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From fable to farce

In recent months, Toronto Transit has featured a series of advertisements from Penguin Canada that reflects the 2012 trend that softcore reading matters to the industry. This, of course, is the '50 Shades' genre. Anirudh Bhattacharyya writes.

columns Updated: Dec 28, 2012 23:36 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya

In recent months, Toronto Transit has featured a series of advertisements from Penguin Canada that reflects the 2012 trend that softcore reading matters to the industry. This, of course, is the '50 Shades' genre. These risqué-taking displays are marked with lines like: 'Pleasure Yourshelf' and 'Our readers come first'. Since this is on the subway system, the publisher's punsters finish with a flourish: 'Get off here.'

That campaign hasn't pleasured everyone. After all, there are parents who have to respond to the curious queries of their kids. But it certainly gets your attention. It also underscores a culture that makes clear that if you think of women as just bodies, or homebodies, think again.

This campaign is also somewhat fitting for a city that birthed SlutWalk, the global movement that started last year after a Neanderthal policeman gave a group of Toronto students a dressing down, suggesting they could avoid sexual assault by maintaining their modesty. After a flurry of official apologies, the authorities cut a truly sorry figure. Fittingly so.

The Toronto subway, like the one in New York and across North America, isn't segregated by sex, unlike New Delhi's Metro. Unfortunately, that latter phenomenon of ladies only coaches is necessary as the recent brutal gangrape in the capital shows.

That incident highlighted yet another trend that started a couple of years ago and is reaching its peak. As far as the North American media is concerned, the India story has rapidly gone from fable to farce. And its capitalisation centres upon Delhi and its suburbs, from the garbage in Gurgaon to the insanity at India Gate.

In the near past, there was a brief phase when the American media focused on the Indian economic elephant lumbering forward. India was incredible. No longer, at least not in that sense. That magnificent pachyderm has seemingly packed its trunk and left the building. From its brief affair as the country with mojo and momentum, India is back to being featured as the land of marigold and misery.

Mahatma Gandhi once described Katherine Mayo's book, Mother India (1927), as a "drain inspector's report". The drains are reporting back for duty.

If one event can capture when that tipping point occurred, it should be the photographs of filthy bathrooms in the Commonwealth Games village that appeared the same morning on the front pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in the autumn of 2010. It's gone down the toilet since then.

It's tough going for India's image makers and managers when the panoramic photographs splashed across broadsheets and slideshows are those of protesters at Rajpath being watercannoned and teargassed. Or the column inches dedicated to feats of corruption.

Unlike neighbouring Pakistan, a nation that commentators are won't to unfailingly describe as a failing State, India does escape that epithet though its latest avatar has become that of a flailing State. And it was just last July, on Canada Day (the equivalent of our Republic Day), that a columnist wanted his country to become the "India of the new world".

There are few shades of grey, 50 or otherwise, in the coverage that persists now, accompanied as it is with a return to poverty porn as evidenced by the bestselling Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. However, slumming it in India really got its chic quotient upped when Danny Boyle filmed Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A, renaming it Slumdog Millionaire.

Gandhi commented on Mayo's book that it provided a "graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains." That smell is back since some people just have dirty minds. Things usually get much worse before they get better and we could be left holding our noses for a while.

It's been a tough couple of years: From Anna Hazare's hordes in 2011 to this year's annus horribilis. Here's wishing for a happier, luckier 2013.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years

The views expressed by the author are personal