I recently read a scathing article on Oprah Winfrey. I was quite shocked. The journalist made such fuss about her honest observations as if it’s criminal to not know something. However, what were more astonishing were the serendipitous parallels between her journey to Indian and mine to US. And when I read the article, I almost felt as if someone was mocking at me. I felt outraged and decided that I’ll write this note in solidarity with Oprah. Perhaps then, people will see the injustice done to her. Well, I am a celebrity too, here in this country. Not as big as Oprah but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter even if you’re not able to place me at all. The real celebrities don’t publicize themselves anyway. They’re obscure, consigned to oblivion, with some quaint looking academic in some foreign university (probably US) fawning at the greatness of their work. These days all it takes to be a celebrity is to be notorious with your face pasted everywhere. You’d be surprised by the lack of work backing most people you take for celebrities. Anyway, I am notorious enough for the people who’ve suffered me on stage, I really don’t have much work to support me, and I guess I have had had enough presence in media to statistically pass off as a celebrity.
Recently, I was on a trip to the United States of America. I was invited to a literature festival. Though I haven’t written anything worthwhile in my life except few random poems, an article or two, and have rejections from couple of places for my short stories. I am writing my maiden novel but then I have been writing it since 1994. But you know, you’re a fool if you believe that you need to be a writer to be invited at literary festivals. You must look glamorously literate enough, with few generous friends thrown in at the right places, and you will qualify for an invitation to a literature festival. So, I was invited to this literary festival in New York City. I was quite exotic at the festival. I made a statement by wearing traditional regalia. The chudidaar kurt-pyjama, with achkan, and a dupalli topi. If you don’t get the costume then I don’t care. I don’t have a colonial hangover (though reading this statement in English itself is very ironical) that I need to explain these things to you. Do a Google.
I very soon realized that press is the same everywhere in the world. They understand we’re a visual culture. The more exotic you look, the more your chances of featuring on the cover. The press is not dumb. It understands that its audiences love dumb exotic looking people performing antics in the public. So, if you were to talk like an informed, serious, ruminating, intellectual kind then you’d be consigned to some inner page sans photograph with a distorted quotation. You need to fawn, be ignorant, and do faux pas galore to be quoted verbatim with your picture on the front page. The press’ audiences must feel superior, in control, with a handle on their Weltanschauung. After all, for the upwardly mobile, moneyed, empowered, educated class, the press, especially the television, is a moral, spiritual, and an intellectual placebo. And unless you don’t turn yourself into a specimen, or the press doesn’t turn you into one, the press won’t achieve its objective. So, I made their job easy by toeing their line. I chose to be what I am. A literary and a cultural ambassador of my country. Reminds me of the anecdote where one of the Rajas of Patiala roam around in three-piece suits here in our own Punjab, and walked the streets of NYC in his traditional regalia. I think the Raja was a smart man. He, like Gandhi, understood the public psychology long back.
Then I have this friend who is a stand-up comic and does bit roles in Hollywood films, he is quite obscure there but has managed to source a good PR person here in India, who regularly plants his stories in colorful city supplements of some well-selling throwaways masquerading as newspapers. He decided to take me on a tour of NYC. But given that I was in public eye, I thought I can’t risk going to a strip bar. I had to go to some place socially correct. So, I announced I wish to see a more humane side of the New York City. We were at Lexington Avenue and he said we could go nearby to Harlem, uptown Manhattan. Would save us taxi fare. Believe me I was shocked. I couldn’t believe reality was so up close. He fixed up a household for us. It was a shabby looking apartment building, broken windowpanes, mildewed walls, plaster peeling off, clothesline adorning open windows. We climbed a reeking staircase, and entered a tiny apartment where a mother with six children lived. The elder daughter was in late teens and seemed to have a child of her own. They were extremely nice to me though they couldn’t fathom why such fuss over a brown man. I looked around the apartment; I could see a refrigerator, a television, and an operational kitchen. They tell me the average income of a Harlem household is $29,000-00 per annum. Even to my mathematically challenged head that seems like a lot of money. (Gosh! It’s close to fifteen lakh rupees! Shit! I don’t earn that much. I think they got the figure wrong. With that kind of money, the blokes here will drive a Honda City and pretend they have ten times more money than that!) They told me the mother was one of the ‘welfare mothers,’ and there was pressure on her to enroll in the workforce, which she has been warding off by saying that her kids her young. I was like WOW! Here in our country we have something called NREGA where more than half the money is eaten up by the babus, sarpanchs, and the contractors who are supposed to provide employment to people through public aid. And of course, there is never ever any pressure on anyone in our country to join the workforce. We’re democratic. We don’t force. Anyway, government has to protect itself. It has limited resources. It can’t squander it by offering employment doles. What would be left for the people running the government if all the taxpayers’ money is given out as doles?
But unlike our slum people who give two hoots to billboards publicizing luxurious lifestyle in our cities, these ‘fellas’ were sensitive but they were stoic about it. I had to ask very obvious questions. My friend said the PR wanted it that way. So, I posed questions like “Don’t you feel it’s too cramped?” “Surely, you must be wishing a better life for your family?” My probing questions made me realize it hurt them they had to live in such squalor. It wasn’t evident from their pleasant demeanor. I broke down on hearing her story. They seemed a bit amused. I said it’s mandatory in our country for celebs to get teary-eyed on hearing such human stories. They were sympathetic but felt awful that a quaintly dressed man was weeping in front of a household full of ladies. I immediately pulled myself together and cracked few jokes, which they enjoyed very much. In fact, one of the children pointed out that I don’t speak like the Indians in the sitcom Outsourced. I had no clue what he was talking about so I politely smiled. Later I asked one of the children what she wished to do when she grew up. She said she wished to go to an Ivy League university. I thought that was funny. I thought she would say Harvard or Stanford or something. I gave her a good tip that Ivy League is passé. She should come to India, become a Yoga instructor, and then she can come back and conduct open classes at the Central Park and earn her millions. They liked my idea.
Finally, the meal was served. One of the boys had ran to a kiosk downstairs and packed some hotdogs. I was extremely delighted when I saw that they too were eating with their hands. My PR person had terrified me by telling me that like savages they used knives and forks. Thank God! Civilization dwells in most unexpected corners.
However, my PR person promptly deleted all these details about the LCD TV, the refrigerator, and the family having a good laugh at my funny jokes from the press release. Said it won’t move people back home. All the laughter will make them think I was making fun of the family. I protested. Said they were really enjoying my jokes. The PR person sternly told me to keep off and let them do their job.
Later a socialite couple invited me to their mansion on the East 80th Street. I must say the place was grand. I saw one of the longest dining tables laid out for me. The family, all prim and proper, in their tailcoats and evening gowns with butlers everywhere did their best to make me feel at home. When I did feel at home at some point in the middle of the dinner, I quipped, “Thank God! Some people STILL eat with their hands in America!” My host guffawed loudly, his forky hand midair, “You’re a funny man!”
Oh! I forgot to tell you! I also ran into Brangelina at a charity dinner. Well, for the convenience of the people at home, they would be like Saifeena, or Abhiash. I was so excited to run into real celebrities. I told them not only they but also their children, their dogs, their bodyguards, their clothes, even their vests and bikinis were glowing from within. I think they dismissed me as some cranky fan from India. I even told them that I knew a friend who was a friend of a friend of Irrfan (I think that’s how he spells his name these days?). Angelina smiled at that but I am not sure whether she recognized him or was simply polite.
Anyway, I had a fantastic trip. The TLC Channel is so excited that they have decided to make a two part series of my travel to NYC. The first part will feature a longish interview of mine at the literary festival. And, the second part will have me visiting these families in Manhattan, meeting Brangelina, and finally my tribute at the Twin Tower site and the Statue of Liberty.
So, you see now how unfair the journalist have been to Oprah. If you were to ignore what the journalist wrote and just focus on Oprah’s remarks, you’d realize how genuine she was, and how out of context she has been quoted. Believe me I felt the same, Oprah. I empathize with you. Ignore the bad press, and I suggest hire a good publicity agent in India. I can help you with that.
I love all my fans. And, I hope you enjoyed my account of my US trip.