Should Indians care about all those books foreigners keep writing about them? That’s a prickly old chestnut of a topic— who has the right to write about another country? Now writers Aatish Taseer and Patrick French have both got into it.
In Taseer’s defence, French did start it. He kicked off the debate with an article on 22 April in the Hindustan Times which started tamely enough talking about a 7th century Chinese monk and 11th century Muslim historian writing about their travels in India. But then it goes on to complain how it was difficult for someone not from this country to express an opinion about it without being eviscerated.
French writes about how it was no longer easy for a foreigner or immigrant in India to put pen to paper and say anything about the country or its people because the idea is Indians should not have to listen to what others have to say about them in this day and age – “a latter day literary swadeshi”.
Far from being classic old-school imperalists, many foreigners in India live in a state of polite apology, “joking” about firangs to show they are not like the bad ones. The few who have made a lasting career in India tend to be diligent in parading their respect for Indian culture. They might praise raags and dastangoi and overnight Kathakali performances. They might denounce neo-imperialism, believing that by doing so they demonstrate their sympathy for the pain of colonial grievance especially keenly. It’s a kind of insurance policy.
Taseer in his response begins by criticising India in his editorial in the Hindustan Times for it’s inability to study and preserve its own history.
The gaps are real and we in India have done little to fill them. We have allowed the study of epigraphs – one of the chief sources of information about the classical past – to grind to a halt; we have stood by and done nothing as the centres of Sanskrit learning shifted away from India to Europe and America.
Taseer then really dives into it saying that India did not develop the study of humanities they way it believes in science – so there are no centres of classical studies to rival the IITs and IIMs. It is foreigners who study India’s history with more dedication than Indians. This meant Indians often had to subject themselves not only to the humiliation of not knowing their own history but meeting foreigners with a more intimate knowledge of our past, he says.
The lack of knowledge about our own history also meant that we were open to distortions of history by foreigners, Taseer argues.
Taseer says serious writers like like French and Katherine Boo have little to fear but then he adds a little xenophobia is “not such a bad thing” in a country where foreigners are still able to “invisibly occupy positions of power”.
So as the two writers battle it out over whether Indians are xenophobic about things written about them, what do you think? Are Indians xenophobic or is there a genuine lack of historical documentation which has resulted in us being over reliant on foreign scholars?