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True to type?

Is it really necessary to slot people into one box or the other?

india Updated: May 22, 2010 18:37 IST
Seema Goswami

SpectatorIt never ceases to amaze me how quick we are to stereotype people. It could be based on how they dress, where they went to school, in which area they live, where they holiday, the accent in which they speak. In fact, almost any – and every – detail about a person is used to slot him in one category or the other.

If you went to a posh boarding school like Doon or Mayo, then you must be a child of privilege, a spoilt rich kid coasting along a path smoothed by Daddy’s millions. If you studied in an Ivy League college or in either Oxford or Cambridge, then you are an elitist snob who could never understand the concerns of common folk.

If you dress in a salwar-kameez or a sari, then you must be a behenji; if you wear a short skirt or a tight top then you must be a slut who is up for it; if you are into computers you must be a nerd; if you are fat you must be greedy; if you wake up late in the morning you must be lazy. At one time or another, all of us resort to this kind of shorthand. Punjabi = loud and crude (I guess I can say that without fear being a loud and crude Punjabi myself). Bengali = ineffectual but intellectual. South Indian = brainy bureaucrat. Sindhi = crooked businessman. Gujarati = canny stock-exchange whiz. And so on. Our propensity to stereotype people was brought home to me anew lately, thanks to my recent experiences on Twitter.

A couple of Pakistan-related tweets (I am as hawkish on the subject as you can get without turning into Arnab Goswami – no relation, I hasten to add) brought in such a flood of responses from rabid Hindutva types that I spent the rest of the day explaining that in my book anti-Pakistan does not equal anti-Muslim.

A series of anti-Shashi Tharoor tweets elicited much abuse on the lines of “You bloody BJP so-and-so, what do you know anyway?” as if nobody could have an independent view on the subject without subscribing to one political party or the other. But what was far more disturbing was one lengthy exchange I had with another tweeter about a post on my blog. The piece was about my reaction to the ban on the burkha in some European countries and this lady wrote to say that she couldn’t believe that someone who wrote about Hermes scarves and Louis Vuitton bags could also write about such serious issues as the burkha.

Well, why ever not? Why should we slot people into these little categories and take the view that they couldn’t possibly do anything else? It is possible to be interested in both fashion and finance, to have a view on both peep-toe shoes and politics, to be moved by both babies and Bach, to be a champion of women’s rights and yet oppose the Women’s Reservation Bill. And yes, it is possible to write about both bags and burkhas.

Nonetheless, many of us find it hard to wrap our minds around the fact that every person is a sum of many parts. And while one of these parts may lust after a pair of red-soled pumps, another might want to embrace a red-hued political philosophy; one part may like the uplifting sound of a choral opera, another might be a fiend for hard-core heavy metal; one might have a strong streak of political activism while the other loves trawling glossy magazines for the latest celebrity gossip. But few people are willing to take this idea on board. After all, it’s so much simpler to just stick people in one bracket or the other. It makes life much easier, doesn’t it?

So, those who read romantic novels must be frustrated in love and looking for the excitement they could never find in real life within the pages of a book. Detective stories and thrillers are for worthless, frivolous folk who would benefit for having their noses stuck in an improving biography or two. And classics of English literature are for those with intellectual pretensions, who like to pretend that they are too good for pulp fiction.

I should know how this goes. Over the years, I have taken a fair amount of flak over my reading habits. One former employer went into paroxysms of laughter when he saw me reading Georgette Heyer at an airport lounge. Only when no less an author than Amitav Ghosh told him (much later) how great Heyer was at evoking an era, did he stop taking the mickey out of me. (Not that it made any difference; I am the kind who feels no shame in reading a lurid paperback in public.)

These days, some of my more politically-correct friends make much fun of the fact that among the many news sites I visit every day (Times Online, The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post among others) is the Daily Mail’s online version. Suffice it to say that the words ‘Enoch Powell’ have been thrown around and on one occasion I was even likened to the Sikh who joined the BNP (no, seriously, I kid you not).

But you know what? I really don’t care. As far as I am concerned, this kind of stereotyping says more about your prejudices than mine. And no, I wouldn’t dream of sticking you into one box or the other.

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