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Do you think this cartoon is offensive? Many Indians do

OPINION: Indians think that a recent cartoon published by The New York Times is simply more evidence of the way the world looks at them despite their progress.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

Over the past week or so, there's been a lot of outrage expressed at a cartoon published by The New York Times that depicts an Indian in a so-called traditional outfit with a cow in tow, knocking on the door of a room filled with white males, with a sign outside identifying the venue as the "Elite Space Club".

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The recent New York Times cartoon referencing India's Mission to Mars.
Image: The New York Times

The cartoon is referencing India's recent feat of being the first Asian country — indeed, the first country — to be successful in its debut attempt to put a satellite into the orbit of the planet Mars. What made this feat even more exceptional was its budget price tag of $75 million (compared to, say, the launch of the US Maven, which cost the public exchequer $679 million). India's Prime Minister Modi joked that the Mars mission cost India less than the Oscar-winning film Gravity.

Indians around the world have expressed outrage at the cartoon, ostensibly because they're tired of being depicted as snake charmers, fakirs, or perched on flying carpets; they regard this cartoon as merely an extension of the gaze through which the West has looked at the East for hundreds of years. Indeed, Edward Said's landmark book Orientalism chronicles much of this tendency.

Still, being thin-skinned isn't too fashionable these days, where "taking the piss", as our erstwhile rulers call it, is a de-facto national sport in many countries, especially the UK, where taking it gracefully on the chin is good form. Could it be, perhaps, that way too much piss has been taken in the past 400 years to get us to this point?

The propensity for what many formerly colonised people of colour consider a racially superior attitude can only be buttressed by this recent article from the vanguard of the British economic and political class, The Economist, which, while commenting on Prime Minister Modi's recent historic visit to the US, had this to say about Indian Americans: "Inside are over 18,000 Indian-Americans, as prosperous and upstanding a diaspora as you will find from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters. They are willing themselves into the kind of obedient hysteria they were meant to have left behind generations ago in the badlands of Asia, along with hunger and snakes."

Badlands? Snakes? (Could this actually be a character speaking from EM Forster's Passage to India?) Predictably, Indians were once again apoplectic about this description — probably none more so than those working in snake-infested states like Arizona or Nevada, which have more than once enjoyed the moniker of "Badlands".

So the feeling goes, no matter how many startups sprout from the brains of Indians in Silicon Valley (or even just Vinod Khosla's head); how many India-based cloud computing companies threaten the world order; how many Indians are named to head Microsoft; how many NASA scientists are of Indian heritage (36 percent, according to this estimate); and how splendidly many thousands of bankers, researchers, entertainers, and Fortune 500 CEOs acquit themselves in their fields both in India and the West, Indians will always feel that the world views them as people who ride elephants to school.

It is also often difficult to dispel this notion when Indians feel, in their gut, that The Economist's views are only a refinement of what certain British leaders themselves have felt about their colony and their subjects in the past.

According to this article in The Independent, British historian Richard Toye's new book Churchill's Empire reveals that Churchill, after getting trained at Harrow and then Sandhurst, was raring to go and fight "a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples" (in his own words). When he found that people in the Swat Valley of what is in today's Pakistan actually fought back, he dubbed them fanatics with a "strong aboriginal propensity to kill".

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Legendary Indian cartoonist RK Laxman shows us, in a very simple cartoon, how to use a cliché effectively.
Image: RK Laxman

Of Gandhi, Churchill ranted that he "ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new viceroy seated on its back". This, he would have most certainly undertaken if he felt that he had a chance of getting it done, considering that his disdain for Indians allowed him to deliberately starve 3 million of them to death in the Bengal famine in 1943, according to Toye. Churchill's actions — which today would propel him into a dock at the International Court of Justice at the Hague under genocide charges — defied the open fact that the Crown had ample resources (including grain from India itself) to feed the desperately hungry, and despite fervent pleas from British officials to intervene. "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion," Churchill had once remarked, and so it was no surprise that, when asked by members of his own Cabinet to do something in India, he blamed Indians for the calamity, that they were at fault for "breeding like rabbits".

Despite President Barack Obama's earlier mantra of "Say no to Bangalore and yes to Buffalo", Indians will be delighted to learn that Churchill isn't too liked by him, either. Apparently, Obama replaced a bust of Churchill in the White House (given by the British government to President Bush after 9/11) with one of Abraham Lincoln when he learned, after a visit to Kenya to see his paternal grandmother Sarah, that his grandpa Hussein Onyango Obama was systematically tortured in prison by the British colonial government for being a freedom fighter. "His privates were squeezed with metal rods, nails and buttocks pierced with a sharp pin, and hands and legs tied while he was systematically whipped every other day," she apparently told him.

Soon after, Churchill, in one of his last acts as prime minister, sent in British troops to suppress an armed rebellion against British occupation by the mainly Kikuyu ethnic group in Kenya, resulting in 25,000 African deaths. He then approved of 80,000 being jailed in concentration camps where prisoners were routinely beaten, deprived of food, and deprived of sleep — known in some quarters today as "torture".

Now, whether all of this should be forgotten in light of Churchill's role in vanquishing the Nazis, and whether Obama did the right thing in returning Churchill's bust is up for debate. What, however, is incontestable is that after hundreds of years of a deeply troubled relationship with a brutally suppressed minority, a major newspaper in the US (the Boston Herald) has the ability to print the following cartoon, and that, too, about the US president. Is it an example of the triumph of liberal democratic values that protect free speech, or a continued illustration of the reality of racial power structures in the US? Or both?

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A recent cartoon in the Boston Herald that depicts an intruder in the White House.
Image: Boston Herald

It seems to me that after all these years, this is perhaps even more offensive to certain Americans than the jive-talking crows in the legendary Disney animation Dumbo, where they are depicted as poor and illiterate. Or in Disney's The Jungle Book, where every other animal talks with a "proper" British accent but where the buffoonish monkeys talk in jive (sound familiar?), are expert trumpeters, and speak gibberish.

But to be honest, The New York Times cartoon doesn't really offend me — after all, the "dhoti", or traditional dress worn by the Indian, is worn throughout the south of India where I am from. In fact, our erstwhile Finance and Home Minister P Chidambaram, a Cambridge-educated lawyer who speaks impeccable English, wore one every day, even while visiting foreign countries or launching a war against India's Maoist tribals, and still does so. And the cow? Well, we still, for all our public veneration of the animal and the banning of its consumption in much of India, allow them — in an ingenious act that melds public religious piety with low-cost urban sanitation — to wander about eating the ubiquitous garbage that adorns our congested streets .

Also, we Indians can be a pretty offensive lot — against black people (just recently, a mob set upon three African youths in a Delhi train station), those with Asian features (north-eastern Indians with Asian features are mercilessly harassed and assaulted, and one was recently beaten to death in Delhi), those with darker skin, and those of a "lower" caste (they are killed with impunity for being just that). So, I like to look at this cartoon as a tiny bit of karmic payback.

Still, that doesn't mean that this offering from the NYT passes muster. Now, I haven't studied the psychology of cartoons to pontificate expertly on the subject, but at a very basic level, it seems to me that cartoons are cultural iconography, reflecting the zeitgeist of the societies they are published in — our own modern cave paintings. They tend to say a lot more about us than we sometimes know.

For a cartoon to be truly effective, I think it needs to do a few of the following things: It needs to be somewhat subversive (poking fun at inherent power structures, turning things on their heads), and it needs to make oblique references to some of the more gritty truths about our existences. But, most of all, it needs to make us laugh. And this one fails the test in all of my modest categories.

In fact, what it does is humorlessly caricature Indians (or India) while presenting the White people inside the club (or the US) as, well, well-heeled white people. The best way really to describe it is that it's just plain dumb. And if that's the best a purported "global" paper such as The New York Times can do in the department of "funny", well, that's just downright sad.

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