Keeping up appearances

Published: 14 March, 2020 05:07 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

Why are we always obsessed with focusing more on how the world perceives us, rather than how we think of ourselves?

Anyone with access to picture-perfect Instagrammable images of the Taj Mahal can also Google the view from the other side, where slums fight for air in the shadow of that glittering monument. Pic /AFP FILE
Anyone with access to picture-perfect Instagrammable images of the Taj Mahal can also Google the view from the other side, where slums fight for air in the shadow of that glittering monument. Pic /AFP FILE

picWhat will the neighbours think? Those five words possibly resonate in the lives of Indians more than any others do. It's also the kind of question I imagine the government of India asking itself whenever a world leader decides to drop by for a visit.

Take Donald Trump, for instance, who was given a three-hour glimpse into what India was like based on a visit to a cricket stadium, Mahatma Gandhi's ashram, and the ubiquitous Taj Mahal. If he wanted a snapshot of a country as diverse as ours, I wonder who came up with that list. I asked myself what I would show a guest who wanted to understand India, and couldn't think of a single stadium that fit the bill. I understand that world leaders (especially not the narcissistic ones) don't visit countries to get to know them better, of course, but the bizarre choice of venues still took me by surprise.

What didn't cause me to raise an eyebrow was the massive whitewashing exercise that took place before Trump left the United States. Streets that ought to have been cleaned years ago were given a makeover, trees were planted, and a wall was built to create the impression that there was no such thing as poverty in a country that allegedly comprises 100 Smart Cities. The fact that this was all documented on social media was amusing because everything the wall tried to hide was easily accessible to anyone armed with a smartphone.

We don't like the truth, despite our delusional belief that we have always been a truthful people. Everything about ourselves is a lie, especially when it comes to how we present India's story to the world. When foreign guests step into our homes, we overwhelm them with food and talk about how we are a warm and hospitable people. That warmth vanishes in the face of class and caste, which is also why we build separate elevators for servants and sometimes indulge in the odd lynching of those who don't share our religious beliefs.

What will our neighbours think? What will other countries think? Why can't they see that we are a prosperous, clean country full of happy people who break into song and dance routines every hour in a never-ending celebration of life? It is our insistence on drinking this Kool Aid of our own making that prevents us from taking a good hard look at facts even when they stare us in the face.

How are we supposed to tackle problems if we can't acknowledge the fact that they exist? White-washing poverty or hiding slum-dwellers behind a wall doesn't negate the very real presence of both in our lives on a daily basis, and statistics about how we fare economically as a third-world country have always been available to any outsiders who choose to do a bit of research. So, what exactly do we hope to accomplish by denying what our country is really like? Anyone with access to picture-perfect Instagrammable images of the Taj Mahal can also Google the view from the other side, where slums fight for air in the shadow of that glittering monument.

This inability to accept reality also creeps into how we present ourselves to outsiders. We simper and bow, praise our peace-loving ancestors and propagate the myth of a benign, vegetarian country. By doing this, we refuse to confront the reality of living in a country often described as the most racist on Earth, where we struggle with the same issues related to inequality, misogyny, injustice, casteism and religious intolerance that obsessed us when our republic was born. We think about ourselves the way we want the world to think of us, which is in itself a myth of our own making. Our inability to see the risk of such a habit only makes it harder for us to focus on solutions.

Why couldn't we show Donald Trump that there were poor Indians in the places he was visiting anyway? How do India's poor embarrass us by merely existing? Why can't visitors see how we live on a daily basis, how we struggle with roads that are death traps, or how our famous monuments are almost always ignored when there are no famous guests around?

It's sad that visiting dignitaries don't even get access to the kind of food we really eat. When was the last time any of us ever prepared, let alone consumed, something as mysterious and abominable as a Broccoli Samosa?

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira
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