June 12, 2021
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'A Little Xenophobia Is Not Such A Bad Thing'

'A Little Xenophobia Is Not Such A Bad Thing'

Who should write about India? Last week, Patrick French wrote about Writings on India in the Hindustan Times:

there is a growing antagonism towards the idea of foreigners engaging with India, a latter-day literary swadeshi predicated on the theory that Indians should be doing it for themselves, rather than listening to what outsiders have to say. It is a view that arises out of a justified sentiment, namely that for too long India had to endure books by foreigners which distorted its culture and history. But today, the denouncers of the foreign hand on the keyboard are more often than not vigilantes in search of a crime. In my experience, the people who hold this view most strongly are those who have studied at universities in Britain or North America, and in some cases still live outside India. The kind of career made by David Frost, Daljit Dhaliwal or Fareed Zakaria in the United States would be impossible in India. Although foreigners are occasionally regarded as entertaining and even interesting, they remain a curiosity. I think it’s fair to assume that when Fareed Zakaria, the Mumbai-born son of the Congress party stalwart Rafiq Zakaria, presents his weekly show on CNN, he is not greeted by catcallers asking him what right he has to discuss American politics. He does not face intellectuals in Washington DC who pose, in all seriousness, the preposterous question: Who should be allowed to write about America? Yet this is precisely the debate that recurs, time and again, in India, spurred by people who would not think of applying the same rules to themselves in an overseas context. The British journalist Edward Luce recently published a book titled Time To Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline. Even those American reviewers who disagreed with his thesis did not think to question Luce’s right to write the book. As Francis Fukuyama wrote about him: “In a tradition stretching back to de Tocqueville, sympathetic foreigners are often the keenest observers of American life.”...

India’s writing elite is fundamentally pro-establishment, and dislikes the way the nation has changed. Global power is shifting. It is a different world now, one in which many writers of Indian origin make a living abroad, and the richest person in England is Indian. Contrary to what we are fed, Indian voices are not stifled, but vociferously heard. Literature should not be constrained by parochial rules of engagement, self-censorship or the pious, self-affirming orthodoxies of social media. Creativity should not be stifled by finger-wagging. Let the “Who should write about India?” question be consigned to the dustbin of history. Let Xuanzang go free, to write the books he wants. Let India accept the rest of the world, as the rest of the world accepts India.

And, yesterday Aatish Taseer responded in the same newspaper, arguing that there have been many distortions of India by foreigners:

there have been many: old and new, they range from mangoes and slum dogs to apologising histories of the Mutiny; there are the correspondents with their povertarianism and exaggerated fears of Hindu fascist take-overs; and there are the orientalists, who would turn hard gritty India into a fantasy of sweetmeats and fakirs. All problematic, all irritating enough. But the foreigners are not to blame; what is to blame is India's historic and continuing dependence on foreigners for an idea of herself.

Patrick French - though serious writers, like him and Katherine Boo, whose book could not have had a better reception in India, have little to fear - is right: there is defensiveness these days, there is over-sensitivity and perhaps a degree of xenophobia too. But in a country which has bended so easily to the will of foreigners in the past, and where foreigners are still invisibly able to occupy positions of great power, both politically and intellectually, a little xenophobia is not such a bad thing.

French writes: "Let India accept the world, as the rest of the world accepts India." I would say that India, if anything, accepted the world too easily, too unquestioningly; it allowed the world to shape its idea of itself. And if now, in a different time, there is a pushback, it is only to be expected, and even welcomed, so long as it is the accompaniment to intellectual labour.

Read on at the Hindustan Times: A vibrant entity

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