Home / Opinion / Columns /  India is not as interesting to the world as we may think

Many Indians feel they are stuck with Indians, that they are so good they “belong in the first world". That what they do is export quality, but they have not been lucky enough to draw the attention of the world. There are Indian entrepreneurs, writers, artists, academics and activists who feel they would be recognized only in “the West". As a result, many things that Indians do is for international recognition. Prestige is something that comes from outside India. But the fact is that the world is not as interested in India as Indians imagine.

No one is curious about us anymore, or has much respect for us, or is fond of us in any special way. Few find us interesting. In general, the world does not care about us. We are on nobody’s radar. We are neither cool nor hot. The world wishes to learn nothing from us. In the perception of the ordinary folks, India is not so important. I was reminded of this when I visited France and Germany in April. But this is not an opinion born out of recent travel alone, though by ‘world’ I mean the ‘West’, and I know you, too, do. It is not that we don’t matter; it is just that we have become a boring middling region.

The history of the world’s interest in India is probably long. Once we were rich, then esoteric, as charlatans promoted exotic ideas about us. As the West prospered, some of its rich found relief from their anxieties in a quest for meaning, which they thought was hidden somewhere in India. Later, in the modern world, I was a witness to how excited and fearful the world was about our seemingly inexhaustible cheap labour in technology. Around this time, hope arose for a new West in democratic India. The hope was that we would become a huge market for Western goods, like China, but nicer, more docile and comprehensible than China. All that hope and interest has gone. Today, we are not too rich or too poor; we have not done badly, our poor are not as heartbreaking as Africa’s. We are beyond condescension, but neither equals nor rivals of the West. As a story, we are dull.

The only thing that makes India interesting to ordinary people in the West are the country’s supposed flaws—the popularity of Narendra Modi, his long confusing hugs of other world leaders, his refusal to condemn Russia in return for cheap oil, and the perception that Muslims in India are persecuted.

Modi’s public image in the West appears poor. He is not yet demonized as Vladimir Putin was long before he attacked Ukraine, but that may only be because India is not so relevant to them. Modi’s image there may not worsen, but is unlikely to improve because the moral compass of the West requires villains. Even Aung San Suu Kyi has been cancelled after she stopped talking like a righteous school girl and developed the complexities of a practical politician of a difficult nation. Modi’s image will not be rescued by Western conservatives because there is no such thing as a global right-wing. The right, everywhere, is local, and when it comes to foreign issues where the stakes are low, they exhibit the same righteous indignation as liberals.

This is different from how ordinary people in the West view Chinese President Xi Jinping. He is not a mere strongman who is framed by China’s atrocities. His image in the West is more complex than that of Modi; Xi is seen as a man in control of one of the most influential regions in the world. Everyone is interested in what he has to say, what China has to say.

It is odd that I must be reminded of the irrelevance of India on a trip to Paris for a book fair where India was “the guest of honour". The French embassy of India took me there to talk to the French. I even have a publisher in France who has translated all my novels. Isn’t this interest? Most Indian readers may not have read a single French author, not even Camus. But then, the fact is my French publisher has lost money betting on me. Not many Indian novels are translated into French and most of them sell only a few hundred copies.

There were large crowds of book-lovers at the book fair who were mostly interested in their own nation, Europe, the rest of the West, and maybe Africa, which has returned as the new flavour. I don’t think anyone even knew India was “the guest of honour". India drew attention when some Indian dancers hammed a folk dance. These days when I hear ‘mast qalandar’ in a global setting, I know some Indians are selling ‘the world’ lemons.

Now and then, the West does reward an Indian writer or activist, but even that is evidence of their self-absorption because the subject of their appreciation is usually someone who talks like them, writes like them, has the same values as them, or is fighting a battle they have sponsored in complex ways.

Our interest in the West, too, is waning, but it is still high. We absorb Western culture, values, truths and half-truths, and many of us choose to live in a world where Westerners hold all the cards. We know what not caring about a region means because we don’t care for most of the world. We find it hard to accept that we are as peripheral to the West as Africa is to us.

In the global exchange of interest, there is a big deficit. It is time to stop denying that. If a wide spectrum of creators across industries realize that India is all they have and they learn to respect the domestic market more, and accept that all foreign contracts are only a matter of lottery, maybe they would do things differently. But we should continue to tell the India story to the West. Just that we have to first figure out how to tell a story that nobody really cares about.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’ 

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