India’s Moment of Win(frey)

Some may use their free time to wonder about the origins and mysteries of life, or to do their perpetually present homework. Others may simply be asking themselves, “What exactly has Oprah Winfrey been doing since ending her talk show?” If you form part of the latter group, then let me save you the trouble of typing your query into Google, and tell you that she hasn’t been lounging around at home all this while. In fact, she recently made a trip to India in order to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. Yes, the holy mother of daytime television came to speak at the festival on January 22nd, and basically incited hysteria among the crowds awaiting her- so much so that it almost obscured the underlying disappointment of author Salman Rushdie’s absence. The annual lit fest was also host to various literary icons, Indian and international, who spoke on diverse topics- Michael Ondaatje, Jamaica Kincaid, and media sensation Tiger Mom Amy Chua are only a few of the ‘well-knowns’ who  were there. Yet in this circus of writers and readers, Oprah’s name stood out to many as the star, must-see attraction.

Even our city Mumbai was one of Winfrey’s destinations, one to which she had been planning to come since Obama’s election. Yet in a blink of an eye she was here and gone after spending time with a wide range of people, from Bollywood stars to an 11-year-old girl in a Colaba slum. But either due to her visit being strangely underplayed, or because of my constant state of unawareness, Oprah coming to Mumbai didn’t particularly seem like the talk of the town. It was her highly publicized interview in Jaipur with Barkha Dutt that generated all the excitement, as both TV and live audiences were eager to know of her first impressions of India. And after revealing her initial sense of culture shock on arriving in the chaos that is India, unlike most visitors to a country, she chose to forgo extolling its virtues, and instead made observations on a more touchy issue. Of course, first she was obliged to take a slightly generic route and talk about the more wholesome atmosphere of the country, aspects with which she was impressed, India being a place of irony and contradiction, but what was more noteworthy was her take on the place and treatment of widows in Indian society as opposed to married women and girls, which again refers back to her idea of India’s paradoxical nature. She says of attitudes towards widows, which she plans to study and further pursue, “The paradox I could not understand was how a family can be so loving and protective towards its girl child, but then hostile and cold if she is widowed.”

Now let’s face it- with Oprah owning a TV channel, footage, interviews, and any other information on the aforementioned issue will ultimately culminate in another show about real-life’s gritty character. But hopefully her concern won’t be undermined; she intends her experiences to translate into an integrated collection of stories, not an exposé- and as she fittingly mentioned at the Lit Fest, “I use stories to connect people to show our humanity, not our lack of humanity.”  Oprah may not have come here to stay, but the shadow of her presence seems like it inevitably will.

-Shaakya Vembar


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