Land of Evil
For Halloween 2022, I’ve decided to go as the scariest kind of monster: myself.
But Aditi, you may say, you look like a ruffled baby owl in a hoodie. How on earth is that scary?
Confused? I was too, initially. I used to believe that I was a writer of horror, until I read a handful of classic horror stories and realised that I am, in fact, a trope of horror. For I hail from the Orient, that land of dirty sad-eyed inscrutable people who roll around in filth, cast curses on unwary white travellers, and worship demons. I am Indian, and that’s all I need to terrify readers – or so many authors would have us believe. Just pick up “The City of Dreadful Night” by Rudyard Kipling, and shudder at his lavish descriptions of those ghastly brown people having the gall to sleep in public, on their own land! To him, Indian bodies are objects of unholy horror, like living corpses:
More corpses; more stretches of moonlit, white road; a string of sleeping camels at rest by the wayside; a vision of scudding jackals; ekkaponies asleep – the harness still on their backs, and the brass-studded country carts, winking in the moonlight – and again more corpses. Wherever a grain cart atilt, a tree trunk, a sawn log, a couple of bamboos and a few handfuls of thatch cast a shadow, the ground is covered with them. They lie – some face downwards, arms folded, in the dust; some with clasped hands flung up above their heads; some curled up dog-wise; some thrown like limp gunny-bags over the side of the grain carts; and some bowed with their brows on their knees in the full glare of the Moon. It would be a comfort if they were only given to snoring; but they are not, and the likeness to corpses is unbroken in all respects save one.
Or, if you prefer more recent fiction, “The Mistake at the Monsoon Palace” by Christopher Fowler, which opens with charming descriptions of Indians cheating hapless white tourists and using rupees to wipe our nethers:
She has been touching rupees so soft and brown that they looked as if they’d been used for – she dreaded to think what. She silently repeated the hygiene rule; right hand for taking money and greeting, because here the left hand was used as a substitute for toilet paper.
“I said my cousin owns the best pashmina shop in Jaipur,” Shere told her. “He will be honoured to make you a special deal because you are my valued client.”
Sure, she thought, this guy is your cousin, your brother, your uncle, anyone other than some creep you cut deals with to rob rich, gullible Americans.
There you go. I belong to the darkest species of evil: I’m Indian, a dirty, mournful, corpse-like thing by nature, a prop to be used in horror stories by white British men. Why should I pen horror when I am the horror?
I’m being sarcastic, of course. Reading works like these, being openly labelled as something filthy and unnatural, felt like receiving a punch in the face. I had to physically close these anthologies after just a few pages, just to collect myself.
Frankly, I’m almost impressed at the sheer level of vitriolic racism contained within Fowler’s story in particular. He actually surpasses Kipling. According to him, we are dirty, mournful, curse-ridden, greedy people who do not know how to take care of our land, and therefore we need a white American woman to punish us for disrespecting it. The latter brings up another dimension of discrimination: in addition to the overt racism (Fowler at one point calls Indian Americans “invisible” and unworthy of attention), there is a strong streak of casteism – perhaps unintentional, but certainly the consequence of shoddy background research – through Fowler’s tale. Shere, the aforementioned cheat, carries an Adivasi name, Banjara. The workmen in the story are eager to desecrate the titular palace’s lands, and die brutal deaths at the end, a horrible mockery of the fact that many manual labourers in India – most of whom belong to oppressed castes – die in workplace tragedies due to the negligence and indifference with which their lives are treated by their supervisors.
Now, I do not believe that white authors should never set horror stories in India. I love reading literature which draws from international mythologies, and India has more than its fair share of weird, wonderful legends and monstrous beings. I also firmly believe that India should not be represented as an idyllic, utopian society, and that writers should freely criticise the darker aspects of India’s society. But narratives like Kipling’s and Fowler’s are everything wrong with horror. They are lazy, ill-researched, dumps of bigotry, which treat entire nations like caricatures – like mystical creepy backdrops against which the white heroes’ stories play out.