You can’t miss that slightly cocked head, that smile curved just so. Wherever you look in the Indian press these days, you are likely to see them. Now by the time you read this, we’ll all know whether Bobby Jindal is Louisiana’s next governor. But the attention he gets from the media in India has preceded that electoral decision by a mile. There have been editorials about him, responses to those editorials from Indians here and in the U.S., profiles, and of course the straight-up news. Much of the coverage gushes, and the Oct. 26 issue of Sunday Times gushed most fulsome of all. Under large photographs of Jindal (the same shot) and Jhumpa Lahiri, we learned that these 30-somethings “have put India on the global map.”
Quite an achievement for a young man, that bit about putting “India on the global map.” Even a bright, driven young man from Louisiana. Even if The Times of India chose to describe his state as an “obscure” one.
So I’ve been wondering. At least Jhumpa Lahiri writes about India and Indians, and sets some of her stories in this country. But why does Jindal get so much attention here? Wonder with me, won’t you?
To begin with, he is in every sense American, not Indian. He grew up in the U.S. and made his mark there. (In fact, I can claim a connection to the man; he and I went to the same university: Brown). He has shown no interest, to my knowledge, in India or our affairs. I don’t mean this as a strike against Jindal, not in the least. He is like every other American politician who runs for American office, which is how it should be. Why should they know about India? It’s of no particular value to a majority of the American voting public. Jindal and his voters are no exceptions.
You might notice that some of the very people who hail the rise of Jindal will also foam at the mouth about Sonia Gandhi’s foreign birth and upbringing. Not that I believe Sonia should run my country; she has several black marks against her. But not her birth. Yet, a stream of self-proclaimed nationalists insists that her birth alone must disqualify her. Why? If we celebrate Jindal’s rise to political prominence in the U.S., why not Sonia’s rise in India as well, and for the same reasons? Conversely, if we run down Sonia, how can we logically also hail Jindal? Shouldn’t our nationalists express the same alarm about him that they profess about her? (Aside: I have not heard anyone saying Sonia Gandhi’s position in India has “put Italy on the global map.”)
I am always perturbed when I read that people like Jindal have “put India on the global map.” After all, there are well over a billion of us. A great number of Indians, both inside India and out, have done very well for themselves. To the extent that we are noticed around the world, which—let’s be honest—really isn’t very much anyway, it is hardly because of Jindal and Lahiri alone, but because of those successful Indians.
Put it this way: I am yet to read a single American article about Jindal that made much of his Indian roots. Nor did any suggest that India is suddenly on everybody’s maps, everybody’s tongues, and that these things happened because of his run at Louisiana’s governorship. Jindal or no Jindal, a recent trip to the U.S. confirmed the old truth: in the American press, India figures hardly at all.
And it seems to me that that will change only if India herself assumes some importance in the American consciousness. Not because of the rise of Americans whose names are Indian, but because of the rise of India as a wise and responsible member of the world community of nations. Like it or not, justified or not, today India is simply not seen that way.
But what concerns me most about the Jindal gush is that, in a curious way, it is our fascination for the foreigner that’s at work. We’ve always yearned for foreigners to notice us, praise us. Particularly the Western variety. (Men of Indian descent have held important posts in Singapore and Zambia, to pick two. Where was the gushing in the Sunday Times?) This is why we clutch at the successes of the Lahiris and Jindals, finding reflected glory there even if they don’t see it. This may be why we bask in Bradman’s praise for Sachin Tendulkar, overlooking our own Gavaskar who has spoken highly of him for years. As ever, the foreigner fascinates.
Yet there are disturbing signs that this fascination is mutating into a sort of barbarism that I don’t recall noticing earlier. It’s as if we recognize that the awe and respect we once had for Westerners was unnecessary and undeserved—which it certainly was—but it’s also as if some of us have decided that what they really deserve now is abuse. That by abusing the Westerner, we somehow validate our own sense of worth in ourselves.
I have no hard data for this, only experience and anecdote. Most recently, there’s the appalling experience of a young friend, an English student now in Bombay for an apprenticeship with a well-known architect. In the month she has spent in the city, men have hit on her nearly every day, some over and over again. In buses, men sit down practically on her, shifting closer as she tries to move away; on the street, other men chase and proposition her; in a rickshaw once, the driver actually reached behind and tried to fondle her. Out for a walk with a male Indian friend, she heard young women—girls her age—shouting “bitch!” at her. In the office, her colleagues deliberately speak only in Hindi, making her feel unwelcome even after weeks.
It’s almost too much for an ordinary young girl to bear.
The faint irony is that she has Indian roots. Her Indian grandfather was perhaps Bombay’s best-known architect in his time, the designer of at least two familiar city landmarks. But of course, that hardly matters to idiots who have made her so miserable here that she is seriously considering returning home early.
Embrace Jindal, but torment a visitor. Yearn for approval abroad, but spit at those who come to learn from us. Are we really that schizophrenic? And what global map does that put us on?
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.