Reflecting on the poem “Representation”
Teaching ideas for your classroom
by Kirsten Wächter
A poem: Representation
by Shubra Shahare
When they ask about the silk and the spices and the jewels and the colours and the festivals. When they ask about the elephant headed god and the monkey god and the ganja smoking dread locked god. When they ask about saris and turbans and bindis and ayurvedic massage. When they ask about gandhi-be-the change-you-wish-to-see. When they ask about cricket and royal dynasties and sometimes the British Raj and very rarely the partition. When they ask about om and Slumdog Millionaire and cows.
When they ask: you laugh, you frown in concentration, you explain.
When they ask about bollywood and ghee and Priyanka Chopra Jonas and samosas and chai. When chai is not chai anymore but chai latte. When they ask about y- they don’t ask about yoga anymore. When they ask about gurus and ashrams and Eat, Pray, Love. Now they also ask about Wild, Wild Country on Netflix. When they ask about meditation and the sitar and curry. When they ask about the Taj Mahal and naan bread when it is just naan.
When they ask: you are patient, you are understanding, you are in control of your emotions.
When they ask about hindu but mean hindi and vice versa. When they ask about The God of Small Things and Salman Rushdie and Hasan Minhaj. When they ask about Apu and Hadji and Mowgli and reincarnation. When namaste is not just something you say to your aunts and uncles and grandparents and neighbours and the vegetable seller and the Uber driver but the divine in me honours the divine in you.
When they ask: you nod, look at the time on your phone and say oh-is-that-the-time?
When they ask about big fat weddings and arranged marriage and the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking. When they ask about Never Have I Ever on Netflix and Mindy Kaling and Kamala Harris. When they ask about poverty and corruption and the caste system. When they ask about open defecation and illiteracy and rapes and dowry and female foeticide and rapes and poverty and emigration and rapes and poverty and poverty and poverty.
When they ask: you answer as a sole entity. Particular. And think about all the stuff.
They Don’t Ask About (Among Other Things): coffee, any religion other than Hinduism, developing world wokeness, any language other than Hindi, Thumbs Up & Maggi, caste-based oppression, the proper way to pronounce Taj Mahal, Sikkim, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, the difference between Hindu and Hindi, what you consider exotic, Ghoul on Netflix, Sairat on Netflix, Bulbbul on Netflix, how it really feels to live in their country, your opinion on Hip Hop, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
Teaching Ideas for your classroom
I found that the poem on the preceding page is extremely rich in ideas and resources for teaching and doing some research about the things mentioned has also opened my eyes more for how little I know about Indian culture still. So we decided to include it in our Journal for its quality and beauty, but also because it raises some key questions about unconscious bias, how to approach people from other cultures and story-telling and story-listening. Key questions which are at the heart of intercultural discourse and training as well.
How can we use a poem like this in the classroom?
I have recently provided an online workshop to intercultural trainers in India, and we discussed how India is portrayed in the Western media. When I read the poem, a lot of the cultural references Shahare made rang home, from the exotic backdrop of Hollywood movies to the copious reports on rape on television.
So my first idea for the classroom would be to ask students to identify the references made and to group them. They could even make a collage with pictures from movie scenes or of the people and books mentioned. This would be a huge tapestry not of India, but of how people outside India, Westerners in particular, perceive this country.
From there, you could follow some of the demystification and disentanglement that is going on – the difference between language and religion, for example, or the fact that India is a multi-religious country and also the question of cultural appropriation (e.g. chai tea). You can also steer the lesson towards a deconstruction of the media-shaped gaze and on unconscious bias: why do we see India in this way? What is typically Indian for us? How is India constructed as an exotic culture like from a western perspective?
The reactions that she puts in to break between the parts make us share how she feels; they invite the reader to change perspectives and put ourselves in her shoes, at the receiving end of (unconscious) bias.
In the last part of her poem, Sharare suggests some things that are more important for her when it comes to Indian culture and identity. Again, students would have to research what these references are about. Then, these could be contrasted against the stereotypes that are mentioned earlier, e.g. the home-made series on Netflix like Ghoul or Sairat versus US-American products like Wild, Wild Country and Temple of Doom, challenging the story-telling of the inside gaze and the outside view. As a follow up, you can also ask your students to find other examples.
Sharare also talks about problems in Indian society and it might be worth exploring those – not the sensationalist ones that make news on prime-time TV, but the ones like caste-based oppression that really shape the society but are more complex to delve into.