Monday, July 12, 2010

Holy Cow Sarah! Really???

Today my mood is thoughtful…pensive. Did Sarah McDonald really need to publish her memoir about her time in India? She undoubtedly has a right to do it, nevertheless is it necessary to dispense with cultural and emotional sensitivity as completely as she has done?

Her writing is good, many times, I found myself laughing uncontrollably and even empathizing with her on some of her experiences. By dint of transforming contradictions to caricatures, she has managed to keep the humor going throughout the book. Her basic attitude can be simply termed as “poking fun” at all and sundry. The truly heartbreaking thing about it is most of her wit is a result of her lack of discernment and acuity into the culture and conditions of this society.

I know that India can be an overwhelming experience, especially for people born and raised in less populated, better-organized, simple monocultural societies. I am Indian, I cannot even pretend to begin to understand this diverse, tangled country of mine, and she has disposed of every aspect of this country in a shallow, flippant manner. If she aimed at caustic wit, she did not reach there, as there is no depth of perspicacity, just a superficial satire.

The key concepts of her plot like the airport beggar foretelling her future, her wish for bigger breasts being granted her albeit as a disease, the astrologer in Rishikesh coming up with correct predictions; all sound like blatant falsehoods created to give her “memoir” some significance. As otherwise, it would read like a tiresome travelogue of a bored foreigner unable to engage with the country where she happens to be a reluctant visitor.

The Indian government does not interfere with people’s religious beliefs in the name of bureaucracy, city governance or urban planning which is as it should be and the author terms it “inefficiency”. (Ref to Parsi Dakhmas)

There is no beautiful piece of land in India, every single square foot is dirty, dusty, dry, hot, stinky, muddy…the negatives are endless. She professes to understand the concept of multiple paths to God endorsed by Hinduism and persists in giving frivolous descriptions of different Hindu Gods.

I could analyze her book to bits and continue to ramble some, so I will stop here. This is not the first book about India written by a western visitor that paints such a starkly depressing picture of the country. Most of them invariably begin with extreme reactions and end up making peace with it under the “India is a land of contradictions with exotic eastern spirituality” theory. “Holy Cow” is no different.

The problem as I see it is developed nations function based on a “mainstream society” which also happens to be the majority population. There is a clear demarcation between the center and the periphery and it is obvious who is who and what is what and where you stand in relation to society the moment you land there. India has no such clearly defined mainstream. If you like, you can define Hindus as the majority population based on statistics but that does not translate to mainstream. Here everyone is mainstream. External visitors are fond of searching for the real India and gravitate towards urban slums and poor villages, which makes no sense. Why on earth are Modern India and Rich India considered illusory siblings of the poor and ancient?

India is not contradictory; she is all-inclusive. Every person, every thing, every culture and every attitude has a place up front and center thus creating a rich textured, multi layered social fabric that defies any attempts at mainstreaming and classification. No wonder, the wandering stranger ends up confused and bewildered at the gazillion seeming contradictions that attack his startled gaze. It’s like being locked up with Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and the rest of the Renaissance gang and their art with perspective and proportion since you were born and one fine day being kicked out on your ass and asked to appreciate and enjoy 21st century abstraction art with its pluralistic “whatever” attitude!

1 comment:

  1. Bravo on your compelling review! I've never been to India, but what exposure I do get to that lively culture makes me sad to hear about a book like this.

    And I think I know how you feel. After living in Australia for 25 years, I felt uncomfortable about a memoir (whose title I've now forgotten) that was all abut the woes of a woman who moved to Oz from overseas. Sure, it took a year before my family felt comfortable in our adopted land--and during the first year we poked fun at things we found quaint about the Land Downundah--but I'm not convinced an entire memoir should be based on one's dissatisfaction with an adopted country. Homesickness is something you go home for (usually to find out that home will never be the same again because you've had your eyes opened to the world). Writing a book as therapy for homesickness seems like it should be a self-published affair.

    Are we losing the original purpose of the memoir as a genre? I find the publishing industry responsible for giving an author like Sarah McDonald a platform from which to sensationalize her views. The market is so saturated with every imaginable topic that they have to keep stretching the boundaries in search of new ways to get people to fork over $$$ for a book. Evidently, our fast food/reality TV culture breeds enough readers looking for a cheap thrill.

    But there are still readers out there (hopefully lots of us!) who haven't sold out. Thank goodness there are still enough ethical (smaller) publishers to keep us in books.