For the last few days I have seen trending articles and countless Facebook updates, mostly from Indians, who are upset by the two part India episode of Oprah's Next Chapter. The segment in question is when Oprah is surprised that people in India still eat with their hands. I wouldn't consider myself a die-hard Oprah fan that has seen every episode ever broadcast, but I do consider Oprah to be one of the highest standing role models television has to offer. So when I saw the reaction people were having to her "Operation: India" special, I was fairly surprised, and decided to see what all the fuss was about.
Was it to my relief that Oprah had been highly misconstrued by the Indian viewer as being condescending and demeaning? Not really, because as much relief as that may have brought, it also meant that a large amount of my people, Indians, had done just that: misconstrued Oprah.
If you have read other articles on this topic, you may already know that Oprah went from a poverty filled slum to the homes of Indian Bollywood Royalty in one episode. You may have also heard that Oprah brought a man to tears by asking him what dreams he had for his family, as they sat in their 10 x 10ft house.
But what you may not have heard, is how Oprah strived to show the very real paradoxes that exist in India. I don't believe that I have ever seen the inside of a slum shown on television in India. Nor have I seen the 16,000 widows that congregate in Vrindavan because they have been abandoned by their families after their husbands die. The Indians who have taken offence to Oprah's surprise at eating with hands; what are they thinking about those Indian widows who have been abandoned? Are they asking questions? Are they doing anything about it? I haven't seen any Tweets or Facebook updates that ask "where are the widows' children"? But I see Oprah asking it.
This is not the first time I have disagreed with an Indian uproar over a petty thing that drowns out entirely the greater message of the medium. In 2008 a little film called Slumdog Millionaire brought to light the dark world of organized crime in Mumbai, which is a very real threat to many children in the city. Indians practically painted the town red with their rage at how a British filmmaker could come to India and make a film based in the underworld, showing the dirtiest and grittiest places in the city to a global audience. How dare you Danny Boyle? It didn't matter that most Bollywood films are about the upper-class and the filthy rich that represent a minute fraction of the population, or that Slumdog Millionaire was so well received worldwide that it won the Oscar for Best Picture.
India paints itself to the world as a rising and booming economy; its people compete for the highest positions in almost all walks of life on a global scale. Indians wear Western clothes, watch Western movies, seek out Western educations and even try to birth their children in the West to allow them Western passports. It is within this very Westernized idea of India that the paradox falls: Indians still eat with their fingers. So I ask you again: is it really that insensitive to assume that this increasingly self-Westernizing India would also Westernize in its table manners?
The fact remains that, in my opinion, Oprah is more tolerant of subcultures than most Indians, and does more good and spreads more hope in a month than most can hope to in a lifetime. I'll allow her one "slip up," even one pathetic jab at my Indian pride, and I won't lose any sleep over it. Thank you, Oprah.