Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Response to "A Dust Over India" by Mark Manson.

Before I begin my inconsequential rant, I want to address the very last thing that was written in the incoherent blog that is the subject of my rant today. The update at the end reads – “I want to thank all of the Indian readers who commented (yes, even the criticisms). I have promised to return to India one day and give it another chance, this time doing more research about the country and spending more time in the non-urban areas.”  My response: “Please don’t. India doesn’t need you to give it a second chance. It’s perfectly fine without personified orientalisms (such as you) pervading and polluting its existence. So, thanks but no thanks.” One last thing before I begin. I am not an India apologist like many of the responders on your blog. India is my mother land. I have spent a considerable part of my formative years in India and my still incomplete education began there. Like many people I know, India elicits in me extraordinarily complicated emotions. So, I am not even going to go there right now. This post is devoted solely to the travesty that is your blogpost:

Dear Mr. Mark Manson,

Your blog starts with the claim you have been to 40 different countries. I find it hard to believe that such a prolific traveler is surprised when he finds contradictions within a country which is teeming with millions. You ask yourself what the “immense history, the monuments, the spectacular sites of human ingenuity” are doing in India. I realize that if it could be helped the British (the former colonizers) would have uprooted all those silent witnesses to the incredible history of India (like they did with smaller artifacts), but since the technology didn’t exist back then, we will have to live with them being there. I know, it’s a bloody shame.

The first thing that you noticed was the trash. I am frequently told that the first thing people notice when they get off the plane is overwhelming smell (both good and bad). But I guess the trash and the smell (the bad kind) go well together. Yes, there is trash. And yes, there is the unforgiving inability to dispose of trash in a clean manner. It is a public health hazard and we all know it. It is embarrassing. It is dirty. But do you realize that the Dharavi slum (which you most likely walked past in Mumbai) is the recycling heart of India? The Dharavi slum recycling enterprise has hidden within itself 15,000 single room factories which employ around a 250,000 people and turns over a billion dollars every year. You can read more here: Did you notice that on those mounds of trash (everywhere) people were making their living by picking up plastic bags, bottles and other recyclables? You failed to recognize that in the process of giving off an unbelievable stench that organic waste is actually being degraded instead of being processed? Surely, Mr. Manson, you could have worked a little harder before starting your shortsighted rant?

You know the opening scene of Slumdog Millionaire when they show the young protagonist and his friends jumping into a pond of shit? (I think that’s what happened, but all I remember really is that there was a pond of shit, and there were boys in it). This blogpost of yours elicited that memory of mine a multiple times. Apparently there are people rolling around in shit, covered in shit, eating shit everywhere. I wonder what happened to make you so petrified of shit. But then who am I to judge, I can’t even throw out the garbage without throwing up a lung. I am also petrified of shit. The idea of having a baby (even though I love babies) and having to re-grow a lung every time I clean a diaper itself makes me want to throw up a lung. And yet, the “shit is everywhere” concept is eluding my memory. Perhaps it’s the fact that I am 33, and my memory isn’t what it used to be. While Slumdog Millionaire was rife with orientalisms I can not think of a better example of modern orientalism than the one you have provided me with on this beautiful day. I say “modern” because there still exists James Mill’s work on India.

You say, “the city is so crowded and disgusting that people decide they’d rather sleep on the airport runway.” Yeah. That is true. The city is crowded. This is the nature of the Indian metropolis – and it’s even more true for Mumbai. Cities are crowded, because as rural farmers struggle with producing what they need to be in order to just feed their families, they seek out a better life in the cities. When they come to the cities, they can’t find work and so they need to find a place to rest at the end of a long day. And, one of those places is the airport tarmac. It may be ridiculous to you, Mr. Manson but this is the nature of the rational man. When given no options he will pick the one that is the least objectionable. I can assure you that no Indian who is sleeping on the tarmac finds the city disgusting. If he did, he would go back to the place that he left in search of a brighter life. And one other thing, no one “decides” to sleep in anything but a bed.

“How could a place like this be allowed to exist?” – The same way a place where a teenager goes to the store to buy a drink gets shot and killed because he was a wearing hoodie is allowed to exist Mr. Manson. The same way Guanatanamo Bay, a prison where men are robbed of their human rights by one of the most “developed” nations on earth is allowed to exist. For such a well travelled man you have an unbearable poor sense of how things come to be. How can you be so na├»ve? India is one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. That’s how this is allowed to exist. That is why you saw no government. When people have no greater sense of need than to fill their own stomach, they don’t have time to worry about anything else. That is why there is no social accountability. When the rich make their living off of the poor and decrepit, they don’t care about fixing the social ills (just like in America). That is why there is no social change. If you are truly interested, I could send you a list of books that can explain to you why this country exists. But I’ll move on for now.

Your rant about saving India is possibly the worst example of white guilt that I have ever come across. The fact that you group Mother Teresa, and Bill Gates into that same saviour category is telling. It shows that you are absolutely clueless. You see, Mother Teresa dealt with the problem after it came to be. She picked up the poor and destitute and cared for them. She took their orphaned children and found them caring, loving homes. She however, NEVER sought to find the root and nip it in the bud. She didn’t teach people how to not have children which they couldn’t afford, in fact she went around the country undoing what government sex education campaigns were trying to do- educate people about the problem of population. Bill Gates on the other hand doesn’t simply hand out money to people who have malaria or polio. His foundation works on eradicating the problem of Malaria/Polio itself, by curbing mosquito populations and by increasing awareness of vaccinations. Bill Gates understands that the solution to all social ills in countries like Africa and India is in one word: education. You, on the other hand went to the most obvious solution: handing out money. And you didn’t really do that simply because you wanted to help, you also wanted to feel like you are helping. You know how I came to this conclusion? Because when you bought that couple food at what I would assume was a roadside dhaba, you felt the need to go put the plate down in front of them yourself. If you really are as well traveled as you say you are, then you should have known to buy them the plate and ask the storekeeper/waiter to take the food out to them and not give it to them yourself. But, if you did that you wouldn’t be able to look down at them while they ate what might have been their first full meal in months.

And, I just have to say this. NO ONE GOES TO AGRA TO EXPERIENCE THE COUNTRYSIDE. It’s one of the most famous tourist spots in the world. Why would you think it would be peaceful?! *shakes fist in air*. And, one other thing, - yeah, when many Indians see non-brown skin they find it fascinating. There is also the unhealthy obsession with fairness but again that’s another issue. And yeah, they might want to take pictures with you. It’s just like a white person wanting to take a picture with an African tribe. I’m sure you’ve taken pictures of what was unfamiliar to you in India – the shit everywhere, the trash, the poor people, the dirt. It’s the same thing.

You don’t see the difference between a Pizza Hut in India and one that’s in the west? Really? Western chains aren’t fast food to Indians. They are a luxury. Fast food for Indians exists at every corner on the street. For a few rupees (pennies to you) Indians can buy cheap, awesome, fast food everywhere in the country. That’s why the manager came to ask you what you thought of the food. And, maybe because he wanted a white person to say that the Pizza Hut in India was as good (or even better, which I think it is) compared to the one that you are used to. Could you be a more self-entitled prick?

“Indian culture itself is quite disorienting. The people can be incredibly warm and hospitable, or cold and rude depending on the context and how they know you.” – Wait, do you not understand what the word “culture” means? Indian culture (in the true sense of the word ie language, dress, song, dance, food) is disorienting. And, that’s because India is a sub-continent. It has geographic, linguistic, cultural diversity like no other. It has close to 30 states (and often comes up with new ones, which is why it’s hard to keep track) and several territories. And, that is exactly why no two groups of people (just like any other country) are the same. So, yeah some people will be heart achingly nice to you and others will be complete assholes. It’s true in any other country. Which is why even “academic” rudeness/politeness indices don’t measure countries, they measure cities – because the social realities of a community have a much bigger bearing on its citizens. That is why if you go to a village in India, where people are generally happier with what little they have, and have learnt to find happiness in the simple pleasures of life – you will find that people will open their homes to you and will expect nothing in return. The same goes for places like Palestine, Bangladesh and rural America. I have the same kind of answer to your “eye-opening” conversation with “westernized” Sanjay. Indians aren’t capable of violence? Ummmm okay if he says so. I guess all the communal riots, targeted violence, and the rape stories are made up then. But, I digress.

As a side note – I like how you snuck the ending to your rug story in. Even though you tried (a little) it doesn’t redeem your judgmental, prickly orientalism. I do appreciate your standing up to the cab driver though. That was a good one. It is a matter of principle. However you should know that most large cities have made it illegal for a cab driver to not run his meter. So, you should have asked him to turn on the meter as soon as you noticed that he didn’t. It seems to me that you were looking for a fight. For all you know it might have been an honest mistake. And you should have signed his receipt. There are very strict rules that cab drivers have to follow, and there are dire consequences (such as losing his cab license or his job as a taxi driver) which can take away his only means of making a living.

On your Buddhism story, I only have to say this: commercialization of religion exists everywhere, in every religion. Truly spiritual people learn how to pick out the good from what taints religion. I think you need to practice more of your meditation skills.

I’m also surprised at your angst about the illegal wares being sold on the street. For such a well traveled person I am sure you must have come across illegal DVDs, fake brand name purses on the street in Singapore, New York and other such “civilized” places. Why is India any different?

I get it. India drives us (former Indians, ex pats) crazy as well. I am also one of those people who just can’t deal with the poverty. I’ve written about it before in myblog – that I feel like I’m sheathed by my sticky affluence. A rickshaw-wallah missed a train just so that he could take me home safely at 12 am when I was in India the last time. I gave him a 100 rupee note instead of the 20 that he had asked for. His smile was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Even now after countless tellings of this story, and while I write this, that smile makes me cry. It haunts me. You see, that smile doesn’t exist anywhere else. Nothing elicits more emotion in me than that smile. And, yet, if I had the choice I would choose not to experience it, because behind that smile lies a painful truth. That is the paradox. And no matter how cruel his story, there is still beauty in that smile. There is still beauty in India. It’s that beauty that makes us scrape and save for a few years just so we can go to India for 2 weeks and live again. That beauty lies in the trash, the smells, the awesome street food, the laughter of beggar children playing street football (you see that’s why that kid was asking for a soccer ball and not money). Happiness is fleeting and still beautiful in India. I am truly sorry you didn't get to experience it. 


  1. Dear Rini,

    I came across this blog post of yours on FB at the Bangla Adda forum. Very well written and succinctly put. I can understand your anger easily. Did you by any chance get to see Mr Mark Manson's introduction about himself on his webpage. Here it is, in case you haven't:

    "My name is Mark Manson, bestselling author, blogger, digital nomad, and former dating coach. I write about psychology of modern life and culture. I also sometimes give unconventional life advice. Some people say I’m an idiot. Other people say I saved their lives."

    After reading *that*, my own anger just dissolved into silent spasms of laughter. Hope this helps to put things in perspective for you, as it did for me.


    1. Thank you. I did see his webpage in more detail after I wrote and posted my piece. I also didn't realize that his piece was written almost 2 years ago. Better late than never I suppose.
      I also noticed all the "article" he wrote about everything and had to physically stop myself from reading. My blog would then probably become an anti-Mark Manson venture. :D

  2. Hi Rini,

    Very well-researched article. Mark Manson's post made me want to go strangle somebody. While on a superficial level, his observations are not wrong, the judgmental, superior tone he takes completely ruined his credibility as a serious commentator. This man was outraged because he was objectified by tourists in Agra, but he does it himself when he talks about children covered in shit and fat indians flaunting blackberries. It's ok when a white guy does it, I suppose.
    Manson made me feel subhuman. Thanks for rallying.

  3. :) Thank you Amritorupa, I appreciate that you took the time to comment. I get sort of a blinding rage when I see orientalism in action.

  4. Rini - Here are my 2 cents for Mark

    Dear Mark – Your review of India is absolutely correct from a tourist perspective. You have successfully nailed down the negatives of India. However, to experience the positive side of India, a “tourist” visit is not enough.

    Westerners/tourists generally visit one or two states and starts summarizing their visit as “INDIA EXPERIENCE”. Each Indian state is like “mini country” with its own distinct culture, traditions [thousands of years of civilization…Evolution]. You will have to visit each state and experience the life to give holistic review of INDIA and in some cases it’s even deeper than state level. Right now your experience is as if an Indian visited ITALY for few weeks and summarizes it as EUROPEON UNION experience [German, UK, France].

    Now about your experience:
    All of what you saw as unacceptable (dirt, filth, beggars and list goes on) can be summed up in one word “POVERTY” and lack of resources.

    It is amazing how a country which was referred to as “Golden Sparrow” 200 years back by foreigners is now being referred to as “S**t Hole” .
    And irony of the situation is that if you look at the scriptures dated 200 years or old, you will notice Middle Eastern and Europeans were referred to as Mleccha [Sanskrit word – for uncivilized and barbaric], same way as you are referring to Indians as filthy and dirty in your post.

    Not sure you care but I must elaborate, how did India get to this point?

    First reason -Mughal invasions for centuries resulted in slaughtering of men, raping women and forcible conversion to Islam. Looting of wealth and destruction of intellectual property (Vedas)

    Second reason that finally broke camel’s back was British invasion – who initially came as “Spice Traders” and eventually slaughtered Indians like animals and robbed them of their wealth.
    East India Company sucked all of the wealth from India and transferred it to England and in process created a shit hole full of manmade FAMINES, Poverty, dirt and filth that you saw and wrote about in your blog. These guys even took the swords of the princes to display it in their museum. Kohinoor Diamond on Queen’s crown is an example of the loot. Even in 2014 British royalty proudly wears their looted Indian possessions [Princess Katherine wearing necklace that she received as gift from Queen and Queen in turn received it as a gift (read “Robbed”) from Indian Prince].
    So in nutshell vacuum of wealth that Britishers created is what “tourist experience” in today’s India.

    Third and most important reason – INDIANS
    Until and unless INDIANS, learn from past mistakes and turn their “peaceful” image (read it as timid, weak, non aggressive, inferiority complex from thousands of years slavery, turning to God for everything) into a “non peaceful” image (read it as Pride of their heritage,Confident, unified society, Aggressive, fierce foe, unforgivable enemy), there are going to be many more “Filth filled experiences”

  5. Dear Rini,
    The article is very well written. But I would like to add a dimension here. Instead of vehemently defending India's pride, I would have appreciated if the article was more critical as well as more open minded.
    I agree that the Mark's article may seem egregious and maligning, but in fact it's not. It's just a critical commentary on his journey to India. He writes in about his observations, and makes conclusions in a limited sense. And in that limited sense, as bad it may hurt our jingoistic sentiments, he is right.
    I'm an Indian living in India, and Mark's observations neither come as a shock to me, nor does it offend me. When coming back from Singapore and the flight landed at the International Terminal Mumbai, the very first thing I noticed was the slums lining the airport runway. That was something that shocked and offended me. It's hard to form a great opinion on a country when the first thing you see when you land in it's biggest city is the biggest heap of filth you've ever seen lining one of the best airports of the world. Your point on Dharavi doing the recycling thing is good, but it doesn't have to be next to the international airport. How would you like if we had the biggest slaughterhouse, that kills mad dogs and other rodents, and the government built it right in front of your house. Mind you, it's the best such facility in the world, but would you like to see it as the first thing you see when you get up everyday? Planning and positioning makes a big difference here.
    Indeed, as Mark notes, it is a country of contradictions. His article is full of many other well formed and explained examples, the truth of which cannot be denied. His occasional rants may demeaning, but I won't censure him for it. The first step to correcting something wrong is admitting that it's wrong. He writes an article where he talks about the problems in his own country. He admits it's not perfect and he's not perfect. Fake pride will get us nowhere. Talking about the past, India being the golden bird and the heart of all the world's knowledge, does not compensate for the fact the in the present day, it is not anywhere near close to it. If we want to restore it's glory, we have to admit what we have is wrong, and simply work on it. As far as Mark goes, he's just another white guy from the fantasyland of the US of A, writing about what he saw and how he felt about it.

    1. So frickin true. Wish more people were as open minded as you instead of just bashing Mark Manson who is merely expressing his honest view on the country. We need to accept what is wrong and try to change it instead of denying that there is nothing wrong with our country. True patriotism isn't just defending and speaking of the greatness of the country. It comes from accepting what's wrong and trying to improve it.

  6. Such poor grammar and general writing skills - I had to stop after a few paragraphs. The original blog being criticized here was written so well.

  7. I have many dealings with many indians in business. I've hired about 10 indians - some online and some offline. Every single time they will find a way to scam you out of something. Each time I would give them the benefit of the doubt - but there will be some creative way to squeeze an extra $10 out of you. Or agree to a project then have hidden fees or say "yes we can do that" and end up not being able to. I've had nothing but poor experiences with indians despite being trusting every time. Why any western person would want to go and visit a country where the people (that I've experienced) are like that... Is beyond me. I'll stick to Marks analysis and not visit. And try to never do business with an Indian ever again.