Modern Love In Mumbai’s “Wild West”: A Critique Of Orientalist Fantasies In Contemporary Travel Narratives

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.

  • http://twitter.com/asians_art Asians Art Museum

    There’s a new documentary film that’s playing in selected cities called Kūmāré: the true story of a false prophet which provides an insightful counterpoint to the Orientalist fantasies of Ms. Jeong. It’s by and about an Indian American man from New Jersey who
    impersonates an Indian guru and builds a following of real people in the
    American Southwest. Trailer here: http://youtu.be/tBIIaTI8C5c

  • ahimsa

    “Non Indians have written most of the best books about India.”

    I can’t believe you’re serious about this statement. Do you honestly think that books like Midnight’s Children, A Fine Balance and The God of Small Things would not be in the running? (I’m sure there are more, esp. if you include authors who are 2nd generation, not born in India, but these just are the first few books that came to mind)

    And what about all the books written in languages other than English? Do you ignore all the books written in one of the many (20+) languages spoken in India? (Marathi, Punjabi, etc. all have their own literature)

    Finally, what about the two Sanskrit epics, The Mahabharat (which includes the very famous Bhagavad Gita) and The Ramayan?

  • Kate S.

    As a person from another “wrong” country I totally suport the post. While we don’t get Orientalism treatment in American media, I am yet to see a single positive article about my country of birth (Well, there was one, but they ruined it with a last couple of sentences. I am a middle class professional who’s living about the same life as people of the same occupation in the States (except “I am still need to get rid of my education loans” part I guess, we have free higher education and somewhat free universal healthcare here).
    I think there are couples of interconnected “reasons” non-kosher foreigners are getting all of this
    Racism and ethnocentrism:
    A) Classical “I-am-so-scared we will loose power and become a minority” racism: (That’s what China is getting, except when it’s full of Magic Kun-fu people or something)
    B) Nostalgic racism: (magical British India and exotic early Hollywood era Middle East, people being “exotic”, “simple but wise folk” and more insulting B.S.). People want to play with another culture, but at the same think that their own culture is standard and superior to the exotic one
    C) Political Racism and ethnocentrism: We are living great ( what is it buddy, you are poor, no way, you are just lazy and don’t want to work, plus it’s not even true poverty, don’t like it try to live in Mexico), because we are right Those who disagree with us are automatically doing something wrong -> they are oppressed and miserable, nothing good can ever happen there. And not only they are opressed, but lazy and probably stupid, that’s why they are poor, – we have created our country by ourselves, without any help from anyone – USA! USA! Vote republican

    Also I would like to thank yazikus for his/her comment. That’s exactly why I don’t want to talk about my experience with random “normal” people. I am afraid that it will be interpreted in the stereotyped framework which some people unwilling to challenge (who am I kidding, unable to even see).
    + To all of the people who haven’t seen it yet I would like to recommend Chimamanda Adichie talk on writing and stereotypes. I can’t say that her story is my story, but I totally can relate to almost anything she says http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

  • Kate S.

    As a person from another “wrong” country I totally suport the post. While we don’t get Orientalism treatment in American media, I am yet to see a single positive article about my country of birth (Well, there was one, but they ruined it with a last couple of sentences. I am a middle class professional who’s living about the same life as people of the same occupation in the States (except “I am still need to get rid of my education loans” part I guess, we have free higher education and somewhat free universal healthcare here).
    I think there are couples of interconnected “reasons” non-kosher foreigners are getting all of this
    Racism and ethnocentrism:
    A) Classical “I-am-so-scared we will loose power and become a minority” racism: (That’s what China is getting, except when it’s full of Magic Kun-fu people or something)
    B) Nostalgic racism: (magical British India and exotic early Hollywood era Middle East, people being “exotic”, “simple but wise folk” and more insulting B.S.). People want to play with another culture, but at the same think that their own culture is standard and superior to the exotic one
    C) Political Racism and ethnocentrism: We are living great ( what is it buddy, you are poor, no way, you are just lazy and don’t want to work, plus it’s not even true poverty, don’t like it try to live in Mexico), because we are right Those who disagree with us are automatically doing something wrong -> they are oppressed and miserable, nothing good can ever happen there. And not only they are opressed, but lazy and probably stupid, that’s why they are poor, – we have created our country by ourselves, without any help from anyone – USA! USA! Vote republican

    Also I would like to thank yazikus for his/her comment. That’s exactly why I don’t want to talk about my experience with random “normal” people. I am afraid that it will be interpreted in the stereotyped framework which some people unwilling to challenge (who am I kidding, unable to even see).
    + To all of the people who haven’t seen it yet I would like to recommend Chimamanda Adichie talk on writing and stereotypes. I can’t say that her story is my story, but I totally can relate to almost anything she says http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

    • yazikus

      Thank you for the link, I just finished watching the talk and am floored. I’m going out tomorrow to pick up her books if I can . It is so nice to hear a nuanced dialogue on things like the danger of a single story. The single story is exactly why I am so hesitant to talk about mine, it may be the only story these people hear about a different culture.

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  • yazikus

    This is a great article. It made me reflect on two things. Firstly, I lived in India for 3 years when I was a tween. I often struggle when trying to describe this experience. How do I relate things that were a part of my childhood, but are inherently problematic. I usually end up not talking about it.
    Secondly, I like to read a publication about wheat. They often go on about how they are developing the genetically modified crops to help poor starving farmers in the third world, especially India, etc. etc. That sounds like a good idea, right? Then I watched a great documentary film that featured Vandana Shiva, a farmer, philosopher & activist working in India to keep the gmo crops out. She showed farming cooperatives that were using thousand year old techniques for seed sharing, crop choice, etc. basically showing how sophisticated farming in India is (they’ve been doing it a long time). So- to put to more shortly, American publication talks about how India needs and wants our gmo crops because they cannot grow their own. Indian people say they don’t want our gmo crops and are doing great thank you very much.

    • http://ronakmsoni.wordpress.com/ Ronak

      “Indian people say they don’t want our gmo crops and are doing great thank you very much.”
      Bullshit. Awareness about how terrible gmo crops and scientific farming is almost non-existent, and widely denied. Rich upper-caste Indians (and, I guess, most underprivileged ones as well) are as taken in by Western imperialism as Americans. To see how much, there’s this great article on the feminist movement: http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5334:confessions-of-a-confused-dalit-woman&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132

      • yazikus

        I ought to have prefaced that with “the Indian people I heard speak on the subject…” as obviously they don’t all share the same opinion. Thanks for pointing out my error.

  • Anonymous

    The reference to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love in te Modern Love article is very revealing. Gilbert’s smug, self-congratulatory memoir is basically about how she, a white woman from the US, Learned Important Truths About Life And Herself with various natives of Italy, India and Indonesia serving as props and set dressing. Man, that book pisses me off. Thanks for an incisive, well-written take-down of this Orientalizing, romanticized, stereotyped bilge.

  • http://macavitykitsune.dreamwidth.org/profile Macavitykitsune

    This article was bloody brilliant (and also sums up why I don’t read books by non-Indians about India, and tend to assiduously quadruple-check before reading modern Indian authors who aren’t residents of India, as well).