On “India vs. Hinduphobia”

Mr. Juluri (“India v. Hinduphobia: What Narendra Modi’s Election as Prime Minister Really Means”),

Firstly, let me congratulate you for analysing the most recent elections in India and figuring out what the “youth” really want – a unified India, as opposed to Hinduphobia – which would apparently mean Mr. Modi losing. According to you, it seems to be a rather black and white issue – a divided India or Hinduphobia (the proof being “orientalist” articles in The Economic Times, The New York Times and The Guardian?).

I would like to disagree with you. I’ll admit it – when I read your article, it made me angry (we’ll come to that later) but then, it seemed ridiculous. I’m not going to lie, I laughed. I laughed at the utopian Hindu world you’ve experienced and lived (perhaps even live) in and I’m angry that this does not reflect my experience of Hinduism and “Hindu worldviews”, even though I was born in a Hindu household and bombarded with those worldviews whether I liked it or not. I laughed because my experience of these worldviews in Hindustan has been shockingly different. So you will understand, I think, if I try to put forward my perspective in response to yours.

We disagree on many points, but foremost amongst them has to be your assertion that respect needs to be accorded to the very little intellectual, emotional or moral purchase the “anointed” secular position has in “large sections of India’s young today”. Your belief seems to be that it is not really secular (“sickular”, perhaps) and has been anointed (but by whom?) and that a large majority of the voters (by association, youth) voted for Narendra Modi, secular criticisms against him have little influence or endorsement. Here, I want to point out that only 31% of the voters voted for him and no party has ever before won more than half the seats with a vote share of just 31%, which emphasises how fragmented the vote actually was this election. But I won’t go into figures and all that jazz now, since it seems that doing so only makes us hold on to our positions with renewed determination.

Apart from that, even if it were true that a large majority of “young people” (or is it young Hindus? Never mind) disregarded secular criticisms and viewpoints in the last general elections, does that automatically make it something which should be respected?

The “new way of being Hindu” which is being equated with everything nice, starting from tolerance to universal good – I don’t see that, I have never seen that.

What I have seen, however, is a resurgence of ideas which talk of how India is “finally” becoming the country it was “meant” to be – the Prime Ministerial candidate goes to temples, offers pujas and respects the Ganges. Have you ever seen anybody do that? No, sir. You haven’t. Here is a true Hindu, a real man who will finally show Muslims their place in the country and get rid of those bloody immigrants (only Muslim ones, mind you).

Yes, India will belong to the Hindus, to us. That seems to be the overriding sentiment when they talk. I don’t know how Hindus practice their worldviews in your (seemingly) utopian world, but these are their worldviews in mine.

And no, this does not exclude “young people”. Yes, most of us are not overt about it, but there is still an “us” versus “them” mentality. Very much so, we would like to hide it, hide from it, deny it – and we do. But that does not mean it is not present. It is everywhere. No, we are not what you think we are, at least not in my (admittedly not utopian) world. And this does not refer clear cut lines based only on religion. It extends to ethnicity, language, caste and class. In a country where you have a multitude of identities, you are bound to have a multitude of loyalties – especially since most social life still revolves around the identities assigned to us with our birth in a particular family.

Allow me to point out yet another assertion of yours I majorly disagree with and which is perhaps the whole premise on which your article is built. I don’t think this election can be as simple as “India vs. Hinduphobia”. Among the 31% voters for Modi, “Hinduphobia” was the least important worry on the minds of at least one camp. Incidentally, this is the “camp” that has the greatest number of “young people”. This camp has taken into account the accusations against him but satisfy themselves with clean chits and speeches where development is mentioned more than the Ram Temple, and how can Modi win without Muslim support (the number of Muslim MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha will be the lowest in 15 years. The BJP has fielded only 5 Muslim candidates but none of them have won) and the Gujarat model of development. We lust after jobs, security, no reservations and the Indian rupee. Many of us seem to have found in Modi a charismatic, interactive leader who portrays himself as being poles apart from Dr. Manmohan Singh, who has often been the butt of jokes due to the silent and formal nature of his interaction with the public. Hinduphobia is so far removed from the truth for them, it’s absurd.

However, to another camp, this election means something else. They are glad that there are only 23 Muslim MPs. They are against anything which does not fit in with their idea of “traditional, Hindu” values (read: gay rights, etc).

You state that different faiths divided by language, custom etc still share a land and history due to Hinduism’s “ancient legacy” of respecting all faiths more than the secular constitution India has. Do you not believe that Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains have a legacy of respecting all faiths? Even if we assume your statement to be true, peace and coexistence cannot be achieved if only one religion is doing all the “respecting” and “tolerating”. Taali ek hath se nahi bajti [you can’t clap with one hand] as we like to say, you know, as Indians.

The government which is to preside over us for the next five years has just been formed, and trust me, all of us who have voted want nothing but the best for India, even though our ideas about what “the best” really is might vary. Let’s see the direction India takes in the next five years. Acche din? For everybody, I hope.

 

How to Say Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu posted an audio pronounciation guide for his name on Tumblr yesterday, adding:

My career goal is to make people say my name properly. This kind of success is called THE GALIFIANAKIS. Hopefully this post will help.

Hari is such an easy name I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t pronounce it correctly (after hearing someone else say it correctly). Kondabolu is harder, but just like Hari, there aren’t any syllables in it which don’t exist in English and most modern languages right? It should to be easy to teach yourself to say Hari correctly. Just say hurry. Or say hubby and replace the b sound with an r sound.

My experience in the UK was that most people said Soooo-nil for some reason – and it grated like hell. This despite them hearing me say it any number of times. The u in my name is actually pronounced like foot, and the i is pronounced either like eel or ill – I use the former, though most Sunils seem to use the latter.

I think it’s a basic courtesy to pronounce someone’s name the way they pronounce it, provided you can say all its syllables. If you can’t say them all, at least say the ones you can – make a “good faith” effort. If you’re not sure, ask! Some of my Indian friends don’t pronounce my name with the pronounciation I use either – I wish they would. (I also have friends who don’t say my name at all – I don’t want to think about what that means.) I’m not immune to this myself; but I try to correct myself. When realisation dawned that I’d been mispronouncing one of my oldest friends’ name for years, I corrected it overnight. When I had a colleague named Sarah I taught myself to say it – “say stair-ah and remove the t“. I’m not sure how to pronounce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s name, but I’m confident that once I hear someone say it correctly, I’ll learn that correct pronounciation.

The phenomenon of name mispronouncation takes on a more serious tone when the person whose name is being mispronounced belongs to an out-group – say immigrants or ethnic minorities. I did some searching on Google Scholar and came across this thesis The Racialisation of Names: Names and the Persistence of Racism in the UK by sociologist Emily Jay Wykes, which examines the racialisation of names including mispronounciation. It’s interesting stuff and there’s free access to the PDF, do take a look.

 

 

The BJP and Bangladeshis

With a recent outbreak of ethnic violence in Assam, the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants have been raked up with every party taking a stand on immigration.

One can see parallels between the “Bangladeshi problem” of India and the “Mexican problem” of the United States, with conservatives demanding for stringent immigration laws and deportation of everyone who they deem as a illegal infiltrators on one side and the liberals and the left accusing the former of being xenophobic (“communal” in India and “racist” in the US) and of fomenting an environment of fear and paranoia.

Now, whether or not immigration laws and enforcement of such laws are fair is a different matter altogether. What I am interested in is the Hindu Right’s obsession with the Bangladeshis. A friend of mine shared an article published in the Pakistani newspaper The Dawn (Indian elections: What taking potshots at Pakistan really means)

When Giriraj Singh talks of sending all those who oppose Modi to Pakistan, he obviously does not mean the Hindus. He wants to say that if the Muslims don’t vote for the BJP, which they don’t normally, they are the enemy.

This should put in perspective how the BJP imagines a Bangladeshi to be and their distinction of a “refugee” from an “infiltrator”. It would be foolish to think that a party with a Hindutva background, a Hindu Nationalist as its Prime Ministerial candidate (whatever that means), and with clear intentions of favouring Hindu Bangladeshis over Muslims, would hold a secular and impartial view in this matter. Talking about immigration and its legality is entirely different from targeting people of a specific nationality. The latter has specific mala fide intention of targeting Muslim Bengalis in West Bengal and Assam. This fits well with the narrative of the “immigrant vote-bank” which has little substance, lots of xenophobia (which in case of Assam borders on racism) and a sprinkle of the usual fear-mongering fantasy: “they took our jobs“.

On Not Having a Good Hindu Name

I met up with a friend yesterday, who, like me, is an atheist but has a Christian last name. As often happens these days, the conversation drifted to the possibility of having Modi as prime minister. She told me about a friend of hers, who has a mixed background – Muslim father, and Christan mother. Her friend said that she was apprehensive about having a Muslim name in an India where Modi is in charge. There would be a sense of fear lurking in one’s mind. What if.

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The Kingkiller Chronicle – A Review of Sorts

It is easier to understand if you think of it in terms of music. Sometimes a man enjoys a symphony. Elsetimes he finds a jig more suited to his taste. The same holds true for lovemaking. One type is suited to the deep cushions of a twilight forest glade. Another comes quite naturally tangled in the sheets of narrow beds upstairs in inns. Each woman is like an instrument, waiting to be learned, loved, and finely played, to have at last her own true music made.

Some might take offense at this way of seeing things, not understanding how a trouper views his music. They might think I degrade women. They might consider me callous, or boorish, or crude.

But those people do not understand love, or music, or me.

The Name of The Wind - Cover

Source – Wikipedia
Used under fair use.

That is what Kovthe, the protagonist of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle series has to say about women. It also sums up the how the series sees women – from the worst of the male gaze.

Is that a too harsh a judgement? I don’t think so. Our pop-culture reflects our patriarchal values. There are exceptions which are growing with time, but take any successful movie or a book and you’ll see the trend. This is even more so prominent in the sci-fi and fantasy genre whose traditional profit base have been men.

Given that background, it would be a big surprise if an author swims against the tide and risks upsetting his potential clientele. So in the two books of out of three released so far in the series you’ll find the baseline sexism and objectification and something beyond that.

The objectification is not casual, something you write down unthinkingly because of the setting of the story – in some old age in a different world where men rule the kingdoms and women exist to be wooed and won. That can be forgiven as lazy. You can’t expect an author to always pick up on the latest developments in ethics and factor them into their books.

But still, if you look at mythological paeans to patriarchy like the Ramayana, even after all the strict gendering of men and women, the women still manage to have far more agency than what you’d find in The Kingkiller Chronicle series which is a grand, epic story that spans a large many characters.

So the objectification is intentional. Whether it is because Rothfuss sees women that way or it is because Rothfuss wanted to write an old fashioned fantasy story with all the prejudices of its time is hard to say. Whatever it is, the end result is akin to you watching a beautiful scenery with someone sitting besides you constantly making a harsh, grating noise which you just can’t ignore.

The noise in the books comes largely by way of the metaphors used the by author. The full gamut of the patriarchal caricatures of women is put to use – beautiful, slender, frail, rousing, fickle, hard to comprehend, nagging, motherly, and powerfully destructive. These metaphors are found throughout the books and they can easily replaced with other non-sexist metaphors without losing any of the intended effect.

For example, to drive home the point that Kovthe’s inn was so clean, the author mentions that after Kovthe finished scrubbing it, the water in the bucket was so clear that a lady can wash her hands in it. The metaphor stands on the assumption that women are fastidious creatures who prefer tidy things (as opposed to men who are not so fussy and like to live uncomplicated lives). Even after conceding that the story was set in a time and place where women are expected to be like that, another metaphor could have been used that would still serve the same purpose. And it is like this throughout the book. Just when you thought the author hasn’t used one of those horrid metaphors in a while, he’ll drop another like someone who’s fastidiously punctual on deploying sexism and objectification.

And of course, there’s the crown glory quoted at the beginning of this post. It looks like the author anticipates that such a stark objectification of women will give rise to objections. So he uses the identification a reader typically develops with the protagonist while reading a book to explain away the objection; he presents an incontrovertible proof that such objectification is not really objectification. Because you, the reader, you who are Kovthe while you are reading, know how music is big part of your life. You know that though you can be a smartass at times, you really are a decent person. You know how you are kindhearted, just, reasonable and would never hurt another without reason. So the author asks you a direct question – are you a degrader of women? And you answer Of course no, I’m not that unethical. What a silly question! Okay says the author. Now you know that I don’t really mean to objectify women at all, right? All is well.

To sum up, The Kingkiller Chronicle series features some fine storytelling that is severely marred by the frequent resorts to sexism and objectification.

A Thought on “It’s Just a Joke”

Two days ago, Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson was found uttering the N-word in unaired footage (video):

In the unseen footage – which was later edited out of the show – the £1million a year TV host is seen swinging his finger between two cars, while reciting a racist version of a children’s counting rhyme. Clarkson can be heard chanting: “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…” He then mumbles: “Catch a n***** by his toe”.

Clarkson initially denied using the word, after which the newspaper released the video footage proving it. Yesterday Clarkson made an apology video where he claimed that he knew it was a racist word which he “was extremely keen to avoid”, and that it “did appear” that he actually used the word and that he was moritified. And that “I did everything in my power to not use that word”, whatever that means. It’s hard to take him seriously when he and Top Gear have a history of racism, sexism, homophobia and just all-round harmful offensive marginalising shit. For example, just a few months ago Clarkson tweeted a photo of him sleeping with a sign saying “gay c***” pointing at him, with one of his Top Gear lads smiling smugly behind him. Or just a month ago when Clarkson refered to a Thai man as a “slope” – a racist slur referring to facial features.

But this post isn’t just about Top Gear, it’s more about people who say and do such things, and when others complain, they respond “it’s just a joke”. Here’s a thought I had on dealing with such people. When someone says “come on it’s just a joke”, ask them the following question:

Could you give me an example of something which you think should not be joked about?

Hopefully they do have such a thing. If they say no, there’s isn’t any such thing – and they really mean it – then this is probably a fruitless exercise, as this is someone who doesn’t have much intelligence or ethics. But presumably, for most people, there is such a thing. Then hopefully what you could do is get them to self-examine the premises behind their conclusion it’s okay to joke about X but not Y. They would have to come up with relevant dissimilarities between X and Y to justify their conclusion, and maybe if they do that exercise honestly, they’ll realise that actually there are many relevant similarities and few relevant dissimilarities between the two. So they ought not to joke about X either.

Maybe it’s a long shot, but hey a humanist can dream, right?

I’ll end this short post with one of my favourite comedy sketches ever – British comedian Stewart Lee skewering Top Gear. It’s excellent political comedy as well as all-out hilarious: