Romancing India

Last week's BRIC and IBSA conferences brought some of the world's highest profile heads of state to Brasilia. Among all the fanfare, Brazil reserved the heartiest handshakes and the largest front page spreads for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This was at least partly due to the two states' burgeoning political and economic ties, with India-Brazil as the one common partnership in both these emerging forums of vastly different nations, but there is more to it than just that. Over the last year Brazil's public has developed something of a cultural fetish for all things Indian and Southasian, but their fascination with the region doesn't point to any real understanding of the subcontinent's realities.

When I first came to Brazil three years ago, I got nothing but hazy stares if I answered Nepal when asked "Where are you from?" I tried "Close to India," to at least point people to the correct part of the planet, but the conversation usually stalled there as people did not know what to make of the region. Not so since last year, though. Nepal still doesn't figure on most Brazilians' maps, but say anything about India and you're sure to get a bright smile, a 'haare baba' and a 'bhagwan ke liye'.

Hardly the most common Hindi vocabulary, but that might be expected considering its unusual source. Caminho das Índias (loosely translated, The Road to India), a whirling, colorful novela (soap opera) inspired in no small part by the extravagance of Bollywood, had Brazilians glued to their TVs for much of last year with its heady mix of exotic locations, forbidden loves, and Bollywood music. A R Rahman blared in the markets, Brazilian woman sported bindis, and all my friends here wanted to know if I knew how to make chai (to their delight, I do). Set in Rajasthan but acted by a Brazilian cast who liberally intersperse their Portuguese with tidbits of mispronounced Hindi, the novela's plot revolves around two torrid romances: the first of a Dalit man intent on marrying the daughter of a Brahmin family, much to her family's indignation, and the second of an Indian businessman engaged to his Brazilian sweetheart, again in defiance of his family's wishes. Having watched only a fraction of the 200-plus episodes, the entirety of the tangled plot is beyond me, but suffice it to say that in typical soap opera style, drama ensues.

As Brazil's novela crazed millions – whose lives are a far cry from those of the glamorous urban-elite protagonists of most of these shows – should be keenly aware, novelas do not thrive on realism. Audiences tune in for escapist entertainment, which the producers gladly provide, with only the most beautiful actors, the most pleasing visuals, and the happiest of endings making it onto the screen. Caminho das Índias is certainly not a documentary, nor does it at all purport to be. That said, the series' producers at TV Globo went to great lengths to lend the series a certain affected authenticity. The plot touches on themes that would not be at all out of place in an Ekta Kapoor production: caste conflict, arranged marriage, generational clashes between the conservative old and the modern young, even the oh-so-cliché saas-bahu quarrels. Sizeable parts of the novela were filmed in India, and the sets and costumes, though a tad garish, are convincing. Down to the ban on on-screen kissing, it's all spot on. Turn down the Portuguese dialog on the clip below, and no one would blame you for thinking you're watching a scene from the latest Bollywood blockbuster.

Initially, I excitedly and unquestioningly went with the flow, but when people started asking if I already knew who my parents planned to marry me off to, I realized that for some Brazilians the series had been perhaps too convincing. Put a slickly produced story on a TV or cinema screen, and even if it is pure fiction the audience will often take away a lasting set of impressions. Many Westerners, and even many Indians, still rave about Danny Boyle's portrayal of the "real" India in the mishmash of inconsistencies that is Slumdog Millionaire. Brazilians learnt that they aren't immune either when Cidade de Deus (City of God) added the gun-toting drug kingpin to the world's stereotypes of their nation. As much of Brazil's first exposure to the subcontinent, Caminho das Índias has left a lasting mark on the Brazilian psyche.

I don't mean to conflate India and Southasia, but for want of better knowledge of the region, that is exactly what Brazilians are doing. When people here find out I am from the region, they usually assume I can answer the question "Is that what India is really like?" and referring to India is the only way that I as a Southasian can give Brazilians any idea of where I am from. It is hardly fair given the region's vast diversity, but serves as a sobering reminder to citizens of Southasia's smaller states that today, the world's view of our region and our countries inevitably falls under India's hefty shadow.

So what does Brazil make of Southasians in the wake of Caminho das Índias? Here's a short list: we all get married off by our parents, and are OK with it; we mostly dress in kurtas or saris; we are all Hindu, and very religious; the region's architecture is largely a burlesque throwback to Mughal times; and true love always defeats the caste system, as the Brahmin family finally welcomes the Dalit groom into the fold in the series' prerequisite melt-your-heart happy ending.

The novela does not always make things quite this simple, with its interesting take on caste and inter-generational relations, but little of the nuance has stuck in the public psyche. Equally telling is what the novela leaves out. In the novela's idealized world, there is no room for Southasia's slums and millions of desperately poor. Nor is there much room for the image of a modern and progressive society many in Southasia insist on promoting. Put together, it makes for a patchy picture of inaccuracies that blend together into a revised version of a familiar foe: Orientalism.

This is a kinder Orientalism than that of Edward Said's stinging denunciation. Many Brazilians have come away from Caminho das Índias with an admiration for Southasian society. Southasians' ingrained respect for the elderly, and their inclusion in family life and decision making, elicits respect in a society where the old are often isolated or ignored. I was most surprised at how many Brazilians now accept arranged marriage as a fundamental pillar of Southasian societies, in stark contrast to many others foreign to the practice who see it as being backward and an unacceptable affront to individual choice. Still, even flattering stereotypes provide no escape from the fundamental traps of an Orientalist view.

Whether good or bad, Brazil's misconceptions form part of an essentialized perspective of Southasia. The region's practices are never judged on their own faults and merits, but rather always in comparison to foreign – in this case Brazilian – cultural notions of right and wrong. Rather than search for common ground, Brazil's fascination continues to feed on the view of Southasians as the exotic Other. For all its merits, Caminho das Índias is still not Southasia speaking for itself, but foreigners (however sympathetic) speaking on Southasia's behalf.

The point is, that need not be the case. Southasia is more than capable of speaking for itself, and there is no reason that we cannot build on Brazil's initial impressions to create a truer picture. It would require and a lot of work and translation, but the more works of actual Southasian production we can bring over, the better we can chip away at the monolithic stereotypes and help people see that for all the region's commonalities, we are hardly all the same. One thing that is now absolutely certain is that Brazil will be very receptive.

That a soap opera has defined most Brazilians' view of Southasia points only to the regions' still gaping ignorance of one another. It is a two-way street: most Southasians' idea of Brazil does not go far beyond wildly skillful footballers and scantily clad samba dancers on tropical beaches. To its credit, Caminho das Índias has meant that the average Brazilian now 'knows' more about Southasia than the average Southasian 'knows' about Brazil. To whet Brazil's appetite for everything Southasian, we could not have asked for better, but I do hope more meaningful exchanges follow. Bring on the tourists, the artists, the reporters, and the sooner the better.

Roman Gautam is a Kathmanduite currently residing in Rio de Janeiro. He still doesn't quite understand how he got there. For more on Caminho das Índias, read Gautam´s blog post on the subject here.

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