India= Cow + Kamasutra. That in general is the equation that defines this vast, ancient and populous South Asian country even today for many people in the West.
I can hear the howls of protest coming in. Sure, there are a few ex-hippies who would throw some pot into the picture and some serious scholars who have in depth knowledge of the place but on an average, the image of India in most Western societies is one still steeped in the Oriental stereotype.
And how could it be otherwise, given the balance of power between India and the West over the past few centuries, heavily skewed in favor of the latter. Frankly, I don’t get upset when I confront Western stereotypes since the evils of four centuries of colonialism cannot be undone in a mere fifty years.
But I had reason to be disappointed recently, when on a trip to Latin America, I found the average citizen there imbued with the same level of ignorance of my part of the globe. What! An Orientalist fellow-slave?
I mean, I expected people from within the developing world, faced with broadly similar problems and all at the bottom of the global pecking order to take a little more interest and learn about each other. After all, if we suffer together we must also share together, whatever little we possess.
Noble sentiment, blah, blah, blah-but listen to what I got at every street corner of this pretty little South American town I was in: “Porque de la India no come baccho ? Why don’t they eat cows in India? And is it true many Indians are well-versed with the details of the Kamasutra ?”
Man, if there is any example of how screwed up the so-called global information superhighway is in our world it has to be this complete lack of communication between Asia and Latin America.
Asked in Spanish and answered in English the answers would typically run into a few hours of conversation. My responses to the Cow question:
A) Many Indians are so poor that they don’t even get to eat grass, leave alone a full cow.
B) It is only a small minority of upper caste Hindus in India who don’t eat cows for religious/cultural reasons and it is their right not to do so. However, these fellows also control the levers of power and want their personal beliefs imposed on the rest of the country, so they have skewed policies against all others getting access to any decent quality beef.
C) The rest of India, made up of variety of castes, communities and religious groups would happily eat the cow provided it was available, cooked properly with the right spices and not imported from Britain (many Indians are poor, but they are not stupid).
And about the Kamasutra:
Even if most Indians read this ancient manual of sex everyday- what on Earth would they do with all that extra information? The sexual mores and practices (or their absence) of most Indians (and South Asians in general) have been shaped historically by three of the most patriarchal and sexually super-conservative groups known to humankind- the pretentiously ascetic Bramhins, the elitist Mughals and the tight-assed Victorian British. And that cultural combination, let me tell you, is enough to instantly evaporate any idea of love on contact with your consciousness!
— and so on. But at some stage I tired of sticking to facts and tried to duck the dreaded ‘Cow and Kamasutra’ questions. One facile answer I came up with was ‘Indian cows run so fast that it is very difficult to catch them’. And to one Argentinian friend who insisted on bringing up the subject of the cow I said ‘ in India cows live under water and are difficult to fish’.
And she nearly believed me, for I soon discovered (to my utter horror) that many on this continent had such an exotic notion of India/Asia that they were willing to believe any tale I conjured up. Even ‘Indian cows live under water’ kind of stuff!
To be fair to my Latin American friends- the cow in particular does continue to occupy a prominent place in modern Indian life. The Indian National Congress, which misruled India for over four decades after independence from British misrule for example cunningly used the cow as its election symbol. Members of India’s much-oppressed ‘lower’ caste dalits routinely get lynched by upper-caste mobs on mere suspicion of having killed a cow for its skin or meat. And in recent years the Hindu fundamentalists have made banning cow slaughter a hot election campaign theme. In other words even the dead cow, is still a live issue in India.
But all that is beside the point. Obviously both the cow and the Kamasutra are objects of curiosity in Latin America because there is little else they get to know about a nation where one sixth of the planet’s population lives. The lack of information and knowledge is mutual though, with most Indians/Asians clueless about Latin American history, culture and society beyond the stereotype ‘football’, ‘carnival’ and ‘tequila’.
So what really prevents an average Latin American or an Asian from picking up a book or watching a documentary and learning about each other’s continents? Why are they not speaking to each other more frequently, visiting each other’s villages and towns? Why are such large parts of humanity still so starkly ignorant of each other’s existence in this age of constantly instant information?
At first glance the information gap can be easily put down as due to linguistic barriers. Latin America speaks Spanish, Portuguese, Quechua etc., and Asia speaks English, Hindi, Chinese, Thai, Malay and so on.
Distance is also another obvious barrier because Asia and Latin America are virtually on opposite sides of the globe. Traveling from Thailand to Ecuador for example takes a whopping 38 hours, including 25 hours of flying time.
Airline routes however give us a clue as to some of the real reasons for the lack of communication between the two continents. If one looks at the map of the world according to Star Alliance for example, the globe is essentially a network of airline pathways held together by just a few hubs- London, Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles.
To get to Latin America from most parts of Asia one has to fly through one of these former or new centres of corporate globalisation, many of which were also the capitals of the old colonial world. The airline routes of our times are mostly a mirror image of the old naval routes of colonial pillage and plunder.
Information too, unfortunately, has a bad habit of flowing exclusively from one part of the Third World to the other along these very same, well-worn routes. So it is in our world today that for Asian citizens there is absolutely no way of getting to know Latin America (and vice versa) except through established, guided paths that provide the translations and interpretation of each others societies, politics and culture. In other words if my Latin American friends ask typically Orientalist questions such as the ones about the ‘cow and the Kamasutra’ that is because they really have no other choice- all their information comes through typically Orientalist sources.
And it is not just Asia and Latin America that are completely disconnected. This is even more so the case with Africa which remains the Dark Continent to many of us simply because all light emerging from it is mutated or muted by the colonial routers its passes through.
Come to think of it, forget continents as far apart as Asia, Africa and Latin America, the lack of information and understanding of each other among Asian countries themselves is appalling. Most educated Indians know more about what Prince Charles is having for dinner than basic facts about entire thriving societies just a few hours flight from their borders.
One uncle of mine back in India, an engineer by profession, once asked me to tell him what was the difference between Bangkok and Thailand- I kid you not! His counterparts in Thailand, in turn, know only two things about India- that the Buddha was born there 2500 years ago and that a nuclear bomb was tested in 1998. The myriad centuries in between the Buddha and the Bomb are a gaping hole in their consciousness, which in the meanwhile is filled with intimate knowledge of Cherie Blair’s Nth baby and the Terminator’s sex life. (No, I am not insinuating anything here)
The deeper reasons for this lack of communication between the developing countries are essentially linked to the way European colonialism operated historically. The colonialists carved out the globe into tightly controlled fiefdoms in a manner that precluded all possibilities of the subject people interacting freely among themselves.
For the colonial powers keeping their subject populations ignorant of each other was a way of preventing the emergence of a united opposition to their rule across societies, cultures and continents. Not just that. The subject people were repeatedly pitted against each other, an essential modus operandi of colonialism.
So the British colonialists, for example, used Indian troops against the Arabs, Indian traders to sell opium to China, Indian administrators to rule Burma and even today use Gurkhas from Nepal (on discriminatory pay scales) against anybody they want. (The information gap I talk about is so great that unfortunately I can’t give you similar examples of how the French and the Dutch were using their subjects against each other— but I am sure they did the same!!)
All this, though unpardonable, is still understandable within the context of what colonialism was all about. Of course, they did what they had to keep themselves in power, right? But why should this state of affairs be allowed to persist in our world at the beginning of the twenty first century and that too in the middle of something that has been dubbed the Age of Information?
(It is true that the world’s only superpower is trying to drag all of us, kicking and screaming, back to colonial times via it’s War on Terror. But hey, that geezer who took the turkey to his troops in Baghdad a week ago does not realize that the goose of old style colonialism was cooked long ago! It is highly unlikely that bird will fly ever again!)
Why should there be greater flow of information between Latin America and Asia? There are a zillion reasons why increased information flows are good in themselves but here are the ones that interest me the most: a) Latin America offers some of the most frightening lessons in what colonialism can do to an entire continent b) It also offers some of the most inspiring examples of what resistance is possible to such oppression and c) The possibility of forces across continents joining hands to resist their common global oppressors remains the most exciting idea of our times.
(On a more personal note I see the past 500 years of white, European settler domination of Latin America as the basis for understanding the 3000-year history of the Indian subcontinent. Essentially the caste system of India is the end product of a similar process, over a longer period of time, of invading/migrant/settler/fairer-skinned populations from outside taking over the land/resources of indigenous people and imposing their own culture on the entire nation)
And why should Asia and Africa communicate more with each other? Because a) Africa is the mother of all civilization and if you don’t know what your mom was all about you should jump into the most shark-infested portions of the Indian ocean, pronto! b) The rape of Africa over the centuries by the so-called ‘civilized’ world is a shame on all of humanity, including those who collaborated or watched it happen without doing anything and c) It is a shameful history that Asia can both learn from and do something to redress by joining hands with African citizens fighting to restore their continent’s lost peace, prosperity and dignity.
Simply put, since exploitation today is global, the pathways to resistance too have to be global. And since the sources of our troubles are also common- namely colonialism/capitalism- what better way forward than to unite the oppressed of the world across cultures and continents in our common struggle.
A word of caution is due here. It has never been easy to unite the oppressed. As the history of slavery and colonialism, across the globe and over the centuries reveals, oppression by itself can bring revolts galore but no real revolutions. There are many reasons for this:
a) Not all are oppressed to the same degree and so the levels of motivation to change the world order are naturally different.
b) Some sections of the oppressed genuinely believe that they can actually claw or crawl their way into the ranks of the oppressors and therefore have no qualms about doing so on the backs of their fellow-slaves.
c) There is no effective mechanism or conscious attempt to forge a unity of the oppressed on a global scale.
d) The oppressed need a clear vision of a better world that is morally, politically, economically and ecologically superior to the one that allows slavery/colonialism/exploitation of any kind.
While we sort all that out, what I suggest needs to be done urgently is the closing of the information gap between social and resistance movements of Asia, Africa and the Americas (the 3 A’s). This will be a small but very necessary step forward towards forging the long-term unity of the underprivileged of our world.
Que crees, hermano ? Kya khayaal hei, bhaijaan ?
Satya Sivaraman is a journalist based in Thailand. He can be reached at [email protected]