How does an American journalist become an expert on India?
He opens his mouth wide open and puts his foot straight
"Whaddya speak in India? Gaun-dee?" the
bespectacled student asked, ready to take notes.
"Excuse me!" I said, not quite understanding
"Like… Isn't the language of India called
Gaun-dee?" he repeated, with the air of a teacher rephrasing a question for
a dull student.
"Gandhi! Gandhi isn't a language. Gandhi was a
leader." I exclaimed.
"Oh really!" he said, with a quizzical look,
"so whaddya speak there? Indian or Indonesian?"
Is the above event real?
Well, a budding journalist, majoring in Asian history
and journalism from a renowned mid-western university, had the above
conversation with me during an "interview" on India not too long ago.
Before I discuss the nuggets penned by our American journalist friends about
India, let me digress briefly and share with you an anecdote about their genius
at substituting fact with fiction.
In the late forties, an enterprising American
journalist journeyed to Bangkok to write an "insightful" article about
that country of white elephants and spicy curries. His reports brimmed with
information about the most exotic happenings conceivable -- of human beings who
cohabited and consorted with the apes, underdressed women who lived on a staple
diet of rice and curried ants' eggs and fanatically worshipped the royal family
of Thailand. The royal family always posed for pictures without the queen mother
because -- hold your breath -- she (the queen mother) had a bushy tail!
The news understandably caused a stir among journalists
in the US. An army of journalists soon lined up at the Thai embassy for visas
and tickets to discovering exotica that would catapult them to fame and a
fabulous fortune. The puzzled embassy officials were aghast when they discovered
the reasons for the spate in visa applications. They issued a statement to set
the record straight -- the queen mother couldn't be seen in public because she
had passed away ages ago.
The moral of the anecdote: Anything is right about
countries where people aren't white.
Half a century later, have there been significant
changes in the quality of reporting? As an example, let us examine the American
(ie. North American) newspapers' reporting of facts (elementary facts) about
In 1994, at the onset of the plague in Surat, The
Washington Post propounded the following hypothesis: Since rats are the
cause of the epidemic, is there a specific reason for not killing the rats?
Well, rats are considered to be so holy by Hindus that they would prefer to kill
themselves over the rats.
Subsequent enquiries proved that the only grain of
truth in this tall tale was that a certain deity called the goddess of rats, is
worshipped in a remote temple in Rajasthan. This little fact was expanded,
exaggerated and extrapolated into a conclusion that sounds comical, stupid and
Since nothing succeeds like sensationalism, the other
American newspapers followed suit in reporting the incident, garnishing and
flavouring the "Hindus worship rats" story till a mountain of
Himalayan proportions had been built from the molehill. Despite numerous
clarifications and demands for an apology, American newspapers had neither the
courtesy nor the decency to issue one.
The venerable New
York Times informed us in 1998 (in the
course of its discussion of India's nuclear bomb) that the Bhagavad Gita
venerates Shiva, the destroyer among the Trinity! Since the Bhagavad Gita is
available on the Internet, search the text and discover for yourself how many
times the word "Shiva" appears. In the 700 shlokas of the
Bhagavad Gita, Shiva is mentioned 700 minus 700 times.
Not to be outdone, The
Chicago Tribune declared Krishna to be a
"goatherd" in January this year. A goatherd, eh! Given that India and
snake-charmers are inseparable in the American imagination, I suppose we should
thank ourselves that Krishna wasn't called a "snake-head". (Smugglers
bringing Chinese immigrants on those rickety ships that appear periodically on
the west coast are called "snake-heads".)
On Christmas Eve last year, The
Toronto Star decided, (I suppose), that
ten hands would prove a little unwieldy for goddess Durga and
"downsized" her hands to a manageable eight -- "eight-armed
fierce Hindu goddess Durga" was their description of the goddess.
Instead of heaping ridicule on them, why can't you
write letters and correct the record? you ask. If you write a letter to the
editors of any of these publications, consider yourself honoured if they
condescend to reply, let alone correct the error. Since arrogance and ignorance
are inseparable, your letter will probably end up in the shredder instead of the
editor's desk. No matter how many letters you send them, you will discover that
they are firm believers in the adage -- "Silence is golden."
Well, if you argue that accuracy in reporting on
religions is difficult since grasping the finer points of another's faith is all
but impossible, let us examine an issue far easier to comprehend: The geography
of India. After all, the only "tool" that you need to study and
understand the geography of India is an atlas.
Well, if an "experienced" journalist and a
supposed South Asia specialist at that, declared to you that the Chinese got
within 300 miles of Calcutta in 1962, what would you do?
1. Ask for his mailing address so that
you can send him a map of India?
2. Roll your eyes, cluck your tongue
and ask him, "Will you ever learn?"
3. Encourage him to explore employment
in other professions?
4. Nominate him for a prestigious
award recognising journalistic achievement?
It turns out that the correct answer is 4.!
Well, let us examine the following excerpt from a book
called War at the top of the world -- Clash
for mastery of Asia written by a so-called
"expert" on South Asia, a certain Eric Margolis. On page 214, we find
"South Asia's rivers flow down from the Tibetan
plateau. The headwaters of India's most important rivers and principal source of
the groundwater that nourishes the continent including the Ganges, Brahmaputra,
Indus, Chenab, Ravi, Yamuna, Gandak and the Saptakosi, to name a few, rise in
Tibet. China has gained a death-grip over India's main supply of water."
Well, when I consulted three different atlases, I found
that the headwaters of the Ganga and the Yamuna (Gangotri and the Yamunotri
respectively) were in the Himalayan region of Uttar Pradesh. As for the Chenab,
it originates in Himachal Pradesh, flows south and then north-west into Kashmir
before entering Pakistan. The Gandak originates in central Nepal and flows into
India. Since when have Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and central Nepal
amalgamated themselves into Tibet?
China gaining a death-grip over India's main supply of
water or no, Margolis should certainly work hard at getting out of the
death-grip of misinformation.
In a discussion on the Indo-China war on page 132, he
reveals to us that the Chinese captured Bomdila, which is 300 miles from
Calcutta. Consulting any map would make it very clear that any point 300 (as the
crow flies) from Bomdila would leave you somewhere in Assam which in turn is
hundreds of miles from Calcutta.
Given that the book is pregnant with factual errors
such as the ones discussed, it becomes necessary to ask if Margolis can see
straight, let alone think straight.
And how is the book released? To rave reviews.
How is the author of this tome rewarded? Well, he wins
the SAJA ( South Asian Journalists Association) Award for his writing on India.
Before I move on, let me highlight just one more nugget
that I culled from this remarkable text. On page 205 of the aforementioned book,
a discussion on nuclear technology enlightens us to the fact that Tritium is an
"element". Given his "discovery", shouldn't we write a joint
letter to the nomination committee for the chemistry Nobel Prize requesting that
Professor Funda-gol (oops, I meant Margolis) is to be rewarded for his
Of course, no discussion in this context is quite
complete without referring to the exalted empress of erroneous embellishments --
Madame Barbara Crossette. Never averse to
overlooking reality when it challenges her preconceived notions, she is the kind
of journalist who manages to be "on the spot" in Kashmir, Karnataka
and Kerala without getting facts correctly.
Her magnum opus on India, India
-- Facing the challenges of the twenty-first century
has more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese. A couple of the more obvious
flaws are given below:
Her paeans of praise to Inder Gujral's performance as
information minister before the Emergency -- his (alleged) ushering in of free
speech, upholding high quality of reporting and not succumbing to political
pressure -- overlook the fact that AIR came to be called "All Indira
Radio" during his tenure. Gujral's being proclaimed the beacon of free
speech is as pathetic as her allegations about India's "stealing"
foreign technology to build bombs. Crossette also tears to bits the Communist
Party of India (Marxist) -- which is Moscow supported. Would Comrade Jyoti Basu
be amused if accused of clutching Kremlin's skirts?
Most (if not all) American reporters working in India,
look up to Crossette as a role-model in view of her power and influence. She has
thereby facilitated a perpetual contest amongst American journalists working
in/on India for producing gibberish.
Welcome to American reporting on India -- a factory of
fiction where the dramatis personae are more convinced of their
expertise than anyone else.