Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey
Dearest esteemed Oprah-ji
I’m writing an open letter to you because it’s the most pretentious, ridiculously self-righteous and attention-seeking thing I can do on the Internet which at its core is itself a medium for pretentiousness and attention-seeking behavior. I’m being pretentious, self-righteous and an attention-seeker because like most reasonable Indians, I demand that being a rich, powerful and successful person, you should acknowledge every facet of our existence in pleasing and flattering ways. We are *entitled* to your validation. Hence, vapid, careless remarks from you about our great nation and its culture are very hurtful.
Let’s talk about your show. You came to India and clearly, a lot of us didn’t like what you had to say. For starters, your show wasn’t representative enough. You spoke to very poor people, reasonably poor people, normal men and women, kids, extremely rich people, celebrities and royalty. But you left out
– religious leaders
– vegetable vendors
– primary school teachers
– secondary school teachers
– 26 year old software engineers educated at IIT with a predilection for crisp white bush-shirts and whose preferred method of conveyance to and from office is autorickshaw but only if its license plate contains the letter “K”
I could go on, but I hope you understand how your show wasn’t representative of India’s vast cultural and demographic diversity!
Next, let’s discuss your tour. You visited slums. At this point, let’s take a moment to acknowledge 1.2 billion eye rolls. Now allow the Indians in America to roll their eyes more vigorously, exhausted as we are by the constant curiosity around that deplorable exploitation flick packaged as a tale of hope – Slumdog Millionaire. I wanted to drown Danny Boyle in that pit of shit he so lovingly prepared for western audiences because the tropes were ridiculous. And you know what? He ruined it for you. Because if foreigners so much as LOOK in the direction of a slum (and we’ve deliberately made that unavoidable! haha!), they will be instantly judged as gullible seekers of poverty porn. And you’re GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY!
Oh how you enjoyed packaging the misery of the slums for the world to see. Ooh how that makes our proud patriotic blood boil. And we’re CERTAINLY not angry because you keep reminding us of conditions we’ve so carefully blocked out.
You visited a rich person’s and a poor person’s house. We KNOW you were highlighting the unavoidable reality of income disparity but definitely not the positive that families in India find a way to adapt and find some modicum of peace and stability no matter what the size of their dwelling. NO! You were presenting us in a bad light!
And then the cardinal sin. You visited the Taj Mahal! Jesus Christ, be original will ya?! What do you mean you’ve never seen it before? It’s merely a spectacularly beautiful wonder of the world with a fascinating history but we’re just so tired of foreigners telling us that! We’d rather you do something exciting like get yourself crushed to death in a jubilant, sweaty mob celebrating the Ganpati festival in Mumbai. Be original for god’s sake!
Adding to your violations, you neglected to show
– 1 BHK
– 2 BHK with veranda
– 2 BHK with illegal construction facilitated with a few bribes
– 3 BHK in Pimpri-Chinchwad, Pune
I hope you understand my point. Your locations were badly researched and not representative of our unbelievably mind-boggling diversity. And the word is diversity Ms Winfrey, not disparity.
Third, I’d like to fault your fact-finding and knowledge-sharing. You thought you could just traipse into India, collect a roomful of women representing different facets of Indian homemaking tradition and just LEARN something? Honestly, you did come across as a tad judgmental at times, especially when you heard about joint families. Personally, I think your own values and beliefs probably revolted against such a concept and you were honest enough to say that. But others didn’t think so. We did not think you’re entitled to your wonder as a woman who lives in a fairly progressive society where women are far more independent. Poor show, Ms Winfrey, to talk about the issues women face in India and how they manage their homes, careers and families despite those issues.
And what about your conversation with the family in the slum? We don’t care that you’re an astute businesswoman with an audience and advertisers who PAY for the show and that you will take some liberty in wringing the most out of a situation emotionally to cater to those folks. We absolutely do NOT care for the way you took your intrusive cameras into the home of a family of modest means, but cleverly juxtaposed it with the precocity, erudition and confidence of their eldest daughter who guided the discussion, consoled her distraight and helpless father and mentioned matter of factly that she’d like to pursue higher education. We’d like to insinuate that all you did was make a child more aware of her means, while we completely ignore the fact that the girl studies in an english medium school of repute with other kids, many whom will be much more well off. (It’s these minor details and basic logic we find infuriating to acknowledge).
Then your unforgivable gaffe about Indians eating with their hands. You of Oprah’s Book Club, holistic advice and Dr. Phil fame! YOU! Tch tch. This wasn’t expected. We are so upset, we wrote a long, scathing takedown with only your unfortunate and ignorant comment about our hands as its basic premise. So there.
And what’s with the celebrities? Do you think you’re special? You think you’re so focused, talented, confident and business-savvy that you’ve created a self-sustaining empire of syndicated shows, books and magazines which has propelled you from penury to a personal net worth of almost 3 billion dollars making you the only African-American billionaire? And you think that somehow, this achievement entitles you to be fawned over by our royalty? No no no Ms Winfrey! Please step aside so we can resume our prostrate positions outside Amitabh Bachchan’s house and lick the specks of dirt idly flicked by his Bentley’s left rear tyre as it ferries him to another sponsorship shoot or socialite do. Please understand that we can’t stand the people we fawn over fawning over someone else who has earned that right.
I think this honest and candid appraisal of your experience in India should open your eyes to how tired Indians are of being typecast. We know we have issues but we’d rather you not showcase them in any form to western audiences. That’s because we lack the self-assurance to openly acknowledge our flaws and bristle at the first sign an outsider might try to do so.
I’m happy to discuss this in more detail with you. If you’d like to drop by and have a chat, please feel free to do so. You’re most likely to find me boarding a tour for the Statue of Liberty, snapping myself in front of the Bean in Chicago, getting drenched at the Niagara Falls with a parka over my head, standing strategically in front of the Golden Gate bridge, aimlessly wandering Times Square with my mouth agape or not tipping the waiters at American restaurants because they “included the service charge”….and not getting judged for any of it.