(The article is being republished from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, observed on 9 August each year. It was first published on 10 August 2015.)
In February 1975, Chinua Achebe, a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, delivered a public lecture entitled An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In one essay, he overturned one of the canonical works of Western literature and termed Joseph Conrad ‘a thoroughgoing racist’. The result was an immediate controversy, for writers and professors had always thought of Conrad’s novella as one of the masterpieces, and this claim by Achebe reduced Conrad to a lesser mortal with prejudices, a writer who failed to be above the bigotry of his times.
A careful reading of Achebe’s piece and Conrad’s novella makes the point clear. Conrad, to illustrate the ambiguity of a European mind, dehumanises Africans. While the book may not have posed a problem for its readers at the time of its release by an account of the ‘dark’ continent, but in the postcolonial globalised world, the reading is increasingly unsettling. The European chauvinism is rampant in the way the book describes the natives as unearthly savages, almost comparing them to animals in the jungle. Unlike the expressive details of the European characters, Africans are portrayed as if they are formless mass of nondescript characteristics. The colonising European point of view reigns supreme here.
Conrad may write powerful and articulate sentences, but he compromises African identity in order to examine white psyche. It’s the classic case of Europeans terming non-Europeans, especially Africans, the less-civilised, thus recycling and perpetuating the racist notions that continue to haunt our world. Even in the writings of the much lauded VS Naipaul, the third world is made of ‘half-made’ societies.
Literature forms opinions and perceptions for future generations. If the ‘great’ figures of literature have produced reductive images with a general lack of responsibility, what hope do we have from other mediums? Look around, films and television are a failure in this regard too. Hollywood, in its countless dialogues with history, hardly cared about the original inhabitants of their soil. Rarely have characters stood out above caricatures, above noble primitive creatures.
Or back home in India, we think of people from north-eastern part of India as ‘chinkis’ in our casual racial slur. We fail to consider Bhils, Santhals, Mundas, Chenchus, Khasis, Jarawas and many more tribes as original inhabitants in our country, powered by the Indo-Aryan theory. As a result, the indigenous tribes are hardly represented in the larger Indian narrative, if done, it’s in broad strokes, without attention to detail, and with much reluctance to explore or understand cultures and customs that are not familiar to us.
In news coverage, water logging in Mumbai gets precedence over devastating floods in tribal areas. In the humdrum of 24X7 news channels, media seems shy to cover people who don’t look like Indians. Insurgency or events like witch hunting gets acknowledged, because it fits our understanding. After all, they are our gracious barbarians. You’ll have to scratch real hard to find an actor from the scheduled tribes on television soaps or reality shows. Films like Tango Charlie, Dil Se.. offer naivety, and Mary Kom takes Priyanka Chopra to essay the famed female boxer from Manipur, only in the name of commercial viability, like how James Cameron made the indigenous Na’vi tribe exceptionally exotic to sell his film, Avatar. We, the educated and the broadminded, like to implement relaxed racism because we are scared of the complex picture. In our lofty discourses, we build a notional wall so high that we don’t realise how insulting it is to them, and what struggle they have to endure to overcome our uninterrupted intolerance.
Today, our planet is celebrating International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The goal of celebrating this day is to raise awareness about indigenous folks, and to ensure that they are not left behind in the global march of modernism. If our forefathers have done much harm, it’s on us to look beyond stereotypes, and rise above petty civilisational designs. When we talk about their world, as visitors, the least we can show and exercise is respect. That would be good for a start.
(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. His Twitter handle is: @RanjibMazumder)