Edited Excerpts from an Interview
You’ve taken a really wide expanse of history to weave this book together. How did you approach such an ambitious project?
It is rather wide, and I remember a lot of people saying it was mad and that I was trying to do too much. But I did everything bit-by-bit. I don’t research everything and then write; I write and research as I go along. That makes the whole project look more possible. Although halfway through the book, I do remember panicking. But I went ahead anyway.
The book gives a certain depth of perspective when narrating historical events. Do you think it helps to be the proverbial ‘outsider’ when it comes to assessing history objectively?
I don’t think I am even trying to assess it all objectively. I am more interested in knowing why people have odd historical views instead of finding the truth about things. So, rather than a pursuit of objectivity, I want to know why people think a certain way. It’s more about capturing their imaginative process, why they think or thought the way they did. And I think my interest is driven by being both an insider and an outsider. I’ve lived here for more than 11 years, and yet I will never be of this place as much as Delhiites are and I know that.
Interesting you say that, as Delhi is often seen as a city where mostly people from all other states come to settle for professional reasons or otherwise.
Absolutely, and it’s a strength of Delhi but I think it’s also about how I am received. No matter how long I live here I will always be seen as a foreigner. Frankly, I don’t mind that unlike other foreigners who might get terribly upset about it.
Literary efforts such as this book may run the risk of being tagged as a sort of colonial attempt at reconciliation. How far do you agree or disagree?
I hope I have tackled that issue headlong in the book; at least, I have tried to. My connection with this country is not born of colonialism at all. I feel little connection or sympathy with colonial rule. That said, I’m a white Brit living in India, and I will always be seen through that prism, which is something I have to accept.
How would you want yourself to be seen?
It’s up to the people really. I am interested in knowing how they see me, purely for intellectual reasons. But vis-à-vis my book, I want them to see me as an interested outsider who has become something of an insider and who can bring that experience to throw some light on issues that are important today. Like the issue of stereotypes, which runs as a recurring theme in the book. I was in Tanzania when all this fiasco around Khirki broke. And it was all shocking to me because of the way Africans were spoken of — as if they were all the same. If there were drug dealers and prostitutes among those Africans, then they all must be the same — that was the logic! And there I was in Tanzania trying to study how complex the demography there was, how different Tanzanian ethnic groups were from each other.
You would think people have moved beyond painting everyone with the same brush, but we’re proved wrong more often than not. Why do you think that is?
I think for some people it’s a way of dealing with the complicacies of the world. They want certainty, explanation. It gives them a basis on which everything else of their skewed logic can rest. But they are, almost marvellously in a way, pointing towards certain things other people have wrongly thought about Indians. And I hope my book gets these people to question their own unnecessary stereotyping.
You talk of how people would ask your opinion of India. At that point you used to say “something banal” because you just didn’t know enough, but now that you clearly do, how would you answer them?
I would give them my book! The point is you cannot know India any more than you can know Europe, the Americas or the world for that matter. The book actually helped me unlearn a lot of things more than anything else. So when people ask me what I think about India, I’ll ask them to dig deeper than that. Maybe a question on what Shahpur Jat is like, and I can tell them about the engaging history it has. I can talk about the influx of young artists in this area, the Bengali migrants, the Jats who have lived here for ages and a hundred different aspects about the place. And if you have such a complex answer for a neighbourhood, how can you expect a simplistic off-hand explanation about the whole of India? But yet people persist in asking that.
In the same chapter you mentioned how a group of people “made it clear that they did not want to hear negative views about their country from a foreigner”. Are people more receptive to your opinion and criticism now?
A bit. But I still think that people are a bit defensive and there is a lack of confidence in their own country. So when foreigners say rude things about India, a lot of people get upset. And when foreigners say nice things, they get incredibly excited; it sort of validates their belief. I don’t understand why a foreigner’s view is to be taken so seriously either way. For instance, I was amazed at how excited everybody was here about an Indian becoming the head of Microsoft. Yes, the individual was from India, but does that validate India? I don’t think so.
This aversion to foreign views came into prominence again with the Wendy Doniger controversy…
I think it is a wonderful book and it shouldn’t be pulped. It’s a provocative, controversial book, and good for that. But the idea that because it offends a few people it should be banned, is unfortunate.
So should Penguin have taken a stronger stance?
I am not going to criticise Penguin, they are publishing my book! But what I will say is that this book should be freely available in India.
In your book you say that your interview with Uma Bharti, some time before the Babri Masjid incident, was “the most ineffective and least interrogatory interview” of your broadcasting career. Why do you say so?
I was a very young journalist then. I suppose I expected to find a raging mad woman and she wasn’t! She was quite articulate. Often a foreigner’s experience in India depends on who he/she meets in the initial days. Having said that, I had been in India a while by then, and I should have been better prepared, and asked questions that were more searching. Also, I think I didn’t know at that stage how big a story it would become. Like a lot of journalists, I never really thought they would tear down the mosque. We thought there will be an endless court case and that it will carry on in that manner.
You have written about the letters European missionaries sent in the 18th century, “begging for money to support the new converts [to Christianity]”, and how the stereotypical image of a poverty-stricken India stemmed from those letters. How much has that image of India changed in the minds of today’s Europeans?
That image of India was important in the minds of some Europeans, particularly those interested in missionary work. But curiously, throughout the 19th century, Europeans, mostly British, also thought of India as incredibly rich. If you ask people my parents’ age who the richest person in the world was in their time, they would say the Nizam of Hyderabad. However, that image did get dented in the late 19th century when Britain took on the ‘responsibility’ of ruling India and realised there were famines to deal with and that it wasn’t going to be all rosy.
So that is when the whole image of a poverty-stricken nation really gained ground?
I think in the 20th century, you started getting more photographic imagery — very powerful — of poverty in India. The role of Mother Teresa, known across the world for her work, also increased in a way the identification of India with poverty. But it still is one of several views, never the dominant view. In fact, I still think that outside of Britain, the romantic view of India was probably more dominant. Say Germany, with no colonial connection to India, remained romantic in its perception. I have even spoken in the book about Fritz Lang’s movies, which showed the Maharajah in all the typical royal splendour. But then, someone like Louise Malle came in and greatly offended India, and I do talk about that one too.