Thin Skinned


During the launch of Ranjini Manian’s book, Upworldly Mobile, Narayana Murthy gave a speech about what kinds of things Indians should be aware of when they are interacting with the rest of the world.  He mentioned keeping time, being more direct, and then he said,

“We are perhaps the most thin-skinned nation in the world.  We see insults where none is meant.  We get upset very easily.  We think that somebody is out to make India look bad.”

My first thoughts were these: What? Can he really say that? Oh no, someone is going to get offended that he said that.  Which, of course, validates exactly what he said.

Indians tend to be a very sensitive people.  They care very much how they are viewed by the rest of the world and by each other.  If anyone has a negative opinion of India, they will be quick to say why that view is unjustified or largely untrue.  Just browse around any public forum where people are commenting on India and you will see what I mean. One writer commented that if webhosts were required to remove all material that any Indian user might find objectionable, “We would be left only with the stock prices”.

[Note: This is in contrast to those few Indians who see most things in India as bad - often a returning NRI.]

The first time I interacted with this clash was the release of the movie, Slumdog Millionaire.  Not since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had there really been a broadly viewed mainstream movie focused on India.  To outsiders, it seemed like great exposure for India to be the focus of a huge blockbuster and highly awarded movie.  (AR Rahman’s Oscars are a feather in India’s cap they will never forget).

Thus, I was surprised to hear that it was generating a lot of stir and controversy in India.  Many people felt the film was an insult to India because it portrayed it in a negative life and focused only on slum life.  The truth of these critiques is a different subject, but the point is that most Indians would have much preferred Danny Boyle to make a movie about the life of Amitabh Bachchan.  They always want the best face forward and for them this movie was not a good face at all.

For some time in India, I put together slides for corporate presentations talking about India.  For visuals, I pulled from a lovely collection of photos taken by expats around India.  When in India, what do expats take pictures of?  Posh residential setups? New corporate buildings? Upwardly mobile New Indians?  No, by and large expats take pictures of Indian weddings, nature scenes, and Majority Indians and their kids.

Time and time again, I was told in subtle and unsubtle ways to change a picture because the image did not reflect the kind of India they wanted to show to the world.

In The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen interprets the thinskinnedness of India based on its colonial baggage:

“The colonial experience of India not only had the effect of undermining the intellectual self-confidence of Indians, it has also been especially hard on the type of recognition that Indians may standardly have given to the country's scientific and critical traditions.” (77)

He says that the British continually reminded them (incorrectly) that their intellectual achievements in mathematics, science, and technology were not legitimate and well behind the European world.  Sen suggests this permanently damaged their self-respect and forced them to look for it elsewhere.

Whatever the backstory may be, the Indian propensity towards getting offended easily is a clash that you will face in India.  If you stay here very long, you will undoubtedly upset someone based on what you said, did, or didn’t say or do.  If you stay here longer, you may eventually find out what it was that you did!


More essays on #ThinSkinned

What do you think?