First of all, I want to thank you for taking the trouble to visit my country and showcase its exotica and spirituality to the world. I mean, most people would have assumed the smell of “something burning” when the aircraft landed was that rubber-tyres-on-tarmac thingy. But you chose to go below the runway surface for symbolic significance. I was so touched I almost didn’t notice you showed us the Gateway of India and then landed in Delhi. And thank you for noticing the donkey-carts and hand-pulled rickshaws and snake-charmers – most people don’t. The Ministry for Tourism is, I’m sure, even more grateful to you than I am, though it makes us seem a little out of place in the G20 summit et cetera.
No ‘buts’ for me, though – well, except there’s a ‘butt’. See, I’m quite upset about this thing. When you began to visit the bathrooms in the slum, I really thought you’d dig deeper into our loo habits. Like, you know, you spoke about how we don’t have showerheads in slums, and you had Mr. Shantaram himself showing you around. You pointed out, “Few outsiders know the slums of India like Australian author Gregory David Roberts”. Of course, at this point, Danny Boyle may have gone, “Whaaaa....?! All those Oscars in your country don’t count?” Then again, he’s probably too preoccupied with the Olympics to care.
Wait, we’re getting sidetracked here. So, the toilets. I thought we’d get there when Mr. Shantaram spoke about where he went to empty his bowels, but I was shattered when you neglected to mention that “some Indians STILL wash their bums with their hands.” That would have given you an entire fifteen-minute segment to speak to people about how they manage to use their hands to eat and wash themselves. And we all have insightful answers ready. We eat and write with our right hands, because those are holy things in Hinduism, while we use our left hands to touch our bottoms. You’ll have to check about the left-handed writers, though – they don’t like to talk about it much.
While I was disappointed you chose not to linger longer on the subject, I think this would make a great focus point for your next visit to India. In fact, I have enough here for you to make a five-part series. Your obsession with the restrooms in the first episode really got me thinking. You were very concerned about whether people take turns in the bathroom. I couldn’t quite figure out what the dilemma was there, but I’ve decided to try and find some people who have group showers, so we can convince you some things are done the right way in India.
I’m glad you were able to capture a blind beggar, street food, elephants and camels on camera. However, I think you should speak to servants. Yes, we still have servants, you know. I think you should accommodate them in your next episode. Maybe get a group of five domestic help together, and ask them whether they are allowed to eat at the same table where they serve. You might also want to visit a house that has just been burgled, where you’ll find that suspicion falls on the help. You might want to film the police interrogating the servants. I’m sure they’ll be happy to go extra-aggressive for you.
On the subject of servants, I’m happy that you got five women to discuss caste while sipping tea from silverware. You did very well to show us video clips of sweepers and shoe-shiners as you asked these housewives about how difficult it is to transcend caste. You could so easily have confused everyone by telling the world India had a Dalit President and that the Constitution was written by a man from the caste now called ‘Dalit’, at the time ‘shudra’ or ‘harijan’. You exercised restraint, and kept your show straight and simple. Well done!
You know what, some of my girlfriends and I found out through your show that it was taboo to discuss love, sex, marriage, in-laws and dreams at kitty parties. Thank God you told us! I mean, we would have gone on wearing sleeveless blouses and sindoor and discussing all these bad-bad things till our fathers or brothers or husbands killed us, if it weren’t for you. We just realised what a narrow escape we had. Then again, maybe we’ll do it one last time when you come here next, and that way, we can have an honour killing on your show too. How exciting it will all be! I’ll need to check which of my friends’ fathers has a gun licence (mine doesn’t). Maybe the ones in the Army?
I can think of several other groups of people you need to speak to, but the foremost among them are the gay folks – not being able to come out is a specifically Indian problem, no? What it must be like to live in a society where there’s absolutely no challenge involved in saying, “I’m gay”! You can ask the Indian homosexuals on your show what they envy about American homosexuals, and call them wise when they tell you they probably face the same problems.
I found it very strange that you didn’t devote a special segment to hijras – you know, transgender people in India. I think it would make for great television – you could follow them around as they go to homes where there have been births or weddings or celebrations of any kind, to demand money. Then, you could follow them on to trains, where they demand money. You should also go to the beaches in Mumbai and to the park in Connaught Place in Delhi, where you’ll find them asking necking couples to stop and spare them change. There’s the Koovagam Festival in Tamil Nadu, which would give you that mystical connect between social evils and Hinduism that’s such a crucial strand of any show on India. Once you’ve neatly tied the prejudice against hijras to a myth, you should dance with them. You should also dance with tribal women from the North East – tourists always do.
Many Indian men are upset, because their problems have been ignored in your two-part series. There are things they need to sit down and speak about too, you know. I’m going to get male friends of mine to volunteer to talk about how difficult it is for them to see to their needs – you know, needs – in a society where premarital sex is frowned upon. I’m sure some of them have had multiple surgeries on their wrists. And we may be lucky enough to find one who’d used ayurvedic medicine for chafing, hopefully with disastrous results.
You must also speak to people who haven’t been able to rent houses because they’re non-vegetarian, bachelors, Muslims, or all of the above. I have friends who fit those tags too. Hey, you know what! We’ll also speak about how Hindus and Muslims can actually be friends. In fact, I tell you what – let me call a Sikh friend, Muslim friend, Christian friend, and atheist friend, and we’ll let your crew take lots of close up shots of us breaking bread together. Then, we’ll take turns at crying about how our ancestors murdered each other. We’re not sure how true these are, but wink wink, nudge nudge, who cares. Besides, you need to meet Indians who can actually act.
There’s some standard exotica you missed, and I felt particularly cheated because your show didn’t focus on sadhus with mobile phones, even when you spoke of the paradoxes that constitute India. Never mind, when you’re here, we’ll meet some of those, and some people who do the Great Indian Rope Trick too. We should also go to a rave party, where we’ll hopefully meet Israeli tourists. You might want to ask them about the symbolism of the Swastika in Hinduism. If we’re all stoned, it could make for great television. We’ll all cry at the end too, just in case the conversation falls flat.
There are some holy centres you should visit – like the ashram of Nithyananda, the godman who was filmed cavorting with a “yesteryear” actress (we Indians do love that adjective!) a couple of years ago, and has been given charge of a large franchise of mutts for his trouble. By ‘mutts’, I probably mean ‘ashrams’, but I leave that open to interpretation. Maybe Deepak Chopra can teach us to teleport ourselves to these mutts?
You were fascinated by the women in saris who rode “motorscooters”. Next time you’re here, I’m going to show you women in shorts with short hair who ride bullock carts. We’ll even find some people who wear Nike and Reebok and make them ride bullock carts. I don’t think the “paradox” factor came through in your two-part series. I’m blaming it on the absence of a sadhu with a mobile phone, but no harm in overcompensating.
I didn’t realise how unique it was that we prepared our own food and didn’t just microwave it. You see, I’d been misled by Desperate Housewives’ Bree Van de Kamp into thinking Americans cooked too. I was also puzzled when you said the existence of widows in India, or the fact that their husbands’ brothers hadn’t been paying for their upkeep, didn’t make sense to you. Desperate Housewives led me to think there were widows in America too – and, you know, Rex’s and Karl’s and Mike’s and Orson’s families didn’t help Bree or Susan either. Now, I’m annoyed with myself at having wasted so much time on that show, ya. It didn’t teach me anything about America. I think you should do a programme on America next. I can take you around American slums also – wait, what is the politically correct word for ‘slum’? If I don’t get a visa, one of my relatives will. But you may need subtitles for when we speak English.
There are some things I wish you’d brought up on this India journey. Like, this link between white being the colour of mourning in India and our colonial hangover is so obvious, right? I wish you’d analysed the link between widowhood and racism.
You know, Oprah, I especially enjoyed those episodes of your old studio show, where you didn’t feel like interviewing people who’d shot their own kids, or whose marriages were ending, or who were fat, or who were going to cut their hair after twenty years, stuff like that. On those shows, you’d give us tours of your makeup room and spa, or you’d get your interior decorator to do up someone’s home, or your designer to do up someone’s wardrobe, you know? I wish you’d got those people to come and give the slums a makeover. I’ve been wondering why you didn’t do that, but I suppose the Occupy Movement has confused you, like it has everyone else.
You also missed a proper Indian wedding, yaar. Go to a Tam Brahm wedding. Hell, come to mine. Yeah, I’ll get married to get on your show! You’ll be able to see grown-ups roll coconuts at each other, fight over stuff from a pot, break appalaams over each other’s heads, and get carried by their uncles. It’s pretty different from grown-ups who throw bouquets at other grown-ups who fight over them. I swear. You can also film rows of people waiting for places while rows of people eat out of banana leaves on metal tables. It’s like a soup kitchen, I tell you. I’ll cry on my wedding day, as I explain how the abolition of monarchy led to us Brahmins losing our royal patronage, so we’re forced to get by without crockery.
I know it would be a handy addition if my father cried on your show, so I think the wedding will be a good idea – the smoke from the fire could serve as a catalyst in working the lachrymal glands of the men in my family. If that doesn’t work, I’ll force my family to gift my husband an elephant as dowry, instead of a car. We’ll even sway away to our honeymoon on the elephant. Hey, maybe I can promote the Discovery Channel like the family in the slum did. I know what, I’ll tell you how my sex education came from watching animals mate. Umm, can we get NatGeo to play your show this time?
There are some aspects of your show I will not be able to compete with, though. Like that fish-tank thing. I thought that family was going to tell you they kept the fish for a rainy day, you know, for dinner. And then the kid tells you the fish die to save the family from black magic. I was going to bribe my maid to tell you how she steals my fish to feed her family of five, but then I realised I don’t have any fish. And if I buy them now, they could die before you reach India. Never mind, I’m sure I can figure out something about the spiritual significance of my voltage stabiliser. I think it means bad vibes will get converted into good vibes, but I’ll check with the electrician to make sure.
But you did get one teensy detail wrong – Vrindavan wasn’t the birthplace of Lord Krishna. It was Mathura. You see, his parents were in jail, and they kept making babies though his maternal uncle kept killing those. Oh, did I inadvertently answer your question about how couples find “alone time” in confined spaces?
More by the same author:
Dear Censors, can we please use grown-up words now?
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India’s world-stage race: Hunger at home, kudos abroad
Ambedkar toon row: Don't let politicians decide what's funny for us
Do we really need beef and pork festivals?
The author is a writer based in Chennai.
She blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com