India: a post-colonial reflection of my fellow travellers

A Lunchtime Seminar Series Summary

By Michelle Kelly

16 March 2011

CCR’s James Arvanitakis launched the 2011 Lunchtime Seminar Series on March 8 with his presentation “India: a post-colonial reflection of my fellow travellers”. In India to present five conference papers in five cities in five days, Arvanitakis also took the opportunity to speak with tourists about their experiences in the country. “Hey matey, how are you?” – the deceptively simple greeting he used produced an amazingly diverse group of responses, travelogues, and anecdotes, ranging from the aggrieved to the transfigured.

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Using creative non-fiction as an inspiration for his methodology, Arvanitakis developed four archetypes of the travellers he encountered. With the help of one of the convenors, he performed dialogues to illustrate each of the stereotypes he had identified.

There are travellers to India who say “I am here to find myself”. There are visitors who celebrate the “sense of community” they say they find in Indian villages and who insist “the poor are so happy”. The romanticisation of poverty is endemic among many visitors to low income countries – something that presents a real challenge in redressing inequalities. A third group seems to subscribe to a stereotype of “the noble yet stupid savage”; remarking on the local “willingness to please” while criticising what they perceive as “inefficiencies” in Indian bureaucracy and society. And finally, there is “the white man under siege.” Arvanitakis described people who are overwhelmed by the crowds and rush of Indian cities, and respond with rage and frustration.

Discussion was spirited, with the audience reflecting upon issues ranging from destination images to poverty eradication. One audience member speculated that travellers who come to India to “find themselves” are soft targets for criticism. Another wondered what kind of taxonomies Indian people may develop in imagining the foreign tourists they encounter.

Arvanitakis reflected upon how a combination of creative non-fiction and ethnography can confront power relationships in a different way to standard academic writing. Mapping and dramatising the “whities” he met while travelling through India is something which enabled him to reflect upon postcolonial attitudes in a de-colonised world.