Times of India 19 March 2005
THE LEADER ARTICLE: Under Western Eyes: India Seeks Foreign Stamp For Its Heroes
We are a great nation. And we are despe-rately looking for testimonials from our superiors to prove this. The faking boy from Ballia may not have put it this way, but surely he knows Indian psyche well enough to throw dust in the eyes of the whole nation for the sake of his dozen days of immortality.
Life imitates great art. Sadly in our case life seems to mimic I S Johar’s film script. Born in a lower middle class family in the backward eastern Uttar Pradesh, the teenager first featured in a local Hindi daily which announced that the boy who left for Kota in Rajasthan to take tuition for IIT entrance examination came first in the so-called international science discovery examination supposedly conducted by US space agency NASA. The daily added for effect that the boy had thus done better than President Kalam who had come seventh and the late Kalpana Chawla who was ranked 21st.
As it turns out, the certificate was a crude fake, which could not even spell aeronautics. But the holes in the story came later when somebody decided to contact NASA. By that time, however, the news item was picked up by a news agency and splashed by major newspapers and television channels. If the boy showed his ingenuity in inventing the story, the media showed theirs by embellishing it and narrating it in purple prose. The press had hoped that “when he spends next year in Pennsylvania, he will know that back home he himself has become a role model”.
Things did not turn out that way. The Uttar Pradesh upper house, which had earlier decided to felicitate him, has now decided to wait for the result of a probe by district administration into the fiasco. The significance of the con job is not that it was done, but that the whole nation fell for it. There will always be individuals whose minds work in a devious manner. But when a society suspends its critical faculties, one must look into its ideals, goals, aspirations, frustrations and priorities.
Ten years ago, we were conned in the name of science, but with a difference. When Ramar Pillai claimed to have devised a way of extracting petroleum from a mixture of secret herbs and ordinary plants, at least his aim was to make a discovery that would help the nation. But now we must salute a hero because someone else declared him so.
Shortly before and after Independence, there was a strongly articulated desire to build the nation. The middle class saw itself as a bridge between the rest of the country and the West. Over the years and especially with the advent of globalisation, the middle class became large, autonomous and consumerist. It has divested itself of any sense of noblesse oblige; and hitched its wagon to the west. In the colourful words of the American movie-maker, Sam Goldwyn, the Indian middle class has opted to include itself out. The centre of gravity of India has moved outside the country.
Internet has come as a boon to media journalists and many others. Yet it did not occur to anyone to cross-check the boy’s international claims; to look up on the Net Kalpana Chawla’s biography to see if it mentioned the Balliatic examination or to visit the NASA website for confirmation. Perhaps, we were afraid of looking too closely lest we discovered the truth. Scientific temper and rationality are concepts that fit naturally into a manufacture-based culture. Since the services sector, the last hope of our middle class, is essentially science-less, we seem to be giving up our spirit of inquiry. Since a whole lot of computer-based jobs are being outsourced to us, as a token of our gratitude, we are outsourcing the task of providing national heroes to the US.
Even the uniquely Indian institutions are being redefined as an exercise in offshoring. The hugely successful Hindi film industry that has made its own rules has been given an imitative name (Bollywood) and asked to prove itself by winning an Oscar. In the Hindi films of the 60s and 70s, the foreign young man wore suits, smoked a pipe, acted like a villain and eventually got thrashed by the hero. Alternatively, he wore half-pants, acted like a buffoon and happily became the hero’s sidekick. A foreign-returned young lady did not plait her hair, wore boots, and screamed “shut up” at everybody. If she remained like this, she died.
Only if she redeemed herself by discovering her Indianness did she get the hero. Contrast this with the recent blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge in which the custodians of Indian values are the NRI hero and heroine. India as a setting for the film is quite irrelevant except to showcase the Indian young man as a petty crook who wants the virtuous heroine as a visa for going abroad and having fun.
Whenever an NRI wins recognition in his or her adopted country, or Indians receive dubious or genuine western honours (film jury membership or a mention in Time or Newsweek), there is widespread excitement in the country. It lends legitimacy to those who have denationalised themselves or are waiting to do so. And it absolves everyone from doing anything for the nation. When there is so little difference between the real and the fake, why blame the poor Ballia boy?