Saturday, April 10, 2010

What is the one thing that would surprise your readers about living in Calcutta?

Good question, and a very timely one indeed.

When I first started writing for newspapers and magazines, I was addressing an audience that was familiar with my own way of life. When I started writing for Matador though (and that's my only international publication credit to date), I realised that I had the added responsibility of explaining certain things- to clarify and elaborate on things which would otherwise have been easily understood by the people who were (or are) reading.

However, what increasingly disturbed me was that there was a large body of literature that was pandering to stereotypes. This made it even more important for me to write and tell my own story.

These stereotypes have been instrumental in creating a certain notion of Calcutta in readers' minds. In travel writing, I often come across stories about how poor or how dirty Calcutta is. While there is no denying that there exists poverty and dirt in the city, I feel alarmed at the way it is sensationalised in order to cater to western sensibilities. The newest gimmick is to talk about how everyone in India is working for big multinationals and how that is a sign of India's developing economy. There have always been people working for multinationals. This isn't a new phenomenon.

I feel sad about the fact that writing about Calcutta has become so faddish that instead of sensitively portraying a city through one's empirical observations, one keeps reinstating stereotypes. Instead of trying to discover and understand the city, writers are quick to jump to conclusions about it.

Often, certain details are not cross-checked when an article is published. The New York Times published an article titled  A Walk in Calcutta. The author was clearly nostalgic and drawing from her own memories. However, the article which was passed off as "authentic", was peppered with errors - old names of roads and places that no longer exist were woven into the article. Later, The New York Times revised those errors when irate readers started writing in and voicing their dissent.

 Of late, I've been reading Paul Theroux's book A Dead Hand. The book is about Calcutta and while I must laud Theroux's deft use of language, I have never read a more ghastly and inauthentic representation of Calcutta. Many writers think of him as a role model. Readers often turn to his books as a single source of information on Calcutta. Theroux's exoticism of Calcutta is dangerous and inaccurate.

Thanks to the existing literature, some readers will find it hard to believe that there is anything apart from the    catchwords that have become fashionable ( poverty, dirt, booming economy are some such words).
**
This question was posed to me by Alyssa Martino after I'd interviewed her.

9 comments:

Minka said...

I'm glad that you brought up this particular issue.There are two aspects of the city which foreigners keep on harping on.On the one hand,as you rightly mentioned, there is poverty.Absurd as it may sound, foreigners coming to Calcutta with a missionary zeal seem to enjoy the "luxury" of experiencing poverty.It's not something that they find to that great an extent in their home countries.So poverty becomes an exotic experience for them and somewhere down the line, it makes them feel good about themselves.
The second thing which has become a signature feature of the city is it's old mansions,the ganga ghat and durga puja.There is something visually appealing about these places and rituals.But I must confess that whenever I've encountered these myself I seem to react to them, almost as if I were a foreigner in my own city.I click pictures which only seem to reemphasize those same exotic qualities.

Alyssa C. said...

Really interesting, Reeti. Thank you for answering this. I think Matador (specifically David Miller?) has done a really good job of warning people against romanticizing or stereotyping a place and its people. So important as travel writers. It's so amazing that we are able to have such open conversations about this!

Reeti said...

@Minka : You raise a very good point
about emphasizing the exotic qualities.

@ Alyssa : Absolutely. I think both David and Julie (the editors on Matador that I know the most) are extremely sensitive and aware of this tendency and do everything they can to fight these stereotypes.

David Miller said...

Reeti,

i really enjoyed reading this. thanks for posting, and Alyssa, thanks for prompting it with the question.


i love how you call out NYT and Paul Theroux. this is what it takes--for people with authentic voices and points of view to be willing, or more than that--to demand--the truth.

stereotypes and cliches, and even just cliched 'thinking' -- romanticizing place, appropriating someone's struggles or issues as your own because they interest you, reducing place and culture to symbols or single concepts and then portraying them only through those singular lenses--such as the 'poverty' of Calcutta or the 'pura vida' of Costa Rica --all of this obscures the truth which leads to negative consequences. it's anti-stoke.

it's so important for you to continue questioning everyone and everything you read no matter who the hell it is .. .NYT, someone claiming they have the 'best travel writing' [especially something like that], because the obfuscation of truth is something that most of our education, culture, and lives have been predicated on. it's always there-from the way we form language to how we think about travel and place. it's what 'cultivates' a 'community' of millions to 'discuss' and 'offer feedback and impressions' about the iPad today while the fact that it's the anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald doesn't 'get much traffic.'

no matter what the name is or the brand is or the person's fame or notoriety is, all of it passes away quickly except for the truth. that's what lasts. keep letting us know what's going on outside your window Reeti.

we need you.

julie said...

Reeti-

Thanks so much for this. I don't know whether it cheers or depresses to know that most of the world is given similar treatment by Western writers. Most of what I read about Cuba leaves me feeling similarly.

I feel like you and I began to have a conversation about this topic a few weeks back when we began discussing Arundhati Roy (and I haven't had a chance to reply yet). The extension of what you're talking about in this essay, I think, is a related phenomenon that may be even more problematic. The writers we're exposed to here in the States from abroad tend to be representative of a very certain class or group within their "home" countries. And that perspective is typically one that is very privileged, yet it is easily taken up by the academics and intellectual classes here in the States, often as "THE [insert nation/culture here] perspective."

I find the idea preposterous.

When someone tells me "The Cubans think" or "The Cubans feel," for instance, I am instantly suspicious. Cubans or Indians or whomever are no more or less inclined to have as diverse viewpoints on their country and the rest of the world as anyone else. And Americans, at least, wouldn't tolerate for one second the presumptive reductionism of someone else saying "The Americans think."

All of the foregoing notwithstanding, here's what I struggle with as an editor and why I (and Matador) are committed to people really only publishing stories about places they know deeply and closely through long-term experience): What are the methods available to us--Internet and all--to fact-check... or to even know *what* to fact-check.

You've raised so many important issues here.

Yaramaz said...

I really enjoyed reading this and I'm so glad you took the time to write about it. I have felt the same way about a lot of writing about Turkey (where i used to live), particularly Istanbul. Most travel articles I've read have focused on a romanticized and exoticized 'middle eastern' viewpoint, with black-veiled women and fezzes and whirling dervishes and such being the focal points, completely ignoring the diverse reality of modern urban Turkey (which is an amazing place). Even in Matador articles, which are usually spot on and aware of 'othering', I've found myself feeling really gritting my teeth at the simplistic, superficial descriptions.

(end of rant)

Anyway, again, I really enjoyed this. Keep it up. We need more of this.

lara dunston said...

Hi Reeti

Great thought-provoking post, thank you!!

I think one of the problems is that travel sections in the New York Times and so on, require specific word counts, 500 words, 750 words, 1000 words, etc, and it takes a lot more than that to represent the myriad sides and multiple perspectives of a complex city and society.

To most thinking independent travellers that complexity (warts and all) is exactly what makes places so inspiring, compelling and authentic, and makes them want to go there and discover them - and in turn, give something back to the place.

But in this age of short attention spans, I think editors think that clean, strong angles with attention-grabbing headlines is what draws readers in and engages them. They don't want to cloud a strong angle with the realities and nuances of a destination, so they like to keep things simple.

Although I've been on the road the last 4 years, my base has been the UAE since 1998, and no destination has been written about in such a simplistic and stereotypical way than Dubai, and increasingly Abu Dhabi. As a travel writer who, along with my husband, has written about the place more than any other writers, we've always chosen our words carefully and ensured we represent the many views, aspects and layers of the society.

Yet all we read about in the travel media is the black and white: stories generally only feature a few stereotypical characters: the wealthy Sheikhs, the poor construction workers, and the partying expats, and everybody either loves the place or hates it.

Nobody writes about all the other people: the middle class Emiratis who are not wealthy Sheikhs but are hardworking entrepreneurs and struggling artists, the foreign workers who are now able to send their kids back in Pakistan and India to university and start small businesses when they return to 'retire' and the expat families who lead a quiet, satisfying life based around the outdoors, travel and friendship, who don't get drunk Moet at nightclubs every weekend or get arrested for having sex on beaches.

Travel stories about real people leading an array of lifestyles in a complex society that they have a wide range of feelings about is simply too difficult to sell - which is why they always go for the easy way, which is much more unsatisfying to people like you, me, and your readers. But imagine if the New York Times and other publications did publish those kinds of stories? They probably wouldn't be in the trouble they're in now!

Lucy said...

You put this so well, Reeti. Thank you!

From what I can see the difficulty increases as your audience becomes more diverse. Some stereotypes are just wrong and perpetuating them is always harmful. But assuming the story is actually true, one person’s fresh take can be another’s tired old story. I’m from the UK, for example, and I heard 'pura vida' for the first time a couple of months ago. But it's been covered many times in the US.

When you're writing simultaneously for someone who's barely heard of your city as well as someone who reads about it regularly, how can you communicate context effectively?

Have you seen Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk about the danger of a single story? I think she talks really well about this issue too.

By the way, I heard about your scholarship. Congratulations!

Ifte said...

Thank you for the article. As an Explorer of the city, I often get requests where people want to see poverty and boy, do I tell them off.

Calcutta, is an amazing city, juts like any great city of the world and has to be given time to understand and appreciate.

Our tours through the city, touch upon neither too much of Mother Teresa nor too much of Victoria Memorial. The real city is all over and these are merely the most publicised of the same.

Explorer Ifte
www.calcuttawalks.com