I was made aware about a huge controversy regarding some comments that Oprah Winfrey made during the airing of a documentary about India called “India: The Next Chapter”. Most of the criticism centered around a remark that Oprah Winfrey made while dining with an Indian family when she asked quite casually: “I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still?” It was this comment that caused umbrage leading to a tirade of criticism by columnists, opinion writers and many (mostly) Indian commenters. The criticism ranged from disappointment to being offended to outright racist comments about Oprah. Perhaps it was the use of the word “still” that caused offense but to offer context to the circumstances in which Oprah made the comment it would be worth checking out the video clip about how it transpired:

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It was this comment that launched a tirade from the likes of Rituparna Chatterjee. Chatterjee launches a diatribe that includes the following:

“Oprah, your comment about eating with the hand is really not that big a deal to us; we are used to gross Western ignorance regarding our ancient country. But as a responsible public figure about to air a show that will be beamed across the world, you should have done your homework. Using our hands to eat is a well established tradition and a fact none of us are ashamed of. Our economic distinction has nothing to do with it. A millionaire here eats the same way a pauper does. You have been to Asian nations. You should know that.

In fact, we scoff at people who try to tackle their pizzas and rotis with cutlery. In one sweeping, general statement you linked the usage of cutlery to our progress. If anything, the mockery brings out in sharper focus the underlying insecurity and the latent threat developed nations sense from third world countries such as ours. Do you say you did not mean it as an offence? It is then an abominable insensitivity to Indian hospitality.”

I am no fan of Oprah but I cannot help but feel sorry that her casual remark about eating with one’s hand – or to be more precise one’s fingers – should have caused the diatribe attacking her, the West, the alleged “latent threat” that developed nations feel from third world countries such as India. I assume that Chatterjee is not referring to a military threat and if she is referring to India’s economy, the GDP of India is currently about the same as that of the state of Texas – so any “latent” threat is a long way off from coming to fruition.

Oprah says she is game to try and use her hand to eat in the clip above which prompts Chatterjee to offer this indictment:

“You are helplessly disarming when you ask your host to show you how to eat with your hand. “I have never eaten with my hand but I can try.” They fall over each other to oblige. Use one finger to hold the bread (puri) down and tear like this. Now dip it in anything you want. See? So easy.

Oprah, you brave, brave thing, you are now one of us. Millions of us risk infection every day to eat food with our hands. When a child is born we teach it to eat with the hand. In the desolate, backward hole we live in, this is considered perfectly normal. Our table manners are minimal but they do not include humiliating our host with a question that plainly indicates our backwardness.”

If Oprah had declined to use her fingers, Chatterjee would doubtless have taken offense at that as well!

Chatterjee also took umbrage because Oprah visited a family living in the slums of Mumbai (Bombay) and asked a few questions about how so many people could live in such a 10’x10′ room!

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But enough about Chatterjee’s rant ……. however, it begs the question as to why Indians react so strongly and almost irrationally when confronted with even the mildest of criticism of the way things are in India. Keep in mind that many of the observations as well as the criticisms about the drawbacks of living in India are frequently cited by both Indians who live there as well as the diaspora who visit India. I am referring to the lack of hygiene – and particularly public hygiene, the pollution, the rampant corruption, the terrible traffic congestion, the lack of infra-structure, the communalism, the focus on skin color, etc.

Don’t get me wrong …… we made a decision several years ago to spend our winters in India and even bought a condo in Cochin, Kerala precisely because we enjoyed our sojourns in India. But that does not make us oblivious to some of the inadequacies and drawbacks of life in India.

Part of the sensitivity of Indians is that when foreigners – whether it is Oprah or someone else – display any of the less favorable facets of life in India, the standard reaction is that a cliched or stereotyped version of India is being shown. “India Rising” is the image that many would like to be shown – never mind that the India that is rising is still a relatively small proportion of the population. The fall-back when all else fails is to resort to Chatterjee’s cliched argument of “gross Western ignorance regarding our ancient country” with emphasis on India’s “ancient” heritage – as if that heritage is an excuse for the ills the are part of Indian society.

Years ago, a senior executive of a company I worked for who was in charge of international operations told me about his interaction with some Indian professionals in Singapore and expressed puzzlement as to why they seemed prone to focusing on their ancient heritage in the course of a social conversation. He said it happened repeatedly and he asked me why Indians tend to do this …. I don’t recall what I told him was the likely reason. I think it is an attempt to excuse deficiencies that exist today by citing India’s heritage which pre-dates that of much of the Western world.

Perhaps at a basic level the reaction to Oprah’s documentary is similar to that of an American who said that he empathized with Indians who reacted negatively because there is a sensitivity to any foreigner being critical of the country they are currently residing or visiting. He specifically said that when Piers Morgan or Fareed Zakaria appear on a TV program he turns the set off or changes the channel because he is not about to listen to a couple of foreigner finding fault with the US. It is not unlike what immigrants to the UK experienced in the 60s’ when I lived there – if one were critical of some aspect of life in the UK or government policies, it was not unusual to be told that “if you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to your own country?”

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2 Responses to “Much ado about nothing …….. or about very little”

  1. Yakob says:

    TJ, what you say is spot on. But I find Oprah repulsive – her looks, mannerisms, everything. She is ignorant, insensitive, and gauche. She could have at least done some research instead of the choreographed slum visit and trashy comments she handed out.

  2. TJ says:

    Yakob, I am not a fan of Oprah though I admire her business acumen and her ability to have gotten to the pinnacle of the talk show business in the US.

    Leaving aside the more subjective comments you made about her, I agree that she could have addressed the specific segment pertaining to the visit to the slum dwelling with greater sensitivity that she did. I would have had less of an issue with her critics if they focused on her comments on the visit to the slum dwelling than the over-reaction to the use of one’s hands to eat.

    But more to the point is the sensitivity of many Indians – especially in India – to any focus on the ills that are endemic to the fabric of Indian society. It is near impossible to do justice in any documentary on India in a span of two hours given the complexity of the country.

    Others have tried it as well and been the brunt of criticism. Louis Malle, the famed French director, screen-writer and producer encountered withering criticism for his documentary on India and especially the one on Calcutta. So severe was the criticism that the BBC was banned from filming in India for several years since they collaborated with Malle in the production of the documentary.

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