Why has the Harry-Meghan 2-hour interview to Oprah Winfrey not evoked gut-wrenching sympathy in India for this biracial royal couple? Why haven’t the descriptions of racism and Meghan’s suicidal thoughts stirred white-hot loyalty for the Prince and his Duchess here in India?
Meghan has described the British royals as a cold, unwelcoming coterie who cruelly isolated her after she married Harry. She has alleged that her deliberate desolation by the Family and the suffocating feudal traditions caused her to lose interest in staying alive. She turned to the royal ‘frame’ for help, but was denied relief.
And of course she twisted the knife by revealing that during her first pregnancy, an unnamed royal family member had speculated about the complexion of the unborn child. The whole world is speculating about the identity of this dim-witted and archaic royal.
Yet in India, the popular reaction to this outpouring is tepid at best, even dismissive. It’s not just the reverse snobbery of an ex-Colony, or disinterest in the royal family which we turfed out 75 years ago, but it seems to be about a profound difference in our understanding of what constitutes tragedy in life.
In the ‘Power of the Curse’ (Garib ki Hai), written about 100 years ago, the master storyteller Munshi Prem Chand inoculated our ancestors’ psyche with the contours of human cruelty and white-knuckled tragedy. That is the understanding of injustice that has endured in our midst all these decades. Written against the feudal fabric of the day, Prem Chand’s writings spoke of how the powerful looted the powerless, cruelly and repeatedly, and in plain sight.
In the ‘Power of the Curse’, Munga is the widow of a slain sergeant of the Native Indian battalion in Burma. She receives a compensation of Rs.500 from the government. Following the rules of servile village hierarchy, she deposits her money for safekeeping with the privileged landlord, Ram Sevak. The landlord gives her a pittance every month, but very soon gets frustrated that the widow is not showing signs of dying. So he traumatises her with an outrageous demand for her funeral expenses. Destituted, Munga rushes to the Panchayat to have her fortune restored, but the gentry support the landlord.
Munga loses her mind, and flops in front of Ram Sevak’s house cursing, “I’ll drink your blood”. The landlord’s son angrily pours cow dung on the impoverished widow, and she dies at the doorstep of the privileged landlord. But now Ram Sevak’s family is consumed by fear and guilt, and the village ostracises them, leading to the landlord’s social and financial devastation.
Munga’s deep wretchedness is what many of us recognise as tragedy, and the landlord’s random greed as cruelty. Munshi Prem Chand alerted us again and again to the truth that where there is oppression, the oppressed and oppressor both face untold bitterness in life. This is the curse that underpins all strife.
India’s sensitivities are moulded by the brutal truths expressed by a long tradition of chroniclers from Prem Chand to Perumal Murugan. Our psyches have also processed the torture of Nirbhaya, the Hathras gang-rape, scores of dead young women hanging from trees, fathers of gang-raped daughters killed in accidents, and now a class 11 Noida student who has committed suicide due to his skin complexion. These facts are stacked in our memory banks.
So Meghan’s tell-all list of abuse by the royal family due to her biracial ancestry doesn’t cut it here. We live in a cauldron of discrimination based on religion, caste, gender, race, ethnicity, class, colour, wealth, proximity to power, body shape, language, literacy and now access to the digital world. Although today several groups are thriving by ‘Othering’, an equal number hope that this boom will be short-lived.
It is safe to assume that Harry and Meghan have not read Munshi Prem Chand or other Indian diarists of the human condition. And it is equally safe to assume that the 94-year old Queen’s belated promise to investigate allegations of racism in the royal family will resonate well in India, where it is critically important to be seen to be doing the right thing. But Harry and Meghan are not seen to be doing right by lobbing a grenade at Harry’s family through the TV interview.
Meghan has made a name and fortune in Hollywood and on Cable TV, and now she (with Harry as a character artist) is about to helicopter into the seriously swish club. News has it that she and Harry have signed a $150 m deal with Netflix, their earnings to be supplemented by powerful Documentary ‘messages’.
Social media is forecasting that the Harry-Meghan saga will cause the British royal family to fade away, and British media is claiming that this is the worst royal crisis in 85 years. So, will the sun set on the British Empire now? It’s difficult to predict, but be sure that the Sun Never Sets On the Netflix Empire.
(Nalini Singh is a senior TV journalist.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.