Since I was featured in Oprah Winfrey's visit to India, some might claim that I am in no position to comment on the backlash she has suffered over it. I feel the contrary. Oprah struck me as not simply interested in India but willing to give herself over to it. She had one insight after another and even a few personal epiphanies. She has expressed her gratitude repeatedly, and I came away certain that India had made a good friend.
That's still true, but some mosquitoes showed up at the picnic (not unusual for India), in the form of tweets, blogs, and newspaper comments carping about a trivial matter -- Oprah's surprise, when she was filmed having dinner with a family in Mumbai, that Indians eat with their hands. (I still eat with my hands; the food is much tastier.) It is obvious that Oprah did not mean to offend. If she had merely said, "I hear that Indians eat with their hands," and then gone on good-naturedly to eat that way herself, I doubt that anyone would have been as affected to be offended. But her remark came across awkwardly: "I heard that Indian people eat with their hands still."
That "still" sounded condescending to those who went out of their way to be outraged. If you are totally tone-deaf, the word could imply that Indians "still" eat with their hands because they haven't grown out of being a primitive people. But it was clear that Oprah was trying to communicate to her American viewers what it's like to accept hospitality in a foreign environment -- and common sense tells us that countless Americans know so little about India that her visit, which exposed viewers to many facets of the culture, was a hands-across-the-sea gesture that should be taken in good faith, as it was offered.
Is India so insecure that it prickles at the smallest slight? No one can say that. Sweeping generalizations about India make no sense, given its bewildering melange of peoples, languages, and religions. One thing is fairly certain, however. The exaggerated response to Oprah's mini-faux pas doesn't show Indians off in a good light. The country is proud of being one of the rising BRIC economies. For the first time, an impoverished nation has a real shot of sitting at the banquet table long dominated by the west.
If it wants to be taken as a major player, India cannot at the same time retrogress into this kind of thin-skinned touchiness. One could discourse at length on a national character that mingles many contradictory traits. At any moment India is likely to be gracious and hot-headed, fawning and arrogant, proud and ashamed, spiritual and crass. Some of this is growing pains, some of it seems engraved in our genes. But if you can't stand your reflection, don't blame the mirror. India needs to adapt to international scrutiny -- that's the entry fee for walking on the world stage. Oprah provided a kind close-up; many harsher ones are likely to come.