials. I'm not sure about many other countries, but I know that Americans are all about charity cases. Charities are huge there - they rake in money, because people feel better about themselves and can validate having bought that over-sized, gas-guzzling truck and that extra wide-screen t.v. if they donate 35 cents per month to sponsor a poor little homeless street urchin. And you find those poor lost souls in India. And China. And the Middle East. And Africa. Pretty much any of those places that haven't been running adds in the US to promote tourism in their countries at an exponentially growing rate for the last 10 to 15 years. Countries that commercially promote tourism on a large scale will have more reason to disallow those sorts of commercials to run in congruence with the adds that invite you to visit the luxury suite during your 5-star-resort vacation.

    Granted, the travel channels in the US, which have been growing in popularity over the last few years, have done an excellent job at combating this perspective that westerners have of those countries. They DO show us all the great culturally and historically relevant sites and discuss what real life is actually like there (granted, from a promotional perspective as well). They also DON'T spend time pointing out all the flaws. They seem to understand that until they can get people off their couches and actually out exploring those places, no one will understand that there are worthwhile things to visit there. So they advertise with the actual program instead of commercials. The whole show is, in fact, a commercial of sorts. But... that's the travel channel. Only one station (or two, or five, depending on how many hundreds of channels you subscribe to). And that one station's job is to try to inspire the whole country of t.v. viewers to discover what the world is actually like, the good and the bad, instead of simply asking for donations for those poor helpless brown (or white, or yellow) people.

    The point is, the media is the only thing people have to inform them about what is honestly there, outside of their own realm of experience. Television is not only the most popular form of effortless entertainment, but it is also the only type of media that is literally 'in your face' about whatever you are viewing. The internet is a great resource, but you, as an individual, are in control of what you watch and look at and research. When the television is on, advertisers don't ask your opinion about whether you want to watch the commercial or not. It's there either way, and you can't help at least sometimes hearing or seeing what's being advertised, no matter how much you hate commercials. That's why the media, presented in this way, is so powerful... And sadly also flawed, and biased, and corrupt. And getting worse, especially in the US where political parties are literally taking over news stations and destroying the concept of free and neutral media. But... that's kind of a whole different topic that I'm sure I'll eventually find some sort of blog post about here...