The past week and a half have seen many Indians get their knickers in a twist over Oprah's Indian special episode on her show "Oprah's Next Chapter". Her by now infamous remark, "I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still?" was seen as the ignorant culmination of an overall offensive episode that clearly sought to exoticise India in the manner of 19th century European travellers. Somewhere, Edward Said is pounding his chest.
Given the kind of influence that Oprah wields over a large part of Americans, such clichd representations of India are obviously problematic. I once had this conversation with a friend in Houston:
She: "I can never go to India."
Me: "Why not?"
She: "I'd get terribly depressed. I've heard that India is full of lame and blind people."
Me: "You mean the disabled? Like here in America?"
She: "No it's far worse. People are forcibly mutilated, blinded or lamed in India."
Me (after a pause during which I tried to process this information): "Oh, you mean, like in 'Slumdog Millionaire'."
But, if, for one moment of clarity, outraged Indians could compose themselves and reflect, they might see that this is not as big a deal as they make it out to be. First of all, Oprah is not Obama, no matter how much she may support him. Not everyone in America hangs on her every word. To draw an analogy with Indian television, Oprah's following in the US is comparable to the large section of Indians who watch the saas bahu serials here. Her syndicated talk show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show", was aired daily for 25 years, in the afternoon. The target audience was largely female, and, more specifically, stay at home moms, homemakers, retired women.
For the four weeks ending May 5, 2007, 72.8 per cent of Oprah's viewers were female, 66.4 per cent of her viewers were 35 or older (TIME.) She was the queen of daytime TV. Her show, like most daytime soaps, was maudlin and melodramatic, filled with inspirational messages, self help books, confessional chats with celebrities, and loads of free giveaways. The demographic that faithfully watched her show every afternoon also watched daytime soaps. If you don't take messages conveyed about India on "The Bold and The Beautiful" seriously, why get all huffy and puffy about Oprah?
Since her talk show ended and she launched OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, last year, her TV ratings have plummeted. So much so that during the Grammys this year, in an effort to boost viewership, she tweeted this to her followers: "Every 1 who can please turn to OWN especially if u have a Nielsen box." The Nielsen box is the equipment used to measure ratings. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2100726/Desperate-times-Oprah-Winfrey-begs-Twitter-followers-Nielsen-box-tune-OWN.html
Make no mistake. Oprah is no ignoramus. She is one of the savviest business minds the world has ever seen, and she's trying to reclaim her status as the queen of sentimentality. If you want to watch TV that doesn't deal in clichs, watch sport.
It is granted that Oprah's influence over a large number of susceptible people in America is enormous. She helped elect the current US president. And, understandably, Indians are sensitive about how their country is portrayed. But, Indians are not the only ones who're victims of stereotypical representations in popular culture. Everyone is. In the past two months that I've spent in India, I've heard a series of statements about the US which should get people hired by OWN. Here's a list. Be warned. Some of them sound so ridiculous that you might think I'm making them up. But if you really ask around, you'll find that these are deep-rooted, almost unconscious beliefs that many Indians hold.
1. Everyone in America is rich. Or at least, all Indians in America are rich. While rich is a relative term, on no account should you say this to a creative writing professor. Or any professor in the Arts. Or a writer. Especially a poet. Jokes apart, the idea of homes being foreclosed in places like Michigan or Americans not being able to afford health insurance comes as a shock to many.
2. Everyone in America is promiscuous or at least unfaithful to their partners. Most Americans are not monogamous. I wonder how Republicans would respond to this. If I tell people here in India that I live in a conservative, religious town where most people are married by the time they're 25, they simply don't believe me. I don't really blame them though because sometimes even I find it hard to believe how conservative America is compared to, say, West Europe. When was the last time someone saw a couple kiss on a street corner in the States without someone else yelling, "Get a Room"?
3. Americans don't spend time with their families. Everyone is completely independent. Parents don't spend much time with their kids. This comment came at me when I told someone that on weekends and after work, I never see many of my American friends because they're with their families. I have always felt, in the past 10 years spent in the States, that the distinctions in lifestyle between those who're married or have children and those who're childless are huge...much more so than in India where there are nannies, grandparents, and a dozen other helpers around to watch the kids. When my friends in India come home from work at eight or nine in the evening, and often work six days a week, they are able to spend far less time with their children than my friends in the States.
4. Americans only eat meat. I'm not going to comment on the amount of meat that's consumed in the States each year (In 2007, the US was second in the world after Luxembourg in per capita consumption of meat), but at least a quarter of the people I personally know are vegetarian or even vegan. When I mentioned this to a friend, she asked, suspiciously, "Why? Why won't they eat meat?" Thus began our discussion of animal rights and health risks, following which my friend sighed and said, "Me, I could never give up meat."
5. All Americans are obese. I entertain visions of Americans running at all times of the day, in sun, rain, and snow, shirtless, through traffic. Or of early morning boot camps that some of my colleagues go to. Or the salads that they eat for most of their meals.
6. All Americans are health and exercise nuts and never overweight. Sigh. Let's ask Oprah about this one.
7. It's always really cold in America. Even the summers aren't really warm. I spent the first nine of my life in America in Florida, Texas, Georgia, states where even I managed to get a tan walking around. I have to agree though that the air conditioning does make those places cooler than many up north.
8. Spending one dollar is like spending one rupee. It's amazing to me how people still do the math and come up with this. Especially when a rupee in India can't buy anything. Nor can ten rupees. You give twenty to a beggar and he throws it back at you in disgust. How then, my Indian friends, can a dollar be a rupee? If they figure out this mathematical puzzle, maybe they'd stop thinking everyone in America is rich.
9. Everyone smokes in America. I've had people express shock and disbelief upon hearing that I don't smoke. "But you live in the US," they exclaim. Well, I'm not rich either, uncharacteristically monogamous and thinking of giving up meat. Just not very Americanised, I guess.
10. All Americans still think that India is full of Maharajahs and snake charmers and tigers prowling the streets. No, they don't. Just like all Indians don't believe in these stereotypes I've listed. Right?
Unlike this list, what Oprah said about Indians eating with their hands is a fact. We do eat with our hands. Not just sandwiches and tacos and bananas and chocolate. Most Indians eat everything with their hands. Many Indians in villages and small towns may have never used a spoon or fork in their lives. Oprah pointed out something that was so obvious to most of us that we took great offence at its being oohed and aahed over. Stupidly, she made no attempt to distinguish between foods that are commonly eaten by hand even in America and those that are not. But her objective was not to conduct an ethnographic study. In India, her show was aired on TLC, where one evening I watched an entire show on Sharukh Khan's seven-storeyed house, and another evening, I watched a new series where a movie star's celebrity wife transforms randomly chosen girls' haircuts. I'm a little perplexed as to why Indians expected Oprah to deliver an award-winning documentary. Just because it's on India? Then the first thing the indignant viewers should do is blacklist all those aforementioned domestic dramas, the saas bahu soaps, that reaffirm far more dangerous stereotypes about Indian culture. Next, maybe we should stop taking ourselves so seriously. It really doesn't matter in the end what the world might think of our eating habits.
But, if you're secretly embarrassed, then take your etiquette tips from Seinfeld, not Oprah.