Namaste Inc.

Greatly influential on Western impressions of India, the ancient greeting namaste has since been exploited by that country’s tourism industry for the purpose of attracting Western visitors, who have been sold on the idea that their impressions will be made real by compliant natives

ORIGINALLY a Sanskrit greeting, namaste had long been used among diaspora Indians, who spoke it as they bowed to each other in respect. In today’s India it has almost vanished from popular use. You rarely, if ever, hear it. It feels to many Indians antiquated, overly formal, and out of place. You’re much likelier to hear the more direct, informal greeting, “Kaise ho?” (“How are you doing?”). And that’s only if you’re hearing Hindi, which is but one of 122 major languages spoken in the country.

This present cultural fact of course runs contrary to Western imaginings.

And, curiously enough, Western imaginings have breathed new life into namaste: The word now greets a global market as a slogan of health, fitness, and hospitality ideals born with the 1960s New Age movement and revived with current trends. Whether embodied in a product or service, namaste acts to conjure a sense of welcome extended to potential, almost invariably Western, consumers’ minds, evoking embedded values of another culture and thus conferring a degree of authenticity to the product or service in question. In the case of India it is the culture’s psychospiritual ideas and practices -- yoga, Ayurveda, and so on -- which are coopted and adapted to forms Westerners find palatable.

Yet, as fate would have it, a recent bid for control over these alienated, Western-friendly forms has come from an unlikely source: India’s own Ministry of Tourism. This largely owes to the Ministry’s project of attempting to manage perceptions of India by foreigners in order to boost tourism. The Ministry promoted not only local attractions; it also presented a carefully constructed image of the country and its culture. For example, a promotional campaign featuring renowned Bollywood actor Aamir Khan’s popularized use of Athithi Devo Bhava (“The guest is akin to god”) and other Sanskrit phrases from ancient Hindu texts. A television spot appealed to foreign tourists and Indians alike, urging the latter to adopt such values as would dispose them to treat their guests as gods. It’s probably no accident that the foreign tourists in these ads are always white.

The campaign aimed to dispel the cliché notion that Indians -- travel guides and shopkeepers, particularly -- are out to dupe unsuspecting Western tourists by demanding exorbitant prices. Another spot encourages Indians to be warm and hospitable to their foreign guests. They are to be proud of their culture, and not simply for the knowledge that theirs is such a rich heritage. Their pride must also serve to show foreign guests a degree of authenticity that is sufficiently welcoming. What Indians are meant to take away from the Ministry’s campaign is this: Welcome foreign guests with namaste and maybe put vermilion on their foreheads. But don’t be too aggressive or try to show how much you covet their dollars, pounds, and euros.

The Ministry’s campaign appears to have succeeded. Tourism in India has boomed.

In a globalized context, however, the warm and hospitable images of India promoted by the Ministry clashes with images reflected back at Indians by Westerners as the latter appropriate traditions in fervent bids for contact with cultural authenticity. Western ears may tend to hear in namaste a note of subservience. And Western conventions dictate that, no matter how bad a day a worker has, she must always put the needs of customers before her own. These conventions also inform proper customer-service etiquette, in which prevail such beliefs as service personnel who refuse to smile are rude and customers are always right.

In customer-support call centers outsourced to India, the ability to speak English without an accent is valued highly. Training centers in India offer accent-concealing English crash courses to newly graduated high school students. As you may expect, these courses are incredibly popular. The injunctions attending such training are clear: Smile when you greet a caller. Remove any traces of your natural self before you speak a language that isn’t your native one. Avoid hinting at more authenticity than your caller might welcome.

Those training centers strip students of possibly unwelcome aspects of Indian identity. To the support center’s customers, authenticity is, well, a bit too Indian.

Yet too Indian is how many Indians themselves may come to feel in certain circumstances. Of the thousands of Indian youth who move to the United States each year, some learn to fake an American accent. Often they do this by watching Hollywood films. They believe speaking “American English” enables them to blend in better. It may ease their lives in their adoptive country. Yet these youths may well also come to sense that, in a globalized world, authenticity isn’t something that can simply be owned. No crash course magically confers it. And it certainly isn’t something that any ministry of tourism can claim for a culture it’s busy branding.

At any rate, pursuit of authenticity becomes irrelevant when parts of your own cultural identity seem destined to remain too foreign to be appropriated and marketed.

Authenticity depends, rather, on the power of cultural narratives to shape current perceptions. When the West appropriates namaste and the impression of the warm, welcoming country the word conjures -- an impression that, more importantly, India’s Ministry of Tourism so aggressively markets -- it becomes the first word in an emergent narrative of subservience. Marketing palatable, welcoming authenticity means forcing Indians to constantly seek to prove their own: Either you are not Indian enough (you need to learn to welcome tourists with namaste) or you are too Indian (you need to take a crash course in order to eliminate your accent). By promoting India almost exclusively to white tourists, Indians have lost ownership of the images of their culture and their country. Indians might try to regain control of them. Yet control always lies with power. Conflicts over authenticity will therefore remain unequal in such an asymmetrical, globalized context.