Friday, June 17, 2005

Into the Annals of Poor Writing on South Asia


I think we have another entry into the annals of really bad writing on South Asia. This entry comes from perennial favorite, our friends over at Condé Nast Traveler.

Those of you who have been to the region understand my initial surprise when I received my June 2005 issue to see on the cover a piece entitled Driving India. I mean, there is a reason that Hertz and Avis car rental companies aren't on every corner (I believe there are 16 Hertz locations for the entire country of over a billion people). Ever wonder why no ingenious Indian business person hadn't created the rupee car rental company? Perhaps because it isn't safe for those unfamiliar with the country/roads to drive there. Like any good desi, I immediately flip to the story entitled "Accelerating Mayhem," and began reading to see how crazy the writer, Stephan Wilkinson must be to take on the Indian roads. Instead I was left wondering how his article got published.

Well as soon as I flipped to page 92, I began to see the signs, not so much that he is crazy, but for bad and clichéd writing on the region. What are these warning signs you ask? Let's have a looksee:

1. Required discussion of arranged marriage, check. I have no idea what this has to do with a travelogue or driving India, but yes, people in India have arranged marriages. It has been written about, TMBWITW Aishwarya has explained it, and some (gasp) even prefer it.

2. The requisite mention of the "Indian head shake," check. To be fair, Wilkinson describes it as "a vague cock of the head." Furthermore, I think we should formally rename it here as the South Asian head shake because I know they do it in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka as well.

3. Use of the word "the" before mentioning the state of Punjab, check. I never understood how this trend started, to say "the Punjab." Writing, "From Delhi through the Punjab" is the equivalent of saying from Washington D.C. through the Pennsylvania…

4. Requisite comparison of India's roads and driving conditions to a video game, check. The driving conditions suck, but there has to be a better, less clichéd way to describe the roads. And I have seen better game comparisons—he uses automotive tetris.

5. Inclusion of caste, check. Wilkinson notes, "What would get him [a driver] pistol-whipped in Chicago or Manhattan occasions not so much as a rude gesture in caste-docile India." First, I am not too sure that this guy has had the full driving experience in India if he thinks that Indians don't suffer road rage. Perhaps he didn't understand when the 25 people he cut off each screamed ben/mather chod or any other of the various other Hindi/Punjabi expletives at him. Second, not too sure how the caste reference works in this instance, even if he is convinced that Indian drivers are a bit more polite than American drivers. Does he actually think it is because of the caste system that drivers are polite?

6. Requisite play on Indian name, check. Well this one is kind of funny, bad writing, but funny. Yes its use merits placement in the annals of bad writing on South Asia, but I chuckled slightly when I read of Wilkinson's Indian driver's fate with traffic. He writes, "South of Chandigarh, we come to an enormous traffic jam to which even Surender surrenders."

At this point, I have begun to see fault in the little things in the article as well, and am wondering how this article got past Condé Nast editors and into print. We learn on day two that Shimla was the former summer capital of India and that it is "so far off the tourist map that an Indian family stops us to pose for snapshots." That Indian people are stopping you to take a picture is not a good indicator of how touristy a place is. Shimla was once the capital of the British Raj and has been a stalwart on the Indian tourist map for ever. When I was there, foreigners were all over the place, and I remember being bombarded upon at the entrance of town by almost as many touts as at the Taj or in Jaipur.

7. And finally, the obligatory mention of a holy cow, check. Yes they are on the road, we know this. I think if people know little of India, they know of the Taj Majal and that cows are everywhere. This was last on my liste because cows, along with a plethora of other animals are indeed on the road and part of the driving experience. At the same time, the holy cow thing has been done over, and over again.

So if any of you out there ever have to write an article on South Asia and are looking for a little help, I would avoid Wilkinson and Condé Nast, and start off here, at the SAJA style book instead.


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