Journalists are both insiders and outsiders

Sam Miller is a journalist and writer whose first book 'Delhi: Adventures in a Mega City' was a bestseller. In 2002 he was posted in Delhi with the BBC World Service and has been living in the subcontinent ever since. His latest book 'A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes' was released in February 2014.

shreerupa

Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | April 29, 2014




You have had a long association with India and consider it your adopted home. In your latest book you have written about foreigners writing on India. How have you negotiated your location of being an outsider/insider?

I take pleasure in being both an outsider and an insider. For most Indians, however long I stay in India, I will always be seen as a foreigner. And that’s something I have to live with, and I am used to it now. It has some advantages which I have written about in the book: people sometimes push me to the front of a queue, people seem keen to meet me when I visit out-of-the-way places. They may talk about me in Hindi, which I can eavesdrop on. Other foreigners don’t always know what to make of me. Some treat me as if I were Indian, born and bred, having lived here for so long. Others talk to me, conspiratorially, about India – especially if they dislike the country. This makes me very uncomfortable, especially if they are rude about my adopted home, and I tend to leap rather aggressively to the defence of India. More generally I think journalists are the quintessential insider/outsiders, and though I don’t do much daily journalism now, I still feel at heart I am a journalist – trying to help others (and myself) make sense of the world.

In your book (review) you simultaneously trace your journey in India with the experiences of the first writers on India. Can you take us through the trajectory of the evolution of writings on India? Does this trajectory have any resemblance with the evolution of your understanding of India?

There are lots of key themes that have long been part of how foreigners have seen India. It has been exoticised from the start, by ancient Greek writers, with early accounts of strange monsters and dubious miracles. In more recent times the interest has been in Indian rope tricks, and in gurus who can perform supernatural tricks. For many centuries India has also been associated with the great wealth, with diamonds and jewels, but only in the last few centuries has it been associated with poverty. I think I have in the past romanticized India, I talk in my book of my visits to rural Maharashtra in the 90s, when I would never encounter other foreigners. I loved those visits, but I think I had very little sense then of how I might be seen by local inhabitants – as a bit of a nuisance, really.

What are the possible pitfalls and advantages of writing on other cultures?

I think it is very hard to avoid extremes – of love or hate, absurd romanticisation or sweeping demonization. And we all should reserve judgment – seek to understand before we judge. And recognize that other cultures are likely to be just as complex and sophisticated as our own – or perhaps more so.

Do you think India has become too thin-skinned? Attacks on Ramanujan’s essay on the 300 Ramayanas which was removed from the Delhi University syllabus. Attack on Rohinton Mistry’s novel which was removed from the Bombay University syllabus and of course, the more recent Doniger incident. Do these incidents portend repression of creative thinking in India?


Some Indians are certainly too thin-skinned. I wouldn’t talk about a whole nation in such terms, though. But there is lack of confidence on the part of those who want Ramanujan or Doniger or Mistry banned. It’s as if they don’t really believe they have a strong argument, so censorship is the only response. I do think it is bad at the moment, the speed and vigour with which people take offence at things they disagree with – but these things tend to go in cycles. And repression isn’t always bad for creative thinking – it can sometimes be strangely inspirational. So I’m pessimistic in the short term, but optimistic in the long run.

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