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.
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.