‘What on earth is going on?’ Pertie sounded intrigued but I could tell he was also exasperated. It was past midnight and
there was an edge to his voice. “Have we all gone mad?”
As you know, this is how Pertie’s rhetorical conversations usually begin. So though I was tempted to reply flippantly, I bit my lip and kept silent.
“They’re attacking women for drinking in pubs near Bangalore. In Bombay they’re closing down shops called Karachi Sweets and banning the sale of Pakistani books. Elsewhere, courts are issuing notices to the producer of Slumdog Millionaire on the grounds the name is offensive. Doesn’t it seem as if, suddenly, everyone’s lost all sense of balance and perspective?”
“Oh come, Pertie,” I replied soothingly, trying hard not to tut-tut. “These are separate and isolated incidents. You can’t add them all up!”
“And why can’t you?” he shot back. “Have you thought of the damage they’ve done? They’re undermining the most important elements of India’s image. First, Bangalore is supposed to be India’s window to the world. It’s thought of as modern, liberal and welcoming. Well, your Sri Ram Sene has effectively put paid to that. Now it’s being compared to Jeddah, Khartoum and Teheran.”
Pertie, of course, has a point but I felt he was over-egging it. I tried to gently demur but I doubt if he heard me.
“Now turn to Bombay. First they resort to censorship and then, in the name of Indian nationalism, the twits from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) have ripped apart India’s claim to be the original country of the subcontinent. The truth is it was all India before Pakistan was created. Pakistan, of course, doesn’t always accept that and now the MNS has corroborated their view that the land west of the Indus is different and separate. What a fabulous self-goal.”
This time I found it harder to disagree. But much like my earlier feeble interruption Pertie didn’t notice my silence. He was in full flow and, like a steam-roller, carried on.
“And then there’s Slumdog Millionaire. After Gandhi in 1982, no film has done more to make the world aware of India. It’s a runaway success. Yet what’s the response in India? Some foolish politicians think the name is offensive and at least one court has taken them seriously enough to issue formal notices to the producer. Talk about getting the wrong end of the stick.” Suddenly the penny dropped. Each of these was bad enough on its own. But together they made the outcome a lot worse. “What’s the world saying of us?”
“For many we’ve become a joke. People don’t know how to respond to girls getting beaten up for having a drink or shops forced to change their names because a handful of goons don’t like them. They’re laughing at us. But, sadly, the damage is deeper. It won’t be long before people start asking awkward questions.”
“Oh,” I replied, mystified. “Such as?”
“Such as: India is supposed to be a tolerant, liberal democracy. So how come we can’t accept a name like ‘Karachi Sweets’ and buy Pakistani books? Or: Hinduism is supposed to venerate women, we supposedly elevate them as goddesses. So how come we thrash them if they walk into a pub? And then: India is supposed to be an aspiring and dynamic society. So how come a rather clever name like Slumdog Millionaire can’t be appreciated but is, instead, considered offensive? These are disturbing questions.”
“And how will they be answered?” If Pertie had further insights I wanted to hear them.
“I don’t know,” he replied honestly. “But what I can tell you is that they underline the glaring difference between India and mature, self-confident countries. They’re tolerant and accepting. We’ve just exhibited fatuous levels of intolerance and a perverse inability to accept recognition. It could make people realise that the real India is not in the smart-talking drawing-rooms of Delhi and Bombay, but in its insecure, quarrelsome back-streets and in the nit-picking litigations of its carping politicians. And if that happens, it could take the shine off the India story.”