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False Advertising?

July 2007
False Advertising?

A young Indian American, after a recent visit to India, shared about being blindsided by the harsh realities of the country. It's not that he did not have a wonderful time there. Nor is it that he was not aware of the problems—but he was surprised by the scope and magnitude of them. According to him, this was largely because the India of the Indian media (of the country as well as of its global diaspora) is a whole different world. In this "packaged" India, there is rarely any mention of what he saw there.

To be fair, a highly diverse and complex country of over a billion people is bound to upset superficial and distant perceptions. On the one side (the side focused on almost exclusively by the urban middle class and its media), India is shining. It is one of the few nuclear capable countries in the world. It has a relatively robust space program. At a growth rate of 9.4 percent GDP (gross domestic product), it is currently one of the two most talked about nations of global commerce. It has an IT labor force second to none. According to a Forbes list, the country boasts of 27 billionaires. There is a dynamic couture fashion scene, and urban Indians are increasingly brand conscious. There is a whole army of youngsters who are immersed into American lingo and pop culture. Fine dining and world class restaurants are the new rage.

But none of this is visible on the "street" of India. Rather, what is visible is extreme poverty, filth, a putrid air of pollution, massive overcrowding, and people dressed in torn rags. India is far from "shining" on most its streets. Slums are all over. Basic amenities and infrastructures of a 21st century lifestyle are absent. Lack of running water and power outages are daily realities.

Such striking contrasts are the clich�d realities of contemporary India. Both the above described scenarios are factual; both are representative snapshots of modern India. Interestingly though, the latter ("negative") version of India is mysteriously and wholly absent in the consciousness of its urban establishment. The middle class elite and their media's extreme fixation are on "Page 3" culture: gloss, glitter and things western. This fixation comes at the cost of a complete avoidance of the country's most pressing problems, as well as at the cost of an avowed disowning of its native and traditional roots.

To tune into the mass media, and to listen into the conversations and peek into the consciousness of this class, is to take on a distinct blind spot that disables one to see what is plainly and abundantly visible on the Indian street—its massive challenges. It is also to cultivate an allergy for all things native, traditional and vernacular.

In carrying on blissfully about their relatively blessed lives with nary a nod to the Third World conditions, the urban yuppies are perpetuating a "false advertising," primarily to themselves, even if to others. By a dogmatic avoidance of these substandard conditions, along with an unwavering focus on the "shining" aspects, they are perhaps able to lull themselves into believing that they are at par with the world and the West.

But turning a blind eye to what is omnipresent comes at a price. You can have a million-dollar lifestyle within the confines of your four walls, but as soon as you step out on the street, you are breathing the same polluted air, suffering the same overcrowding, the same lack of amenities and infrastructure, the same filth and stink that the rest of the poor masses are subject to.

As we see in the cover story in this issue, Americans who visited the country shared about the joy and beauty they experienced, mostly in rural areas. India has its unique inner beauty and strength, rooted in its ancient heritage. Will its urban establishment learn to embrace it, rather than disown it? Then perhaps the heads that are buried in gloss, glitter and facades, can come out to tackle, head-on, the real challenges of the country—to make it truly shining.

- Parthiv N. Parekh

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