The Toxicology of Othering - Grey's Anatomy and IndiansI loved the idea of Grey’s Anatomy from the beginning. I went to medical school (for ten days!). My dad died after a major operation – and those ten (what’s with the 10?) days going in and out of the Command Hospital Surgical ICU have had the most profound impact on my life. The account of a bunch of surgical interns navigating work and life and rising up the echelons of a hospital made so much sense to my upwardly mobile post-liberalization Indian mind.
|What a clever name!|
It did not come easy. Owing to a mix of thrift (you know my vintage from the first paragraph), and tech unsavviness, I could not obtain it. I would catch it on mute in the gym, pedalling hard on the exercycle as I tried to read the Mandarin subtitles (I was too slow). I would search on YouTube and get truncated bits and pieces that teased more than pleased. Netflix, my sole streaming service, did not have Grey’s Anatomy until very recently, and at last, I set to it with gusto.
The show does not disappoint. Sure, the batchmates I grew up with did not die in shoot-outs and plane crashes but hey, I hail from the lands of Bollywood and Kollywood, we have a long association with tinsel-world’s tinkering of the real world to suit a collective palate. All masala for the entertainment mill. And the show has this meta laughing at itself vibe. We are not normal, “we are the Seattle Grace Mercy Death Hospital”, quips Karev in the show, and I cracked up. You'd wonder about Karev’s family and they would turn up; you'd wish a character were not so annoying or clingy or mad and someone in the show would say it. I willingly suspended thought, enough not to be outraged when the hero interns play favourites, cutting a man’s LVAD wire (suffice to know this is TERRIBLY wrong) in order to cheat another out of his heart transplant. As my friends would’ve said back in the days, “Come on yaar, it is a film!” I was happy with crumbs – an episode that brings the cheated, dying man face to face with the erring intern (a sympathetic Katherine Heigl, may I add) made me cringingly grateful - I did not question the fact that the rest of the murdering batch suffer not even a rap on their knuckles. I watched Burke lie about his hand tremor and operate, his accomplice resident (or is it the other way round?) helping him advance his career and going on to become a surgical luminary herself. Again, I watched as the Chief of Surgery, an active alcoholic is aided and abetted by an attending (Miranda Bailey played by Chandra Wilson) with no consequences accruing to the accomplice. I glossed over in my head a woman who in the pursuit of relevance, enables her sexual predator father-in-law. I stepped out of the relentlessness of the Hindu karmic cycle and appreciated the narrative of sin and redemption, the beauty of a belief system that allows you to erase and start over. It separately occurred to me that loyalty trumped integrity in the show, that to communicate this willingness to erase and start over, to join the faith so to speak, was a key ingredient of an all-American story. I wondered what this ‘erasure’ could mean for an outsider, and how that squared with the show’s diversity chops but I was enjoying myself too much to care.
What I love about the show apart from its intelligence, gripping pace and tension, brilliant plot development, pitch-perfect humour, and medical details that are just right for an interested layman like me, is a certain cohesive integrity. The characters are consistent and yet we see growth. What an achievement I thought, and did not mind so much the representation of Indians, or lack thereof. Creative freedom, plot exigencies, egocentric bias (the Japanese, Thais, Lebanese, Filipinos and Indonesians are also missing), a limited talent pool (what comes of turning your children into doctors rather than actors who could play doctors – ha), I told myself. I fell in love with Karev and Christina, admired Meredith and Jackson, was charmed by Maggie, and did not mind that the Indian characters scattered here and there come off at the losing end of witty dialogue. The unnamed psychologist makes wrong diagnoses and is correctly over-ridden, Dr. Timir is unnecessarily overbearing and horrid in an ignorant sort of way.
All that was until Season 14. Enter Dr. Vikram Roy, handsome douchebag par excellence. With him, I entered the land of received micro-aggression, breathed the troubled air of doubt. Roy spoke up and was shut down, ‘apparently’ deservedly. He kissed and told, and people bristled; he was cocky and a liar, feigning an arrogance that he could not back up with competence. Dr. Roy is universally disliked, cannot take direction, loses his head in a crisis, and cannot see that he is in the wrong. This was damning. His second firing had a "good riddance" feel to it which made me stop watching the show. This was not an actor in character, this was a straw man played by a bad actor.
I am not of America, so I googled Indians in America. Apparently, Indian Americans are 1.2% of the population and enjoy the highest median income in the country. (They are probably disproportionately successful because of discriminatory policies that disproportionately disallowed ordinary Indians into the US, but that is another matter). Indians are found in earned positions of relevance from Silicon Valley to Washington DC and form 20% of the physician community.
A community that has achieved material success. A show that under-represents this community, and when it finally introduces a named Indian character after 14 seasons, portrays this ‘representative’ as irredeemably shifty, dishonest, dangerously irresponsible and a coward. Ring a bell?
Any “ism” - racism or sexism or casteism - can be covert, insidious and subtle. It does not start with a regime instituting a “Final Solution,” a Dalit woman gang-raped in an Indian village, or as Alex Beresford expresses it, “a black man laid on the floor, a white police officer’s knee on his neck.” It goes through stages of portrayal in the literature and the arts. The "awful condition" of a Chandala is referred to time and again in ancient Hindu texts. “The Birth of a Nation” ran to packed houses, “Gone with the Wind” was an acknowledged hit. “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Tempest” were unreservedly appreciated for centuries. Time to change that. To quote Alex Beresford again, “you have to take into consideration, how it felt at the receiving end.” Today, Maya Angelou’s words resonate with me. “People will never forget how you made them feel”. The show made me feel targetted.
And for those who may wonder - I am on Team Meghan. Full marks to someone who refused to go down merely because “they signed up?”! No, that is not how it works. Truth and Justice trumps covenants and institutions. And shows that stand for justice.