Saturday, June 21, 2014

When "East" met "West" at Pondicherry

It was last year when I enrolled for a peace and conflict course being offered by a norweigian think tank in Pondicherry. Though I had quit the 3-months long course way too early, I managed to have some interesting experiences/encounters with my fellow coursemates who, except for 4 South Asians, were all from European countries.

As a person hailing from social science background, Edward Said's orientalism made me both apprehensive and interested to meet people from European countries. We all know about orientalism more popularly the East-West dichotomy. East and West are seen as complete opposites of each other. While east is definitely glorified and exoticised, it is also seen as backward and inferior to west. Even though this East-West was a colonial conception but even in this post-colonial world, it continues to exist. Our minds are still "colonised" and "colonising". People in western and former colonising countries equate India with yoga, culture, festivals and a "third world country" that comes with many underlying stereotypes. This entire conception or stereotyping of India is very problematic.

I must admit that I did think that I will have a hard time dealing with this stereotyping. I also had my own reservations about people from western countries because of the working of UN and the bias towards the third world and south asian countries. How we are reduced to being seen as helpless nations that require the patronage of western countries. How we were and are still seen as largely incapable of ruling ourselves and ofcourse, the drones.

I went with my own set of stereotypes and biases to Pondicherry, a former french colony. So what sort of "colonial" encounter did I have?

It was a two-way learning, a two-way process of breaking stereotypes. There were some important lessons that I learnt. While they were certainly the "expected" with people asking stereotypical questions, thinking that Indians are a homogenised population in terms of language, religion, customs and getting over-excited about anything "Indian", there were also those who did see things from our view, who did try to understand India and Indians. I remember asking someone from Denmark about the welfare state that exists in her country. She told me several things and then I asked her to share her experience about India. She said that it is the complete opposite. While scandinavian countries are about "order", here it is about "disorder". Before I could respond, another person from her country interrupted and said, "You know, that's our problem. Too much "order"".

In other instances, whenever I would ask them about India, they would say that they were amazed by diversity. I would then ask them about their country and they would not always put forth a very glamorised picture. They did share the existing problems in their country. Aa for diversity, it turned out that they were not simply fascinated by it. They admired it and moaned that they wish their country was also more tolerant of diversity.

I also met people who opposed the drones, who did find a problem with the way UN was working, who were aware of the bias that exists. I admit that I was deeply moved by it. That time I felt guilty of having stereotyped all of them.

As about those who had a stereotypical thinking, it was great to burst their stereotypes. I was happy to tell someone from Norway that we also celebrate Christmas. I shared with her my own childhood memories of christmas and she was visibly amazed but had also become very happy. She was happy to know about the multiculturalism that exists in India.

As for me, I had a lot to learn from them. I got to learn about welfare states of the scandinavian countries which our state must learn from. I got to learn their perspective on several issues like migration, multiculturalism, culture which is very important as in order to understand an issue, I feel that we must see it from different perspectives. Another important thing that  definitely learnt was that things are never black and white. While i detested the tendency to stereotype India, I had also stereotyped them. I learnt that not just the west but Europe itself is very diverse.

But most importantly, a lesson for me was that they are not different from us. They have a different lifestyle, dfferent values, cultural ethics but there are many things that goes beyond all these boundaries of difference. There are many values that appeal to all of us as human beings. We may be different but we are all the same. We all have our struggles. We may be different but cultures do not differ in terms of desire for peace and culture. They do not differ in terms of respect to humanity.

I am thankful that I did get this opportunity to interact, to know about what they think. Miscommunication and lack of communication is what breeds hatred and suspicion. So I was happy that I was given a chance to know them and to burst my myths, to change my thinking. The root of all problems is lack of communication. Communication binds people, it creates the platform for understanding. In this regard, I am very happy with the launch of Zindagi Channel that will be bring stories from Pakistan. I believe that miscommunication sustains the Indo-Pak conflict. People in both countries are under the misconception that the other hates them but this is not true. They have portrayed a negative and opposing picture of the "other" and there are less opportunities to challenge this conception. I hope that Zindagi channel will be able to become this opportunity and will be able to bridge this gap of miscommunication. It will be able to show the side of Pakistan that most Indians are yet to see. It will be able to make us realise that we people are just the same. Not just our language, our religion, our culture and values but even out thinking is just the same. 

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