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Why we owe Top Gear an apology

Last updated on: January 20, 2012 16:19 IST

Top Gear

Raja Sen, a Top Gear fan, points out that the problem with the show's Indian edition wasn't the host's political incorrectness, but the fact that it lacked its characteristic bite.

Let me first state, at the very outset, that I was not happy with Top Gear's India special.

Not because I had issues with what Jeremy Clarkson -- and his cohorts James May and Richard Hammond -- said about India or, indeed, its sanitation, but instead because I found it underwhelming, a very ordinary episode in a television series known for its subversive, loony distaste for all things average.

I felt India had a lot more potential as a venue for the lads' antics, and the cruelest blow of all -- as a fanatical Top Gear fan who spends his life straddling Mumbai and Delhi -- was to see that show visited both cities just when I wasn't in them. I didn't get to shake Captain Slow by the hand, and therein lies further resentment toward that sub-par episode.

So yes, boys, I am disappointed. I'd have liked to see you lot coping with driving Maruti 800s and 'vintage' Contessa Classics, and the mind boggles at the idea of Hammond 'customising' an Ambassador for rally conditions. There wasn't much talk of potholes, Clarkson didn't launch into a diatribe about our mountainous speed-breakers, and nobody once drove an auto-rickshaw.

And we didn't get to meet (sob) The Stig's Indian cousin. (In my head he wears an all-encompassing white pagri instead of a helmet.)

But all those taking umbrage at Clarkson installing a toilet seat on the back of his Jaguar must now get a grip. For one, most of us would not use the public toilets in this country as a matter of choice and secondly, more crucially, that wasn't the point of the gag at all.

Clarkson spoke of how feeble-stomached British folk traditionally got curry-invoked runs in India (exactly like we ourselves speak routinely of Delhi Belly) and the toilet on the back of the jag was a portable refuge.

They weren't inviting locals to come take a dump on the car (and heaven forbid we who live in big Indian metros ever see any man defecate in full public view). And how come, in the same breath, we aren't lauding James May ripping the iconic angel from the hood of his Rolls Royce and replacing it with a Ganesha?

That is, in fact, one of my big grouses about the Top Gear episode, about how it didn't take enough actual potshots at India, how toothless it all seemed in relation to their other, genuinely provocative assaults at nationalities and stereotypes.

The India episode showed off high-profile diplomats who rode in Bentleys, the efficiency of the Mumbai dabbawala, and had Clarkson declaring that Shimla was just like Switzerland 'but better, in every sense of the word.' (A visit to Albania, in Mafia-themed contrast, constantly declared that every car in the country must obviously be stolen.)

It is a mock-offensive attack, this, a style of comedy designed to showcase the insularity of the average ignorant Brit, stupefied when faced by culture very different from his own. (And for a truly good episode of India-shock, I recommend the second episode of Ricky Gervais' fascinating An Idiot Abroad, a show which lives marvellously up to its title.)

Top Gear came to India and nudged it with kid-gloves, which is shameful but, as is now evident, clearly pragmatic. What we are doing -- with hyperventilating television anchors going blue in the face and newspaper columns calling for Clarkson to make a full, public apology -- is to show off our least flattering side, incensed for no reason, and far more ignorant than three grown men who giggle a lot when the word 'muffins' is torn in half.

The BBC has declared it will not apologise for the episode, and for that they must be commended.

We should never have asked for one, and on behalf of the nation and all its saner petrolheads, I'm sorry, Jeremy. (Will it be considered a truce if we promise to keep our roads un-green for longer than you guys? Because we will.)

Sadly, in this whole brouhaha, we made ourselves out to be the idiots -- and we aren't even abroad.

Raja Sen