We are the world

We are the world

Taking stock

We are the world

It was a shock for many Indians when WikiLeaks revealed that Hillary Clinton purportedly called India “a self-appointed frontrunner for a permanent UN Security Council seat”.

How could this be, when Obama had said quite the opposite when addressing a joint session of both houses in Parliament? Whatever be the exigencies that drive politicians to indulge in double speak, there is no doubt that the perceptions of India and Indians have been steadily changing and even more so in the past decade. In the era of global travel, more and more people are seeking out the country for a variety of reasons.  

This is not to say that the India of yore did not hold any fascination for people. There were many like the theosophist, Dr Annie Besant, who made India her home, or the English journalist, Paul Brunton, who says that he was propelled by circumstances outside his control, towards India.

His quest and writings on India’s spirituality turned into the bestselling book, ‘A Search in Secret India’, and drew the attention of the West on the sage of the Tiruvannamalai Hills, Sri Ramana Maharshi. There were others too, like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi whose Transcendental Meditation (TM) attracted the attention of the Beatles who came to his ashram in early 1968 to learn the technique.

This was also the time the Beatles chose to learn the sitar from Pandit Ravi Shankar, in India. The band was then going through a great upheaval and the Beatles perhaps hoped that TM and the sitar would provide a salve for their egos and prevent them from falling out. Though this did not happen, the Beatles succeeded in creating an awareness and popularity for both Indian spirituality and Indian classical music in the Western world.

Whilst many foreigners choose to live or travel around India, there are an increasing number of Indians who make up the diaspora in different parts of the world, as they choose to make their lives and careers there. Today, there are many Indian students who have chosen to expand their horizons by furthering their education on foreign soil.

The increasing money power of Indians has also made it possible for many of them to have holidays abroad.   

Speaking to a cross-section of Indians who either live or have travelled abroad has resulted in an interesting mix of responses about how they feel they are perceived abroad. Ratna Ghosh, a deputy general manager in a Kolkata-based company, and her husband, have been travelling abroad every year since 2004.

“Indians are everywhere and accepted in all places,” says Ratna. She and her husband have not encountered discrimination anywhere. Even in a “stiff upper lip country” like the UK, strangers would smile and stop to engage them in conversation. Most people seemed aware of India and would talk positively about the country, “especially about our spicy food, colourful textiles and our BPOs,” adds Ratna.

Dr Prakash Vaidyanathan, an attending surgeon with specialisations, has lived abroad for the past 15 years. Practising in Elkton, USA, he says that he has most definitely seen a change in perception towards India since the so-called economic boom and “also a lot of comparisons between India and China.” Prakash says that Indians are known to be a high-achieving group in the US and adds, “The awareness of jobs being outsourced to India is high.” With politicians like John Kerry in an earlier election, and Obama in the last one, using this as an election issue, perhaps this awareness is not surprising!

Sharmila Sajay, who has lived in the US since her marriage ten years ago, also agrees that Indians are appreciated in that country because they strive to reach greater heights and are hard-working. But she is candid enough to admit, “People do think that a lot of Indians don’t really try to integrate into the American society.” Sharmila has this to say about racism, “I have not openly faced racism or rejection, but there have been times when I have felt it subtly.”

Shivani Gopalakrishna is an Asia Special Scholar from Waseda University, Tokyo, where she acquired a Masters in International Relations.  Prior to the three years that she studied in Tokyo, Shivani spent another three years studying in the US. Shivani says that in Indiana in the US, there was not much of an awareness of India perhaps because the BRIC nations had not come into prominence.

“When I lived in Tokyo between 2006 and 2008, all the Japanese people I met knew a bit about India — many had even travelled here.” Shivani says she noticed that more Japanese people were interested in visiting India after the economic boom. “The older Japanese are generally interested in India/Indian culture.  Everyone knows that the zero was invented here and think that Indians are smart. They also respect Indian culture and are aware that Buddhism originated here,” adds Shivani.

Susheela Nair, a Bangalore-based travel writer, has had a different experience when travelling to places like Macau and Jordan, where Indians are identified by their Bollywood connection. Whatever else that they may or may not know about India, they watch Hindi films and tell Susheela, “Oh, you are from Amitabh Bachchan’s India. We love his movies.” In these places, the awareness of India was more to do with its film culture and its spicy food.   

Indian films, especially the Hindi ones, had a fan following even in the days of Raj Kapoor. When Nargis and he travelled to Russia, people came out in droves to cheer them along, as they sang songs from films that were box-office grossers there like Awara and Shree 420, especially the song that can be today’s globalisation mantra, “Mera joota hain Japani...”

During my own trip to Tokyo, Japan, I chose to wear Indian clothes, including saris, as I moved about the city. On one occasion, two Japanese ladies came up to me in the Edo Museum and admired my silk sari and asked if they could touch it to feel the material. They kept repeating, “Beautiful, beautiful,” as they felt the soft silk fabric.

Sitting in a pedicab (the equivalent of a cycle-rickshaw powered by a motor so that the pedalling becomes easier) in Washington DC, the driver said that he loved Indian music. As he drove us from the Lincoln Centre and past the White House, he listened carefully, as I explained the difference between Carnatic and Hindustani classical music as also the Western “do, re, mi.”  

In the United States, where I accompanied my husband on an academic trip, the interest in Mahatma Gandhi was amazing. At all lecture engagements, there was a request to link up the talks with Gandhiji. When we were invited to a professor’s home in East Manhattan, the baby-sitter, Kathleen, became extremely animated when speaking of Gandhi, as she had been completely floored by Gandhiji’s message after seeing Attenborough’s film.  

When visiting Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK, the very knowledgeable Brit at the curio shop informed us that the Shakespearean House that we were sitting in had once been owned by an American lady. With her close links to the Ramakrishna Mission, she had invited Swami Vivekananda and his disciples as her guests.   

The religion and spirituality of India has found many high-profile followers in the West, thanks to the simplification of the Hindu scriptures by Dr Deepak Chopra. Yoga gurus like B K S Iyengar have also contributed to creating a very positive image of India abroad.

India’s English literary achievements have also served to catapult it on to the world stage with authors like Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Arvind Adiga and Amitav Ghosh (to name only a few) becoming recognised names.   

Most people abroad now see the link between Slumdog Millionaire and India, and though the film may not exactly have been a PR exercise for the country, Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha and Deepa Mehta’s India-centric films have proved that there can also be non-formulaic Hindi films. A R Rehman’s winning of the Music Oscar and the Grammies have no less contributed to an understanding of popular Indian music.

A 2,500-year-old civilisation like India has always had people drawn to it. Centuries ago, the Buddhist monks, Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang, came to India from China to learn about India and documented their experiences. So it is not that India was ever an unknown entity but it is just that in today’s times, there is a greater understanding about the country, which is poised to take off in a big way.

Whilst India’s economic boom has spurred an interest in India, there is also a fear psychosis that has accompanied it. As Sharmila puts it, “The shift of jobs from the USA to India has meant that the American people are wary of Indians.”

Where perceptions of India really add to its advantage is with its “soft power,” the phrase coined by the American academician, Joseph Nye.  He explained this phenomenon as “the influence and attractiveness that a nation acquires when others are drawn to its culture and ideas.” Finally, it is this “soft power” that will perhaps bring about the most positive of perceptions about India and Indians.