A Muslim student is asked to draw the Prophet in this short film set in France, a few days after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Jan 2015. See what he comes up with (5 min).
(Click on thumbnails below for pictures, slideshows, and notes from Usha and Namit on their journey to Zambia, Oct 2015.)
We entered Zambia by bus from Malawi and first saw the amazing South Luangwa National Park. From there we took a bus to Lusaka, the urbane metropolis of the bipedal Zambians. We had the nicest bus yet on our African trip, with video screens that however played gospel musical videos—evidently inspired by American Evangelical musical videos—for the full nine hours of the journey! This would've been a lot less bearable without the famed musical talents of Africans, at once rich and resonant (perfect weather, short naps, and the beautiful landscape helped too). Nearly everyone in Zambia is now Christian. Local preachers sometimes board long-distance buses from one stop to the next and sermonize; passengers even sing along. The president of Zambia recently held a national prayer day to beseech the Lord to arrest the decline of the Zambian currency in international markets. It astonished me yet again: Here too an entire population so quickly and so totally embraced a religious tradition so alien to their own. Old layers of magical thinking made room for new layers, such as the strange story of a son of a male God coming to earth and dying for other people's sins. Christianization in Zambia has also meant that, over a few generations, society has become more patrilineal from its mostly matrilineal roots, aspects of which nevertheless survive. A Zambian man we met couldn’t comprehend the Indian practice of dowry, the polar opposite of their own custom of men paying bride price.
Traveling westward in Zambia, I noticed rising prosperity, greater urbanization, and evidence of Zambian per capita income being 4X that of Malawi and Mozambique. Zambia's linguistic/ethnic landscape is fragmented across 72 languages (!), most mutually incomprehensible. In Lusaka, which hosts Zambians from all regions, English is commonly heard. English, as in India, is the first language of a minuscule number but the medium of instruction in all Zambian schools is now English, alongside courses in one or more of the 72 regional languages. Most people speak several languages. Modernity and Christianity have loosened old bonds of tribe and ethnicity, making intermarriages frequent in Zambia. A severe shortfall in rains last year was causing power outages—nearly all of Zambia's power is hydroelectric—but the outages were well-managed, and the outage schedule for each locality was announced ahead of time. How I wished India would learn from this. [—Namit Arora, October 2015.]
Nirmukta is running a series on Facebook in which people are invited to submit a photo and briefly comment on being "more than an atheist". An editor invited me and Usha and asked, "can you send a pic in which both of you are together? It would be great to feature more couples."
Here's the comment and pic that Usha sent in:
I grew up in a relatively tolerant, liberal, Hindu family. We were taught that Hinduism accommodates atheism, and both my parents professed (mildly) to be atheists. Nevertheless, in my childhood, we regularly did pujas at home, recited Sanskrit prayers, and listened to or read the Hindu myths. But many of my earliest encounters with Hindu mythology awakened a rage in me, an anger at the way the stories made me feel as a girl. Long before I could understand these feelings or the reasons for them, Hinduism and Patriarchy became inseparable in my experience and understanding. And very soon, instinctively, I rejected both. At the same time, I grew up in an extremely conservative, backwards, and religiously overwrought small town in the American West, where friends and classmates regularly tried to pull me to their churches—Mormon, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist—each of them vying to save my soul in all the wrong ways, without a shred of actual human sensitivity. By my pre-teen years, I’d already abandoned all organized religion as useless, alienating, and corrupt. I wanted, instead, to discover a system of ethical beliefs that was meaningful to me.
Soon afterward, during my teens, my reasoning about the manifest world and the moral world together guided me away from all theistic doctrines of any kind. But I always knew that giving up faith in god or an afterlife wasn’t enough; that’s not where one can stop questioning one's beliefs and presumptions about ourselves and our world. We still must figure out what we value, how we might construct meaning in our lives, how we relate to others, and so much else. We all know of prominent atheists who are poor role models, having built upon their atheism their own versions of dogma and intolerance, which seem counter to the purpose of a seeking mind—atheism has hardly proven a cure for unreason and immorality. Rather than bludgeoning others with my lack of belief, I feel that each of us must work to forge our own synthesis of critical reason and compassion. So I seek to continue questioning dominant and reductive beliefs and practices around gender, race, caste, class, language, the environment, animal rights, economics, history, nationality, culture, and more. I find there’s often much to learn from and admire in other people, whether they are theists or not. But I knew early on that, for me, religiosity in a life partner would be a deal-breaker, for it’s essential to me that my partner and I should share our fundamental worldviews, and non-theism is fundamental to my apprehension of the world.
(My review of Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi by Piers Moore Ede. It appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 24 April, 2015.)
The living and the dead of Varanasi have long enticed Western travelers, especially those fond of ‘Eastern spirituality’. Among them is British writer Piers Moore Ede, who, after many short visits, recently spent a year in this ancient city in Uttar Pradesh, northern India. From a Spartan flat overlooking the Ganga, he forayed into other parts of Varanasi, always ‘grateful for return to the familiarity and lyricism of the river bank’. Kaleidoscope City, an account of his experiences, brims with warmth, humility, and curiosity.
Moore Ede covers a fair bit of ground. He marvels at folk theater performances of The Ramayana. He probes the life and beliefs of an Aghori ascetic, among the most austere of holy men. He meets the city’s legendary master silk weavers, almost all Muslim, who still weave exquisite designs on manual looms inside their homes. Sampling Varanasi’s foods, he fondly delves into the locals’ love of sweets. He learns about the city’s great musical heritage, discovering that Muslims often ‘worked as professional musicians in Hindu temples’. He uncovers sad stories too: a prostitute and victim of a sex trafficking ring; white-robed widows who, often discarded by their families, come to die in Varanasi; textile workers fallen on hard times in the age of globalization.
As a Westerner in Varanasi, Moore Ede inhabits a privileged world, which both enables and limits him. If people sometimes trust him for being an empathetic outsider without a threatening stake in their lives, he admits he can often only see ‘the facade rather than the finer details, and cannot decipher the inner meaning of things.’ This is partly the lot of all outsiders, for whom encounters can be superficial and realities invisible. Moore Ede seems oblivious to the range of crookedness in the holy men he meets. At times, he is too uncritical, more like a fellow believer than a journalist. His yoga-studio Hinduism seems untouched by dissident voices—of the Buddha, Nagarjuna, or Ambedkar, say. Like many before him, he is prone to reducing the varieties of secular and religious life in pre-modern India to stereotypes. He writes, for example, that ‘At the heart of India’s change lies an unmistakable shift away from moksha as the central goal of life, towards that of material prosperity.’ Witnessing the disruptive juggernaut of modernity, he comes close to romanticizing the vanishing traditions of village life.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Kaleidoscope City are the author’s respectful encounters with people and his sensitive exposition of several Varanasi traditions. Interwoven are many lovely impressions of the fleeting and the quirky. The rhythms of life and death by the river are vividly rendered in Moore Ede’s fluid prose.
(On the ethnic history and politics of Sri Lanka and a review of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War. A shorter version appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 3 April 2015. Below is the original long version—the director’s cut. Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
Few places in the world, of similar size, offer a more bracing human spectacle than the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. It abounds in deep history and cultural diversity, ancient cities and sublime art, ingenuity and human folly, wars and lately, even genocide. It has produced a medley of identities based on language (Sinhala, Tamil, English, many creoles), religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, animism), and geographic origin (Indian, Malaysian, European, Arab, indigenous), alongside divisions of caste and class. Rare for a country its size are the many divergent accounts of itself, fused at the hip with the politics of ethnic identities—a taste of which I got during my month-long travel on the island in early 2014.
The Sri Lankan experience has been more traumatic lately, owing to its 26-year civil war that ended with genocide in 2009. The country’s three main ethnic groups—Sinhalese (75 percent), Tamil (18 percent), and Muslim (7 percent)—now live with deep distrust of each other. One way to understand Sri Lankan society and its colossal tragedy is to study the causes and events that led to the civil war. What historical currents preceded it? Did they perhaps make the war inevitable? What was at stake for those who waged it? What has been its human toll and impact on civic life? In his brave and insightful work of journalism, This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian attempts to answer such questions while bearing witness to many of its tragedies.
A Brief Social History of Sri Lanka
Around two-and-a-half millennia ago, waves of migrants from the Indian subcontinent overwhelmed the island’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Veddah (a few descendants still survive). Migrants arriving from modern day Bengal, speakers of Prakrit—an Indo-European language that evolved into Sinhala—intermixed with indigenous islanders to later become the Sinhalese. Other migrants from southern India, speakers of Tamil and other Dravidian languages and belonging mostly to the Saivite sect, also intermixed with the islanders to later become the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Which group of migrants arrived first, a question hotly pursued by the nationalists, lacks scholarly resolution. Both groups established themselves in different parts of the island: the Sinhalese in the center, south, and west, the Tamils in the north and east.
I really like the clarity and point of view in this short 2006 essay by Ronald Dworkin, American philosopher and scholar of constitutional law. The essay is relevant in light of both Perumal Murugan and Charlie Hebdo incidents.
So in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended. That principle is of particular importance in a nation that strives for racial and ethnic fairness. If weak or unpopular minorities wish to be protected from economic or legal discrimination by law—if they wish laws enacted that prohibit discrimination against them in employment, for instance—then they must be willing to tolerate whatever insults or ridicule people who oppose such legislation wish to offer to their fellow voters, because only a community that permits such insult as part of public debate may legitimately adopt such laws. If we expect bigots to accept the verdict of the majority once the majority has spoken, then we must permit them to express their bigotry in the process whose verdict we ask them to accept. Whatever multiculturalism means—whatever it means to call for increased “respect” for all citizens and groups—these virtues would be self-defeating if they were thought to justify official censorship.
Muslims who are outraged by the Danish cartoons note that in several European countries it is a crime publicly to deny, as the president of Iran has denied, that the Holocaust ever took place. They say that Western concern for free speech is therefore only self-serving hypocrisy, and they have a point. But of course the remedy is not to make the compromise of democratic legitimacy even greater than it already is but to work toward a new understanding of the European Convention on Human Rights that would strike down the Holocaust-denial law and similar laws across Europe for what they are: violations of the freedom of speech that that convention demands.
Check out "Aftershocks: The Rough Guide to Democracy", an engaging documentary film by Rakesh Sharma. Set in Kutch, Gujarat, it tells the story of people in two remote villages whose lives are plunged into upheaval by an earthquake, an apathetic state, corporate greed, religious myth, baseless optimism, and other human tragedies (64 mins, 2002). Sharma is better known for "The Final Solution", a really good film on the 2002 Gujarat riots. You'll find both films at his Vimeo channel.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
‘No man ever steps in the same river twice,’ wrote Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, ‘for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ Some also say this about ‘home’, making it less a place, more a state of mind. Or as Basho, the haiku master, put it, ‘Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.’ Still, in an age of physical migration like ours, one of the most bittersweet experiences in a migrant’s life is revisiting, after a long gap, the hometown where he came of age. More so perhaps if, while he was away, his neighborhood turned to ruin, crumbling and overrun with weeds, as happened in my case.
Last month, I revisited my boyhood home in Gwalior, a city in north central India, with my parents. I had grown up with my two sisters in Birlanagar, an industrial township in Gwalior, until I went away to college at age 17. After graduation, I left for the U.S. in 1989 for post-graduate studies and various jobs in the U.S. and Europe over the next two decades. I continued to think of Gwalior as my hometown until my parents also left in 1995 and I stopped going there during my India visits. By most measures I had a decent boyhood in Gwalior, yet I’m loath to idealize it or look upon it fondly. If it had its joys, it was also full of graceless anxieties, pressures, and confusions.
A ‘Temple of Modern India’
Many industrial townships similar to Birlanagar had arisen in mid-20th-century India, including at Bhilai, Durgapur, Rourkela, Bokaro, Jamshedpur, and Ranchi. Most were built around public sector enterprises, housing factories that employed thousands. Nehru, the modernizer, called these the ‘temples of modern India’. Birlanagar, where I grew up, was a private township, centered on two textile mills. The Birlas had started building it shortly before independence on land given to them for free by the Scindias, who ruled the then princely state of Gwalior. The older and larger of Birlanagar’s two mills was Jiyajeerao Cotton Mills (JC Mills), named after a member of the dynasty. The other mill, founded around 1950, was Gwalior Rayon (later Grasim), where my father, a textile engineer, worked for 36 years from 1958-94. Under the once famous ‘Gwalior Suiting & Shirting’ brand (watch this ad with Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore), Gwalior Rayon produced a range of fabrics combining both natural and synthetic fibers—such as cotton, wool, rayon, polyester, acetate, viscose—including some that ‘never tore’ and needed no ironing. Retailers apparently loved these products because their quality required no discounting.
During their heydays in the 1970s and 80s, the Birlanagar mills had over 10K employees—about 6-8 percent were Staff, the rest Labor—sustaining the livelihoods of perhaps over 100K people locally, about one sixth the population of Gwalior. In this otherwise unexceptional cow-belt city, many saw Birlanagar as a relative oasis—a modern township that drew in a diversity of professionals in nuclear families from across the country: Bengalis, Goans, Kashmiris, Tamils, Marathis, Punjabis, and more.
Many of us expected that the new BJP regime in Delhi will try to rewrite Indian history from a hardline Hindutva perspective (as opposed to the softline Hindutva of the Congress and of most leading Indian academies). But it still hurts to see it come so soon and in such a doltish package: the appointment of Yellapragada Sudershan Rao as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (a funding agency for historical reseach in India, ICHR is to history what the NSF is to science in the U.S.). Sample the excerpt below from Rao's interview in Outlook and read historian Romila Thapar's take on his appointment.
YS Rao: There is a certain view that the Mahabharata or the Ramayana are myths. I don’t see them as myths because they were written at a certain point of time in history. They are important sources of information in the way we write history. What we write today may become an important source of information for the future in the future. When analysed, of course, they could be declared to be true or false. History is not static. It belongs to the people, it’s made by the people. Similarly, the Ramayana is true for people...it’s in the collective memory of generations of Indians. We can’t say the Ramayana or the Mahabharata are myths. Myths are from a western perspective.
What does that mean?
For us, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are true accounts of the periods in which they were written.
But shouldn’t the writing of history be rooted in historical evidence and research?
Western schools of thought look at material evidence of history. We can’t produce material evidence for everything. India is a continuing civilisation. To look for evidence would mean digging right though the hearts of villages and displacing people. We only have to look at the people to figure out the similarities in their lives and the depiction in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For instance, the Ramayana mentions that Rama had travelled to Bhadrachalam (in Andhra Pradesh). A look at the people and the fact that his having lived there for a while is in the collective memory of the people cannot be discounted in the search for material evidence. In continuing civilisations such as ours, the writing of history cannot depend only on archaeological evidence. We have to depend on folklore too.
Or sample a 2007 blog post in which Rao, displaying his grasp of Indian history, wrote that the caste system "was working well in ancient times and we do not find any complaint from any quarters against it. It is often misinterpreted as an exploitative social system for retaining economic and social status of certain vested interests of the ruling class." Nevermind that the Buddhists, Jains, and Carvakas utterly rejected it in ancient times. He thinks "Varna leads one to moksha (the liberation of the soul) while caste system is meant for the material and human resource management of a civilized society." In RSS-style baiting, he writes, "Most of the questionable social customs in the Indian society, as pointed out by the English educated Indian intellectuals and the Western scholars, could be traced to the period of Muslim rule in north India spanning over seven centuries." If this is how he intends "to think about India’s history from an Indian perspective", we are in trouble!
For most of April, I traveled in Sri Lanka with my partner, Usha. Not only a beautiful island with a rich cultural history and ample wildlife, it's the only country in S. Asia rated "high" on the UN Human Development Index. It has relatively low economic disparity, little abject poverty, high literacy, and universal healthcare. To most Indians, Sri Lankan urbanscapes and rhythms of life will feel familiar and comfortable. I found traveling to be easy enough, the locals friendly, and the food delicious. Sri Lanka even has seven UNESCO world heritage sites.
It's also a country whose major ethnic communities—mainly Tamil and Sinhala but also the Muslims—haven't learned to live with each other. Their troubles mostly began in the 1950s with Sinhala nationalism and majoritarianism, driven by chauvinistic monks and militant buddhists, and fueled by cultural insecurities and jaundiced readings of religio-historic texts like the Mahavamsa. Humiliated and cornered, the Tamils demanded their own homeland; many resorted to violent resistance, leading to harsh reprisals from the Sinhala-dominated state. Over nearly three decades, Tamil areas suffered great destruction, mass exodus, and genocidal violence; ruins of war abound in the north. The LTTE may be finished, but will the great many atrocities committed against Tamil civilians near the war's end be forgotten or forgiven easily, esp. with no reconciliation underway, tens of thousands forced off their lands, and 100K+ refugees still in India five years after the war's end? Under the Rajapaksa family's authoritarian regime, Sinhala pride and triumphalism have resurged, public corruption is rampant, there is little freedom of the press and disappearances are common, especially in Tamil areas that have an oppressive army presence. The economy, however, is growing again and new infrastructure, often funded by the Chinese, is coming up: an airport, modern highways, high-rise apartments, casinos, resorts, and more. For a country its size, I found Sri Lanka to be enormously complex and interesting.
Read a brief history of Sri Lanka here. For a closer look at contemporary Sri Lankan society and politics, start with the following: How Not to Win a War, Buddhists Behaving Badly, Beyond the Beach, Sri Lanka After the War, Five Years On (an archive of recent journalism), and the harrowing documentary, No Fire Zone. Below are some of my pictures.
A few weeks ago, the Indian publisher Navayana released an annotated, "critical edition" of Dr. BR Ambedkar’s classic, Annihilation of Caste (AoC). Written in 1936, AoC was meant to be the keynote address at a conference but was never delivered. Unsettled by the scathing text of the speech and faced by Ambedkar’s refusal to water it down, the caste Hindu organizers of the conference had withdrawn their invitation to speak. Ambedkar, an "untouchable", later self-published AoC and two expanded editions, which included MK Gandhi’s response to it and his own rejoinder.
AoC, as S. Anand points out in his editor’s note, happens to be "one of the most obscure as well as one of the most widely read books in India." The Navayana edition of AoC carries a 164-page introduction by Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint (read an excerpt). The publisher’s apparent strategy was to harness Roy to raise AoC’s readership among savarna (or caste Hindu) elites to whom it was in fact addressed, but who have largely ignored it for over seven decades, even as countless editions of it in many languages have deeply inspired and empowered generations of Dalits.
However, this new edition has drawn a mixed response. Expressions of praise coexist alongside howls of disapproval and allegations of an ugly politics of power and privilege, co-option and misrepresentation. To many Dalit and a few savarna writers and activists, this Roy-Navayana project—Navayana is a small indie publisher run by Anand, a Brahmin by birth—is a bitter reminder that no Dalit-led edition of AoC can get such attention in the national media, that gimmicks are still needed in this benighted land to "introduce" AoC and Ambedkar to the savarnas, that once again, caste elites like Roy, with little history of scholarly or other serious engagement with caste (as Anand himself suggested about Roy three years ago), are appropriating AoC and admitting the beloved leader of Dalits into their pantheon on their own terms—all while promoting themselves en route: socially, professionally, and financially (see this open letter to Roy and her reply).
Such responses may seem provincial, hypersensitive, or even paranoid to some, but they shouldn’t be brushed aside as such. They point to a universally toxic dynamic of power and knowledge to which savarna elites are so alert and sensitive in colonial, orientalist contexts, yet so blind to its parallels within India, propagated by their own class. Is this because it’s easier to see prejudice directed from above at one’s own class, versus the prejudice it doles out below? Especially on a fraught topic like caste, one’s social location shapes how one frames and conducts a debate on annihilating caste, its current state, and the heroes and villains in this fight. The folks at Navayana—a leading English language publisher of anti-caste books, including many by Dalit authors—would surely nod in agreement.
A Review of Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition by Mohinder Singh Sarna, Rupa, 2013. This review first appeared in the Sunday Guardian.
"What sort of a Pakistan was this that had entered their village like some maddened bull, trampling humanity under its hooves and turning everything upside down?" wonders an anguished man in Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition by Mohinder Singh Sarna (1923-2001), translated from Punjabi and introduced by his son and diplomat, Navtej Sarna. On both sides of the new western border between India and Pakistan, an orgy of violence had broken out in towns and villages. It was Hindus and Sikhs vs. Muslims, with both sides pillaging, raping, and killing, leaving a million dead, 12-18 million refugees, and a still-poisoned well of politics in the region.
Over the decades, Partition has produced many popular and critical narratives: its causes, villains, avoidable mistakes, its defining features and aftermath. While such narratives can never be immune from subjective perspectives, much of it—despite notable work from scholars like Gurharpal Singh, Ian Talbot, Urvashi Butalia, Perry Anderson, Gyanendra Pandey, and Jan Breman—remains mired in crude nationalistic politics, taboos, and mythologies of India, Pakistan, and Great Britain.
In 2011 for instance, when Jaswant Singh, former defense minister of India and a senior member of BJP, wrote a book in which he blamed Nehru more than Jinnah for Partition and even praised many aspects of Jinnah’s personality, the BJP expelled him from the party and banned his book in Gujarat. This despite the fact that Singh was articulating an increasingly common view among scholars. Recent scholarship has also shown that a lot of Partition violence, such as that of Rawalpindi massacres, attacks on refugee trains and foot convoys, and ethnic cleansing of villages, was carefully planned and executed—with ample collusion of state agents—by extremist groups competing for political power. That's why the violence of Partition was so much more brutal and genocidal than the violence of "mere" communal riots. Such groups included Muslim para-militaries, Hindu volunteers of the RSS, and Sikh jathas and princely rulers. In other words, much of Partition violence in Punjab did not erupt "spontaneously" among mobs and hotheads, an idea that still rules the popular imagination.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
A review of Unclaimed Terrain, a book of short stories translated from Hindi, and a conversation with its author, Ajay Navaria.
"Indian writing" is often equated in the West with its small subset: the work of a tiny class of Indians that thinks and writes in English. Salman Rushdie fueled this folly in his introduction to Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-97, declaring the work of such Indians a ‘more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the "16 official languages" of India’. He co-edited this anthology and of the 32 works of fiction and non-fiction that appear in it, 31 were written in English and one in Urdu, i.e., only one translation made the cut. Some of this lopsidedness can be explained by the paucity of translations into English, but is Rushdie’s judgment defensible in a country where, even today, less than one percent of Indians consider English their first language, less than ten percent their second, and 80 percent of all books are put out by hundreds of vernacular language publishers, including from authors with far greater Indian readership than most who write in English? Rushdie doesn’t even speak most of these languages. Isn’t his claim, then, an instance of linguistic prejudice? Aren’t the dynamics of class in India, and the power of English language publishing in the West, speaking through him?
Ajay Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain—a collection of seven short stories translated from Hindi to English by Laura Brueck—shows from its first page how different its world is from those imagined by the Indians in Rushdie’s anthology. Navaria, a faculty member in the Hindi department in Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, may well be the first Dalit to teach Hindu religious scriptures at a major university. He is also the author of a novel and two books of short stories. In Unclaimed Terrain the protagonists of most stories are Dalit men who have clawed their way into the urban middle-class through their wits and education, sometimes with the help of reservations. Many harbor episodic memories of social life in ancestral villages, memories in which bigotry and abuse overwhelm kindness and beauty. They love the anonymity of the big city, even as they live in fear of being "found out" and reminded—in the artful ways of the metropolis—of their "proper place".
In the story Subcontinent, for instance, the protagonist, as a boy, has seen village men abuse and assault his groveling father and grandma—returning after a stint in the city—for breaking caste taboos. As a boy, he has seen a Dalit wedding party attacked by thugs because the groom has dared to ride a horse in the village, and later that day, a woman of the party being raped: ‘I saw, beneath the white dhoti-clad bottom of a pale pandit-god, the darkened soles of someone’s feet flailing and kicking’. Rather than file a complaint, the village policeman mocks them, ‘They say she was really tasty. Lucky bitch, now she’s become pure!’ In his middle-age, the protagonist, Siddhartha Nirmal, Marketing Manager in a government enterprise in the big city, exults at the distance he has traveled in the world: 3BR flat; car; eating out at Pizza Hut and Haldiram’s, where the counter-boys call him Sir. He can hire the services of a Brahmin doctor, keep a Garhwali Brahmin driver who bows at him, and employ a Bengali music teacher he found on the Internet for his daughter, who goes to an expensive convent school. But such welcome anonymity that the city affords him disappears in familiar spaces, such as his office, which has ‘the same snakes. The same whispers, the same poison-laden smiles. Our "quota is fixed". I got promoted only because of the quota ... that’s it. Otherwise ... otherwise, maybe I’m still dirty. Still lowborn. Like Kishan, the office janitor. Like Kardam, the clerk. Because I am their caste.’
Is Islam a religion of peace? On the occasion of Eid today, I thought of this recent and eloquent defense of Islam by British journalist Mehdi Hasan at a debate at the Oxford Union. Hasan was responding to the opposing views of Anne-Marie Waters, Peter Atkins, and Daniel Johnson. For the record, Hasan's side (including Mathhew Handley and Adam Deen) won this heated debate 286-168.
In Dec 2012, Hasan also participated in a spirited interview / debate with Richard Dawkins on whether religion is a force for good or evil.
In a new essay, A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, William Dalrymple provides a breezy yet insightful overview of the conflict in the region and presents scenarios, including hopeful ones, for the region after the Americans leave Afghanistan. Thoughts?
The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan. Most observers in the West view the Afghanistan conflict as a battle between the U.S. and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on one hand, and al-Qaida and the Taliban on the other. In reality this has long since ceased to be the case. Instead our troops are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing and overlapping conflicts: one local and internal, the other regional.
Within Afghanistan, the war is viewed primarily as a Pashtun rebellion against President Hamid Karzai’s regime, which has empowered three other ethnic groups—the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the north—to a degree that the Pashtuns resent. For example, the Tajiks, who constitute only 27% of the Afghan population, still make up 70% of the officers in the Afghan army.
The latest issue of the Humanist magazine (July-Aug '13) has a slightly modified version of my essay from last year.
Clearly, most people don’t even know about the horror and pain we inflict on billions of birds and mammals in our meat factories. But there’s no good excuse for this, is there? It’s more likely that we don’t want to know—can’t afford to know for our own sake—so we turn a blind eye and trust the artifice of bucolic imagery on meat packaging. Some see parallels here with the German people’s willful denial of the concentration camps that once operated around them, or call those who consume factory-farmed meat little Eichmanns. “For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka,” wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer (who also used to say he turned vegetarian “for health reasons—the health of the chicken”).
Predictably enough, many others are offended by such comparisons. They say that comparing the industrialized abuse of animals with the industrialized abuse of humans trivializes the latter. There are indeed limits to such comparisons, though our current enterprise may be worse in at least one respect: it has no foreseeable end. We seem committed to raising billions of sentient beings year after year only to kill them after a short life of intense suffering. Furthermore, rather than take offense at polemical comparisons—as if others are obliged to be more judicious in their speech than we are in our silent deeds—why not reflect on our apathy instead? Criticizing vegetarians and vegans for being self-righteous—or being moral opportunists in having found a new way of affirming their decency to themselves—certainly doesn’t absolve us from the need to face up to our role in perpetuating this cycle of violence and degradation.
In the story of modern India, as any schoolkid will confirm, the anti-colonial struggle looms large. Almost all national heroes are men associated with it. To what extent is this because the Congress, which led the anti-colonial movement, ruled in the decades that followed? Why do mainstream histories — by Indians and, for their own reasons, even by the British — give political emancipation most of the air time and lionize Gandhi and Nehru at the expense of others? From what perspective does it seem that no other movements of significance were afoot besides anti-colonialism, no other heroes?
Notably, Ambedkar, who didn't quite participate in the anti-colonial struggle — focusing instead on the emancipation of the "depressed classes" — was sidelined for decades. At best, he received grudging respect as the architect of the Constitution, arguably one of the smaller and least subversive parts of his legacy. Was this dimunition because Ambedkar was openly combative and critical of both Gandhi and Nehru, attacked Hinduism's most sacred scriptures and age-old practices, converted to Buddhism, and became a trenchant spokesman of the oppressed castes? Did that made it easy for the defensive Hindu elites to pigeonhole him as a partisan man of his people, rather than a revolutionary social thinker? Was this because the dominant castes and their intellectuals had not done even the minimal soul-searching necessary to embrace Ambedkar's most profound and radical ideas? Indeed, why is it that far more upper caste Indians have read works by Gandhi, Nehru, and Tagore, but almost nothing by Ambedkar? Do non-Dalits have little to gain from reading Ambedkar? Meanwhile, his bold and subversive analyses continue to inspire countless lower-caste activists and writers, who continue to goad Brahminical India towards a long overdue reckoning with its past and its heroes.
According to historian Perry Anderson, Ambedkar was "intellectually head and shoulders above most of the Congress leaders". The fact is that Ambedkar, uniquely among the major national figures, not only overcame enormous personal odds, he also developed a pioneering critique of Indian society based on the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Indeed, he was far more modern than even Nehru. This aspect of Ambedkar — rooted in a scrupulously reasoned, secular and radical egalitarianism, coupled with bracing civil rights talk of social justice and human dignity — is unprecedented among Indian leaders and it still hasn't received its due in mainstream scholarship.
For a good introduction to Ambedkar's mind, few documents will surpass The Annihilation of Caste. Originally written in 1936, it was meant to be a speech that was never delivered — the reasons for which appear in the prologue. This reprint in 1944 is accompanied by a critique by Gandhi, followed by Ambedkar's brilliant rejoinder. Read it and realize why perhaps more than any other leader of modern India, Ambedkar remains relevant to every dream of a just, modern, liberal, secular, humane, and democratic society in India.
A review of The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson. It first appeared as "No Saints or Miracles" in the Himal Southasian print quarterly 'Are we sure about India?' (January 2013), and is reproduced with permission. This online version (updated, about 5 percent larger) first appeared on 3QD in two parts: One, Two.
‘Nations without a past are contradictions in terms,’ wrote Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. Precursors to every modern nation are stories about its past and the present — stories full of invention, exclusion, and exaggeration — which help forge a ‘national consciousness’. Historians, wrote Hobsbawm, have ‘always been mixed up in politics’ and are ‘an essential component of nationalism’. They participate in shaping a nation’s mythos and self-perception. In his vivid analogy, ‘Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market.’ The more nationalist a historian, he held, the weaker his bid to be taken seriously as a historian.
But not all historians are equally complicit. Some are deeply skeptical of the dominant national histories and claims of nationhood. ‘Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation,’ wrote the scholar Ernst Renan. The skeptical historian may even see positive value in certain aspects of nationalism—its potential to bind diverse groups and inspire collective action, for instance—but she always sees a pressing need to inspect and critique its claims, assumptions, omissions, myths, and heroes. Scrutiny may reveal that a ‘cherished tradition’ is neither cherished, nor a tradition; likewise for supposedly ‘ancient’ origins and customs, traits and virtues, arts and culture, and other qualities of life and mind said to define the essence of a nation and its people. This approach is especially common among Marxist historians (their analytical orientation defines the genre, not their views on communism). The best of them know that there is no ultimately objective history, but who yet seek to write history from below and attempt to expose the actual conditions of social life, including the divisions, conflicts and oppressions that plague any nation.
This, then, is the vantage point of Marxist historian Perry Anderson’s magnificent and lucid new work, The Indian Ideology. What does the title refer to? In his own words, it ‘is another way of describing what is more popularly known as "The Idea of India", which celebrates the democratic stability, multi-cultural unity, and impartial secularity of the Indian state as a national miracle.’ Anderson offers a critique of this idea.
Nationalism in India arose in the 19th century. A native elite, responding to British colonialism, began articulating a consciousness based on a new idea of India. Until then, despite civilizational continuities, the Subcontinent had no sense of itself as ‘India’, no national feeling based on political unity or a shared identity. Rival political units and ethnic groups abounded, divided by language, faith, caste, geography, history, and more. There was no historical awareness of the ancient empires of Mauryas or Guptas, or that the Buddha was Indian. This and much more of the Indian past would emerge via European scholarship, profoundly shaping ‘Hinduism’ and Hindu self-knowledge. Anderson surveys the rise of Indian nationalism and offers sharp vignettes of the minds and matters that drove Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Bose, Ambedkar, Mountbatten and others. His analysis of the forces that led to Partition is astute and provocative. He assesses the performance of the independent nation-state and subjects Indian intellectuals to a withering critique for what he diagnoses as their comfort with ‘the Indian ideology’. Though not without shortcomings, Anderson has given us a masterwork of critical synthesis — trenchant, original, and bold — that should fuel discussion and debate for years ahead.
Primatologist Frans de Waal has a new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. Below is an excerpt from an early review in the New Republic (click photo for the Amazon listing; the Publisher's Weekly blurb is here).
Those familiar with de Waal’s previous books ... will recognize many of the same arguments resurfacing here, including the idea that human morality has biological origins. “Fairness and justice are … best looked at as ancient capacities. They derive from the need to preserve harmony in the face of resource competition.” De Waal uses the bonobo—a peaceful, sex-loving primate who may be as closely related to us, or more closely related, than the more Machiavellian chimpanzee—to attack the prevailing notion of human nature as selfish and violent, and that we are constantly battling to suppress our terrible “animal nature.” “Everything science has learned in the past few decades argues against this pessimistic view that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature.”
What’s new here is that de Waal wades directly into the atheism-versus-religion debate, which he claims is often mistakenly cast as a science-versus-religion debate. He argues that a biologically evolved “bottom-up” morality obviates the need for the “top-down” morality imposed by religion. And yet, he sees science (and himself) as aligned with secular humanism, which is not necessarily anti-religion. He would like to see the influence of religion fade, but acknowledges that a moral code is not all religion provides: “The question is not so much whether religion is true or false, but how it shapes our lives, and what might possibly take its place.”
Folks, it turns out that River of Faith has done well, amassing 27K views on YouTube in its first 3 weeks [and 75K at the end of 6 weeks]. Which means it has even bested a whole lot of cat videos! Furthermore, I've been persuaded to offer it on Amazon.com for those who like DVDs, including institutions. Check out the DVD cover below (sans barcode and DVD logo). This should be up on Amazon in early April and ready to ship within days (I'll announce when it is). Also, for the first time ever, a magazine introduced me last week as "a documentary filmmaker". Watch out, you documentary filmmakers! :)
Update (25 April, 2013): The DVD on Amazon is now shipping!
NEW: River of Faith, a new documentary film about the Kumbh Mela 2013 by Namit Arora (56 minutes).
Last week I attended the greatest of the Hindu pilgrimage festivals, the Kumbh Mela, a riverside religious fair that takes place at the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati. Bathing in the river during the Kumbh Mela is considered a meritorious act, cleansing body and soul, and it attracts tens of millions over 6-8 weeks, making it the largest gathering of humans on the planet for a single event. A hundred million might attend the 2013 event that opened on Jan 14 with about ten million in attendance, including me and Usha. Click on any photo below to see a lot more of my photos (with captions) from the Mela's opening days. Next month, I also intend to put out a travel essay and a video documentary on the Kumbh Mela, including many interesting interviews with naga sadhus.
Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal on the great short story writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, whose birth centenary was celebrated this year.
Saadat Hasan Manto ... once remarked that any attempt to fathom the murderous hatred that erupted with such devastating effect at the time of the British retreat from the subcontinent had to begin with an exploration of human nature itself.
For the master of the Urdu short story this was not a value judgment. It was a statement of what he had come to believe after keen observation and extended introspection. Shaken by the repercussions of the decision to break up the unity of the subcontinent, Manto wondered if people who only recently were friends, neighbours and compatriots had lost all sense of their humanity. He too was a human being, ‘the same human being who raped mankind, who indulged in killing' and had ‘all those weaknesses and qualities that other human beings have.' Yet human depravity, however pervasive and deplorable, could not kill all sense of humanity. With faith in that kind of humanity, Manto wrote riveting short stories about the human tragedy of 1947 that are internationally acknowledged for representing the plight of displaced and terrorised humanity with exemplary impartiality and empathy.
By R Alexander
Haruki Murakami writes short stories and big novels where weird things take on strange importance: a disappearing cat leads to a detective type adventure, ears are erotic, jazz and classical music beckons and have magically transformative properties, abandoned wells harbor mysteries. Metaphysics as meaning seems to loom over his work. With each book he writes and as the books get longer, greater and greater claims are made concerning their importance. His latest work, 1Q84, is being called his magnum opus, and a great work of world literature. The book is so long, in fact, that Random House hired two translators, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, to work on it simultaneously so they could get it to press in a reasonable time.
1Q84 mainly concerns two people living in Tokyo in 1984 who, early in the novel, find themselves in a parallel or alternate universe. The novel’s title refers to one of the character's name for the alternate universe. The “Q,” in 1Q84, stands for "question,” and there is apparently a sonic play on “Q” and “9” in the original Japanese, similar, I suppose to the orthographic play on or resemblance between the figures for “q” and “9” in English.
Aside from this little play on “Q” and “9” in the title, however, Murakami’s prose style remains straightforwardly realistic. No GV Desani-style linguistic or cultural tom-foolery here. Murakami is well known for being the Japanese translator of Raymond Carver and F Scott Fitzgerald, and these influences, Carver’s in particular, are not hidden. In1Q84, Murakami does not depart from his characteristic style and themes.
1Q84’s two protagonists are Tengo Kawana and Aomame. Tengo, a math teacher and would-be fiction writer, crosses paths with the assassin Aomame, during an investigation into a religious cult. The story’s action takes off when Tengo collaborates with a former cult member, a character called Fuka-Eri, in writing a novella that exposes the cult’s sexual rituals which involve paedophilia. The name of the novella is Air Chrysalis, and much of 1Q84 involves the collaborative writing of Air Chrysalis and the cult’s subsequent hunt for Tengo and Fuka-Eri and later also the hunt for Aomame, who assassinates the cult leader and goes into hiding separately. But this hardly gives the real sense of the work. While the plot generally follows the outline of a straightforward thriller, Murakami’s baroque inventiveness twists the story into the bizarre. It is not simply that the book is set in a world that has two moons in the sky, where Japan has become a kind of police state, and where other “mirror universe” trappings appear, but there are the weird things that happen. The religious cult, for example, is based around a charismatic leader and his connection to “The Little People,” a troop of vaguely menacing Leprechaun-like entities who emerge, the first time we see them, from a dead dog’s mouth and who manipulate people and events.
For some time now, I've been digging into the partition of India: Urvashi Butalia's excellent, The Other Side of Silence on the experience of the women, children, and Dalits of Punjab (I hope to do a review soon), Remembering Partition by Gyanendra Pandey and Jan Breman, The Partition of India by Ian Talbot and Gurharpal Singh, and Stern Reckoning by GD Khosla (most partisan of this lot). I also recently saw the movies Tamas and The Train to Pakistan (both on YouTube) and plan to watch Silent Waters soon. While much new scholarship has appeared in recent years on the partition of Punjab and Bengal, little is known about "the third site of Partition — colonial Assam, and particularly the region of Sylhet." A friend pointed me to this article in Himal that has more on Partition historiography and the experience of Sylhet.
Sixty-five years after Partition, the scholarship that event generates is varied and contested. Now more than ever before, writers and researchers are questioning the heavy focus on Punjab and Bengal at the expense of the third site of Partition – colonial Assam, and particularly the region of Sylhet, which elected to join East Pakistan in a 1947 referendum. The history of Sylhet opens up new complexities beyond the typical discourse that sees Partition as primarily a matter of religious communalism.
The study of Partition’s more narrowly regional dimensions is a recent development. The first Partition historians – Michael Edwardes, Penderel Moon, David Page, V P Menon, G D Khosla, and others – focused on decolonisation and the high politics of the division of India, with a core focus on Punjab. Punjab had captured the popular imagination because of the enormity of Partition violence there, which completely clouded this first phase of scholarship. The 1960s saw another spurt of Partition studies, including debates on the emergence of communalism, and also the publication of the memoirs of many key political players with a hand in the events of 1947. Still, the main focus remained on Partition in the Indian west. Meanwhile, nationalistic scholars in India engaged in glorifying the new state and eulogising the post-Partition leadership. Little emerged on Partition’s impact in areas distant from the ‘core’ of north India and Punjab; Partition became a largely Punjabi experience and not, as it actually was, a story of both east and west India. Even until recently, many professional historians who have contributed immensely to the study of Partition – Mushirul Hasan, Ian Talbot, Stanley Wolpert, David Gilmartin, Alok Bhalla, Anita Inder Singh, Ravinder Kumar – have been loath to engage with the Partition experience in the east.
I also discovered 1947partitionarchive.org, where I came across this harrowing "eyewitness account" by Major Jagjit Singh.
I recently drew attention to a remarkable set of essays on Indian history by Perry Anderson, which brim with sharp and novel insights. They have provoked a strong response from the Indian intelligentsia, both in support and in protest. The essays have just been published in India as "The Indian Ideology" available from Three Essays Collective. Here is the book description (I've just ordered my copy):
Today, the Indian state claims to embody the values of a stable political democracy, a harmonious territorial unity, and a steadfast religious impartiality. Even many of those critical of the inequalities of Indian society underwrite such claims. But how far do they correspond to the realities of the Union? If they do not do so, is that simply because of the fate of circumstance, or the recent misconduct of its rulers?
The Indian Ideology suggests that the roots of the current ills of the Republic go much deeper, historically. They lie, it argues, in the way the struggle for independence culminated in the transfer of power from British rule to Congress in a divided subcontinent, not least in the roles played by Gandhi as the great architect of the movement, and Nehru as his appointed successor, in the catastrophe of Partition. Only a honest reckoning with that disaster, Perry Anderson argues, offers an understanding of what has gone wrong with the Republic since Independence.
The ‘Idea of India’, widely diffused not only in the official establishment, but more broadly in mainstream intellectual life, side-steps or suppresses many of these uncomfortable realities, past and present. For its own reasons, much of the left has yet to challenge the upshot: what has come to be the neo-Nehruvian consensus of the time. The Indian Ideology, revisiting the events of over a century in the light of how millions of Indians fare in the Republic today, suggests another way of looking at the country. Marx, urging his contemporaries to ‘face with sober senses their real conditions of life’, furnishes an example of how that might be done.
An interview with Anderson has appeared in Outlook India. Asked to summarize the book, this is what he said:
You could say that, very roughly, it advances five main arguments that run counter to conventional wisdom in India today. Firstly, that the idea of a subcontinental unity stretching back six thousand years is a myth. Secondly, that Gandhi’s injection of religion into the national movement was ultimately a disaster for it. Thirdly, that primary responsibility for Partition lay not with the Raj, but Congress. Fourthly, that Nehru’s legacy to Republic was far more ambiguous than his admirers will admit. Lastly, that Indian democracy is not contradicted by caste inequality, but rather enabled by it. This is a crude summary. Obviously, in each case, much more is said than this.