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Oprah's comments on India reveal our shortcomings

July 24, 2012 11:57 IST
We should use criticism constructively instead of getting offended, says Faisal Kidwai

India has so many problems on so many levels, but guess what gets us worked up? A perceived or real criticism by a foreigner. Yes, that's what makes us angry.

This week, American talk show host Oprah Winfrey said in mock surprise that Indians still eat food with their hands and this, as expected, started a chain reaction, both on social media networks and the fourth estate.

There are two things here. First, she wasn't exactly lying when she said we eat with our hands, so was it her tone that offended us?

Second, were we offended because deep down we consider eating with hands uncivilised?

If it's the tone that made us angry, then there's no solution, except getting a thicker skin.

There's nothing anybody can do if we start taking offence at every sarcastic comment, every magazine cover or every joke by a comedian.

If Oprah finds our habits funny, uncivilised or surprising, then that's her opinion. If an American comedian wants to crack a joke at our expense, then we should join in instead of turning it into a national issue.

After all, it's not as if we don't make fun of each other or even of Americans. If a magazine wants to call our prime minister names, then that should be fine with us, too.

Let's not forget, they make fun of their own leaders too -- and we weren't exactly kind to George W Bush.

But, I think, the reaction over Oprah's comments wasn't only about her tone. It has to do with our own shortcomings, real and perceived.

This becomes apparent if we take a brief look at our recent history.

Last month, a global poll ranked India as the worst country among G20 when it came to safety of women. All so-called experts and journalists laughed at the list and buried it by claiming that our neighbour's record was worse than ours.

In December 2011, Top Gear, a British TV show about cars, made fun of India over lack of public toilets and that set off a row that stretched from New Delhi to London.

These are not the only instances. Going further back, England's Queen Elizabeth angered many when she called Delhi a 'dirty city'.

So, why do we get offended at every criticism? And, more importantly, should we?

The truth is, there are very few of us who aren't offended by criticism, even if it's constructive.

But the mark of a mature people is that they try and learn from criticism and not attack the individual who is mocking or criticising them.

If we think there's nothing wrong in eating with hands, then there's nothing to be offended about. The world makes fun of each other: Brits find the Welsh funny; French have German jokes; Australians think Indians are odd; and Africans are always at the receiving end from all sides.

But, if you think there's something wrong in eating with hands, that there's a shortage of public toilets, that our women aren't treated the way they should be and that our cities aren't really clean, then it's better to do something about it instead of trying to focus on tone or intent.

We can, of course, continue to do what we have been doing for years, and that is talk only about the 'positive' developments and bury the negative issues.

So, let's tweet about Starbucks coming, iPhone and when we will see nine per cent growth rate again.

Let's put a sticker on back of our scooter that loudly says 'I love India', and then go and use the road as our toilet. Let's place the flag of India in the car, while we park it in the middle of the road, as if the street was our property. Let's show our love to the country by going online and abusing everyone, from Kerala to Kashmir, anonymously of course.

That's how we show our patriotism.

We obviously don't want to create 'negative energy' by focusing on the fact that millions continue to live in subhuman conditions, that women have to walk several kilometres every day just to get water and that there are still people who commit suicide because they can't feed their families.

We only want 'positive' news, stories that make us feel good and, if somebody is stupid enough to mock us, then we will shut them up by shouting louder.

After all, it has worked for us for the past 60 years, so why change it, isn't it?
Faisal Kidwai