Article: How not to write about India…or Africa

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I didn’t want to succumb to the tourist traps. I wasn’t interested in India-lite. I wanted the real thing…And Real India didn’t disappoint. It was clear that despite their plight, people are happy.

Civilian recently published an article, Colour and chaos in Mumbai | The good girl’s guide to India-aargh!, in which “Chubby Mummy” describes a trip that she took to India along with Chubby Hubby and little Barnaby.  

Chubby Mummy’s account was cliche-ridden to the point of being offensive: “As I gazed at the scene unfolding around me, I saw a child in rags tap at the window of a brand new imported Mercedes: a slumdog and a millionaire.” Unsurprisingly, the article provoked a fair amount of fury and disbelief.  

It turns out that those readers who couldn’t believe it and assumed it was a parody were right.  Or at least half right.

The article was written by Monisha Rajesh, journalist and author of Around India in 80 Trains.  Tired of seeing poor quality writing about India, Rajesh put together the Civilian article using extracts from other published pieces.  The effect was so toe-curling it was actually quite amusing. 

 In a follow-up piece published a few days later, Rajesh came clean and expressed amazement that so few people had spotted her article was a fake and seemed to accept that it was “just another rubbish piece about India.”  

Perhaps that is not so surprising given the use of published articles about India.  Chubby Mummy’s reliance on “colour and chaos” was only distinguishable from the mass of poor journalism about India by degree rather than substance.  As if to make the point, in the days following publication of the fake article, Rajesh tweeted links to two or three more articles which all used the same cliches.    

My colleague and I play a game called Travel-writer Bingo while we edit, deleting the “white-sand beaches”, “crystal-clear waters”, and all the other “hidden gems” “tucked away down alleyways”, that “don’t disappoint”. But when it comes to writing on India, these articles take on a whole new dimension. 

A similar observation about travel writing cliches has been made before, only about Africa rather than India.

In 2006, Granta published an article by Kenyan author, Binyavanga Wainaina, called How to Write about Africa.  Rather than a parody piece of travel writing it is an essay offering advice on how to write about Africa in stereotyped form.  

The African cliches Wainaina deploys as satire in that essay are as recognisable as those Rajesh highlights about India.  It is easy to be superior and to scoff but depressing to notice how frequently travel writers resort to them. 

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

Ironically, although Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay was published in Granta, it was in fact writing in Granta that prompted it.   The article began life as an email rant (“a piss-job, a venting of steam; it was never supposed to see the light of day”) responding to stereotyped writing about Africa in Granta which was “populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known.”   As Wainaina explains in How to Write About Africa II, Granta’s new editor Ian Jack responded to his email and an edited version was used in a subsequent Granta Africa issue.   

The essay grew a life off its own and became Granta’s most forwarded article.  There is even a Youtube video of actor, Djimon Hounsou (who appeared in Amistad, Gladiator and Blood Diamond) narrating Wainaina’s article:

As the New Yorker has observed, “to write about Africa without consulting this handy guide is to do yourself a disservice, and to potentially set yourself up for a good mocking.”  To that, one can now add that anyone writing about India ought similarly to consult Monisha Rajesh’s Colour and chaos in Mumbai | The good girl’s guide to India-aargh!.

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