As a member of the much hyped “youth of India”, I am often told that it is our genetically superior eyes that will stare straight into the rising sun of development while we bathe in the glow of superpower status. Reality differs wildly from media platitudes, however, and every day I find myself confused by what it means to be Indian.
I was born when the idea of “Global India” was in transition. We went from one television with one channel for one village to 24/7 “edu-tainment” and “enter-cation”. Every day we struggle to make the connection from who we were to who we want to be. It has been 65 years since independence, yet in our march towards a bright future we need our sunglasses. Why? Because we still have a substantial colonial hangover. Despite being in the senior citizen category of free countries we are childishly reluctant to recognise what we already have.
Take India’s most famous export – yoga. For a long time we looked on yogis as scuzzy beggars with lint in their beards who did things with their breathing that could make your breakfast come back up. But as soon as a blonde in a leotard did her first downward facing dog in a Kundalini studio in Hollywood, we panted our approval.
Or this: down the street from where I sit typing is a 30ft room with 8.7 children per sq ft. They are stitching buttons on shirts we’ll be thrilled to wear – once they have been sent abroad to have high-street labels and price tags attached.
We are quick to take credit for our Non-Resident Indian (NRI) Oscar, Grammy and Bafta winners, bestowing civilian honours and inane media coverage on them. (“M. Night Shyamalan has grilled chicken for dinner”? Excuse me while I wipe my brains off the walls.) Never mind that Freddy Mercury was as Indian as a hamburger, to us he is our very own Farrokh Bulsara – even though he never acknowledged his Indian roots.
It was the same story when Sunita Williams fulfilled every seven-year-old’s fantasy by becoming an astronaut. She did it in the US without any help from India, but God forbid we don’t applaud our Indian-ness every time she is mentioned. Meanwhile our heroes at home languish for lack of basic funding. Even now, the main reason an Indian sportsperson makes it into the papers is because they’re trapped in poverty, waiting for their pension to come through.
In a year when the government has seen more corruption-“gates” than Bill, we arrest a young cartoonist under the archaic charge of “sedition” – the same charge under which Gandhi was arrested. We didn’t even make the effort to frame our own charges – what was once a weapon against us, is now a weapon against our own.
Our love for white skin is, of course, legendary in the darker circles. The ideal woman from every matrimonial ad is still “slim, fair and convent educated”. My own grandmother looked at a picture of my mother for the first time and asked my father, “Are you sure you want to marry her? You don’t want your children to look like bits of coal, do you?”
From mere facial fairness we have now moved on to more monumental worries of armpit fairness and even vaginal fairness. (Indeed, if our lady-parts get fairer maybe the same will happen to our women’s law?) Our thriving white-skin industry even influences Bollywood. Every song must feature a sea of white-skinned dancers with the emotive range of a BBC news anchor. The hero of our films is rendered infinitely more lust-worthy when he has nine white women draped around him. And any aspiring Indian author who has clocked up their miles at international literature festivals knows that the best marketing strategy for any book is to be short- or even longlisted for a Man Booker Prize.
We are always seeking approval from the fair-skinned folks because we don’t know what we’ve got until someone else points it out. As I stand with the rest of the youth of India, staring at the sun, I wonder how we will keep marching forward if we keep looking back.
Aditi Mittal is a comedian and actress based in Mumbai