Anyone who has visited India as a tourist is likely familiar with the word firang, the expression used to denote ‘foreigner.’ But, anyone who has lived in India long enough knows that it is really a catchphrase, and often a derogatory one, for anything that reeks of the West. Everything from Priyanka Chopra’s accent to using toilet paper instead of the godsend jet-spray can be deemed ‘firang’.
It doesn’t take much history to understand India’s volatile relationship with the outsider. A xenophobic hangover of colonialism is definitely a part of the explanation. But the reality over time has become more complex, for even dredging up old bygones eventually demands some degree of inventiveness.
Fortunately, our creativity abounds when it comes to self-victimisation and it leaves no one unscathed. The latest casualty is an R&B megastar who made the ill-fated mistake of questioning the status quo. Her seven words have not only spread faster than any pandemic, but her curiosity has also been branded as a conniving, subterfuge scheme to defame and destabilize our sovereignty.
Tempting as it may be to credit our administration for pulling off this political soap opera, decrying the foreign-hand is a trope that runs deep in our cultural psyche and a forte that long precedes the present regime.
My first job back in 2012 was as a parliamentary fellow in Delhi. The think tank running the program had grants lined up from foundations and social ventures, a positive sign, one would think since they were ultimately paying our salaries. But alas, their funders were based overseas, creating much hue and cry about how implanting foreign-funded research assistance in the office of legislators could unduly influence them to vote on issues that may not be in the public interest. At a time when a long-pending FDI was awaiting parliamentary debate, the underlying insinuation was clear.
But, the allegation that a fresh graduate like myself, the equivalent of a congressional intern, could wield the influence that even deep-pocketed lobbying associations take years to build, is downright absurd (albeit mildly flattering). Yet, it validates the lengths we can go to vilify the foreign hand. And, if anecdotal evidence seems insufficient, there is a familial line of Gandhis that have turned to the same motif when things weren’t quite at ease under their incumbencies.
But what’s perhaps more intriguing than our repeated, and rather puerile, attempts to profess (and spell) propaganda, is what lends these seemingly contrived tales the cultural weight they need to successfully propagate. The Social Dilemma would tell you that in our networked world, it is conspiracies that sell. And while that is true to an extent, there is something else at stake for a narrative so hackneyed, it unfailingly induces such mass-outrage: the innately Indian sense of honour.
Let me acquaint you with the age-old idiom called“log kya kahenge?”The question that literally begs: what will people say?
It is our favourite pretext for denying anything that could ‘taint’ your family’s reputation, or worse, have society ostracise them. Archaic as it may sound in an era where families are becoming nuclear and our livelihood doesn’t hinge on communal acceptance as it may have in a more primitive past, this precept lies deep in our collective subconscious. So strong is our fear of public opinion that it overshadows reason and suffocates logic, justifying silence in the face of some of our worst social atrocities. For the only shame worse than suffering is to expose vulnerability.
Sadly, when this syndrome echoes at the highest echelons of power, an insecure complex of “firang log kya kahenge,” even the most innocuous forms of inquiry, ignorant as the inquirer maybe, become grounds to take offence. And so long as it is our household honour under siege, it will warrant blind defence, diluting the pursuit of debate into unhinged tirades where uniformity masquerades as unity. But, the more we subscribe to such totalisms, fixated on the extraneous, the more we preclude introspection. Until we reach a point where we are so steeped in hubris and mired in self-made fallacies, that we cannot recognize the rot, or even fathom the possibility of talking about it.