A few years ago I read a wonderful book called The Book of Salt by Monique Truong. In this novel, a Vietnamese servant named Binh recalls his experiences of living in French colonized Vietnam. His employers are the writers Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. There comes a point when the writers presume to narrate Binh’s life story for him. Upon discovery of this Binh becomes enraged, “My story, Madame, is mine. I alone am qualified to tell it, to embellish, or to withhold…the story, it belongs to me.”
The world is yet to hear the stories from many other Binhs. When India, the Pacific Islands, the countries of Africa and other lands were colonized the world saw them—their natural resources, foods, culture, language, value systems and governments, only through the eyes of the colonizer. Things were seen from the western point of the view. Coffee and chocolate became known as European specialties and tea became an English drink. The crown jewels in the Tower of London while drawing loud “oohs” and “ahhs” from tourists, were taken from India during the British Raj. The jewels can only be seen from inside their European settings. The British Museum and The Louvre hold treasures such as The Kohinoor Diamond, Elgin Marbles, Benin Bronzes, Rosetta Stone and The Seated Scribe—the list of such thefts is longer than anyone can compile. These treasures can only be seen in surroundings that are foreign to their origin. If these works of art were returned to their rightful owners, would they become less artistic? My appreciation of art is greatly enhanced when it is seen in its country of origin. Anyone who has seen Italian art in Italy, Egyptian art in Egypt or Kenyan art in Kenya would say the very same thing.
Many would say to let sleeping dogs lie and that one can’t undo the damage of the past. The debate over the return of stolen artifacts goes on. But I would argue that this discussion is only a symptom of a much bigger problem:
The word does not yet recognize or acknowledge the Binhs of the world. It can only hear their voices when they are presented from a western point of view.
For example, there was a huge mass appeal for the movie Slumdog Millionaire. A movie that portrays the brash and often ugly life of poor Indians—written and directed by two British men, Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy. It was an entertaining movie, but what bothered me the most, was that it was shot completely from a western perspective. While I sat in the theatre it was amusing to hear the “Indian” and “American” reactions. During particularly graphic scenes, the Indians laughed and the Americans gasped in horror. An Indian would not have created the same movie. At the same time, movies such as Water and The Namesake directed by Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair barely created a blip on the movie radar. These two films gave an infinitely superior and authentic view of India than the Danny Boyle perspective. It was interesting when The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Knight Shyamalan, was passed over at the Academy Awards for best picture and best director. Instead American Beauty, a rather pedestrian movie about a tiresome middle aged pedophile, won an Oscar in both categories. Perhaps the Academy was not ready to see America from an Indian-American perspective.
Literature seems to be coming along at a better pace. Indian English writers such as Rushdie, Adiga and Roy who write about life in India have received global acclaim. At the same time, many do not. Rohinton Mistry is a prolific and beautiful writer who writes about real life in India. All of his books including A Fine Balance have been passed by for any awards. R.K Narayan wrote many magnificent short stories and novels but many who call themselves well-read cannot recall one of his works. It was most distressing to learn that Yann Martel, a Spanish writer who had not had much success in the literary world, had won the Booker Prize for his novel Life of Pi. He chose to tell the story of an Indian boy named Pi Patel. Pi is born in India to parents who are from Tamilnadu in South India. An Indian would have never given life to such a character. Any Indian will tell you that it is almost impossible for a native South Indian to have the last name of “Patel.” Patel is a distinctly Gujarati name. Martel uses India as the backdrop for his novel, but fails to provide even an authentic Indian name for his protagonist.
Indian music and dance have only recently become popular due to artists who have reinterpreted these traditional beats and rhythms to complement their own music. Artists like Jay-Z, uses Indian artists in his music. He worked with Punjabi MC to produce a huge dance hit called Beware of the Boys. Timbaland also uses Indian singers, words and music in his song called Bombay and another called Indian Flute. Missy Elliot’s hit Get Your Freak On is written on an addictive beat with rhythms and instruments used in traditional Indian music and Sean Paul’s single Get Busy was on the billboard top 100 for 23 weeks. In this song Paul uses a sound called Diwali. It is a bhangra infected, hand clapping rhythm and sound that is heard all over the US dance floors. Sean Paul also uses samples from Indian artists in his song, Shout (Street Respect). It seems that even Indian music must be heard through the ears of a western artist before it is deemed valuable.
While it might be difficult to turn back time and undo the damages of colonialism, it is important that all of us as consumers and lovers of art and music seek to find and appreciate those artists that provide the most authentic and genuine voice, keeping our ears and eyes open for all the Binhs of the world.