In a piece published in Open magazine earlier this month, writer Hartosh Singh Bal took aim at the outsized influence of William Dalrymple on India’s perception of its own literature. Although reported on as yet another literary feud, this time with a colonial tinge, Bal’s real target wasn’t Dalrymple; he took offence at the local literary establishment that fawns over and seeks affirmation from a white man.
We suffer from the same colonialist hangover in Pakistan. Not being familiar with our literary scene and its hang-ups and insecurities, I’m not sure if we have our equivalent of Dalrymple. But I have seen the same complex at work in local journalism. Foreign correspondents, rarely venturing out of their Islamabad ghetto, become micro-celebrities, whose names are familiar, even to those who wouldn’t be able to name a single local reporter. Fixers — which is foreign correspondent-speak for ‘people who do all the real work’ — toil in relative penury while their overlords get television appearances and book deals. The worth of Pakistani journalists is often measured — both by themselves and their peers — by their ability to snag a byline in an American or British newspaper. Call it our equivalent of an aspiring novelist getting a blurb from Dalrymple.
White envy manifests itself in many forms. The sycophantic hero-worship of whiteness, beyond all reason, has a flip side in the hostility and hatred directed towards people like Raymond Davis, the US embassy official, who may or may not be a diplomat and who shot dead two locals, supposedly in self-defence, while his car ran over a third. Shootings and hit-and-runs are hardly rare in Pakistan and may, at most, merit a paragraph in the city pages of newspapers. More than the crime itself, it was Davis’ pigmentation that launched a thousand outraged editorials and a sudden interest in the minutiae of diplomatic immunity.
Whether it inspires rage or admiration, what is galling about our obsession with our former colonial overlords and their successors is how disproportional our reactions are to their every action. It is hard to criticise someone like Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame because, as an individual, he has gone above and beyond the call of duty in his charitable work. But the amount of ink spilled in feting him could surely have been better employed in pointing out local philanthropists and charity workers who are struggling just as gainfully, but with a fraction of the attention and admiration.
The lingering colonial attitudes exist on the other side too, which also explains why the Davis drama has become such a big story. The arrogance of the Americans, perfectly playing the Ugly American stereotype, from secret ops missions to annexing all the land around their old consulate in Karachi, is designed to instil a fearful respect, but leads only to outrage and schadenfreude when one of their citizens is caught red-handed breaking the law. It doesn’t really matter whether Davis has immunity, or even if he is responsible for the murders. He has already been declared guilty of being white.
That we are both insecure and awed enough to crave the white man’s respect, while simultaneously trying to bring him down, may seem paradoxical. But the point is not the type of emotion we feel; it is that every action taken by, or even the mere presence of, those we feel are our imperialist overlords, causes us to have an outsized reaction. All perspective and sense of proportion is lost. When logic disappears, a childlike combination of resentment and craving for approval is bound to take over.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd, 2011.
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