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Dear NYT, thanks but no thanks for discovering The Good Men of India

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
And male strangers help women burp babies on planes
And go sari-shopping happily with their wives
Into that heaven of liberation, my Father, let my country awake.

Or perhaps it has already awoken there because according to novelist Lavanya Sankaran this happens all over India. I’ve never spotted these particular everyday miracles and I must shamefacedly admit I’ve never attempted to burp some stranger’s baby on the airplane either.

But it must be true because it is in an op-ed for the hallowed New York Times.

Ms Sankaran has been getting a lot of flak all over social media and the blogsphere for her archetype of the decent Common Indian Man on the budget airline going from Calcutta to Bangalore as distinct from the “feral” Indian man, “untethered from distant villages” and “adrift on powerful tides of alcohol and violent pornography” in the big city.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

But why beat up on poor Ms. Sankaran? Let’s not get carried away. Her sunnyside up portrayal of the good-hearted Indian man is hardly the most egregious or offensive of characterizations of desis in western media. And she is not trying to sweep violence and sexism under the carpet. That would be a gross misreading of her piece.

As an Indian man, I have to appreciate her motivation though I didn’t necessarily need anyone to rush to my defence. Even far away from a khap panchayat, my position of privilege in India is still fairly secure and undented despite the barrage of gang rape stories.

What I am more puzzled about is why the New York Times chose to devote an entire opinion piece to something that is blindingly obvious to all of us of moderate common sense.

Most men in India do not run around the country molesting and raping women. Duh.

As Sankaran points out the Delhi gang-rape victim’s father is a wonderful example of a village-raised man who supported his daughter’s dreams ardently. That also does not mean women’s safety and blame-the-victim attitudes are just the products of over-fevered feminist imaginations. Both the decent man and the feral man can and do co-exist in India. In fact, one of those kindly men holding the baby on Ms. Sankaran’s plane could be an MCP wife-beater at home. We just don’t know.

The problem is not a Lavanya Sankaran problem as much as it’s a New York Times problem.

On the same day as The Times carried Sankaran’s ode to the Indian man, its South Asia correspondent Ellen Barry had a story about the world of khap panchayats where blue jeans and mobile phones are forbidden. “As long as the girl lives within moral codes, she can have as much freedom as she wants,” khap leader Om Prakash Dhankar tells The Times. “If they are going after love affairs or extra freedom, then they are killed.”

There has been an escalating drumbeat of scary stories about rape and women’s safety in India. It’s not that they are not true. It’s just that they all bang on the same drum in unison to create an echo chamber of horrors. So much so we now hear stories about women tourists coming to India hiring bodyguards in advance.

As if to redress this imbalance, the newspaper clearly decided to ask a novelist to write a counter-intuitive piece. That one-off piece does little to counter the avalanche. Instead it inadvertently creates a sweeping-stroke stereotype just like the one it seeks to puncture. It gives us the Common Indian Man – “a category that deserves taxonomic recognition: committed, concerned, cautious; intellectually curious, linguistically witty; socially gregarious, endearingly awkward; quick to laugh, slow to anger.”

There are decent men everywhere but there is no Common Indian Man any more than there is a Common American Man. It’s a journalistic flourish not a statistical mean.

Following the rape of an intoxicated teenager by two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio and another alleged rape of two teenagers in Maryland, Missouri by upperclassmen athletes after getting drunk at a party there has been a lot of heated discussion in American media about alcohol and young people. It led to Emily Yoffe who helms the Dear Prudence advice column on Slate.com writing young women need to learn to say no to getting wasted. “Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue,” wrote Yoffe. That provoked a slew of angry responses asserting it’s the rapists, not the drinking that’s a problem. Ann Friedman wrote in an NY magazine column that it’s college men who need to stop getting drunk. “(T)he obsessive focus on blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn young men that when they get wasted, they are putting young women in potential peril.”

But despite all the hullabaloo, neither The New York Times nor any other publication felt compelled to commission a “counter-intuitive” article about the “Good Men of American college campuses” and present us with the “Common American College Student” – socially gregarious, quick to laugh, chewing gum.

That kind of over-simplifed Etch-a-Sketch portrayal is usually reserved for the other, the foreigner and is just as problematic whether it’s darkly negative or sunnily positive.

It’s heartwarming that The New York Times has belatedly acknowledged “The good men of India” whose goodness Sankaran says is captured by that telling phrase “main hoon na” best explained as “hug of commitment –‘never fear, I’m here.’” But for those of us in India, the article’s findings are best captured by another telling phrase we often hear in India. Chalo chalo, yahan pe dekhney ke liye kuchh nahin hai. Move along, move along, there’s nothing to see here.

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