Slumdogs. White Tigers. Indians.

metro and Hanuman

While I was exchanging the latest gossips of our same-old-same-old life with a friend in U.S. over a Skype call, we steered over to the topic of how the movie ‘Slumdog Millionare‘ and the book ‘The White Tiger‘ have changed the Western mindset towards India. Suddenly from the country of Elephants, yoga, Kamasutra and snake charmers, India is now a nation where ‘all’ the poor kids are blinded and turned into beggars. Where poor drivers from Bihar fantasise to ‘dip their beaks’ in a women with golden white hair.

There is no point in denying the fact that both the movie and the book are spot on. Yes, Jamal can be any of the thousands of slum kids in India who lost his mother during the riots and cheated tourists in Taj Mahal. Yes, Balram Halwai can be any of the numerous drivers on the roads of Delhi who have broken away from the ‘darkness’ and come to the ‘light’. But, the problem is in the generalization. Needless to say that a work of fiction is incomplete without a tinge of tragedy, a question which my friend S asked me and which set me thinking was –

“Have you ever done any of the things shown in the movie or the book? If no, then where is your story? Why doesn’t anyone write about you? Just because that won’t sell?”

Yes, maybe that won’t sell. The most tragic thing that has happened to me is when a friend of mine lied to me. This is hardly something comparable to what happened to Ammu in ‘The God of Small Things‘ or to Krishna in ‘Salaam Bombay‘ or to Biju in ‘The Inheritance of Loss‘.

A story of an individual cannot be superimposed on a whole nation. I had a very normal childhood. I belong to an average middle class family where we were taught about the thin line between necessity and luxury. I never dropped out of the school but passed out with top grades. I went to the best University in the country and had a blast during my college life. I did my post graduation from another top University in India and immensely enjoyed my hostel life with a great set of friends. I have been working with the best IT firm in India from the last 4 years and everything in my life is very very smooth. I have not done anything which Jamal did or Balram Halwai did.

There is a whole generation of millions of Indians who have grown up like me. We never had an imperative need to rob someone for money or bribe someone to cover up a murder. We don’t live in slums and never carried guns. We work in air conditioned offices and travel by our cars. I am not undermining the fact that people like Balram and Jalam exist, but India right now is like two colliding galaxies. There are two entirely different worlds which coexist. My British colleague who came to India last year asked me –

‘How do you cope up with all that? How does your mind grapple the fact  that on one side of the road, there is a high rise with swanky offices and on the other side there is a beggar sleeping on the road?’

I had no answer. All I could tell him was that not very far in the distant past, there were no high rise. So, we have taken a leap. We are in fact in the middle of a leap, suspended in mid air, with one leg forward and one backward. We may fail badly or with an extra push, we may make a world record. There is no nation in this world which has not coped up with poverty and corruption at one point of time. Right now its our turn.

We have a very tenacious tendency of adhering to our prejudiced mindsets and to believe in what suits us. When someone shows us half a painting and asks us to believe that what he is showing is the full painting, we do, as long us that ‘suits’ us. As long as it makes us feel better about our own life.

They were important stories. Stories which need to be told. But they are not the only stories. They are not the only truth. Generalizing something and being  partial or biased can be very easy but as every White man is not a racist, as every Muslim is not a terrorist, as every leader is not as brainless as Bush and as ruthless as Hitler, as every Maharashtrian does not support Bal Thackeray, as every Hindu is not a vegetarian, as every American is not money minded, as every Britisher is not a snob, as every Australian is not a criminal, similarly, every Indian is not a Balram Halwai.

[The image is that of a Metro Station in New Delhi with an enormous statue of Hanuman in the backdrop]

104 comments on “Slumdogs. White Tigers. Indians.

  1. Wonderful snap. Its sad that India is being misrepresented as to be comprising of such stories only. “We are in fact in the middle of a leap, suspended in mid air, with one leg forward and one backward.”
    This reminds me of a dialogue from RDB 😀

  2. BEAUTIFULLY written… 🙂

    I really have nothing to add to it…really. very apt and to the point. it says everything. and i agree with every word.

    kudos to u! 🙂

  3. Amit, I do not want to talk about the merits/demerits of looking at India through rose tinted glasses after watching movies like Slumdog or after reading books like The White Tiger. At a very deep level, I feel that creativity thrives on experiences that touch you in some way. These experiences are often humbling and almost always saddening. People who fail to realize this difference between fact and fiction are leading incomplete lives. Like you mentioned, this doesn’t demean our normal lives in any way. All of us appear to be normal, but are we? 🙂

    • I have nothing against the maker or the writer. As I said, they showed what is true. I have a problem with people who think that what was shown was the whole picture.
      As far as creativity is concerned, I get your point. Yes, there is a thin line between facts and fiction, but what happens when you present the fiction to those who are unaware of the line? I find it frightening.
      We are in the middle of a change. As a race we will always be. Being normal is not an option, I guess. 🙂

  4. Cool.. Good Write up.

    Don’t take things too seriously. The day is not far away when Mahabharat will be used as a reference for every story in every part of the world. Just believe in it.

    Keep writing !!!

  5. You are right man. All the stuff shown in the movie or printed in the book cannot be assumed to applicable to all of us.
    If westerners think tha generalizing the shown concepts is correct and India is only full of slumdogs and white tigers, then they are grossly mistaken.
    All of us are not same. Some are luckier. some are unluckier.
    To generalize, would be wrong.
    Great work..

    • Thanks Dev.
      I think its not just the Western World. Its something very basic to our nature. Even in India, we end up generalizing people on the basis of the states. Don’t we?

  6. Rightly said Amit.. nothing to add more… all I can hope and say is, let us put that extra effort to complete the leap we have taken..
    Beautiful post 🙂

  7. I guess novels and films try to sell … its totally their motive…

    people get an idea or perceive…

    like all old hollywood movies tell us America is a land of the free.. for the rebels…

    I dont know how much everyone must always read into this…

    also do film makers bother about projecting the real India or are they worried for their own revenue…

    Today Rani Swayamwar sells…

    Sach Ka Saamna sells… so they make it…

    Slumdog sells… they must make it…

    sigh…

    • Its just that a story is incomplete without tragedy in it. If not tragedy, then masala definitely. That is why Rakhi’s(and not Rani’s) Swayamwar works. 🙂
      I think its not about just projecting an image but also about telling an important story. But there are repercussions to whatever we do, specially when it is done in a medium which is seen by billions.

  8. @hitchwriter… I really appreciate your know how about some things happening in the entertainment world. Well i recently saw “Sach Ka Saamna”. and I was amazed that the format is very similar to the real show “Moment of Truth”. Its a very good show and such type of shows should be entertained in India. We get to know ourselves better. 🙂

    • @BhanuPrakash : I think the basic premise of ‘Sach ka samna’ is very crude. Given a chance, I would never be on that show because it needs me to serve my personal life in front of others which is unacceptable. But then, to each his own. 🙂
      Welcome to my blog!

  9. Those westerners who perceive us that way are loonies ! I personally dont think there is a generalisation because I am sure they know there is more to all that in India. Its not like they are completely off from the rest of the world, rt? Its a different ball game altogether. They are just having fun making us look like fakirs, snake charmers, poverty and now slum kids etc all the time. and most often than not, we let them get away with such kinda crude jokes.

    • Well, I guess misinformed is the right word. 😛
      Tell me, how do you perceive a common man’s life in America? Don’t you base it on the images you see on television?
      Its a very very delicate medium. When you visited Europe recently, didn’t certain things surprised you because they were opposite to how you had imagined them to be?
      Now imagine someone who has never been to India and has never met an Indian. Show him Slumdog Millionaire and see his reaction. 🙂

  10. We have a habit of generalizing things especially when we do not have much knowledge about it. I think it is part of our cognitive makeup. That way it is easier to adjust our mindframe with the happenings in the world. But when we watch films or read books, we need to keep them in context and leave it at that – they are just stories. Their entire purpose is to tell a story and touch an emotional nerve in us. We cannot see an example as the whole. People sometimes believe the exception to be the rule by generalising things.

    • Yes, exactly. We are just wired up that way I guess. We do generalize things in India too. All Biharis are migrants. All Maharashtrians support Thackeray, All South Indians hate North Indians and so on. Its useless and such a waste. They are just talks and stupid ones.
      A book or a movie is a strong medium. Its not the writers responsibility what the reader will think. He is simple telling a story. Its the readers responsibility to understand that facts and fiction don’t necessarily mix. Not always.

  11. the west knows better. that is what i expect of them.

    they have seen too many too good Real Indians (in form of IT and other professionals in close range and actors, sports persons, and other famous personalities via media) to still believe that all of us life lives like Jamal or Balram.

    everyone can differenciate fact from fiction. if they can’t… its not India’s or Indian’s trouble.. they better teach themselves.

    sorry if it sounded rude.. 🙂

    • Oorja, I think you have no idea. 🙂
      One of my friend(a girl) recently got married in U.S. with her boyfriend. Her manager asked her – Is that allowed in India? I thought you can only have arranged marriages! 😐

      People love to generalize. A majority of us are like frog in a well. We have no freaking idea about what’s happening in the world! And the worst part is, we are not even interested.

  12. Nice post.

    Yes, every Indian is not a Balram Halwai. But people want to read such stories and the Booker asserts this fact.

    I have read White Tiger, though I think it is a cynical view of India, few parts of it are so close to reality.

    Slumdog Millionaire book is very well written when compared to the movie. I have read for the purposes of narration as the plot was completely new.

    Economic differences exist everywhere including the so called developed countries. The problem is they are a little stark in nations like India.

    In truth, I think, books and movies like these benefit us in one way or the other.

    Those who get a misrepresented view of India from these books/movies, there are enough stories/sources to read on the Internet and elsewhere to understand the other way, see the India that is not portrayed in such books/movies.

    • Thanks Chandra and Welcome to my blog. 🙂
      Yes, sometimes I feel that Booker is biased towards terribly sad stories about poor people. I will keep this in mind when I write a book.
      India is not a developed country. It is a country where almost half of the population is below poverty line and it is a country where 1.4 trillion dollars are stacked up in Swiss banks. There are a lot of things which make up a nation and none of them can give you a whole picture alone.

  13. Well said man. I really liked your comparison of Indian economy to an athlete in middle of a leap. We have learned to ignore the reality of poverty, mostly because we ourselves are struggling to attain goals every moment of our life. I would like to believe that once we become a richer country there will be more people who will pause and try to help out people.

    • Thanks Balu.
      I don’t think you can ignore poverty. Its right there on your face. But yes, I do feel at times that people want to do something but are largely directionless.
      When Teach India started, did you see the number of people who came forward? People have it in them. Definitely. Its just a direction which is required.

  14. I have always abhorred generalization be it for any context and I put across my point with rationality and if the other side doesn’t seem to understand or even try to understand I stop as I do not wish to argue if there is no logic involved.

  15. Nicely written Amit
    However I must say that I do not associate poverty with crime that easily, as it has been shown in slumdog. In fact for me images of poverty mean the strength and courage of the poor, their honesty in the face of possessing nothing, their stoicness in face of pain and their ability to smile. The west has truly distorted the true India. The poor in India are not crime ridden, they are tough. Also a lot people are trying hard to help them. There are a lot of movements. As for the rich, the less said the better! 🙂

    • Excellent comment, Nita. I totally agree with that comment. Generalizations, in any form is not going to help (Yes, even my theory of beauty!! 😉 ). There is one more, a person who has never been to a village or a small town thinks that they are all unlucky. Just go there, and you will know what fun they have. It is a different life, but they also have their share of fun and misery, like the ‘so-lucky’ big city dwellers.

      Destination Infinity

      • Rightly said DI. I spent 1.5 years in a small town in a hostel. It was the most incredible part of my life. Even if there were no malls or all the facilities to which one gets used to in a city, going back to the basics was a lot of fun. 🙂

  16. Nice post Amit. India has indeed grown up to be a strange country where people live in very diverse circumstances. As is often said, India’s growth has not been very well distributed.

    I too used to be very positive about the Indian economy, but in the time i have been in India these past few months, i have begun to think that we dont have our priorities right.

    India is focusing only on the growth of a small minority, and the bulk of the population is getting left behind. Maybe it is time we started focusing on getting that man off the street and under a roof. We talk of being a developed country, but we are light years away from that.

    India is a very poor country – and there’s no running away from that. And the west isnt to blame for the condition we are in.

    • Well, yes, no one is to be blamed but us. I hope my post did not give any kind of an impression that I was blaming the West.
      India is not a developed country. It will take a few more hundred years to reach that point. Ours is a developing nation. Period.
      Sometimes I feel that the diversity pulls us down. We end up being ‘community centric’ which eventually turns against the development of the nation as a whole.
      I wish that the politicians at the state level would have been more development centric. Things would have been much easier then.

  17. Itna sab kuch likha sirf ye justify karne ke liye ke Hindu Hokar bhi beef khate ho 🙂 its okay bhaiya we understand…

  18. You said it Amit. NOTHING anyone ever says or does can be generalized. Neither Jamal nor Balram. For that matter even you and me. Our thoughts and deeds are ours only.
    Who says western countries doesn’t have slums? They do. They too have poor people, robbers, druggists etc. Violence happens there also. Then why does the questioning of an Indian movie happen? May be because we donot consider ourselves better. Because we are so used to being told that we aren’t good, that we think that we aren’t good.
    It’s time, isn’t it? That something somewhere changed?

    • Bad people are everywhere and so are poor and unhappy people.
      But most of the people are trying to be happy about their own perfectness by generalizing things. It gives us immense pleasure to know that not many people are on the happy side like us.
      Our brain needs to be changed. Thats what. 🙂

        • Ummm…not exactly. A sadist does not assure himself that his life is all right by pointing out the miseries of others. He amuses himself doing that.
          Ah! Don’t know what the precise word would be. 😦

          • It’s probably being complacent, by looking at others’ worries and being thankful that you don’t have to go through all that.

  19. Great post, as I return to the blogging world after a long hiatus 🙂 Very refreshing and I agree with each and every word. Generalization should be a long gone tradition. We should identify what is fiction and true, and not caught up in sheer moment. Can I link and quote this post on my blog in my future post? 😉

  20. The picture made me think!!! It says so much without saying anything really!!!

    Yep we are a country full of diversity!!!

    We are a country whose citizen look beyond the seven seas for approval.

    We are country which appreciates things from our country only if it is recognised abroad.

    We are a country of ppl who lap onto ‘me too’ phenomenon.

    We sadly aren’t the people who are proud of what we have and that’s why I loved ur post!!! We can stop genralising the day we start seeing good things in our conutry and start talking about them.

    Dunno how relevant my comment is but I wrote what came out my keyboard nd heart 🙂

    • Yeah! God knows who took it but it is a masterpiece! 🙂
      Your comment is quite relevant but you are telling the story of the other side. Also, I must add that we have many things to be proud of but then there are things which need huge inputs from us. We are still developing.
      There are people in our country who do not know what ‘being proud’ means. They just need food at the end of the day.

  21. Never read “The White Tiger” ….

    And about “Slumdog Millionaire” …. its true that foreigners attach the adjective “poverty” with “India” ….

    Remember the chinese tourist in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. … He says ” I want to see Real India … Poor people ” …..

    Tragedy always makes a good product !!!!

  22. Another brilliant post, not at all surprised you went to the best Univ in India … and I totally agree, most of have lead similar lives 🙂
    I agree about generalisations and loved the line about us being in the middle of a leap… I think we will make it too. I liked how you did not go on the defensive about the books and the movie, which though true are not the only truth about us in India… not all slum children live lives like the ones shown in that movie either!

  23. your british colleague atleast had the decency to ask you. my american colleague made fun of the poverty with his american colleagues in the next cubicle. suddenly realised that i sat next door and kept mum.

    i think it is not about americans or british – it is about attitude as people/person – i know it is not the point of this post.

    for most (majority ) people media shapes their opinion. – in rich countries – poverty sells. for us, it does not. it is a reality next door and we try hard for poverty not to creep in.

    like you i went to amazing schools too ( i am grateful for that) and had classmates who lived in poor housing ( chawls – in bombay -) they were our classmates we got decent grades – when he worried from where his hostel fees would come, we felt for him too. but my family was not rich enough to help him/ her.

    slums were next door to my apartment building. the hired help lived their. it was not their choice.

    for the movie mr. boyle took the liberty of calling our unfortunate brethren a slumdog, but he literally meant – a scumdog.

    the rich will sell anything to have name, fame and glory. for such is their conscience, even in the name of art, shart, etc.

    i know it is a movie — an art form – can i call the queen of england ‘names” ? and then the palace dogs will hound you. boyle just took the advantage of that – or the producer or the guy who funded the movie.

    i just summed it all up from what i have written in my posts.
    chow !

  24. and the most important thing –

    point to be noted : Anything with the theme “poverty” gets you an award –

    check salaam bombay — i am not a movie buff and so cannot recall the others

    • Another friend of mine told me about such an incident. I think bitching is the favorite office timepass all over the world, without any exceptions.
      Yes, you are right. After reading ‘the white tiger’, I really couldn’t understand why the book won the Booker. There is nothing special, literature wise or story wise. I sometimes feel that it was just a repercussion of the success of Slumdog.
      I am not sure whether Boyle took any advantage or not. Remember, he made Trainspotting too. 🙂
      And yes, I have mentioned ‘Salaam Bombay’ in the post too.

  25. From a land of snake charmers, we have graduated to a land of beggars and slums in the eyes of the western media and world.

    Some progress there. Another 50 years and i think we will be known as a middle income country in their view.

    Dunno if we should be worried more about the state of our affairs or surprised at the ignorance of the western media/society.

  26. Generalization and stereotyping is, sadly, very common. I once got asked if I had a pet elephant…hehehe! Opinion and perception about India is quite different in different countries that I visited – that was a surprise.

    • Pet elephant! Haha!! 😀
      Well, no one has asked me any such thing till now but everyone was very amused when they spotted a cow on the road.

  27. Amit,
    The way to point out the question is really enthusiastic.
    Acceptance for the point that the tragedy sells, and that’s what the motive of a Writer or a film maker, else instead they would have taken any revolutionary step.
    But brother, if that’s the reality then why to deny the acceptance. Why to die for the feelgood factor?
    And if U or anyone thinks the Britishers get a wrong image of India with these, then I ask you and the others; Why not to point the same from their origin?

    • I am sorry but I was not able to understand much of your comment.
      Who said anything about denying? I accepted everything the movie or the book projected and thats written in the post. I think you should read the post once more.
      And what is the feel good factor? I think the post is no where about that.
      And who pointed out the ‘Britishers’? I used ‘western society’ as a very generic term. Also, I don’t believe in mudslinging matches. I’ll prefer to correct a person instead of digging out something similar from the past.
      Thanks.

  28. I haven’t seen ‘The White Tiger’ yet. Actually, I came to know about it first time through your blog only. So can’t comment on it.

    When it comes to Slumdog, rather than the image created in westren world, I care more about image created in our own society. Now only certain people came to know that there are this kind of situations also in India.

    I started believing that unless one thing is fully projected in media, nothing can change its situation. Pressure is building upon leaders and government only when it is discussed in media and shown repeatedly. I admit that sometimes media overreacts to the situation but in some cases it do good.

    So hopefully, somebody who has power in their hand cares about the situations and change them. Once the situation really comes into our hand, projecting positively is not a big deal 🙂

    • Oye! White Tiger is a book. 🙂
      I think every one in India know about the ‘situation’. Are you telling me that there are people who know that these things happen?

  29. Pingback: Slumdogs. White Tigers. Indians. « Mashed Musings | India Updates

  30. I second that what Maddie said about generalization,”I think it is part of our cognitive makeup.” And also liked what Anand said about generalizations and hard sciences.

    Again, an awesome post, and nice discussion following that, I really enjoyed it, and though being a silent reader, couldn’t stop myself to commend it, and add some to it.

    Well, there are many Indias in a country called INDIA and the “athlete’s leap” reminds me of Mr. Amitabh Bachchan’s recitation of India Poised Anthem – India Vs India. (Times of India)

    Just a thought – “to do is to be, and to be is to do…choice of action is ours.” (98% of time this is true)

    Never heard of Teach India, what’s that? Thanks.

  31. Wow, that post really echoes my own sentiments. I’m sick of how slumdog shut all windows to india but one! But I suppose that for a country so diverse, it’s way too hard for someone to experience all of it through any book/movie. You really have to live in India to know it 🙂

    PS – here’s an idea. You should pen down your story. We could do with an insight into the real, average India!

    • Yes exactly. If you combine all the countries of Europe and make one nation, that is what India is right now. Each state is one nation in itself.
      My story is too typical. 🙂 There is nothing different or new. 😉

  32. “Generalizing something and being partial or biased can be very easy but as every White man is not a racist, as every Muslim is not a terrorist, as every leader is not as brainless as Bush and as ruthless as Hitler, as every Maharashtrian does not support Bal Thackeray, as every Hindu is not a vegetarian, as every American is not money minded, as every Britisher is not a snob, as every Australian is not a criminal, similarly, every Indian is not a Balram Halwai.”

    –Beautifully quoted

  33. I have watched Slumdog Millionaire but unfortunately I didn’t find any reason for it to win Oscar. Well, what’s the original story? can you please tell in in brief?

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