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The Cringe Factor

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Ex-colonies tend to suffer from 'cultural cringe'. This is a persistent feeling of ‎inferiority to the former rulers. It does not appear to have an economic dimension, for ‎even prosperity does not dull the sense of worthlessness - the feeling of being 'culturally' ‎inferior. At the individual level, we all have seen the attempts of the nouveaux riche to ‎ingratiate themselves with those who beat them to it - the pathetic attempts to imitate ‎their superiors, pick up their accent or even their language, their taste in clothes, in books ‎‎(this is the hardest part)....‎

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), the first American novelist, knew all about ‎cultural cringe, and was probably the first person to articulate the phenomenon of cultural ‎imperialism. Consider this footnote from his novel Afloat and Ashore:‎

‎'The miserable moral dependence of this country on Great Britain, forty years since, ‎cannot well be brought home to the present generation. It is still too great, but has not a ‎tithe of its former force. The writer has himself known an Italian prince, a man of family ‎and high personal merit, pass unnoticed before a society that was eager to make the ‎acquaintance of most of the agents of the Birmingham button dealers; and this simply ‎because one came from Italy and the other from England...'‎

More recently, it's been Australia's turn. When the Minister for Foreign Affairs ‎had the temerity to suggest that Australia would in future be closely involved with Asia, ‎the Bulletin, on 22 January 1950, berated him thus: "We are a European people who look ‎to Europe for our origins and our culture. Our religious faith and our national philosophy, ‎our whole way of life is alien to Asia". The question of Australia's identity arose because ‎some Australian writers were fed up with playing the poor relative to the rich aunt, Great ‎Britain - in short, cultural cringe.‎

If the Minister for Foreign Affairs was right, a neat little syllogism appears, ‎whose ineluctable conclusion should be cause for concern. If Australian culture is ‎unAsian, and if Australia's culture mimics that of Britain's, then Asian cultures don't; ‎therefore, the culture of South Asia is alien to British culture. Then what about those ‎South Asian writers who are successful in Britain and her cultural dependencies? In fact, ‎what about the South Asian elite as a whole? ‎

The South Asian elite are in a parlous state. Spare a thought for Martin Kamchen, ‎who wrote from Santiniketan: "Several daily newspapers of Calcutta flashed the news of ‎Jhumpa Lahiri's wedding in Calcutta as their first-page leader, complete with a colourful ‎photo of the happy couple. First I thought: O happy Bengal! You still honour your poets ‎as the ancient civilisations used to do. And for a moment I remained in this innocent bliss ‎of satisfaction. Then it dawned on me that not any writer's marriage is accorded such ‎flattering coverage. Only expatriates who have 'made it good' abroad, who have 'done ‎the country proud', are subjected to such exaggerated honours." Jhumpa Lahiri had just ‎won the Pulitzer, as we all know. ‎

When Mohammed Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize, even the supermarkets in ‎Dhaka were announcing the fact! Article after article appeared on Yunus in every ‎newspaper, penned by people proud that a Bangladeshi had won the Nobel! No longer ‎would the west regard us as a hopeless failure, they would now begin to respect ‎Bangladesh. The cover of one magazine read: "Hail Prof[essor]. Yunus, Our Own Nobel ‎Laureate". Inside, we find that the first line of the article reads thus: "You mention the ‎name Bangladesh to a westerner and wait for his or her first reaction and what you ‎may hear will not please your ear". But, of course, all that changed when Yunus won the ‎Prize. When photographer Shahidul Alam's picture of the prime minister made the ‎cover of Time magazine, the Daily Star announced with pride: "We would also like to ‎take this opportunity to commend Mr. Alam for being the first Bangladeshi photographer ‎whose work has been featured on the cover of Time magazine." This preoccupation - ‎indeed obsession - with what the west thinks of us can only be understood if we take ‎British rule into account. ‎

Taj Hashmi, a noted intellectual of Bangladesh, suffers excruciatingly from ‎cultural cringe. After the recent death of democracy here in Bangladesh, he wrote an ‎article that began with a remark by Winston Churchill (a figure more alive in South Asia ‎than in his native country): "Winston Churchill, known for his arrogance and colonial ‎hangover, once observed that there could be no democracy east of Suez. However, there ‎is nothing axiomatic about Churchill's aphorism that no democracy could flourish in the ‎Orient." The colonial hangover the author refers to seems to be one he himself suffers ‎from - if our culture is at odds with democracy, then why should we bemoan that fact? ‎My grandmother, for instance, repeatedly confused Churchill with Hitler: to her they ‎were both "foreigners"! ‎

And, as we all know, the South Asian elite is a British creation. After the ‎Kandyan revolt and the Sepoy Mutiny, the need for a go-between was felt by the rulers. ‎And that go-between was the middle class, created in the new universities. Pherozeshah ‎Mehta observed "the strong Anglicizing undercurrent which has begun through the ‎deeper instincts of Indian students." He predicted with satisfaction: "there will ere long ‎be produced in India a body of men out-Heroding Herod, more English than the English ‎themselves". Well, we have all met the Herod, haven't we? The man who keeps dogs, ‎takes them out for walks and says "Old boy" at every opportunity. ‎

The mass education that followed - and which persists to this day - would have ‎swelled the breast of Henry Ford with pride. "The students of the present day never open ‎their mouths in the class room....They take down the professor's words. Commit them to ‎memory - often without understanding them - and reproduce them in the examination ‎hall. A copying machine would do the same." So commented Lal Behari De in the 1870s.‎

This slavish devotion to the professor's words was the beginning of cultural ‎cringe. The certificate at the end of the process might have led to unemployment, but it ‎lifted one above the hoi polloi - closer to the masters. Then, of course, apart from the ‎various degrees (BA, MA, etc), there were a plethora of awards in the British bag: 'Sir', ‎OBE, MBE, Khan Bahadur, Nawab....Here, in the subcontinent, it is almost as if it had ‎been yesterday that the British left. How many families does one know that cannot boast ‎a not-too-distant ancestor blessed with one of the titles - and who serves as a source of ‎pride even today, pathetic as it may seem? ‎

But, surely, it will be argued, if America could outgrow its cultural cringe, so can ‎we. The example of Australia serves to remind us that the process can be very long-‎drawn-out. Take the Booker Prize. Australian writers still crave this British award. ‎Americans, thanks to their fortune, publishing history and cinema market, have come up ‎with an abundance of prizes, such as the Pulitzer and the Oscar, that have rid them of any ‎overt signs of cringe. Still, in matters of art, for instance, the judgement of Paris matters ‎more than that of New York. ‎

The dependence of the South Asian elite on the West can be seen most clearly in ‎films. From the realism of Satyajit Ray in Panther Pachali to that of Shekhar Kapoor in ‎Bandit Queen, the pay-off has come from the west. The former won an award at the ‎Cannes film festival; the latter opened there, and won accolades in North America. The ‎curiosity regarding an ex-colony lay behind the popularity of the early American novels ‎in Europe. A similar reason lies behind these awards. And that also explains the emphasis ‎on realism. Western intellectuals want to see India as it is - in documentary detail.‎

Therefore, our intellectuals have a strong stake in keeping things as they are - ‎they benefit from the poverty, the injustice, the squalor. Poverty, as we all know, is big ‎business in South Asia; so is injustice. The number of NGOs in Bangladesh is, according ‎to The Economist, probably the highest in the world. The author personally knows many ‎individuals who have made substantial amounts of money by running NGOs. Ostensibly ‎set up to help the poor, they succeed in enriching the elite and purchasing their loyalty for ‎western donors: only 25% of donor money reach the poor; 25% go to western consultants ‎and suppliers and 50 % to the locals (The New Nation, 26th September 2003, page 6). ‎Two prominent groups thrive on the two evils - artists and politicians. Which explains ‎why whenever democracy slips here, the loudest yelps come from them (Ray's Hirok ‎Rajar Deshe was a thinly disguised attack on the Emergency). And isn't voting a lot like ‎keeping dogs and saying 'Old chap'? ‎
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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ŽHe (more...)
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