Thursday, December 28, 2006

How to write about India?

Or how to be successful/popular/sought after as a journalist/writer/author especially abroad. Here are the rule(s) of thumb when writing about India for a Western audience...

Heres how you go about it.

Your piece has to start well. Therefore you first create, with good vocabulary, a nice paragraph on the social inequities in India. Keywords to be used are caste, poverty, illiteracy. Statistics like 80% of India lives on farms or 50% of India is illiterate or 70% of India does not use soap can be very handy. Other than percentages, use population figures. 4,32, 1235 houses do not have more than 12 volts of electricity for 3 days of the week would make a great sentence. Include a few names like Vidharba, Madurai if you want greater impact other than the usual outskirts of Bangalore or Hyderabad or slums of Mumbai. If you want to become particularly rabid at this juncture mention child marriage. A comparison with Pakistan and Bangladesh at this juncture would make great reading especially from a literacy rates standpoint or the great strides those two nations have made. If you have to mention China, mention that they are simply a great nation or that they will overtake India in the next 3 minutes. Never, not even once, create an impression that overall India is moving in the right direction.

The second paragraph should be about India's growth in the last few years. Don't forget to add a sentence in the end of this para to denounce the growth. Keep this para as short as possible. Keywords are myth, haves vs have nots, elitist bias. So, a sentence in this paragraph should read, even though India's IT and BPO sector has grown, farmers commit suicides. Do not, repeat, do not make a connection that reforms have never really happened in the farm sector and that it is because reforms have not reached them that this happens. Insist, by repeated assertion, that it is IT and its success at the expense of the farm sector that causes this to happen.

In the third para or thereabouts, compare to death. Example: Compare the life of an educated professional with a gardener and say that the gardener earns about 1/10th of what the professional earns. The other good comparison is the number of hutments outside the balcony of your hotel room or the number of beggars in trains. Wonder aloud why reforms have not reached beggars travelling on trains. In the same trend close your eyes to the number of people cellphones have reached, also close your eyes to how individuals are pulling themselves out of poverty using these very things.

Over the next few paras, whine and whine. Now that you already know how to write, just continue in the same vein. For every one sentence of India's growth, three sentences have to denounce it in the strongest terms. Mention two murders which took place recently in fairly graphic detail.

Somewhere just before the end, mention that India's progress has not benefited anybody. Do not talk about people who have gotten out of poverty thanks to this progress. Try to ignore gardeners who maintain lawns in the IT campuses, also ignore cab drivers who are cab owners today. Preferably avoid talking to maids and security guards who would not have had a job if it were not for this level of growth. Try not to talk to people who are working hard so that their children are educated and their next generation gets out of poverty. Also, if you have to mention that the BPO sector attracts fresh graduates, mention that these jobs are bad for their gall bladder at the very least. Ignore the fact that for many graduates, a BPO job is a godsend without which they would be working for peanuts at best or standing at the end of a long line at the employment exchange. Ignore the fact that for many of them, the job is a stepping stone to many other things. Ignore the fact that BPOs treat them with dignity and pay them well. Ignore the fact that jobs are available for the asking in India at almost all levels. Cooks to caterers to security guards to courier boys to shop assistants to technology architects to structural engineers. Also never once, ask the question to the man on the street - has their life changed for the better over the last 10 years. (Believe me, the answer, except in some very dark corners or leftists, will be a resounding yes.)

Your last paragraph has to sound a warning to all those who read your article. Mention about how people and companies and the government has to take more responsibility for poverty and paint it with a broad brush of "private public partnership to make a significant impact".

And oh, the title of your article should be sufficiently apocalyptic. "Social inequality threatening India's Economic Stability" would make a great example.

BTW, India really is about contrasts. While not getting carried away by the growth and saying all is well here, let us also not go to the other extreme of saying that the reforms have done nothing and that all is wrong here. Neither will reforms take away inequity all of a sudden nor will inequity take away reforms. Both these arguments miss the wood for the trees (or whatever).


Anand said...

Neelakantan: The link is a little dodgy. It has a in front of it.

amit varma said...

Neelakantan, excellent post!

sanjay said...

Well done. Hard hitting, insightful and most important, accurate. One could keep building on this as there is no dearth of new material, although mostly old wine in a new bottle.

Maybe we can come up with a "Write about India for Dummies" bestseller.

Abhi said...

Thanks for writing such a wonderful piece.

I clicked on few ads for you.

Anonymous said...

nice article.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece of writing.

Funny but not facetious. So true.


Neelakantan said...

Thanks for the appreciation guys! But me thinks, my career as a journalist/writer for any foreign publication is doomed!

veekay said...

really nice post. I can't agree with you any less!!

The Rational Fool said...

When you get good at this, don't forget that you'll also be sought after by The Hindu, The Frontline, The Times of India, The EPW... well, practically the entire Indian MSM, and not to forget, the PMO to be a ghost writer!

Anonymous said...

Immmmmmmmmmm.....what is so insightful in this write up other than the sarcasm you spewed all over about writers. Perhaps, your disguised intention about all the writing on India is a crap?. I don't see your intention is served either by looking at the comments?. Your hedonic ideas were not even sensed by any of your loyal readers.

If you want to make sense out of India, it is better to accept first our problems. It is a good start to reform India by accepting the filthy social structure of caste. Just like for the first time in the history our Prime Minister cadidly accepted the caste system is like apartheid.

You have to accept the nature of India before making any change, because we denied even the basic human rights to certain sections of the society now everyone has to pay for it. The social inequality, barbaric idol worshiping cultures bought us an ancient social culture, and we live in the nomadic and ancient culture with castes and those stupidity.
How can any writing of India go to the next step without justifying the hindu varna culture, one has to write about it, if there is anything else to write, it will follow then.

there is saying in Tamil, the cat that is beeing pushed and pushed to catch a mouse will never be a good mouse hunter? So, your sarcasm though was not understood by the readers, but they thought this is some kind of an article with good tips to write a blog, just like the cat example?.
Perhaps, the rational fool is the only one grasped just what you have scribbled in this blog article or it sounds so?

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

And you forget to mention: always express daily earnings in Dollars or pounds: something like "he earns less than 4 dollars a day" when referring to someone's wages: you should give the reader what they can but with that salary in India, shouldn't you?

RJ said...

Nice one Neelakantan!

Nitin said...


He's responding to market forces. Imagine what would have happened to Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra and Praful Bidwai if they had not heeded your advice.

You should start a school to train budding authors. For those writing for tabloids and glossy women's/teenagers magazines, you could add in the one about training your own elephant, sleeping with the priest or introducing bras to the Indian woman.

Pssst, Anonymous. The worst way to respond to sarcasm is with seriousness.

RJ said...

BTW , was just reading the (in)famous cyber coolie aricee of Bidwai

and yep it follows the same format.

Ajit said...

Nicely written satire, Neelakantan.

Arcopol Chaudhuri said...

I think I'm gonna apply now as a writer about India to the foreign media. I just need a degree or an internship with Newsweek and it should be cool, right?!

I think I'll go for it! Thanks to your post. :-P

Mosilager said...

That's hilarious! This is the formula mostly followed by writers who try to explain India to the west. There should be something thrown in about a sham democracy (One exception is Francois Gautier).

Anonymous said...

Hey anonymous, dude you are the one who have got it wrong. First read the fucking post carefully and god! don't trans-literate tamil sayings in to english.
Guess what! The Hindu Varna culture just got authorised by the Govt. of India some 50 years ago but with a slight difference small percentage of the people who say they belong to the oppressed class will get govt. dole and special funds from the tax payers money. the others of the oppressed class who could not get decent education due to the fucking govt. regulations will remain the same.
Stop blaming caste! start blaming your govt. for not giving decent education to the oppressed!

Anonymous said...

sorry sweetheart, whatever they write about us are true

anyways funny article

Santhosh said...

When you let them go hoo-haa about the good stuff (The NYT runs a story almost every week on the 'GOOD' part of India's economic boom), you have let them talk about the relatively bad stuff too. Trust me, in development circles, India is not even a story anymore. They think we have made it (which is far from true), while we are busy building Formula One tracks with agricultural land -- now that a story...isnt?

niti bhan said...

Arcopol: You don't even need a degree nor an internship to become a writer for foreign newsmedia on India. Just find a niche that no one else is blogging about and write away... seriously!

InterestedReader said...

Idol worshipping barbaric culture? Seriously, what's the problm with people of certain persuasions who can't respect others' rituals and practises. As if eating cows and things that move is very civilized.

sun-thOSh said...

Absolutely hilarious and true. I should agree, most of the NYT/India articles are disappointing, if not all.

Sandeep said...

A picture of roads with chaotic traffic would be perfect. If you wanna go a step further, mention the Indian Interstates, but don't forget to show a picture where farmers and cows are crossing the road.

Great article btw!

~SuCh~ said...

Think I m a little late...

Good satire..

But couldnt help differing on this one:
"ask the question to the man on the street - .... will be a resounding yes.)"
I would ask this question too. "Is he happier than he was 10 years back?" His needs and desires seem to have grown, and his heart burns more when he sees wealth being flaunted. He feels its easier to grab now than to wait for fruits of labour to be borne generations later. He feels a righteous anger and a skewed sense of injustice. The recent unrest over trivial issues in Bangalore (read 'rise of antisocial elements') is something worth looking into.. Its not all black, but then again, neither is it all rosy.

Kailash said...

"Is the average bloke happier than he was 10 years back?" That is a question which will throw up as many answers as the number of people. But we need a voice wherein we can speak about news stories that affect us (common citizens). I was looking for citizen journalism sites and came across an interesting one where ordinary users can discuss issues affecting them.. Check it out... let me know if you find anything interesting..

Poungodai said...

For a long time I have wondered why don't we see some positive article on India in the western media and today when i read your blog it became clear.

Very well written.

Kedar said...

Nice one. Very insightful as several others mentioned.

By judging India harshly the outsiders kind of get aura of knowledge, or at least they think so. By being cynical the insiders get an excuse for not doing anything. Win-Win, isn't it?

Unfortunately most of the time the people who counter argue are those who believe India has no problems and is an inch away from being a superpower. So their arguments do more harm than cure.

That's why it is very refreshing to read a post like this.

The Layman said...

Neelakantan - that was a wonderful post and a very timely one. So many of these bloggers write just to satiate their pessimistic existences. Not once do they care to research or do a study before making sweeping generalizations and groundless accusations.

Thank you for writing this. In many ways it's inspiring to ordinary people like us.
Loved your last paragraph

"India really is about contrasts. While not getting carried away by the growth and saying all is well here, let us also not go to the other extreme of saying that the reforms have done nothing and that all is wrong here. Neither will reforms take away inequity all of a sudden nor will inequity take away reforms. Both these arguments miss the wood for the trees (or whatever)."

workhard said...

Thanks for the enlightment, liked reading it, kinda woke me up:)

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Nancy said...

I am a Canadian writer now writing a book set in India. I fear, after reading your post that I am doomed. I do not write about poverty, caste, or illiteracy in the first paragraph. I use very few statistics. I have yet to mention child marriage. I do talk to a maid, a driver and a gardener, as well as a photojournalist and a chef. Sadly, I must delete my entire two year's work and start over. But, the good news is, if I do all that you say, I should have a best seller. Satirically Yours, Nancy