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.

It’s Time to Become an Anti-National

One of the goals of the Hindutva project is to make “India” synonymous with “Hindu”. So a true Indian is a Hindu whereas one who is not a Hindu or doesn’t acknowledge the Hinduness of India is an anti-national. Over the recent years, this Hindutva project seems to be gaining some perceptible ground.

A while back Subramanian Swamy wanted Indians to either acknowledge their Hindu antecedents or give up their voting privileges. This feat of bigotry cost Swamy his Harvard position. but his views won him millions of fans in India. By any standard, he is a very popular politician in India and that is not because of the various lawsuits he filed, but mainly because of his new found Hindutva piety.

Then there is the intolerance of any contrary views when it comes to issues like Kashmir. So people like Arundhati Roy and Prashant Bhushan became seditionists and anti-nationals. The question here isn’t whether they are justified in their views or not, but whether they have the right to express those views in the first place. But the increasing jingoistic cacophony doesn’t make any allowance for such questions. It only has patience for one mindless chant – “India First”; where what counts as “First” is an euphemism for putting Hinduness before the constitutional idea of India.

In the recent weeks there was the rhetoric surrounding academic research on Hinduism. Apparently, not joining the Hindutva orchestra in demonizing the likes of Doniger is grounds for suspecting that one is anti-national.

And this week, some Kashmiri students were booked for sedition because they supported Pakistan in a India vs Pakistan cricket match. It may well be that the students are enamoured of the Islamic state of Pakistan and so support it, but that is no grounds for sedition.

So where does that leave freethinkers like me?

I liked Doniger’s “The Hindus” in that I got to hear Hindu voices that lie outside the framework of Vedic Hinduism. I think people like Arundhati Roy have the right to express their views without the threats of sedition charges. I have no love for the Islamic path that Pakistan has taken, but someone supporting a cricket team should never be treated as a thought crime that would eventually lead to they becoming traitors.

Given those views of mine, the “India First” brigade may well decree that I am an anti-national. In that case I gladly accept that label. I would not have settled for anything less, as for me people and their rights come first.

Riffing of an old Hindutva slogan, Garv se kaho hum anti-national hain (Translation: Proclaim with pride that we are anti-nationals).

Unity in Bigotry

You might have read the news about the Supreme Court upholding a 19th century law that criminalizes gay sex, saying that the law needs to be repealed via legislature.

In our schools, we are taught the phrase “Unity in diversity” to emphasize the diversity of cultures in India and yet how they all belong to one country. But today we are seeing unity in bigotry where bigots all across the board have ganged up against LGBT rights.

In 2009 the Delhi high court called Section 377, the law in question, as discriminatory. Taking affront at this sudden outbreak of decency from a high court, various political, social and religious groups have filed an appeal in the supreme court.

Now the only way the law can be put where it rightly belongs – a garbage bin – is via legislation. That is going to be tough given that no major political party has come out in support of gay rights.

Here is a sample of how “united” they all are (Quotes taken from this article):

Mohammad Abdul Rahim Quraishi, a Hyderabad-based spokesman for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, one of the groups that appealed against the 2009 decision, said the Supreme Court had made the right decision.

“We are very happy with the judgment,” said Mr. Quraishi. “There is no space for homosexuality in our social setup. It is a sin, it is a heinous crime.”

“Homosexuality is a disease,” a tweet from Mr. Ramdev’s verified Twitter account read shortly after the Supreme Court’s judgment.

“We should not encourage homosexuality in our society. It is against the laws and customs and harmful to people in India’s civilized society,” said Zafarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, an umbrella body of Muslim organizations in the country.

Subramanian Swamy, a politician with the Bharatiya Janata Party, said that homosexuality was a malfunction of the human body and should be treated medically.

“I welcome Supreme Court judgment holding homosexuality as illegal,” Mr. Subramanian told The Wall Street Journal in an email statement after the Supreme Court judgment.

“It is no accident that men and women are born in equal proportion. Moreover survival of the human race requires one man one woman cohabitation,” he added.

Any behavior which disturbs this natural selection should be regarded as deviant and treated as illegal, Mr. Subramanian said.

“The government and corporates must fund research to find a cure for homosexuality at the earliest. It is a malady that should not be celebrated but cured with compassion,” he said.

A Documentary on Durga Vahini

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth wing Bajrang Dal are Hindu extremist organizations which are usually at the forefront of spreading Hindutva by using violence and threats of it. They have been accused of forceful conversions, attacks against Christians, Muslims, intimidating people who celebrate Valentines Day and have been found guilty in a few instances like the 2008 attacks in Karnataka, and the conviction of Babu Bajrangi in the Naroda Patiya massacre case.

There’s a new documentary The World Before Her that takes a look at Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of VHP. Not many people outside of the Hindutva circles have had access to inner workings, so the documentary should prove to be an interesting watch. Nisha Pahuja, the maker, was interviewed here and at one point she says “You know, more than the physical training the girls at the Durga Vahini camp are given, it’s the brainwashing and the blood curdling chants they are taught that shocked and depressed me. On the bus ride they take en route to their parade, they learned a few phrases that I simply refused to include in the film. Those were the sorts of moments that were hugely trying for me and my crew as well”.

The documentary is available for order and will also premier on PBS on Sep 16. Apart from Durga Vahini, the documentary also looks at the fashion industry in India and draws a parallel as to how women are restricted into certain roles in the name of empowerment. Here are a few clips from the documentary:

The Merit Delusion

with inputs from Sunil.

Reservations (affirmative action) are a highly contentious issue in India but mostly for all the wrong reasons. One of those is an argument that reservations dilute merit. Consider this “joke” that was email forward fodder years ago and is now doing the rounds in social networks. It is good example of how badly caste issues are understood even amongst atheists who consider themselves as better informed than the average Indian:

I think we should have job reservations in all the fields. I completely support the PM and all the politicians for promoting this. Let’s start the reservation with our cricket team. We should have 10 percent reservation for Muslims. 30 percent for OBC, SC /ST like that. Cricket rules should be modified accordingly. The boundary circle should be reduced for an SC/ST player. The four hit by an OBC player should be considered as a six and a six hit by an OBC player should be counted as 8 runs. An OBC player scoring 60 runs should be declared as a century. We should influence ICC and make rules so that the pace bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar should not bowl fast balls to our OBC player. Bowlers should bowl maximum speed of 80 kilometer per hour to an OBC player. Any delivery above this speed should be made illegal.

Also we should have reservation in Olympics. In the 100 meters race, an OBC player should be given a gold medal if he runs 80 meters.

There can be reservation in Government jobs also. Let’s recruit SC/ST and OBC pilots for aircrafts which are carrying the ministers and politicians (that can really help the country.. )

Ensure that only SC/ST and OBC doctors do the operations for the ministers and other politicians. (Another way of saving the country..)

Let’s be creative and think of ways and means to guide INDIA forward…

Let’s show the world that INDIA is a GREAT country. Let’s be proud of being an INDIAN..

May the good breed of politicians like ARJUN SINGH long live…

Medal For Merits. Source - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Medal_%C2%ABFor_merits%C2%BB_%28Rosregistratsija%29.jpg

Medal For Merits. Image in public domain; via Wikimedia Commons (links to source).

That is just one amongst the myriad jokes about the lower castes that are popular among the upper castes.

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Is Atheism Accepted In Hinduism?

There is a trope that we ex-Hindus come across very frequently when we tell people that we are atheists – “Atheism is accepted in Hinduism”. The implication is that us atheists should just shut up about tolerant Hinduism already and concentrate on the intolerant Abrahamic religions. However trope is only partially true. Atheism is accepted but in the sense that you aren’t going to be socially ostracized for professing a non-belief in god. But that is all. Try to go beyond dictionary atheism and practice the values that are derived from your atheism, and you’ll see why.

If you say that you don’t want to accompany your family on the trip to that temple, you’ll be asked why you’re being such a spoilsport. You’ll be asked “what’s the big deal”?

You want to marry out of caste, especially from a lower caste? “You are going to bring disgrace upon this family”. Cue the sulking and refusal to talk for weeks, months or even years.

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