Saturday, November 7, 2015

Is it that easy to misinterpret/misrepresent facts about any country?

If there is a place where Indians and Chinese compete on number-count supremacy (apart from the real population count, of course), it would have to be in the U.S academic space. I'm sure 95% of you will agree with me. For the remaining 5%, I have a simple task. List any ten of your favorite universities, and scroll through the PhD students’ and professors' list (preferably from a STEM or a Social Science department), and your doubts will be laid to rest.
Rohit Mahendran shared his lab-space with some of the nicest Chinese people he'd ever known. This was not just because these were the only Chinese folks he had actually interacted with, but because they were really open, friendly, and approachable. He was surprised to learn that he could socialize much better with his Chinese friends than with most others (Indians included).
One evening, after a thoroughly frustrating research session, he struck a conversation with his Chinese colleague, Jenny (her English sobriquet, obviously) about China and his country. He had broached this topic before, perhaps half a dozen times, but the conversation had always rapidly moved in the direction of research and their work. This time, he was determined to know what Chinese people thought about their worthy neighbors.
Jenny started slowly about how she liked Indian spices, the colors and the diversity (Duh!), but when she opened up, Rohit wished he had never broached the topic. 

It started with some curious questions:
"Do folks in India believe in burning the wife after her husband's death?"
"Raj told me that he belonged to an upper class Indian community. The caste system must play a very strong role in your country, right?"
"Why do you throw dead bodies into your holy rivers? (In reference to a photograph posted online of a river in Varanasi by a Chinese traveler, which became viral in China)"
"How can you people ever travel in such a crowded train (Mumbai local)? When we complain to our authorities about the number of people in trains during our annual festival, they always refer to the situation in India"
"Is it true that some of your main cities have an alternate economy (probably referring to the underworld and slums)?"  

After this barrage, she finally asked me, after considerable hesitation, "I'm not saying you would do this, but your countrymen consider women to be substandard citizens. Right?" 
Now this shocked Rohit to the core. Coming from a progressive south-Indian family, comprising of strong female figures occupying high academic and administrative positions, and as an Indian who had travelled and worked in various parts of India, he knew this wasn't true. Admittedly, he had chiefly worked in the metropolitan cities. Perhaps, he never lived in the “Real India”; but in the limited “India” that he knew of, women were never considered as “sub-standard citizens”.  Rallying himself, he said "Oh, not at all. What makes you think so?" 
"Oh, it’s nothing. I watched this documentary on BBC about a high profile rape case in India where a few men, lawyers etc, who were interviewed said so openly. Now do not tell me that BBC isn't reputed enough".
Rohit spent another 15 minutes explaining (albeit unsuccessfully) why that video left a bad taste in the mouths of Indians too, and how those lawyers were not representative of the masses. She referred to a few "reputed" articles that considered India to be totally unsafe for women. In the end, she said "Thanks Rohit, I really did not know"; but Rohit was quite convinced that her opinion remained unchanged.
On his way back, he recollected his interactions with his temporary roommate (Joshua), an American, during his first fortnight in the US of A. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that the questions Josh had asked were on the same line, albeit being coated with the veneer of subtlety. Josh had enquired about the veracity of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and the general hygiene issues around Indian monuments. 
"Indians tend to save more than Americans” Josh had said; “We Americans live on credit. Trust me, it’s a bad thing. But I guess your mindset comes from attempting to hoard food? Well, you know, storing more food than required at home? I guess it’s got to do with poverty and shortage?" 
"Indians and Americans value time in totally different ways. I guess Indians are culturally inclined to be slightly impatient. Almost every time someone breaks into my queue, it has been an Indian. I used to think it was really rude, but don't anymore. I understand it’s cultural" (Perhaps someone had told him so)
Josh had also admitted that his knowledge of India and her people was very limited, and based on movies, a few occasional newspaper articles, and his own experiences with Indian expats. 
Rohit felt miserable. What he knew about his motherland and what others knew about India were just not comparable. Was it that easy to dupe people in believing that India was a bad country to live in?
"Half-truths are more dangerous than lies", he muttered. There is no fun (or money) in showing that the "growth story" called India had the same old story of strong fundamentals driving a strong economy. The media naturally gravitates toward the outliers, the ugly parts of the country, just as in research, where one attempts to identify (and analyze) outliers. There wasn't much he could do, except set an example. Hopefully, he would convince Jenny of the true nature of his motherland and her people in the coming years.
He was lost in thought when his mobile beeped. "Aree, where were you, man? We have pizzas for you and your extended bunch of friends. Lol" read his roommate's SMS. "Did you loot the "free pizza" seminar once again this week? Have some shame dude" Rohit replied. "If I hadn't, other Indians would have. So Pritesh and I lifted 8 boxes and 4 Pepsi bottles. So come home early, bugger" was the reply.