Stereotypes galore – The danger of a single story, Chimamanda Adichie

For those of who haven’t heard this ted talk – please do so here. A shoutout to Nandini, for pointing this one out!!! The talk is about how we stereotype people based on a the different versions of the single story that we hear about them, over our lifetime. Chimamanda walks the fine line between incisive comments and skepticism, very well. Her observations shine a light on your own personal experiences, without making you feel angry towards those involved.

1. The India story in the US – The story of a unique “Indian Identity”. Questions range from – “What do you Indians eat for breakfast?”, “What is your traditional dress?”, “What are the traditional festivals?” and were surprised to know that the answers varied depending on the region that a person belonged to in India. Of all things, we Indians can identify with her irritation at Africa being identified as a “country” ( in her case, it is even factually wrong). In India, except that, in spite of being one country, we could be as well different countries for all we care. Our identity is so rooted by where (or where all :)) we grew up in India that it is hard to capture in generalizations . However, are the others aware of it? Are the stories we tell as multi-faceted or as representative of our diversity, as we are? Is there an opportunity to better spread this awareness around?

2. The US story in India – I was equally guilty of falling into this “one story” trap. Of assuming that, all the people in the US were “experts” in their fields and was in for a shock to find that they were all as human as we are and as prone to “not knowing” something despite years of experience in a field. To their credit, my experience, so far has been that they acknowledged it and figured out what to do about it!

3. The Indian story in China – Now, this was a complete shock to me. Beyond the huge media barricade and censorship, the only “real” connection that the Chinese have of India is through “Bollywood” . This innocent question of theirs proves the point, “Where is that round thing you put on your forehead?, Are all Indian women as beautiful as Ayshwarya Rai?, Do you all dress so elegantly and richly, all the time?” I cannot help but acknowledge that the questions mildly amused me and also that, I never figured how to answer that question without feeling like I was both the winner and the loser!

3. The “Regions” Story in India – My growing years were spent travelling across the country, from school to school, across regions and I cannot for my good heavens understand, how a punjabi can be different from a delhite but all south-indians be “madrassis”? Have we thought of what stories we can tell our fellow countrymen that they learn to better appreciate the differences, while not differentiating?

4. The story of how “only” regional languages preseve the culture in India – There are several “save the regional language” campaigns running across the country, in India, at any given point in time. Again, having grown up in different parts of India and used to speaking a medley of 4 different languages, I could never appreciate this. However, something dawned on me as I was listening to Chimamanda. It was a fact that we are impressionable by the kind of literature we read, we think in the language we read, we want to write what we read and more often that not, we desire (romanticize?) what we read. So, in the heads of those running this campaign, people reading English books are thinking “like” a foreigner or to be even more precise, thinking in “English”, which hits at the core of “alien-ness”. They want people to be more “regional”, instead.

All I can say is that, they are getting it all wrong. The regional languages are playing catch up here, at best. English has become the global language of choice (if Chinese does not displace it that is!) for the coming decades. The sheer volume of books available is so large that they are ubiquitious. One, there is nothing wrong in thinking in “english”, if the stories of the local culture are also being trasmitted and made available in that language and second, there is no one single entity that defines any given culture/region in India, hence being open to your story being trasmitted through other mediums might preserve its multi-faceted nature, while reaching out as an entity in itself at the same time. In short, acknowledging that it might be high time to decouple culture and language, might help us crusade for causes that can make an impact – money laundering, poverty, illiteracy, pollution, waste management, for starters?

Moral of the story, a single view, a single version, a single meeting, a single experience point to judge people, state, country – creates stereotypes that can be dangerous and prevent us from exploring the true beauty of what life is all about and understanding how connected we are, in as many ways as we are different!

PS: This ran longer than I had anticipated and I have attempted to keep it coherent. Do feel free to comment/ping me if it resonates at some level with you too!

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