Anand Halve
Aug 28, 2010

Of looking up to others and down on ourselves

Anand Halve, co-founder, Chlorophyll questions why India feels the need to constantly derive its cultural and sociological context from the West

chlorophyll's Anand Halve
chlorophyll's Anand Halve

There has been some serious hand-wringing recently, because their recent contrasting behaviour in the Bhopal and BP affairs suggested that America values American lives more than the lives of Indians. But before we start wearing our righteous indignation on our sleeves, let us pause and ask: don’t we too show every day, that we too look down on our local stuff?

Business journalists tell us “shameful” facts like how the per capita annual consumption of carbonated drinks in India is among the lowest in the world – 10 bottles compared with 300 in the West. Or how we consume only11.2 kg of edible oil per annum, per capita compared to the world
average of 23.5 kg. (“Come on guys, some of you aren’t trying hard enough!”)

In category after category, the metric of success and the marketing goal is defined by the consumption levels in “developed markets”. We are told that as our consumers “evolve” they will use more esoteric cosmetics made by the likes of L’Oreal. Mind you, developed markets are the ones to the West of the Suez Canal. Hannah Montana is portrayed as an idol in a commercial for a hair care product in India, but can one even name, say, a Japanese pop star?

And while we wait for consumers to evolve, TV journalists have already started evolving. Several anchors on business TV channels have acquired anglicized accents merely by spending time with visiting international business leaders!

At a more mass level, we call them the “First family” of Hindi films, but we tied a nomenclatural tin-can to their tail, and started calling them “Abhiash” like some form of Siamese twins. In homage to a couple whose female half has a history of disturbed behaviour?! And we admitted the next entrants to this club by anointing them “Saifeena”. A two-bit role in a Pink Panther film became an “entry into Hollywood” Worse, we took the industry that produces more films than any other in the world, and started calling it “Bollywood”, continuing the orgy of derivatives by creating “Tollywood” and “Kollywood”.

It is actually worse. Not only do we look up to the Americans, we look down upon our own (painting one’s face with the colours of the Indian flag at a cricket match is hardly the ultimate evidence of pride in who we are). Look at the commercials for beauty products. The sad-faced pimply / dark ‘before’ avatar wears a salwar kameez, but in her ‘after ego’ her clothes change to Western attire as she turns fairer. The lady in the commercial for a dish-washing bar wears a saree. The yummy mummy in the commercial for a high-end refrigerator wears a Western dress.

The ceremonies for the awards that recognise the best in Hindi films are compered in what else but – English, even when they are meant for being telecast on Hindi channels and presumably are meant for a Hindi-speaking audience.

On a PPP basis, we’re among the largest economies in the world. Next to China, we are the fastest growing economy after the Lehmann-induced worldwide financial pneumonia. Yet, we continue to define progress by looking westwards. The common notion of “globalisation” is not that the world has adopted Indian ways (other than anecdotally satisfying factoids such as Madonna wearing mehndi), but that we now have McDonald’s and Levi’s outlets in Tier 2 towns in India. We see full houses in Pizza Hut and in coffee shop chains inspired by Starbucks. But Dosa Diner came a cropper.

Right now we are hoping a person “of Indian origin” will become South Carolina governor. A leading Indian English daily referred to “the candidate, a first-generation Indian American” promptly laying nationalist claim to her. Her own election site on the other hand, in ‘Meet Nikki Haley’ only says she is “the daughter of Indian immigrants”.

We award members of the “international Indians” species, clutching to our desperate bosoms individuals whose links to India are mostly a genetic memory.

So does America value Indian lives less? Maybe... perhaps they’re just like us. As Cassius said: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

Campaign India

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