As a diplomat for over 30 years, I have represented India in every continent in the world: Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and now, South America. And in all these years, I have never seen anything comparable to what I see now: the strangest and strongest manifestation of India’s appeal through the current soap on Brazilian TV, Caminho das Índias, or Passage to India.
Soft power is a new concept in International relations. The word coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye points to something that is relevant, specially in today’s world. Nye argues that apart from the well-known conventional aspects of power — military power, political influence — a country’s appeal with regard to its ‘softer’ aspects—culture, art, image, moral status etc can also have an impact and create goodwill or its opposite, in other countries. Isn’t this true?
Of course, as an Indian diplomat, I have known all this, even before the theory. We are a unique civilisation with distinctive culture, customs, crafts and cuisine. India is a complex country and our contradictions and curious habits are not always easy to fathom. But there is respect for Indian thought and appreciation for our culture. I have always striven to take to the public in a foreign land something about my land and its values. But never had I imagined that a popular novella could so dramatically and fundamentally alter the impressions of a country and that too in a country as large and populous as Brazil.
As the soap Caminhos comes into Brazilian homes night after night, curiosity and affection for India seems to be growing. We know this by the number and kind of queries that we are getting in our embassy and the questions that we answer these days: what the bindi signifies; whether Dalits are still untouched in India; if grown- up Indian men and women do in fact dance to tunes all the time at home, and many other similar bits of oddities that are seen in the novella. We do the best we can with humour and imagination. Not every one wants a long lecture or a serious discourse.
We have also seen the market grow for sarees, kurtas, incense and other exotica. We have demands for authentic Indian restaurants in Brazilian cities like Rio and Brasilia. The availability of Indian cuisine is now limited only to the meagacity of Sao Paulo.
A frequent question that I am often asked is: is the novella authentic? Does it show the real India? I honestly don’t know how to answer this. First, a novella is a novella, after all, and not a documentary. By its very nature, it exaggerates, glamourises and selects what is exotic and unusual rather than the ordinary and the commonplace.
Brazilian viewers understand this. Second, what is ‘the real’ in a country with such diversity, complexity and contradictions? I end up telling my Brazilian friends that everything the novella shows is true in some part, somewhere, but its opposite is equally true. On the all-too-frequent questions on arranged marriages, caste system, dowry and such like, we use the queries as an opportunity to elaborate on modern India.
Why India? Ask my colleagues, the other diplomats with a touch of envy. I don’t know, ask Gloria Perez, the writer.
But on reflection, I feel that India is perhaps a natural fit. After all, we do look alike. The Brazilian actresses are gorgeous but also look so Indian and convincing. Well known Brazilian stars carry off roles of a Pandit or an Indian patriarch, even if all the dialogue is in Portuguese. Then there are the natural affinities. Brazilians love the family centered stories with infinite complications, so do we. Brazilians are romantic and so are we, even if the style of romancing may be different! They like sentimental stories with laughter and tears; we are suckers for the same. And yet we are so different. We have completely different customs for eating, dating, romancing and marrying. All this adds masala to the novella.
Even without the novella, it is a good time in Brazil-India relations. President Lula and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are friends and keep meeting each other be it for G-20 or IBSA, many acronyms of international architecture which bring us together.
Will Brazil-India relations change forever because of one soap? I am not naïve to believe that. But for many years to come, in every corner of Brazil, saree will no longer be unknown, theek hai may get understood and an Indian visitor may be greeted with a grin of familiarity .
(BS Prakash is the Indian Ambassador to Brazil)