Peacocks - symbol of the Rajasthani aristocracy

Politics and society

Part of being in a foreign country is soaking up the general atmosphere and one of the ways I did this was to read the newspapers. It seemed that every day a newspaper would be delivered to our hotel room and every day I read just about all of it. As we all know from experience, what it says in the papers is one thing, what really goes on is a another, but the content and style of the newspapers in India and the opinions they present are still specific to that country, and therefore interesting to me in their own right, no matter how 'factual' they are. Here are the main things that stuck in my mind.

Of the two main stories going on while we were in India, one made the International news and one probably did not. Firstly, our trip came during a time of greater than usual tension between India and Pakistan. Kashmir was quite definitely a no-go area for tourists and every day seemed to bring news of fighting and deaths. However, the thing that really seized ours and everyone else in India's interest was the possibility of an official visit by President Clinton. This was quite a big deal, for some reason his attention to this problem seemed very important. Would he go to India AND Pakistan? Nobody in India really wanted this but everyone seemed to recognise that it would probably happen. And then, where would he and his entourage sleep? Were there enough five star hotels in Delhi? Was there even one that had a suite luxurious enough for the President? This is a bit of a joke really, since Delhi is amply supplied with quite satisfactory hotels! Finally, most important of all, with the eyes of the world on India for this visit, could they make it look good enough. We were in Delhi at the end of January, before the visit even officially existed, and again at the beginning of March when it was really impending, and it was extraordinary how much the place had been cleaned up. It looked almost as if every street had been scrubbed, and also as though a lot of people previously living on the street had been moved elsewhere.

The Indian papers, like those of a lot of countries, show a strong tendency to imagine that the eye of the world is on them constantly, and that people in other countries around the world spend their time judging India. Even the people we met tended to show either great pride and/or paranoia concerning their country and how foreigners would perceive it. This trend was apparent in the way they prepared for President Clinton's visit, but even more so in the other big story of our stay, the Deepa Mehta scandal. Deepa Mehta is a film producer of Indian origin who I believe was born in (or currently lives in?) Canada. You may not have heard of her, as she does not produce Hollywood blockbusters, but more the sort of film that you see in smaller, artier types of cinemas. Her film 'Fire', which I gather is the story of a burgeoning lesbian love affair within the confines of a traditional Indian family was drawn to my attention by a friend shortly before I left for India. However, I have not seen it, and can not say if it is any good. While we were in India, Mehta was trying to film 'Water' at Varanasi. The theme of this film appears to be widowhood in India, with the controversy arising out of the fact that the sexuality of the central figure did not pass away at the same time as her husband. This caused chaos, censorship and demonstrations at the film site but one of the most common arguments presented by either side is that the other side were making India look bad in the eyes of the world, and should therefore desist. Whereas I am willing to bet that the world, taken by and large, heard nothing about this and you may even find it hard to believe that this whole phenomenon was front page news in every Indian newspaper for at least five weeks.

Apart from these two main stories, what do Indian newspapers contain? The utter disillusionment of most Indians for what passes in India as democracy is frequently apparent. Anyone who has read a fair bit on the subject of India will be aware that they perhaps do have it a bit harder in this respect than the rest of us. The Hindu hard-line seem to spend a good bit of time writing letters to the papers on the subject of women who wear western clothes, listen to western pop music, attend wine-tasting parties (Mumbai's latest fashion), go on dates on Valentine's day, or, indeed, make films about unchaste widows. Local news, tends to consist of specific struggles against bad roads, bad water or bad litter. Concern about the water supply in the coming summer featured alongside scandals involving the local bigwigs and the occasional spot of crime (rather less of this, apparently, than at home).

Politics and society, continued...

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