July 13, 2005

Tiny slice

My American cousin-in-law, on holiday with me in India some years ago, first got me thinking about it. It was Presidential election season in the States, and Jake was yearning for news. What was happening in the primaries? Who was ahead in the polls? What new tomfoolery was Ross Perot up to? Yearning for answers, Jake would grab any Indian paper that carried reports about the US and devour the sketchy news it had.

But I could sense his growing frustration. One day, he had had enough. Pointing in disgust at that day's Times of India, lacking even a word about some apparently important primary, he exclaimed: "Look at your papers! They carry so little international news! All they're concerned with is your local events!"

Naturally, I protested. I pointed out that there was indeed a fair amount of international news, that anyway it was a question of where readers' interests lay, that not too many people in India really cared about a party primary in South Carolina ... Until: "Wait a minute!" I said to myself. "Why am I trying to defend a paper I don't even much like?"

More important, I realized that what I had just heard from Jake was nearly identical to stuff I've heard often -- from Indians in the States, talking about American newspapers.

Indeed: living in Providence, Dallas and Austin over ten years, I myself would search the papers for news about India. Rarely was there any. So I too came to believe that US papers were obsessed with inconsequential local news and didn't give a damn about anything that lay beyond the 'burbs.

Like India.

In fact, it was a minor urban legend among the Indians in Austin at the time that that city's newspaper, the American-Statesman, once carried a front-page story about Michael Jackson's pet cow. His pet cow! When there was a seething mass of newsworthy events in India!

Thus I also came to believe, again like other Indians in the States, that the "average" Indian was far better-informed about the world around him than the "average" American. But here was Jake, saying exactly the same things -- but in mirror image.

So I wonder. Who is this "average" dude, and what does or doesn't he know? Who is this average Indian whom we think knows more about the world than the average American?

People like you and me, of course. People like you reading this somewhere in cyberspace, Idaho; like me writing this in Bombay. Of course such Indians know more about world affairs than the average American does. So it is probably true to say that the average such Indian is better informed than the average American is.

But the flaw, and it's a big one, is that such Indians -- people like you and me -- are far from being average Indians. By our mobility, our literacy, our access to information, our wealth, our English -- the very way we live, really -- we are extraordinarily special, mightily fortunate, remarkably privileged Indians. Not average by any means.

Consider: if you're reading this, you're literate. Unlike some 40 per cent of India. You probably went to college. Unlike perhaps two-thirds of India. It's a good guess you grew up in urban India -- unlike 75 per cent of the country. You may live in or have travelled to the US -- unlike easily 90 per cent of India. You have access to the Internet -- unlike some other massive chunk of the country. The figures may not be spot on, but they can't be far wrong either.

Now it's hardly my case that there is only a minuscule number of Indians like you and me. But even if we number in the tens of millions, people like you and me are a tiny slice of a huge country.

It is a striking, even humbling, realization. It gives me an appreciation for what India is, where my place in it is. It makes India that much more real.

And what it all means is that the "average" Indian, if there is indeed such a beast, is likely someone from a village or small town, perhaps unable to read; unused to 24-hour electricity and water; someone for whom a computer or a TV may still be a luxury. You get the picture. India is changing, but much of this is still true across much of India.

And since it is, I suspect it is a good bet that that average Indian is about as well-informed, or ignorant, as the average American is.

As for people like you and me, it would be interesting to draw a comparison to the Americans who are truly like us. The ones from a similarly college-educated, urban and relatively affluent slice of the States. Who do you think is ahead, as far as knowing about world affairs goes?

Jake and I, we're in a dead heat. And neither of us likes the Times.


anangbhai said...

You're spot on with that article. Being more informed certainly doesn't denote being a better person or less ignorant.
We indians in america like to be informed so that you can regale people with your knowledge of the world at the next networking party or potluck party at your friends house over a couple of beers while discussing improving the image of the South Asian (read north indian) community in america and talk about what charities and ashrams everyone donates to and how despicable the conditions in india truly are.
Party over. conversation over.
Reminds me of a line from Paresh Rawal, "No one's go the guts to do anything except read the morning paper and say, "Darling, politics is ruining this country".

anangbhai said...

P.S. I'm better informed because I like to use the news to inspire me to make movies that will make ridiculous amounts of money so that I can own a piece of the pie, movin' on up and so on.
Just wanted to put that out there, lest people think I'm someone who gives a damn.

charu said...

Dilip, you are right about 'we' being more priveleged and not your average Indian. but as for the comparison between the average American and Indian goes, I see oen important difference - the reason behind lack of awareness - the difference between lack of access (to news - literacy, physical distance and many others) and lack of interest (my country plays soccer and it is the world cup. India - duh?) which is an attitude I have seen with many Americans I know - average and not so average too

Sizzlingtree said...


Can I do a track back of your blog on my blog? Being an Indian living in the US I have long held the view that the average american does have lower general knowledge than the average Indian but you threw me for a toss when you asked just what 'average' is! Keep writing.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Anangbhai, are you really Amrish Puri come to life? I like that Paresh Rawal line. Where/when did he say it?

Charu, you have a point. Then again, I'm regularly surprised at how often I find that same attitude in India: The lack of interest in things about this country.

Sizzling, trackback away! Would you also explain to me, though, just what this trackback thing is and how it works? I never quite figured it out. How is it different from simply linking to me from you?

phucker said...

But you're actually comparing apples and oranges and declaring them to be the same. You're right, there's a great chunk of India that does not have access to more news. What is the "average" American's excuse where literacy and access to TV/Internet is a lot greater? Why is it that all our papers are national, while the American ones are all local? It's the Hindustan Times and the Slimes/Times of India. Apart from the New York Times and USA Today, what other American paper reports on more-than-local events? When you go to the CNN Website, there's a US edition, and an International Edition. Why isn't everybody exposed to all the News? I wouldn't say the "average" Indian is better informed than the "average" America, but I would definitely say that an American with a Bachelor's Degree is less informed than an Indian with a Bachelor's degree. I would say than an Average Indian with an internet connection is better informed than an Average American with an internet connection - BUT it's not just Indians. People outside America are generally better informed than people inside it. yes there are the usual justifications - "We saved the world from Hitler,so we don't care what it has to say". "our daily life is so much better than yours, so why should we care what happens outside our country" blah blah blah. But it is BECAUSE the "average" american-with-access-to-information-and-is-literate doesn't care about the outside world that it had to take 12 men and 4 airplanes to get through to them - I am not trying to justify their act but simply stating what those demented fools had to do to get America's attention....and why you can't compare the (lack of) general knowledge of "The Greatest, Richest Country in the World" with that of India....
On the other hand, everything I've said could be rubbish.

Vulturo said...


I can't help but remark that you employ sweeping generalizations when you say that the Average American is illiterate, or that the average Indian with a Bachelors degree is superior to the average American Grad.

What have you been smoking? Do you have statistics to back you up?

What makes you think so highly about the average Indian with a Bachelor's degree? The Bachelors degree has already been reduced to sham in some quarters - in fact in many quarters. A Grad degree is not enough at all these days, because of the education losing quality. I'm not generalizing, I'm speaking from experience as a recruiter.

Except call centers, I'm yet to recruit normal commerce/science graduates in meaningful jobs. B.Coms/BAs/BScs are not hot in the job market. Engineering/MBA/CA/ICWA is a bigger volume. Thats the reason *everyone* does MBA these days, simply because being a graduate has much lesser value (and it is not the same in the US, I'm sure you'll agree)

To be fair to the Americans - all americans dont get a bachelors degree - a demonstrated fact - quite a few of them are content with doing High Schools - so effectively American "Bachelors" can at least be said to be more "serious" than their Indian counterparts.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Dilip
Interesting post.
I will say that most Americans that I know have very little interest in the outside world unless it is some place the U.S. might invade. Americans live in vast land with two peaceful neighbors - and Canada really isn't much different than the U.S. Most Americans never travel outside their country.

To some extent, no other country has the luxury of not caring about other countries. The U.S. has enormous influence and power and every nation needs to be concerned about what the U.S. is doing and how it will affect their nation. I'm not saying that this is fair or right, but that is how it is.

That said though, why shouldn't papers focus on local news? Local stuff is much more likely to be relevant to more readers than the national and international news.

Anita said...

While in the US, I had the fortune of knowing Americans, most of whom had a fetish for India. They nurtured an unquenchable thirst for anything remotely spiritual that came from India. The others, I met wondered if only poor and hungry people littered the streets and were astounded that many Indians spoke great English. But politics, social events few had any knowledge of. And most didn’t care that they didn’t know. Just weren’t interested.

I somehow believe where you are from in the US makes a difference. Education does bring with it a hunger to know more, people in cities be it in India or the US do want to know more. But the Indian is more vocal about his thoughts. Americans are less expressive. To the average Indian who lives in a village, people from cities or foreigners are equally interesting. To the average American who does know India, Indian clothes are fascinating and customs interesting. American has not much time to worry about Indian politics. They don’t pay too much attention their own politics (this is what many American friends told me). Another friend sent me an article talking about the extreme low percentage of Americans who vote.

In the end, the question/view I encountered about India in the US that stays with me till now, came from a woman lady who lived in Littiz, a small town in PA. We sat next to each other during the flight. Her friend (who was passionate about India) had made her see Monsoon Wedding ( the movie) and she wanted to know if everyone in India partied as hard, dressed as elaborately and if the incest shown in the movie did exist in Indian families. Any guesses about my elaborate reply?

Veena said...

Hi Dilip,

Interesting post. I have a follow-up post on http://onayahuasca.blogspot.com/2005/07/do-we-really-know-more-and-why.html if you have some time!


Sriram said...

It is true that the average Indian is more interested in US than the average American is in India (I had one dude here ask me what is India? Is it in Africa?), but that is only natural. India does not have the same kind of presence in international affairs (politics, wars, sports, entertainment etc.) that US does.

Why, you can see the same phenomenon inside India as well. I bet almost everyone in the North East knows that Mumbai is the capital of Maharashtra. How many of us here can name all the NE states and their capitals without looking it up?

anangbhai said...

Well, I like amrish puri very much. He's a recognizable icon and he often plays villains (i.e. a nail who sticks out that has to be hammered back in).
I don't remember the exact quote, but I believe he said it either in one of his plays or a film in which him and anil kapoor were together.

lod said...

Nice written post Dilip - you're right that most folks commenting on this post are not "average" Indians - whoever that beast maybe, and that we're all children of privelge.

I would tend to agree with Charu though about the difference between lack of access vs. lack of interest.
I know anectodal evidence doesn't really mean too much, but here's one for what it's worth:

Had to get an eye-exam, in the midst of which, my opthalmologist tells me "you know before 9/11 I didn't know anything about India, but now I know it's somewhere east of Pakistan" - this man is a highly qualified doctor not your average joe..

Television is probably most americans' source of news. If we compared for example CNN in the US (let's not started on FOX news) with NDTV in India, I think you'll find the NDTV viewer considerably better informed about Africa (ignore the developed world) than the CNN viewer.

I'm not sure who the average american is, but the Americans in my graduate program are certainly less informed about the rest of the world than their international counterparts. But then again, all this is of course coloured by the frustrations of not seeing enough international news in the American media..

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