by Guest Contributor Aditi Surie von Czechowski
Recently, the New York Times has been beefing up its coverage on India.
Presumably, there is no quality journalism about India that isn’t produced by an American news outfit. Associate Managing Editor at the Times Jim Schachter notes “…I don’t want to cast dispersion [sic], but there is not a great media diet for the non-resident Indian.” The assumptions embedded in his statement are staggering. What would a “great media diet” look like? Is it only constituted by bourgeois forms of media consumption? Are NRI’s unable to seek out a “great media diet” for themselves? Must they be spoon-fed by the venerable New York Times? It appears that knowledge about India from India (or the Indian diaspora) just doesn’t cut it.
In addition to the new blog entitled “India Ink,” which has been operational for just under a year, I’ve seen an uptick in articles on India recently–a very unscientific and cursory perusal of the more recent articles reveals news on “dirt-poor farmers,” sex crimes, and corruption, or about how India is a growing economic powerhouse. This is of course, followed by discussions of how India is “between two worlds,” with respect to “tradition” and economic disparity–with no indication about how neoliberalism is complicit in the widening income gap, not just in India, but worldwide. Combined with Nick Kristof’s regular martyring operations to rescue underage trafficked prostitutes in Kolkatan brothels, what we have here is a consistent picture of an India that is not yet “fully modern,” informed by the liberal discourse of rights and progress. It seems that the New York Times will never, ever tire of incessantly replicating imperial tropes.
So, I was naturally curious to see whether there might be an alternate, less polarizing narrative about India when I came across this New York Times Modern Love column; a Canadian woman’s account of her trip to India and how she (maybe) fell in love with an Indian man nearly twice her age. At first pass, I found myself caught up in her stylish prose. But there was something about her essay that unsettled me: Jeong’s writing is of a piece with that familiar eroticization of India–Orientalist imaginings of the lushness of nature combine with the well-worn tropes of India as chaotic, as a seductive and sexual place of pure experience, spirituality and true self-knowledge, with sinewy yet docile natives. If I had a penny for every time a (usually white and almost always North American or European) person has gushed to me about how much they love India because they found God or themselves there/how it was wild and filthy and beautiful all at the same time, I’d have a serious amount of change by now.
Feminist scholarship has built on Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism and shown how women were complicit in this project, reaffirming the binary between East and West even as they offered different visions of the Orient. Though Jeong writes about the difference in a way that doesn’t malign it, what is of utmost importance here is that the separateness of the two domains is upheld and reinforced, thus leaving the imperial ideology underpinning Orientalism untouched. I’m not suggesting that Jeong’s experience was not real or poignant; nor am I suggesting that she consciously embraced this Orientalist dichotomy. I am merely pointing to the ways in which her narrative is always already Orientalist in its reaffirmation of the disparateness of the East and the West, shaped by her privileged position as a Westerner with the financial means jet off to India and Istanbul.
The desire to consume (and describe) the landscape of India panoramically calls to mind Orientalist travel narratives that sought to offer up the Orient visually as a spectacle for consumption; indeed, with her lyrical descriptions of the geographies of an unfamiliar terrain, this is exactly what Jeong’s story accomplishes. For her, India can only be a place of extremes–home to “the throat-searing pollution of Delhi, the bracing mountain air of Dharamsala, the dunes of Jaisalmer.” Her reference to a “torturous 16-hour train ride that was more romantic in planning than in practice” points to the fact that the landscape of difference and difficulty is precisely what is romantic, in fact, it is positively intoxicating.
Loaded, exoticizing descriptions plague the rest of the article. On her first day in Mumbai, the author finds something “mad and lovely” about Mumbai, a city she later describes as a “wild west.” A chance encounter with a handsome host leaves her physically sick; but the double play on “Bombay Fever” and the refusal to problematize the racist assumptions implicit in the use of the term leaves much to be desired. “Bombay Fever” is a typically derogatory way of describing white women who are generally attracted to brown men–though Jeong is Asian, this is the descriptor offered by her friend. It is only in India that her attraction can be visceral and somatic to the point of illness. Even the characterizations of her erstwhile love interest are saturated with Orientalist imaginings of the native man–she can imagine him as someone who might have just been a “willing receptacle” for her feelings, as opposed to someone with agency and purpose. Despite his age, he maintains a “childlike wonder,” as well as the allure of his recklessness. Stubbly and broad-shouldered with “sandpaper hands,” yet gentle-hearted, he is every bit the caricature of the swarthy, simple-minded native.
Jeong writes that she chose not to focus “on the yawning gulf that separated our lives (along generational, geographical and racial lines–I’m Korean).” She asserts that she can transcend this gulf, but in positing the difference as such, her article ends up reaffirming the notion of the essential, unchanging, and unchangeable difference, the “yawning gulf” between dichotonic existences. This separateness extends to the realm of sexual and romantic practices; indeed, the writer’s words seethe with Orientalist and Romantic notions of sexuality, pleasure, and purity. India and the writer’s home are imagined as two separate worlds, one where sex was “vacuous” and “it was a sin to have a heart” and another, where, by contrast, one can find pure, spontaneous (heterosexual) love, where the heart is a necessity, where the first question on a stranger’s mind is about love. Home is rational, ironic, irreverent. India is full of passion, not yet disenchanted, pregnant with opportunities for self-discovery. Jeong needs the experience of traveling to another place to be able to find herself in a completely different world; Mumbai figures simply as an exotic locale that serves as an aid for her to “contextualize her desires.” Home is where she had been “sleepwalking” through life; it is the pulsating vitality of India that pushes her to want to experience “overwhelming” sensations.
Ultimately, Jeong’s love cannot really become “real.” This is a man she “could have” loved, but ultimately, cannot stay due to the “inconvenient” realization that she “does not have enough of [herself] to give up.” Orientalism does the work of fiction by providing this writer with situations, and later memories that can be an escape from the reality and tedium of everyday life. Jolted to attention by a musical reminder of her former flame at home later, she nevertheless retains a certain ambivalence towards her experience. “Real” life in Mumbai can only be a daydream in the context of this fairy tale love. It can only be imagined, thought about, lusted after, pined for. In the end, it remains in her memory and dreams, where it incubates before ending up on the hallowed pages of the New York Times, proclaiming the difference between two seemingly incommensurable worlds.
Aditi Surie von Czechowski is a PhD Student in the Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University.