VIKRAM MUTHANNA writes: Recently Jeremy Clarkson, that giant of a man, the patronising British ‘chap’ who presents Topgear, a show about cars on BBC Entertainment, did a show in India where he drove all over North India in a car fitted with a toilet in the trunk!
As he put it, “Everyone who comes to India gets the trots.”
Later in the show, he stripped down to his underpants at a party he had hosted to demonstrate how to use a trouser press. But no one cared. After all, we have a very efficient and ubiquitous ironing service on every other street corner in India. But then there was no need for a strip-down demonstration.
Thank god, in his imperialistic ignorance, he did not venture down to show us how to use toilet paper.
Anyway, his supposed unsavoury comments Indians living in the UK all worked up.
For some reason, Indians abroad seem more touchy about India jokes. Is it because they love the nation they left behind, or is it really because they fear they will be perceived to be like their poorer cousins as seen on TV by their new, white country cousins?
But the fact is, Jeremy’s jokes were laced with truth.
We still have hygiene issues in tourist places and so most foreigners have tummy upsets when they come to India. Yes, our traffic is bad, in fact on the show Jeremy says as he drives, “It’s terrifying driving on Indian highways” and points out the huge trucks without lights and tractors coming from the opposite direction.
So, why are we upset with a reality check? Jeremy pointed out the same issues we complain about, albeit in a funny and cheeky sarcastic British manner.
So, is it ok when we criticise our own country but not a foreigner? But then no one in India cares, it’s more of a bother for our country cousins living abroad. Instead of getting touchy, why don’t they come back or give solutions to fix the issues Jeremy was joking about?
Speaking of jokes, every North Indian has a Madrasi joke, every South Indian has a North Indian joke and every Indian has a Sardarji joke. It seems, Sikhs are the only people in India who know how to laugh at themselves and thrive on self-deprecating humour, thus making them the quintessential jolly good fellows.
The rest of us are too busy stereotyping others who are unlike us. We cover everything from their colour, culture, food to their hygiene. And we have the arrogance to point fingers at Jeremy.
Because the Indians in the UK were upset, the Indian High Commission sent a letter to BBC “to make amends, especially to assuage the hurt sentiments of a large number of people.”
How many people? 21.
They got only 21 complaints!
Every person who watches Topgear knows not to take the show seriously except for the car reviews. Everyone knows that most of it is staged. They know that Jeremy and his boys are forever indulging in juvenile behaviour. Why then is the Indian High Commission so upset?
We would prefer if they were more concerned with the issue of why so many Indians are getting killed in the UK. And we can assure our brothers abroad it’s definitely not because the British goons think that we have bad roads, bad driving skills and bad public hygiene.
For the time being, we are glad that it has not become an issue that dominates the Indian news screens and BBC news junkies are glad that no one is asking for a ban on BBC in India. A pleasant surprise. Maybe we have moved on from being needy for the West’s approval. But then may be all the trouble makers are too busy performing their dirty tricks in Uttar Pradesh. Other reasons could be that Jeremy makes a fool of himself rather than Indians, with his sarcasm and strip show.
Times have changed. Yes, India still has a lot of poor people but it also has a lot of rich people. Yes, we have a lot of illiterates but we also have a lot of educated people and the world knows that; if not by watching TV news then at least when they lose their jobs.
The media in the West loves to mock brown people and all brown people are put into one basket, the Indian basket — no matter if you are a Pakistani, Bangladeshi or a Sri Lankan. But that is slowly changing. The West now knows most Indians, especially in the US, are educated and are in good standing.
Indians there too have tried very hard to differentiate themselves from their brown but not-so-educated cousins from the Indian sub-continent. There is nothing more insulting for an Indian in the US than being called a “Paki!” On the other hand, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, as much as they would disagree, like to be mistaken for Indians.
When I was studying in New York, a friend of mine in a hurry crossed the road suddenly and a car had to brake hard. The driver screamed, “You stupid Paki.”
My friend was smiling. I asked him, “He just abused you and you are smiling?” To this my friend replied, “I know, but I’m just glad he said ‘stupid Paki’ and not Indian.” So Indians abroad are conscious about their identity, they don’t want to be mistaken for a Pakistani unless of course they are doing something ‘stupid.’
However, it is a fact that whenever we see a brown man being portrayed in an embarrassing manner in any foreign media, we as Indians feel awkward and cringe. That’s because we are still trying to fight off the stereotype that foreign media has portrayed of us over the years — droopy shouldered, overly apologetic and socially inept people with a funny accent. But we are no more like that.
Yet we are so sensitive that in the recent movie Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol where our legendary Bollywood icon Anil Kapoor played the role of a bumbling testosterone-packed mobile tycoon, his silly two-minute appearance made many of us cringe. We felt Anil had lost one good chance to portray that a well-educated rich Indian can be as suave as a Western playboy, but alas!
So, the West will continue to find ways to mock us. But we have to find ways to mock them too. One of the best Indian stand-up comedian named Papa CJ mocks the British in a show in England where he says, “Yours is the only country so insecure that it needs an adjective before its name — ‘Great’ Britain.”
Then he continues, “I came to England because my grandfather said the sun never sets on the British Empire, but I now see that the sun never rises on the British Empire (in reference to the gloomy British weather).”
He also says, “We both are alike, while you’ll think that there is a stupid person at the other end of the customer service telephone line, we think the same.” Papa CJ finally adds, “You may feel offended with the things I’ve said about your country, but I don’t care. After all, I’m from the land of Kamasutra and I can screw you in a 100 different ways.”
Hopefully, this incident of Jeremy Clarkson will continue to be ignored. People like Clarkson are the least of our worries. At best, we must hear his comments and better our systems and as for his humour, what can we say? It’s just like his nation’s food — bland and unpalatable.
(Vikram Muthanna is managing editor of Star of Mysore, where this piece originally appeared)