On Stereotyping

On Stereotyping
I think that grouping people is such a pity – doesn’t leave much room for them as individuals. Of course, I wasn't always so enlightened. I grew up reading mainly books written by Western Writers – European and American – and as a young reader it practically never occurred to me that whatever these writers wrote was a manifestation only of their own particular outlook and that this outlook, as is the case with all of us, more often than not was colored by the era in which they lived, the society that surrounded them, and of course their own capacity for limited or original thinking. Oh no, the printed word was sacrosanct – even if the ideas conveyed were often enough so utterly jarring.In Enid Blyton, for example, the British protagonists were always better than children of other nationalities and these latter were forever falling over themselves trying to emulate them. Well, I personally had no interest in becoming like the Blyton Brits – they were forever eating, for one thing, and I knew better past-times. Then there was the thing about the girl characters being continually told off – they couldn't do certain things, behave in a certain manner, because they were 'only girls' and girls 'don't' do those things. A-ha, I thought, so the so-superior British race – heads and shoulders above the rest of the human race – aren't all equally superior amongst themselves – oh no, some people apparently are more equal than others. It was just fantastic, but if the British girls were falling in line with it, what was it to me? As applied to myself, of course, it was completely non-applicable; I always did exactly what I wanted. Here we have two clear cut cases of stereotyping – Enid Blyton with her super-good British boys and repressed girls, and me thinking her definitions applied absolutely to children all over the British Isles, that like clock-work, factory products, they just had to all behave like that. Later on, I came into contact with foreign children with exactly similar ideas about India and Indians, and I was quite, quite appalled. I mean, c'mon, how dumb can one be?

But I'm moving ahead, there's still dear old Nancy Drew to be mentioned. She was a great favorite, but, unfortunately, familiarity breeds contempt. And that too when you're personally a clumsy adolescent, and you have before you this astonishing paragon of perfection. Nancy wasn't just beautiful and well-behaved, there appeared to be just nothing that she couldn't do and do extremely well at that. It was just infuriating. Then there were a lot of typically American things in the books that I didn't understand for the longest time. Take 'dates', for instance. I mean, we always ate them. Dangerous grounds here. An American child, as enlightened as my former self, might read that and take us for self-admitted cannibals! And even when I finally understood the correct meaning, it didn't help. I was outraged. Catch me going on a date, I thought, and especially with any of the guys around. I would rather suffer a terrible death. Anyway, it took the shine off Nancy. If she was so bright, so perfect, what was she doing with Ned? Not only was I deficient in romantic notions, I also wasn't acquainted then with Yeats's theory about fine women eating a crazy salad with their meat. Then I read 'The Ivory Charm' and 'The Swami's Ring' – two books that really earned my ire. Here, on one hand, it was America The Beautiful firmly in modern times, and on the other India The Poor languishing in some mythical period of tigers and snakes and scheming Maharajas. The Indians not only were accustomed to going off into trances at the drop of a hat, they also had strange, never-before-heard names like Coya and Tagore Shastri (of course, it's possible that his parents, the Shastris, loved Rabindranath Tagore and named their son after him, but why give him the surname instead of the first name? Alright, maybe they were quirky or something – certainly their son grew up to be such a villain and as we all know childhood upbringing plays such a major role in that).

Anyway, so, thanks to these two books, probably for the very first time, I looked beyond the characters at the writer. A good writer to be sure, but incredibly sloppy here with the facts. Later on I came across other, more 'literary' writers, with this same disconcerting habit. They were either fulsomely patronizing or outright insulting when it came to other cultures. The characters were very rarely normal people. I'll mention Pearl S. Buck and James Clavell here, two really good writers and moreover people that lived for long periods in the East. This fact is mentioned conspicuously on their book-jackets. But I have to wonder – did they really see, actually experience the places they lived in, or did they go with their concept of these places and lived vicariously just through that? In one of her books, Pearl S. Buck mentions traveling from Bombay to Wai across 'dusty plains' – well, I've personally been along that route and it's a marvelously hilly area, with no dusty plains in sight. James Clavell, in his very engrossing book 'Gai-jin', writes about Anjuman Banu, the late Indian wife of one of the characters – he mentions how she and her family led a peaceful existence in India, contemplating Nirvana. This really amazed me – and disappointed me. James Clavell is one very fine writer – so why didn't he take a bit of trouble here? Anjuman Banu is a Muslim name, and, as far I know, it's the Buddhists that go to Nirvana. Of course Paradise by any other name is probably still Paradise, but still, you know? Besides I think 'contemplating Paradise' is a totally ridiculous thing to do and anybody – Caucasian, Asian, African, and whatever else – would be better off, certainly more peaceful, if they paid more attention to practical everyday matters and kept these in order. But that's besides the point, which is, if you want to write fiction, keep it fiction – don't fictionalize facts. Such inattention to detail kind of detracts from the story - it also adds to the cultural confusion, and surely there's enough of that already?

On Stereotyping 8.4 of 10 on the basis of 731 Review.