Thursday, November 5, 2009

Shobaa De - What a "Gal!"

Just finished reading Superstar India (Penguin 2008) by Shobaa De. It was written to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Indian independence, but is an all round dump on the country. Consider this near gibberish:

“We want foreigners (read Westerners) to like us ... admire us. When we are disappointed with our present (oh please, forget all that rah-rah India Shining rubbish. It’s more like India Bullshitting), we fall back on the past.

“A very distant past.

“When all else fails we pull out Gandhi. The Mahatma has saved India’s ass in more ways than one. If he only knew how frequently and arbitrarily we use the Gandhi trick to impress outsiders He is our trump card in any argument. We invoke his name when no other name rings a bell.

“If even that fails to impress, we begin boasting about our amazing ‘culture’ (our civilization is 5000 years old we tell awestruck Americans). We play the Heritage card as well when it suits us. Especially in the presence of ignorant, semi-educated visitors who don’t know better.”

The “culture blanket” she writes, “covers up our ugliest flaws and wounds. Ignorance breeds insouciance as we glibly brag away, not stopping to examine the half-baked theories being trotted out in a sad attempt to ‘explain’ social blights like dowry, casteism, sati...”

After a few more lines of such nonsense she gets to Gandhi again: “If you can cleverly combine a ‘Gandhi’ (to rhyme with ‘randy’) story, that’s India in a nutshell. By the way, Paris has four Indian restaurants with names ranging from Gandhi to Gandhiji”

When a Yemeni taxi driver tells her she is lucky to live in a country that had Gandhi as leader her “heart did a somersault. How bizarre this conversation sounded ... everything was strange. The setting, the context, the man behind the wheel.”

Later in the book she notes that Gandhi has become newly popular and has this to say: “If Gandhi is being positioned as ‘Daddy Cool’ and being transformed into a ‘Youth Icon’ ... there must be a valid reason. In India we are seriously short of heroes. We try and create them artificially in order to fill the empty slot. Gandhi is perfect for that. Besides he is a caricaturist’s delight.”

Surely, I said to myself, she must know Gandhi is as genuine a hero as you can get, but evidently not! She advises Indians not to take umbrage at the commercial use of Gandhi’s image: “What’s the point of achieving an iconic position if it can’t be flogged?”

De dismisses “traditional Indian values” as “bogus;” “what exactly are these mysterious ‘values’?” she asks, and “how different are they from the world’s?”
Indians make too much of sacrifice she writes: “Ugh! Ugh! Ugh!” ... ‘I sacrifice therefore I am an Indian’ could well be our motto. And it impresses nobody.” Indian feelings of “superiority comes from some ancient notion about our great and good civilization.”

Her view of the country is grim indeed. “We believe we are essentially calm, spiritual, evolved, superior, patient and wise. But none of these is true.” She knows of no other country where people “rush to strip dead bodies of whatever there is – ornaments, cash, anything of even the smallest value, sometimes before the body is cold.”

She’s “heard of villagers scampering to mutilate bodies of air crash victims before the arrival of fire brigades, often tearing earrings and rings of a person who may still be alive, or chopping off hands to get to the gold bangles.” (That “often” really got to me; makes it sound as if air crashes are a matter of routine.)
To see “scenes of rioting in any corner of the country,” with people turning into “blood-thirsty animals” she declares that “all you have to do is switch on your television set at prime time any day, every day.”

We can see mobs burning “cars, shops and residences” as they are overcome by an “inexplicable madness” and “rush from locality to locality burning and killing strangers without qualm.”

Watching The Last King of Scotland the Hollywood film about Idi Amin’s murderous tryranny in Uganda, she “felt numb just connecting with the mirror images. It could’ve been a portrait of any politician in India.” At one point in the film “I forced myself to keep watching, telling myself, ‘it’s about Idi Amin and Uganda – don’t take it so personally.”

It is not till page 427 of the 456 page book that she thinks to mention India’s democratic system as a “triumph;” and that, without any effort to square it with her moaning about India being the mirror image of Amin’s Uganda!

What a “gal” as she would say.

It is one of the most preening, egotistical, ignorant books I’ve ever had the misfortune to read.

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