- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

Indian attitude

“Search every corner of the globe, I say, and you will not find a people more complex - and complexed - than Indians. Quite without irony, a nation, many of whose citizens had just been heaping abuse and lawsuits on ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ for showing India in a bad light, and for using the intolerable word ‘dog’ to describe those poor little slum-wallahs, is now in a state of euphoric bhangra over its winning eight statuettes conferred by an ‘academy’ that regards a bunch of Scientologists (not to mention Mickey Rourke) as icons… .

“Indians are world champions at caring - really caring! - about what foreigners (more accurately, Westerners) think or say about them. They will live blithely with impressively foetid slums in their midst, thinking nothing of the juxtaposition of Victorian-era poverty and world-class, 21st-century living standards. But the national outrage stirred when a Western filmmaker uses ‘slumdog’ in the title of his film is an incandescent sight to behold.

“That foreigner’s neologism … is thought to heap more shame on the land than the slums themselves. And yet when that same film, with that same neo-imperialist title, is feted by tuxedoed Americans at an awards ceremony watched across the globe, Indians burst with pride. Eight Oscars, yaah! Isn’t that a record? Isn’t A.R. Rahman the best composer in the world? Isn’t Bollywood bloody wonderful? And aren’t our slums a lesson in how to overcome adversity and cruelty?”

- Tunku Varadarajan, writing on “Aren’t our slum people the world’s best?” on Feb. 24 at the Times of London

American attitude

” … If you’re inclined to make interpretations yourself, [feminist critic Elaine] Showalter offers more grist for the mill than a 100 volumes of theory. Why, for example, did Britain produce several women novelists of genius during the 19th century - Jane Austen, George Eliot [the pen name of Mary Ann Evans] and the Brontes, as well as accomplished lesser artists like Elizabeth Gaskell - while America did not?

“That question could (and sometimes does) lead to a lot of speculation on the national characters of the English-speaking peoples, but Showalter mentions an equally plausible, practical cause: ‘While English women novelists, even those as poor as the Brontes, had servants, American women were expected to clean, cook and sew; even in the South, white women in slaveholding families were trained in domestic arts.’

“Quite a few of the short biographical sketches she offers feature women complaining about being compelled by parents to learn to make pies or mend when they would rather write. In 1877, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps made the heroine of her novel, ‘The Story of Avis,’ fume, ‘I hate to make my bed, and I hate, hate to sew chemises, and I hate, hate, hate to go cooking round the kitchen.’ ”

- Laura Miller, writing on “Why can’t a woman write the Great American Novel?” on Feb. 24 at Salon

English attitude

“[George] Orwell used ‘sophisticated’ and ‘intellectual’ and ‘intelligentsia’ as terms of dispraise, hated Bloomsbury, and not just expected but hoped that the sales of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ would outlast those of Virginia Woolf. He was scathing about social elites, finding the ruling class ‘stupid.’ …

“He described the condition of the working class with sympathy and rage, thought them wiser than intellectuals, but didn’t sentimentalize them; in their struggle they were as ‘blind and stupid’ as a plant struggling toward the light.

“Orwell is profoundly English in even more ways than these. He is deeply untheoretical and wary of general conclusions that do not come from specific experiences. He is a moralist and a puritan, one who, for all his populism and working-class sympathies, is squeamish about dirt, disgusted by corporal and fecal odors. He is caricatural of Jews to the point of anti-Semitism, and routinely homophobic, using ‘the pansy left’ and ‘nancy poets’ as if they were accepted sociological terms.

“He dislikes foreign food, and thinks the French know nothing about cooking; while the sight of a gazelle in Morocco makes him dream of mint sauce. He lays down stern rules about how to make and drink tea, and in a rare sentimental flight imagines the perfect pub.”

- Julian Barnes, writing on “Such, Such Was Eric Blair” in the March 12 issue of the New York Review of Books


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