He’s the 17th. Trust me.
— Cryptic remark made by person arrested for wearing the Indian national flag as a skirt and dancing in it to celebrate Republic Day
Uh-oh. It seems that I’ve been morally, politically and intellectually a bad, bad boy. The fact that I was rummaging CDs in a music store last Tuesday evening instead of rushing back home to catch Barack Obama’s inauguration speech was bad enough. Then, I made things worse by going home, turning the TV on and watching not the Second Coming in Washington D.C. but The Birth of A Nation, D.W. Griffith’s classic, racist 1912 film on the American Civil War and the birth of the Klu Klux Klan.
As the papers gave us detailed information the next day about the person whom Nostradamus had written, ‘From a windy town will come the swarthy son/in one hand will he hold the pen mightier than the sword/in the other he will build a new world/in the third, he’ll be checking messages in a machine that makes calls and accesses emails’, I felt like a pariah. Such was my non-interest in World Obama Day that even smokers outside my office treated me as a leper.
Yes, I do recognise that Obama sounds good for America and, by extension, the world that lies beyond Hawaii. But the fervour attached to his taking over the job of top dog does smack of the stuff they show on God TV and other late night evangelical channels. The truth is that what really bothers me isn’t the global Hallelujahs ricocheting from Pittsburgh to Patparganj, but pure jealousy.
How come we generate so little of our own stories for ourselves — never mind for the world at large — while America churns out seemingly endless material for domestic and global consumption? The carpet-bombing of stories, photos, news and opinions that has emanated from World Obama Day is quite staggering. Even if a cross between Mayawati (politically super-canny Dalit woman), Amartya Sen (a very intelligent person) and Sanjay Gandhi (a tough guy who gets things done) becomes the next Prime Minister of India, I can’t imagine our media being able to generate the kind of avalanche that its American counterpart did last week.
Just take a look at the number of photographs that Indian newspapers get to choose from for domestic stories. As for foreign coverage, the operational logic is: ‘Why send our chaps out there when we can jolly well make do by carrying New York Times and Guardian reports and stories?’ Then we complain about how the West is ignorant about us while we are so clued in about them.
American media and entertainment organisations bombard their material all across the world — whether it be big ticket stories like the Obama inauguration or the constant twitter of celebrity news. (Every English paper in India carried a report on Thursday about a Britney Spears song causing outrage in Middle America.) Passing Martians would be almost right to believe that we in India live on the outskirts of America.
You can find chaps wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt in Nandigram (I’ve seen this myself). The point isn’t that they are clueless about their ‘American connections’. The point is that Americans sense the presence of their culture, their world everywhere. Now I’m no born-again swadeshi nut and I love my rock’n’roll and Al Pacino movies. But imagine seeing a Texan or a Chechen or a Swede wearing a Shah Rukh Khan or a Taj Mahal or a Dhoni t-shirt. I’m just jealous that we’re not soft power giants who can drown the world with information about ourselves.
Perhaps an English director, with the help of composer A.R. Rahman, will make ‘Jai ho, Jai ho!’ a global urban slang. But the fact of the matter remains that you know by reading the papers and watching TV last week that Barack Obama is the 44th President of America. Do you know what number Manmohan Singh is on the list of prime ministers of India? The answer, my Republic Day-eve patriots, is in the first line of this column.