August 23, 2017

On Kevin Durant’s comments and India’s misplaced outrage

This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India Sports on August 13, 2017. Click here to read the original piece.

First of all, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Kevin Durant’s comments about what he saw in India were ignorant and lacked perspective.

Secondly, the outrage that has followed his comments in India has been totally misplaced and out of context.

Here’s the backstory: a few weeks ago, Durant, one of the world’s most-talented, richest, and famous basketball players, came to India on an official trip with the American National Basketball Association (NBA) to promote the sport in the country. Durant was the crown jewel of the NBA’s investments in the Indian market. A few months ago, he won his first NBA title with the Golden State Warriors and a Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. He divided opinions among fans for his decision to join the talented Warriors last year, but nobody can deny his talent and potential to be remembered as one of the greatest scorers in league history.

Even though basketball is a niche sport in India, Durant was welcome with enthusiastic support and hype. After spending his first evening meeting with Bollywood and sports celebrities in New Delhi, Durant got to work the very next day. His foundation donated two basketball courts to the Ramjas School in New Delhi and he interacted with young schoolkids at the courts’ inauguration. Later, he headed to the NBA’s state of the art elite India Academy in Greater Noida, where he trained several of India’s top teenage basketball prospects. Durant’s time at the Academy ended up as he was joined by hundreds of more young players from the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme, as well has a few thousand who checked-in via a live-stream from around the country, to create a Guinness World Record for “largest basketball lesson” (3,459 attendees). 

Before leaving India, Durant took a standard tourist pilgrimage down to Agra, where he visited the Taj Mahal. He documented his entire trip, from trying out local cuisine to hanging out at the Taj, in a short video on his YouTube channel.

So far, so good.

The trouble began with Durant returned home to the United States and was interviewed by Anthony Slater of The Athletic. It was a wide-ranging conversation that touched on his decision to take a pay-cut for the Warriors, the NBA’s summer transactions, and more. But it was what he said about India that caught the attention of the mainstream media in India.

Q: First of all, India. You just got back. What was that like?

DURANT: Um, it was a unique experience. I went with no expectation, no view on what it's supposed to be like. I usually go to places where I at least have a view in my head. India, I'm thinking I'm going to be around palaces and royalty and gold — basically thought I was going to Dubai. Then when I landed there, I saw the culture and how they live and it was rough. It's a country that's 20 years behind in terms of knowledge and experience. You see cows in the street, monkeys running around everywhere, hundreds of people on the side of the road, a million cars and no traffic violations. Just a bunch of underprivileged people there and they want to learn how to play basketball. That s— was really, really dope to me.

Q: Was there a particular situation or person or thing that was eye-opening on the trip?

DURANT: Yeah. As I was driving up to the Taj Mahal, like I said, I thought that this would be holy ground, super protected, very very clean. And as I'm driving up, it's like, s—, this used to remind me of some neighborhoods I would ride through as a kid. Mud in the middle of the street, houses were not finished but there were people living in them. No doors. No windows. The cows in the street, stray dogs and then, boom, Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world. It's like holy s—, this was built 500 years ago and everyone comes here. It's just an eye-opener.

Now, Durant didn’t “need” to answer straightforward questions about India with this much frankness and detail, but he is known to be a fairly open guy and not afraid to say what he believes is the truth, even if it might ruffle some people the wrong way. Most foreign celebrities would have answered the questions with the token “It was a beautiful country” and “I loved how nice the people were” answers. But no, Durant chose to say what was on his mind.

But by being this frank, Durant put himself at risk of sounding extremely ignorant, which he did. I won’t expect every American to know the differences in riches, culture, and lifestyle between India and Dubai, but Durant was an ambassador for the NBA to India and should have known better. India is infinitely complicated and it’s impossible for the most-learned expert on the country to describe in a few simple soundbites, let alone a 28-year-old American athlete who has spent most of his waking moments perfecting the craft of basketball instead of catching up on international cultures and history. This is why most visitors are advised against going off the script.

The reaction by many Indians, as expected, was to take quick offense (we’re getting better at that by the day). Around the world-wide-webs, mainstream media houses that rarely report on the positives of the sport and its athletes found the type of outrage they were looking for, and people began to write open letters to Durant to make the usual “Incredible India” pitch.  

Durant swiftly responded, and a day later, apologised on Twitter.

Sorry that my comments about India were taken out of context, I’m grateful for the time I’ve got to spend there and I’m really pissed about how my comments came off, that’s my fault, should’ve worded that better. I spoke about the difference between my imagination and reality there is in Delhi and about where the game is compared to the rest of the world. No offense from this back, I’m coming back out there for more camps and cool shit. Sorry…

Later in the day, his manager and partner Rich Kleiman cleared the air with The Times of India to say that Durant had an “amazing time” in India.

What should we make of those careless comments and the apology that followed? India is neither “palaces and royalty and gold” nor “20 years behind in terms of knowledge and experiences”. It’s a bit of all and none of the above. It all depends on where you go, which Indians you ask, and ultimately, who your tour guides are. India isn’t “just a bunch of underprivileged people” and not full of homes without doors, of mud, and monkeys and cows roaming everywhere as Durant may have made it sound to others ignorant to the country reading his comments.

Born in Suitland, Maryland, Durant has experienced poverty and a close periphery to crime in his youth, too, but he had probably never seen the challenges that India faces in trying to move forward with a population four times as large in a landmass one-third the size of his country. Uttar Pradesh, the state where the Taj Mahal sits, in particular, is India’s most populous and one of its poorer states. If it were a separate country, UP would be the fifth-most populous in the world.

Durant’s comments were ignorant and insensitive, especially since celebrities and role models of his influence in 2017 have been forced to limit their thoughts to the lowest, most-politically-correct, common denominator. If anything, I hope that this situation forces him to learn more about India’s culture and history, and learn that, even if we might be behind in infrastructural development, there is goodness in the country that has enriched the world in so many different ways. Hopefully, he’ll fulfil his promise to return for more “cool shit”, whatever that might mean.

But the larger issue here for me is the misplaced outrage that followed Durant’s comments. I was born and bred in UP, too, and if Agra culture-shocked Durant, he should’ve seen the sensory-overload that attacks visitors to my hometown, Varanasi. It is simultaneously one of the most beautiful places on Earth while one of the most difficult.

It is easy for us as Indians to take these wild contradictions for granted. Many of us only wake up to care about India’s serious issues when we see them from foreign eyes. So many of us are okay to only care about the problems in our own home when an outsider embarrasses us to do so.

There is some truth to all of Durant’s observations. Agra may have one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but it is still a relatively underdeveloped city with a lot of poverty and crumbling infrastructure. Overall, 22 percent of Indians live below our self-defined official poverty line. Yes, there indeed are monkeys and cows running wild in many Indian cities, there are people indeed suffering, people who are poor, too many people without proper access to the basic human needs of food, shelter, and clothing.

Our outrage as Indians shouldn’t be about Kevin Durant speaking about India’s poverty; it should be about India’s poverty. I’ll quote my friend and podcast co-host Kaushik Lakshman who wrote that, “if taking offense was an Olympic sport, we’d win gold every time.” If we really want things to change, let’s turn this pent-up energy towards some positive change.