Sunday, January 30, 2011

How To Write About India

This is a piece I wrote for IITM's cultural festival, Saarang.

I saw this essay by Binyavanga Wainaina. It was titled How to Write About Africa. I’m sure some such document exists about China as well and is very strictly enforced by their government. And you’ll understand when I say that I find it slightly demoralising to my patriotic spirit that no such instructions exist for India, the only country that can compete with the whole of Africa at exoticism, diversity and population. That, therefore, is exactly what I’m going to do today. Teach you how to write about India.

Start off with your plane landing. Interested people need to know that just like anywhere else in the world, planes land here too. Express wonder and compassion when you catch sight of the slums and the stray dogs loitering around the edges of the runways. Supress or completely ignore the emotion of fear when you find out that they cause the occasional plane crash. Omit reporting the long wait to get out of the airport.

The journey to your hotel is of paramount importance. The real India makes its grand entry as you step out of the airport and travel to your hotel. Assume that your readers have never read anything about India written in the past sixty years and start your book by telling them how the real India isn’t actually full of palaces and maharajas and tigers and elephants. Instead you can describe the thrill of seeing a cow right in the middle of the road. And another. And another. And another. Change the topic when you’ve counted three by being completely enchanted with the auto rickshaw, the noise of which you can’t hear inside your air-condition taxi. By now it has been a few pages since you mentioned the slums at the airport and another poverty reference is needed. You’ll find a beggar child at the crossing with deep brown eyes and messy hair very useful.

Insert colourful excerpts from your conversation with the waiter at the hotel about the Indian staple food of tandoori chicken and samosas not being available for breakfast. Add how helpful and hospitable the Indian people are only because the bell boy took all of 25 rupees for his tip. It’s a wasted compliment because most Indians are too busy watching cricket to read your book but that doesn’t matter. Try hard to describe cricket to the reader using baseball.

Don’t overdo the glorification of the maharaja you spotted on a royal white horse and his giant entourage behind him complete with drums and trumpets. He is only an ordinary groom going to his wedding and there’s a reason we dress him up like a king going to war. Oh! Another beggar child! This one is trying to sing as well. If you’re a celebrity author then you have two options. One - adopt this one and add him to your collection. Two – divert your attention to the other kid selling pirated copies of your book and have him arrested. If you’re not a celebrity author then shed a silent tear and move on. And mention in the book that you did so.

Rains are important events in the country. If it doesn’t rain during your stay here then just add something about people appearing out of thin air as soon as it starts raining and how they dance and celebrate and sing songs outside on the streets and rooftops irrespective of the time of the year. Inform the readers that in the real India malaria and dengue are under control and the revellers can do their revelling without a worry.

If you feel your story is becoming too bland then suddenly switch to a more dramatic one revolving around a slum-dwelling boy and his disturbed childhood, his criminal brother and him winning the grand prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Other possible plots can have an inter-caste love affair, an evil landlord grabbing all his ancestral property in Pakistan and the related death of his mother. A true masterpiece must begin or end or both on the Hindu festival of Diwali or Holi.

You’re almost at the end of your book now and apart from Bollywood, religion and those red stains you keep spotting on walls and roads you’ve covered pretty much all the important things. Save those for the next time you come to India. Remember to say “Namaste, I will return again.” to the airline staff as you board your plane back so that they can smile at you and you can have a happy ending.

I hope that helps. Dhanyavaad.


  1. Let alone the firaangs, even desis (like Shobha De) should be amused