Debate

On Racism and Identity, and Romance

This is a review of Americanah, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

americanah

Americanah has been my introduction to Adichie. It’s a romance novel, but it is also much more than two people falling in and out of love. And I think that was what won me over.

Reading it gave me the kind of pleasure that a friend would only associate with fresh cake and warm coffee. A wholesome indulgence. It deals with issues – racism, identity, prejudice, migration, alienation.

One of the protagonists is Ifemelu (I loved the name!), who migrates to America from Nigeria, discovers racism, and tries to understand it through her successful blog. She’s a strong, smart, vulnerable and honest woman. And then there’s her ex-boyfriend in Nigeria, Obinze, whose past which is entwined with Ifem, is as captivating as hers. They were deeply in love, until one day, without warning, Ifem cut him off from her world. (The ease with which she did so was disturbing). He did not know why she did it. He might never. Obinze slowly picks up the pieces, and eventually becomes a successful man of reckoning in Nigeria. A family man. About 12 years after she moved to America, and after an existential crisis, Ifem plans her move back to Nigeria. Ifem might meet Obinze when she does…

The story flits easily to the past and back to the present. It is fast paced, but does not bore you with lack of detail, or tire you with too much.

It’s a book that will resonate with most migrants in America. Especially those from “third world” countries. It will also reach out to people whose friends have migrated to the USA. Especially if it’s someone they love.

Race is a subject that is quite significant in the book. It’s neither apologetic not too radical. I speak, though, behind the tinted glass of not having experienced racism first hand. But from what I have been witness to, caste based discrimination which is somewhat similar, I can say that such deprivation can easily be fed to obesity or be repressed further. But Americanah does the issue justice. As an bonus for me, there’s also a tinge of feminism to the book.

What dampened it for me, though, was that the protagonists were almost perfect, albeit with imperfect encounters in life. They were what one would like to be – moralistic, hardworking, successful. But, thankfully, at the same time, they were also anti-heroic – cheating, unreliable, conflicted, self righteous.

I cannot wait to read my next Adichie. I’d also recommend that you watch her TED talk before you pick up a copy of Americanah.

4/5

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Justice: What’s the right thing to do?

Michael Sandel, in his Harvard lecture series on Justice, and in the book that goes by the same name, discusses what the right thing to do is, with the help of Rawls, Kant, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and others. He does it with the responsibility of a lecturer who understands that his readers/students are not philosophy majors, sociologists or readers of Prince, or On Liberty. There is no name dropping that you wouldn’t follow, if you’ve read the book in sequence. And there’s a seamless flow to the lectures.

Be it questions on abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia, tax, civil rights, human rights, Michael Sandel has you peeling these questions to get to their core, and then he makes you fold them back, so that you can analyse it with new perspectives. A common theme running through the lectures is the juxtaposition of pressing issues, compelling reasoning, and critical thinking. It enriches the once humdrum issues, or the once evocative issues; they become more nuanced.

Does something have to be fair to be right? Sandel gives you scenarios, and also gives you values by which to analyse them. Take, for instance, the question of refinancing banks for bad loans. Is it right to use tax payers’ money to undo the (apparent) wrongs of bankers who didn’t do their job (apparently)? There’s no single answer to this question, as there are multiple and complex factors associated with it. The concept of black and white greys.

By the end of the book (or the lectures, if you choose to watch instead of read), you will be overwhelmed by his concluding remarks (and also slightly worried that it’s getting over, after having unloaded heavy moral and ethical questions on your shoulders). It’s not a book that you can read just once, and it’s not a light read even though it might seem that way (it’s written in a simple and appealing style). You can finish it at one go, but that would be such a loss.

I thrive on books that alter my world view. They tend to subtly change yours truly, for the better, I hope. Word of caution: It’s the kind of change that alienates you, too.

Throughout the book, I realised, he had not said a word about what the right thing to do is. But, like me, even you’d know. What’s right to me, though, may not be right to you. That’s the beauty of the book, it’s open to interpretation. And it opens up your mind, to ideas that you may not have considered before. This, I admit, has left me feeling alienated from the usual discourses that are characterised by people being outraged, offended, vengeful and what not. Principles, morals, values, are words that are usually thrown lightly (or/and noisily), without due regard. Not any more, not after you read this book.

5/5

The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian is a book that has to be chewed slowly.

It’s wonderfully written.

It will, at points, shock you with its little quirky insights on “being Indian”; actually, even “being Indian”, in the abstract, is questioned and argued about in the book.

Irrespective of what you want this book to be, it will turn into that book that you want to read because it allows you the luxury of self perception, into the society (and maybe yourself).

It’s an enriching book, in that it makes you look at your countrymen with more empathy for their steadfastly held (always steadfast, never slack..) beliefs. It’s, however, not a book you want to discuss details of with your devout and orthodox relatives who argue endlessly, one-way (some will be maddened into thinking you’re turning into a deviant rebel if you do talk to them with the rationality that might stick when you read this book). It broadens your mind, undoubtedly.

A friend said, after he read this book, he looked at people, and India, differently. That sounded very cliche. But he was right. This one gives you a rather grey tinted looking glass. It makes you conciliate with the anomalies of your society, it helps you make peace with all kinds of gobar too. (But it didn’t really help me make peace with whatever it is that the “nation wants to know!”*)

As for the title, it’s not misleading. The essays in the book reflect on the argumentative nature of Indians, and help you realize that being argumentative is a powerful tool you can have; not to be mistaken with being loud and thick. This book, for example, is soft spoken (if I may), but is compelling. The essays are about the different hues of deliberation, discussion and debate that conversation and practices lead one to; it, at no points, mistakes lambasting and being crass for being argumentative.

As for the writer himself, what can I say that a Nobel** cannot? Salut to you sir. Thumbs up on the choice of the book cover. So gorgeous!

 


*reference made to an unpopular Indian TV anchor who lives in his little deep well, like the green frog did.

**the Nobel was admittedly not for his work on culture, history or polity (which this book is about), but was in the field of economics. Nevertheless, it’s a great measure of one’s greatness, at least in the annals of bloggesh. *tips hat at imagined audience

India’s Daughter/Sister/Mother

Like every other amateur feminist, I watched India’s Daughter, the BBC documentary on a 2012 Delhi gang rape. It hit close to home, and left me shaken. Frankly, I watched the documentary only because of the controversial court order by the Indian government that required YouTube to pull down the video in India. I wanted to see for myself what the government deemed so slanderous.

(more…)

One Part Woman and Charlie

December 2014 was a bad month. Cartoonists were gunned down in Paris and a novelist declared himself to be “dead” in South India. They were unrelated, but they both breathed their last, one literally and the other virtually (and ironically, more significantly) because they were radically so different in the way they expressed art and literature, that their readers were threatened and angered. The difference of opinion between them and their readers bubbled into resentment and violent action.

Charlie Hebdo was bold, and was read by people who disagreed with the editors and cartoonists because their fundamental beliefs were ridiculed. Perumal Murugan was creative, and was read by people who were too comfortable in the present to care to listen to a story, about a past that they don’t want to be confronted with.

paris-je-suis-char_3160192k perumalmurugan

If Je Suis Charlie, then, in India, Naanum Murugan. (“I am Murugan too,” in Tamil)

The book that was withdrawn, One Part Woman, is a translation of a Tamil novel written by Perumal Murugan. It talks of a couple who belong to a lower caste in a little village in Tamil Nadu, in early 20th century. The couple finds that they are unable to have children, so they go to a temple during the annual chariot festival – to pray, and to be “blessed” with a child, in God’s temple. In a custom that involves consensual impregnation, a woman may bear a child in the temple festival, with one of the random men who have come to the temple for the very purpose of helping women. In other words, this was a ritual in which the woman engaged in consensual sex in the temple with men who have surrendered their bodies for the purpose of helping these childless women become pregnant. Remember, the novel is set in the early 20th century. Also, the ritual did exist in real, and is documented too. For small farming communities with tiny landholdings, having an heir is considered very important and for the woman, too, it is essential to have a child to escape the stigma of being barren. So, desperate, the young lady in the story, persuaded by her husband’s family, goes in search of a partner for the ritual during the festival, assuming her husband’s endorsement of it. It is this part of the story that has created an avalanche of resentment from the Hindu fundamentalists.

The Indian right wing public (the right wing fringe elements) were irked by the reminder of their horrifying past. So what if it is based on truth? The ones that disagreed burnt his books and protested loudly. They even threatened violence against the writer. Perumal Murugan was coaxed by the District executive to withdraw his book. He was called for a public meeting, where he was made to apologise to the irate public. He was then offered no protection by the police. He was instead told to leave the district, for his own good. The fundamental right of this writer has been scrunched up in a ball and thrown out the window.

Paris rose in chorus, against extremism, for a magazine that they felt represented them. But India has not even noticed this writer who has been so brutally mentally assaulted. India, for that matter, would never even entertain a magazine of the Charlie Hebdo kind, simply because we really are over-loaded with sensitivity in the fault-lines of our distinct identities. Besides, India cannot be seen to protect a magazine that routinely ridicules “values and principles” of various institutions. India is a melting pot of cultures, and throwing spices in the brew will lead to cracks in the pot.

Why is there such an imbalance in upholding citizens’ rights in a strong democracy like India? To answer this, one must simply look at the history of the evolution of the democracy itself. We are a diverse country, whose peace is guaranteed by pacified sentiments and cultural safeguards. While the French can associate themselves to a common culture way back into history, Indians can’t. We were born different, just like our forefathers were. The very idea of India, in fact, is based on cultural diversity which is revered by one another. Maintenance of public morality, decency and public order dictates the extent to which the Fundamental Rights can be exercised. In the melee, constitutional morality is lost.

Constitutional morality, in the backdrop of Perumal Murugan’s case, can be studied as the protection offered by the State to the right to freedom of speech and expression, and the constitutional ground being created (or protected) for constructive debate which balances cultural activism and creativity. Unfortunately, the Indian democracy lacks in both areas of constitutional morality. While she protects the rights of a community (to express itself – in the form of policing, or violence), she is powerless in the sphere of protection of an individual’s personal right to express himself or herself. While India seems to offer a ground for constructive debate on various topics including this one, she has failed to address the issue of balancing community rights and individual rights (or for that matter, of establishing the criteria for a book/art to be deemed unfit for public consumption).

The immediate way forward is for the Supreme Court of India to issue guidelines on what constitutes immoral literature or art. In the future, constitutional morality has to be deliberated upon, debated and a law must be brought out, to keep a check on over-zealous practitioners of both, freedom of expression and maintenance of public order.

Pulping non-fiction: “I dare you, I double dare you!”

doniger

Here’s a book that has not been read, for reasons that you will know and probably fail to understand, like I did. This is us, here, voicing our problem with banning scholarly books. The book we are discussing here is The Hindus – An Alternative History.

Wendy Doniger, an American Indologist (someone who studies India), is a Professor of History of Religions since 1978 in the University of Chicago. Doniger’s book The Hindus – An Alternative History was published in 2009 by Viking/Penguin. It was received well, in India as well as America, by topping the bestseller list in the non-fiction category in the week of October 15th, 2009 in the Hindustan Times [1].

Doniger’s work, like every other work that challenges the religious fabric of India, was soon met with ‘crusaders’ of the religion who filed a lawsuit in a dingy Indian district court. The Indian Penal Code outlaws acts that “intend to outrage religious beliefs.” This was the premise for filing the case. The plaintiff is one Mr. Dinanath Batra (a retired school teacher at the helm of Siksha Bachao Andolan Samiti [2], he is an RSS pracharak – a member of the Hindu fundamentalist group).

The Ban Man, as he is known, Dinanath Batra, has at his disposal the cadre of RSS. This very force of people have allegedly threatened books into being pulped and are responsible for reducing the space for well-informed debate on culture, tradition, Hinduism. Upon his decree – he sends out legal notices to publishing houses to inform them of the ‘hurtful’ books that they are publishing – books deemed unfit for an Indian audience are taken off shelves. It speaks volumes about the disturbing reluctance of the said publishing house and the supposed guardians of Hinduism (who want to inculcate its values into young children via, hold your breath, books. Books penned down by the all-knowing scholar Batra himself. I can’t wait to review one of them) to admit anything in a religion that was meant to espouse, well, everything.

The anger towards publishing the book came out in the sagely belief of being the custodians of the faith. Their authority is not questioned by anyone seeking to have a debate that goes beyond vandalism and the threat of having one’s publishing house suffer from physical damage. Writers and publishers have been here, seen this, and have chosen to withdraw their efforts to stimulate intellectual debate and to truly appreciate freedom of expression as promised by the Land. India is the land in which they have seen freedom being taken away more often than being practiced.

Doniger’s work looks at India’s tryst with Hinduism and she tells this tale by looking at the ‘alternate’ practitioners and beings of the faith, namely, women, untouchables and animals. The Hindu reviewed it when it was released, and it was one that appreciated the scholarly work that has gone into writing it, although it does criticise it for being a little over-indulgent when it came to anecdotes and for being a tad bit too American. [3]

The lawsuit was settled out of court and the case never saw the light of day; in effect, it did not give the writer an opportunity to defend her work. She knew she’d face trouble with, in getting published in India, due to which she even changed some of the text in the book. The out of court settlement also did not give an opportunity to the knowledge and opinion starved folk (the mighty guardians of the faith, indeed) to learn something more than a prayer song or two, or a dozen nationalist (not to mention, loosely worded and offensive) slogans.

Here is an excerpt from the book, one which you and I cannot read, because alas, it is blasphemous work (gasp!) in the pure ether of India. The excerpt acts as the scholar’s closing statement quite well.

To the accusation that I cited a part of the Hindu textual tradition that one Hindu “had never heard of,” my reply is: Yes!, and it’s my intention to go on doing just that. The parts of his own tradition that he objected to are embraced by many other Hindus and are, in any case, historically part of the record.

The  Hindus – An Alternative History is available online. It is educative, provocative and most importantly, it gives you a different perspective of the Hindu faith. This charade of asking for it to be banned garnered a bigger audience to the book, much to the fundamentalist group’s chief’s chagrin, I hope. Readers in India were curious, and rightly so, when this book was deemed NSFIndianAudience. Don’t we have the ability to read, understand and debate? Don’t we have the right to do so? If only the penguin had more spine and didn’t have cold feet, it needn’t have gone south.

References:

[1] The Hindustan Times http://www.hindustantimes.com/lifestyle/books/top-authors-this-week/article1-465565.aspx

[2] http://deshkosh.org/S/Shiksha_Bachao_Andolan_Samiti.html

[3] The Hindu Centre http://www.thehinducentre.com/the-arena/article5779995.ece