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India's Zoo Story

Poverty as Photo-Op

by FARZANA VERSEY

Oprah Winfrey walking the seedy bylanes of Mumbai on a work assignment in India, Jeremy Clarkson dropping his pants for a reality show, and tourists paying to watch naked Jarawa tribals dance are part of the same deal: Branding Blahdcasting Corporation.

Should outsiders be permitted to portray us in a manner that might seem demeaning? Is there only one reality in a nation as multicultural and internally divisive as India? Is it a matter of reality or of ethics, and are they mutually exclusive?

The latest news is that the BBC will not apologise for the Top Gear show that the Indian High Commission complained was “replete with cheap jibes, tasteless humour and lacked cultural sensitivity”. The channel says that while the programme showed the warts, it could not be considered insulting.

Rather uncharacteristically an Indian politician, naturally deemed liberal, wondered what the noise was about: we do we shit, pee and spit in the open. So why get upset about this? The political system in India thrives on obsequiousness. The visit of the head of state from a western country is treated with the reverence we reserve for gods. The streets are washed, buildings where the foreign leader will pass by are painted, potted plants line the streets, garish hoardings are removed. We do not want them to see the dirty picture. Why is the Establishment’s protocol of greater importance than how television channels air our offal?

There is the dirt; you can see it.  Films have been made with the backdrop by Indian filmmakers.  “Gritty reality” is how they are described.  Sometimes, they are romanticised with a mournful background score and large vacant eyes.  This is art as manufactured reality.  A painting of snotty kids is an expression; the canvas is the statement: where it is placed, how much it fetches at the auction, and what the artist’s sensibilities are.

Jeremy Clarkson’s “light-hearted road trip” is no satire.  It does not turn the tables to show us the under-side.  He is poking where it hurts. He is not hitting out at stereotypes like an intellectual Samaritan; his agenda is to play those up and cage them. If the intention was to feel the place, a “spontaneous interaction” that would capture “beautiful scenery, busy city scenes, local charm and colour”, and bring the “local car culture” alive, then one might have indulged the delightful picaresque. However, Clarkson had a toilet fixed to the boot of his Jaguar. He said: “This is perfect for India because everyone who comes here gets the trots.”

There is truth in such a remark. Unfortunately, scatological necessities are a great leveller and a global phenomenon. If I may say so, this is not unlike some scheduled castes that until recently carried night soil, excreta, on their heads. Is Clarkson replaying it as tragedy or as farce, or is he just on his own trip of exposing?

Are Indians in denial? We have luxury cars, bespoke apartments, farmhouse getaways, scented toilet paper.  The drains in the highrises are choked with used sanitary napkins; handbags at parties are stuffed with silver cutlery from the host’s table.  This calls for a satire. This calls for light-hearted revelation.

The closest he got to this was when “he stripped off his trousers in public before two Indian dignitaries to show them how to use a trouser press, while joking that he used it to make naan bread”. The ‘dignitaries’ are not identified. See, this is what passes for reality. People wearing slightly dressy clothes seem important.

His train journeys were most certainly not about Indians, but about the British. He put up banners. One read “British IT is good for your company” and when the carriages split apart it read: “Shit For Your Company”. This is precious. Indians are always praising the British rule for giving us the railways. Obviously, Clarkson forgot that.

One learns that his show is pretty much about being upfront and offensive. He is paid big money to crack racist jokes. What does it reveal about such a social ethos? The fact that the channel does not think showing warts is an insult might work if the next Top Gear episode is a road trip to Balmoral. It’s closer home and he would not have to fit a toilet to his Jaguar boot.

* * *

Is exploitation by the establishment any less devious? Some foreign tourists were taken to the Andaman and Nicobar islands where the Jarawa tribes live in isolation. The naked women were asked to dance and were offered food and knick-knacks in return. A video that was aired by television channels revealed that a police officer was complicit in this ‘adventure’.

I have visited some not-so-remote areas in the country and the moment the locals spot outsiders, they ask for money, food and pens, and they want to be photographed. The question here is a bit more complicated.

Is the isolation of the tribals an enticement for tourists? Columnist Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar wrote: “To call tourism in Jarawa areas “human safaris” is to equate Jarawas with animals. Seeing Jarawas in their habitat is not fundamentally different from seeing Japanese in Japan or Tutsis in Rwanda. Every Republic Day, the government organizes tribal dances, and nobody call these safari performances. One TV anchor actually called the Jarawas an endangered species! Excuse me, but the Jarawas are Homo sapiens, like all of us. To call them an endangered species is to call them nonhuman, as though they are animals. To keep them as pristine tribals, isolated from all humans save a few anthropologists and administrators, is to convert their tribal territory into an open zoo where benevolent zookeepers oversee the creatures. This may be well intended, but deprives Jarawas of fundamental human rights.”

Empathetic as this comment is, how equal are Homosapiens in different parts of the world? Are those tribes equal to us? The Japanese in Japan example is wrong; the analogy of geishas in Japan would have been more apt. There is tourism for the geisha areas; there is tourism in Hamburg for red-light areas where you can see the ‘human’ display, which is of course also their calling card on any given day. I admit to having visited both, not to speak of a couple of strip clubs in Bangkok. One might argue that this is wilful; this is their job. Their job is to cater to their clientele and not to be photographed. I know that the women did not relish my presence, for I was not a potential client; I could not be titillated. I was from their perspective a waste of time and from an ethical point of view an exploiter.  I did not take pictures everywhere, but there are a few.

Would I photograph the Jarawas? To be honest, yes. Can I, then, take a stand on this issue? Yes. It is a matter of perception. People can be endangered species. The Parsis, some of the most educated and prominent people, are nearing extinction. We keep hearing about it from their own organisations. They are afraid that if their numbers do not increase they might be termed tribals. The reason is that their ‘isolation’ is modern – late marriages, non-acceptance of the children of women who marry outside, non-conversion within.

These are issues of survival as sects and culture.  There are books with portraits of them, as there are of other communities and groups. Where do we draw the line as to what is to be considered exploitation?

Had the roads been open to the area where the 500 or so tribals live, would access to them have been easier and would they become part of the mainstream? We live in an India where even the urbanite is not mainstream in certain specific areas of discourse. We have ghettos of all kinds, and some are forced upon us.

The Constitution offers basic rights, but have they been implemented? The NGOs working in these areas are accused of misusing money meant for the tribals.  The funds are to keep them in their place and to maintain their heritage. Are the Jarawas aware enough of their heritage, much less of their rights?

The tourists could not possibly have gone to see naked women, for the westerner is exposed to show of skin. However, one might like to pose a counter-query here: would these people take pictures at a naturist beach? Most of them are out-of-bounds for those who are not members; there is a code that is followed. In some ways they are simulating the tribal lifestyle, unspoiled by influences. A camera would be an intrusion. The conflicting position between the Jarawas and the Naturists is that the latter have the power of knowledge. They will not be exploited. The tribals don’t. But, and this is crucial, they had to be baited with food and things. They did not start dancing without that assurance.

They have been able to instinctively understand that their isolation, their not being part of regular society, is their basis for survival.

* * *

It is these stark differences that make it difficult to negotiate India. Oprah Winfrey wore a flaming orange saree for her meeting with the swish society; she was driven to the seaside bungalow by the most famous film star. Hours before that, at the Taj Hotel she was welcomed by a group of visually impaired singers. It was a relief that the hotel did not line up family members of the cops who were killed during the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

The Taj was doing an Oprah on Oprah. They got these children because her oeuvre is based on heart-tugging stories. These kids probably sing at other functions too so it would be unfair to pass judgement, but this was a bit off-colour. I do not think any of our high-profile stars who visit America or Europe are welcomed with songs sung by hobos or children in rehab.

Indian emotions are an open drain. An outsider can look at it without much effort or turn away. Oprah will get right into it: “For my new show ‘Oprah’s Next Chapter’ I am doing a story on India and I wanted to see all aspects of the country to get a broad view of what it is like to be an Indian. It is very revealing and very amazing to me so I met people from Bollywood and others. What I love most about this country is their tolerance…how the families learn to love and live together. When I was in America and talking to famous people…I would ask how you (Indians) live with your parents, now I see how you do it.”

She is not going with a microscope, but a kaleidoscope. It is pre-planned. Her Bollywood version of India might be more palatable than Clarkson’s or of the tourists in Jarawa. It will be peppered with life through the eyes of a foreign addict, with inputs from those who live in large homes. Among her first interviews lined up is of Dr. Deepak Chopra, better known as the spiritual guru of Hollywood. The pretence here is obvious.

Her five hours on India will be a paean to the subtext of all that it needs to be. This is rarefied reality looking for bottled nirvana.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/