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April 17th, 2014

Prabhu suggested:
Aside, maybe for a different blog post: Your thoughts on Modi and Skull cap? Media is showing him wearing caps of other communities and rejecting the skull cap alone.
This is a "fun topic" to write about, since it is mildly challenging. One has to dig a little bit, though not too much, to bring out features that distinguish acts that those who follow the path of least resistance confound as morally equivalent. So here are some ideas, which anyone who reads this, if at all, is welcome to add to and/or finesse.

1. What would be a likely newspaper heading if Modi did wear a skull cap? I bet it would be "With an eye on Muslim vote, Modi wears the skull cap". A slight variant is the possibility of accusation that the man is being insensitive, trying to rubbing salt into Muslim wounds by frivolously flaunting their symbols in spite of (what detractors see as) apathy and hatred for Muslims. In other words, on this issue, either option would invite the secular "damned if you do, damned if you don't" blame.

2. As pointed out by many, whether or not the skull cap is a religious symbol, people view it as one. In contrast, the other head gears that are worn come more with a cultural as opposed to religious connotation. There is that difference between a westerner wearing a churidar or a kurta as opposed to he or she wearing sandal paste on forehead.

3. Modi did wear the green shawl with Islamic verses that was given to him.

4. Another aspect distinguishing the skull cap from other headgears is that, due to overuse, politicians wearing the skull cap has acquired a connotation of appeasement. Islam has been a basis for appeasement in a way none of the cultural constructs associated with the other headgears has been. In fact, explicitly avoiding religious symbols might help toward bringing about a welcome change away from the politics of appeasement.

5. Moreover, it is never healthy if wearing a skull cap becomes a requirement, as it seems to have become. I don't see parallel requirements for Muslim leaders to proactively encourage Hindu sentiments. After all, we have a rich "secular" tradition of singing "Ishvar Allah tero naam" in temples but not about any Hindu God in mosques. Allowing seculars or liberals to enforce political correctness is a slippery slope.

6. This is a slight variant of point 2. When do you offer to shake hands with someone? You may do that to a stranger that you are just meeting. You might also do that when you meet a friend with whom you have good ongoing relations. But the protocol is not so immediate when the person harbors a grievance against you. Shaking hands with an evidently disgruntled acquaintance may be seen as aggressive, as an attempt to conquer by cynically manipulating through gestures for which decorum demands reciprocity. To put it slightly differently, Modi can start on a relatively clean slate to try breaking ice with people from various parts of India, not so much with Muslims with whom his relations have been overanalyzed in a less than reconciliation-oriented manner.

April 15th, 2014

Several people on twitter seem to have risen up in arms against a circular issued by `The Hindu' prohibiting nonvegetarian food in their canteen. They especially take objection to the circular mentioning "...as it causes discomfort to the majority of the employees who are vegetarian". For instance, the celebrity infotainer Sidin initially supported the right of `The Hindu' to impose restrictions in its premises, but later sort of backtracked saying he found the `majoritarian' angle troubling. I am quite disturbed at the eagerness of several vegetarians to *unthinkingly* support the non-veg cause. Anyway, I would like to raise two points, mainly intended at showing that things are not black and white :

1. Though it might seem otherwise, non-vegetarianism is not JUST about choice. Supporters of nonvegetarianism (including you if you are one) do use `choice' as the decider eventually, but that is emphatically not the only factor they take into consideration. Why do I say so? Because most of the modern world recognizes such a thing as animal rights, in a way it does not recognize plant rights. There are laws that ban animal cruelty but not ones that ban plant cruelty. People do not casually pluck at an animal's body part the way they do leaves etc.

The reason non-vegetarianism is considered acceptable is that, though people usually do consider it wrong to torture animals, they prioritize their eating preferences above such scruples. In presence of conflicting pulls, the average human brain just happens to be superbly equipped to silence the one with less perceived benefit to self. Those who are staunch vegetarians on principle follow the same set of values as nonvegetarians do, but the emphasis they lay on non-violence on animals exceeds their respect for `right to choice of food'. I belong to this category. This is completely different from the relatively more black and white issue of homosexuality, where there is no externality, i.e., no direct material harm is done to a third life-form-with-central-nervous-system. I remind you that it is always important to keep in mind that even the most principled man puts some principle at backseat at some point of time in exchange for convenience.

2. The accusation of majoritarianism. This is what caused Sidin to flip, yet I think this point is even more silly. Majoritarianism is there everywhere in life, and all of us live and breathe it every day, and in many cases rightly so. It usually boils down to - given that one has to choose between causing discomfort to one group of people and causing discomfort to another, how do you take your pick?

In the case at hand, the issues are : (a) how much inconvenience is it to nonvegetarian employees to eat only vegetarian food in the canteen? (b) how much discomfort does it cause to the vegetarians? From a purely moralistic third party perspective, why is one of (a) and (b) less sacred than the other?

Now in legal issues, in public space, classical liberalism addresses (a) at the expense of (b), so long as "discomfort" does not grow into "material harm". In the legal world, arguably a case could be made to uniformly prioritize one over the other. But what about non-legal issues? In practice people settle on one of (a) and (b), and the decision is usually arrived at in a case by case manner. Thus, watching porn in work situations that do not affect business can still get someone into trouble. Same with dress codes in companies and such.

P. S. : There is no denying that there is a lot of hypocrisy in The Hindu's stance etc., but for me vegetarianism is a stronger concern than all those right now.

Epilogue : Usually I agree with Gaurav ji on such a large number of issues that it is a bit sad I have to differ with him on this. [EDIT : I stand corrected as Gaurav ji clarifies] But of course the biggest, though predictable, disappointment here is from greatbong with an uncharacteristically high degree of bigotry :


@RMantri 43m
@sidin @greatbong Most pvt offices have a dress code - what if somebody insists on wearing totally opp.? Majoritarian to insist otherwise?

@greatbong 41m
@RMantri @sidin The wearing of proper clothes is relevant to conduct of business. Not the eating, given this is Hindu

‏@Sanity_3 34m
@greatbong bizarre! Dress code can impact business but a person eating meat next to vegetarian won't? :) @RMantri @sidin

‏@greatbong 29m
@Sanity_3 @RMantri @sidin This is why in the US and Europe they have dress codes but not food codes. Tough for vegetarians to understand


You see, all Greatbong could say was that his preferences are justified because the Americans and Europeans say so!! And then he dares top it off with a personal attack on vegetarians (not just those who insist on vegetarianism), saying `Tough for vegetarians to understand'. Very disappointing :'(

February 11th, 2014

As Ravikiran, the high priest of libertarianism, says, one should devise solutions based on structures and incentives. What are the incentives in front of Hindus to support free speech?

An illustrative example would be the following excerpt from an FAQ on the blog of Krish Ashok :
Would you do this to the Koran, the Bible or the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?

No. I would not. I choose to parody the culture I grew up with and I am quite aware of the violent repercussions possible from fundamentalists of all denominations. You are free to call me a coward for my selective choice of subjects.

Aren’t you then taking undue advantage of the freedom and tolerance inherent in our religion?

It isn’t freedom and tolerance if I cannot take advantage of it. If you say “How dare you take advantage of our tolerance?” then the logical fallacy inherent in that statement causes it to collapse on itself.

Indeed, it is not inconsistent for liberals to choose to selectively offend Hindu sentiments. Neither is it inconsistent for someone to selectively oppose Hindu intolerance and more or less ignore other forms of intolerance, as long as he/she does not endorse these other forms of intolerance (like Salil Tripathi). More generally, it is not impossible for a secular society that adheres to free speech, to selectively and consistently humiliate and demonize in press one section of the society.

So the question in front of Hindus is the following : do you want that extra bit of freedom in exchange for a society where you are routinely humiliated? Where you will have all the rights that are formally granted in a modern society, but yet you of all will be singled out for embarrassment? Where ideas and practices of your religion alone, which you respect and cherish, are condemned as factors behind the ills in your society (e.g., blaming our epics for rapes)?. Where intense societal pressure will force you to keep to yourself about the hurt inflicted on your religious feelings and weep in silence?

If not, do not be a slut for free speech. Make it clear to the champions of free speech that while selectivity in outrage or ridicule by the society as a whole may be consistent with their own framework of principles, these concerns of selectivity still have to be addressed if they are to have your support.

People have been rubbing it onto us that Hindutva was dead. In this recalling of Doniger's book, we have a faint glimmer of hope. It is not clear if the Hindutva project or even the withdrawal of this book will stay, but this temporary victory gives us a shot of much needed, rejuvenating, confidence. For this reason, it is indeed time to party!
Apparently a petition that is sloppy at many places and poorly referenced has compelled Penguin to withdraw Wendy Doniger's book.

And in fact it is this very sloppiness that makes this success all the more sweet to me. The painstakingly constructed, polite, sophisticated critiques of Doniger had all failed us Hindus. The liberals' excessive faith in credentials meant that they happily ignored the best counterarguments we had and sang her glories. A distinguished professor at Chicago who had mastered the way political correctness works, she could make a remark as lazy and irresponsible as "Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman." (on Sarah Palin) and get away with it[link]

The liberal society has consistently responded to the finest Hindu arguments with a silence equivalent to "Kyaa ukhaad loge be?" Thus, defeating them in an intellectual skirmish could never possibly be a source of satisfaction, as it would just mean that we had to deal with the bitter after taste of their well left snub or an unfazed "Get over it". Rather, they had to paid back in their own coin, preferably using the crassest arguments that would disgust them, for which they have immediate logical counters, yet leaving them powerless to do anything about it. Well, I cannot express my emotions nearly well, but they are roughly analogous to what the master of writing, Greatbong, described in a different context, namely, when Pakistani players were invited for the IPL auction and not one franchise bid for any of them [link] :
...but of the mass thappad given on the faces of the Pakistani players. Now putting on my unemotional, rational hat this was something that could totally have been avoided. ...
... here is what I felt when none of the franchises bid for Pakistani players. I felt happy. Perhaps unintentionally and through pure mismanagement, the IPL franchises have done what our government could not pull of. It has given a resounding slap– jiska goonj bahoot din tak sunaai dega.
This snub has drilled into Pakistan that thing that burns them up so much. Namely that “India call the shots because they have the money”, the extent of which can be realized when Parnell, hired for the Delhi Daredevils for 610K USD, says that his idol is Ashish Nehra. Yes that’s the extent of India’s financial muscle.

December 15th, 2013

Acknowledgement : Thanks to Prabhu for bringing the relevant excerpt from T. M. Krishna's book to my attention.
Disclaimer : I am not too knowledgeable in music, yet I do not see those who know better weighing in on this topic. Perhaps Hindu-friendly rasikas are scared of belling the cat. Since I inhabit the cyber-netherworld, let me do it to the extent I can here. Also, some of my kind friends have been very supportive of me by tweeting some of my posts; I urge them to exercise caution. I try to write on very unpopular issues and enjoy such a challenge, but it is only because of my anonymity that I am able to afford to do this.

For a while I have considered Shri T. M. Krishna to be most likely an agnostic or atheist. Though I am a Hindu myself, this only increased my respect for him, as it seemed to me that his non-religiosity was a natural consequence of honesty and not `wannabe-ness'. Many of his talks struck me as refreshingly honest, and I always loved to hear his perspectives. Not that I always agreed with some of them. For instance, it seemed to me that he was torturing the definition of Bhakti, as he made comments like (freely translated from Tamil) "Even when I sing about (man-woman) love, it is Bhakti alone". Yet, it all seemed to be a good-natured, however naive, attempt at reconciliation. Recently when I wrote the post "Is carnaic music getting secularized?", I tried to give the musicians such benefit of doubt as I could, and still kept alive the hope that given the kind of news and opinion TMK may have been exposed to, he was probably just taking the path of least resistance, and not proactively being anti-Hindu.

Not any longer. Try as I may, I cannot see this excerpt from his book as good-natured at all. It seems to be an example of extreme and pathological bhakti-baiting, and for the first ever time in my eyes, he comes across as anti-Hindu. Of course, that is a strong statement, and I am obliged to provide some justification.

1. He says :
The bhakti music of MS was beautiful, uplifting, unforgettable, but the fact that there was another ‘MS music’ that was capable of being, and did indeed become, serious with all the rigour of art music has been lost to the legend of the ‘divine MS’. I regard this as a great loss.
So according to Mr. Krishna, this `other MS music', namely with all the `rigour of art music' did realize itself, but got "lost to the legend of the divine MS". In other words, he is blaming bhakti not for preempting the alternate legacy (which he accepts was indeed realized) but rather for overshadowing that legacy. But really, was there any such competition between these legacies? If not for bhakti, her popularity may have been rather similar to that of the great Brinda-Muktha (in terms of the so called "art music", rated by many to be higher than MS?). What bhakti did rather was to give advertisement to the rest of her music, just as Yesudas' film song renditions advertised his carnatic concerts.

2. Next, TMK writes about D. K. Pattammal, celebrated as the first brahmin woman to peform carnatic music publicly:
All the masculinity of India’s svadeshi spirit shot through her patriotic songs. Nothing could have been more conducive to the patronising of Pattammal by male brahmins, many of whom were ardent nationalists and freedom fighters."
Masculinity of the svadeshi spirit? This about the more or less non-violent Indian freedom movement? What could the word `masculinity' possibly refer to here, and why is the author using it here?

In such contexts, the word `masculinity' is usually used as a pejorative, without an exact denotation, but connoting negative phenomena such as empty bluster, impotent rage, exaggerated impression of own physical strength, attaching an exaggerated sense of relevance to the same, pointless aggression and so on. It is often used to great effect by left-liberals to not mean so much precisely, but still beat up their favorite whipping boy using vague connotations.

Whatever the intended meaning is, the author is insinuating that carnatic musicians recognized her because they were crazy about the "masculinity" that she infused into the svadeshi spirit. That aside, let us come to the larger point here. I don't know enough about the history, but I have been given to understand that D. K. Pattammal (see wikipedia) :

(a) had a steady rise from the age of 8, which looks like an unlikely age for someone to start popularly stimulating much nationalist fervor;

(b) was widely respected for having learnt many Muthuswami Dikshitar kritis from Ambi Dikshitar and Justice T. L. Venkatarama Iyer who were among the most authentic sources;

(c) was esteemed for being tutored by greats such as the rhythm-great Kanchipuram Naina Pillay;

(d) was held in awe for her general encyclopedic knowledge and ability to sing in complex thaalams (according to wikipedia she was called `Pallavi Pattammal'.

It seems to me from all this that her greatness was recognized in terms of her genuine musical skill, rather than for stimulating nationalist fervor. Am I mistaken or is TMK deliberately injecting lies into the discourse to cane his favorite scape goat, even if that means depriving the great DKP of the credit for her working her way up due to sheer knowledge as opposed to sentimentality?

3. Another question he raises is
Can an atheist or a non-Hindu be a Karnatik musician?
As TMK should know very well, some if not several of the prominent singers are actually atheists. So the correct question is not whether they can be a carnatic musician, but whether atheist musicians can publicly espouse and declare their atheism and retain their influence. And, to be fair, this is what TMK means and later asks more explicitly.

Now the audience that comes to Carnatic concerts includes those that come just for the music, as well as those for whom bhakti is a very significant attraction. If TMK declares himself as an atheist, possibly many bhaktas will stop attending his concerts, and those sabhas owned by bhaktas or those whose clientele is predominantly bhakti-centrist may stop inviting him. But they are within their rights to do so - if I am paying TMK to satisfy my bhakti needs, am I obliged to continue the payment if TMK stops catering to my needs?

4. Continuing with the above theme, he writes :
What about practitioners of other religions? Among the nagasvara community there were not a few Muslim families that mastered this art form. Most of them flourished in what is now Andhra Pradesh and a few still live alongside the most conservative Hindu communities of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. My admiration for these people is immense, as they have been able to negotiate two very opposing ideas, but there is a nuance. They have had to, perhaps willingly, accept the Hindu pantheon within their world. You will find their homes adorned with pictures of Hindu deities and their immense respect for Hindu gods and goddesses even when their religious practices are Islamic. This is a credit to their ability to straddle two worlds. But they cannot display apathy for Hinduism and be accepted as musicians by the Karnatik world.
(a) Dabbling in bhakti-music is their livelihood, this is traditionally what they know as a means to make the ends meet, and they are paid for it. This can be called credit-worthy, but so is the tolerance of the Hindu patrons who are supporting from their pockets the Muslim artistes in return - embracing and welcoming them instead of accusing them of blasphemy.

(b) As regards how they cannot display their apathy, why should Hindus be obliged to give their money to anyone who does not respect their views? (i.e., Hindus should tolerate everyone regardless of their views, as long as these views are nonviolent, but monetarily supporting amounts to far more than tolerating).

(c) Is it so difficult for these Muslim artistes to "straddle the two worlds", and would they rather have shown apathy for Hinduism otherwise? It is in most if not all cases part of their faith, unless TMK insists on equating their faith to the more Arabized variant. Many, if not all, of them actually believe in Hindu deities. Sheikh Chinnamoulana is well known to have been extremely devoted to Lord Ranganatha (so much so that he chose to live very close to the temple). His ancestor, one Sheikh Nabi Sahib of 18th century Sattalur, is said to have taken to the instrument Nadasvaram upon recieving the grace of Goddess Munimandamma [link]. These Muslims just happen to be not-so-Arabized, and worshiping Hindu deities is part of their faith. Just as Hindus have historically worshipped deities of various faiths and accepted them into their mainstream, and just as many Hindus continue to worship Muslim saints, celebrate Muharram even when Muslims of their village have migrated and so on. In fact, semitic religions generally seem to be exceptions (except in some places where their manifestation is relatively nominal) in that accepting deities from other religions seems quite natural to human psyche.

Conclusion on the alleged "Don't Ask Don't Tell" for atheist or secular musicians

In conclusion, in an eco-system that developed around both bhakti and art, TMK wants to make a religion out of the art part, junking Hindu influences, and wants the lesser humans, namely the pure bhaktas, to continue their support nevertheless. If atheists want more secular environs for music, they should appeal to a wider secular audience, get their fellow-seculars interested instead of looking for the bhaktas' money. And they are always free to form their "Nastika Sangeetha Sabha" or what not. Herein lies the problem - there are many issues with the Carnatic music world today that severely restrict its potential popularity. For instance :

(a) Most Carnatic singers have poor adherence to shruti, meaning what the layman hears is a slightly perturbed and hence unclear version of what the singer intends. Also, many of the greats may be great singers from a Carnatic perspective, but they are poor singers from a lay man's perspective; it is an underappreciated fact that a great musician can be a bad singer;

(b) Bad voice - Carnatic musicians in general have voices far less pleasant (per the modern lay man aesthetics) than those of Hindustani musicians or filmi musicians;

(c) The Kritis in Carnatic music have a simple and not especially striking format, because Carnatic connoisseurs just happen to be interested in different sorts of parameters (such as the extent to which the Raga was explored etc.) than the format of a kriti;

(d) The difficulty in beginning to appreciate, since one should already do some pattern clustering before one can collect new inputs into tokens and group the tokens according to patterns.

But post independence too, without royal patronage, Carnatic music continued to be supported inspite of not catching up with the voice-innovations introduced by film music, and inspite of not matching up with the substantially more layman-friendly voice culture of Hindustani music (Carnatic voice culture encourages full-throated singing which is at odds with modern layman aesthetics). Because, notwithstanding whatever else, Carnatic music is considerably patronized by the large bhaktist clientele, and also by the fact that bhakti prompts many parents to get their children to learn Carnatic music as the default option. Bhakti is the oxygen tube that keeps Carnatic music alive. If they want to remove it, let them go ahead and convulse all the way to a miserable death.

Side Remark :

TMK asks :
"Is Karnatik music inherently religious? To answer that, I must ask whether Karnatik music was intended to be religious. It is not possible to respond in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ terms to this."
I don't think the initial motivation of those who pursued Carnatic music matters here. If Carnatic music was initially only pursued by those who sacrificed babies, does that have any bearing on who should follow Carnatic music today?

Remarks on the leftist style guide.

Left-liberals follow a "style guide" that features among other things lists such as who should be acclaimed for the slightest reason, who should be trashed for the slightest reason etc. They manipulate the stock market of opinions to reward conformity-to-style-guide (though left-liberals are anti-market they seem to know the pulse of the opinion-market the best). Articles conforming to the style guide reinforce the acceptability of the style guide. I would like to now list some of the aspects of this style guide that show through from the above discussion. But before stating them, I remark that many of these conventions, when viewed in isolation, are not bad; it is the selectivity with which the conventions are applied that makes them sinister. This makes the entire issue murky and slippery and formidable to argue against, because no one really has the time to collate large amounts of hard data and conclusively establish the bias; people have far more pressing problems.

(a) Use the word `masculinity' as an ill-defined nebulous pejorative;

(b) At the slightest opportunity, praise some Muslims for their perceived tolerance (to repeat, it is the selectivity, and not praise for Muslims per se, that is grating);

(c) Whenever possible, criticize some societally dominant (according to perception) community, in this case male brahmins, as-a-group. They are the analogue of the white-males in the US, and the left-liberals hope to use hatred to form an umbrella coalition of various other denominations to unite against this perceived dominator. This is done not through the most overt stereotyping, which is too crass for leftists, but nevertheless using a language which, if used for most other groups of people, would still be denounced as stereotyping. For instance, note that he talks of the `patronising of Pattammal by male brahmins', without adding a `some' to temper the usage `male brahmins'. Were all male brahmins in a position of control or only a small subset, whose proportion among the set of all male brahmins is statistically insignificant? Again for instance, if a leftist author writes about the plight of Muslim women, language of a similar sweeping-range will not be used for Muslim men (rather, the focus will be on the sorrows of the Muslim women);

(d) Assiduously cultivate a cult-like status to art worship. Make comments such as `art elevates' or `art stimulates a multi-layered perception' - which have no precise meaning, but which foster a fuzzy reverence for art reinforcing the propaganda that people have picked up as children from their schools.
Use this Art-bhakti to promote artiste-bhakti, which then can be channeled into soft-power to force a wider and deeper reach for the artiste's opinion, however ill-considered it is. Or, use the fuzziness to inject enough confusion into the discourse which can be then made to serve as a smokescreen.

December 12th, 2013

Being ignorant and unqualified, I will not be commenting on the question of constitutionality of IPC 377, something on which experts seem to differ (sigh, why can't all subjects be like mathematics?).

This post is not about that, rather it is about a practical lesson I would like Hindutva folks to learn from observing the swelling support for gay rights. Why is it that we see so many straight people hysterical about gay rights, but not willing to even begin a serious debate on, let us say, polygamy; or not willing to even attempt to answer about incest? Or, out of the large number of troubling issues facing the country, many of them easily fixable, why is it that this particular issue alone generates the kind of heat although prosecution based on this law has been exceedingly rare (as the SC judgement observed, 200 people in the last 150 years, in our country of presently over a billion)?

[EDIT : Someone has taken objection to my saying in the above paragraph that `this issue alone' generates the kind of heat. Well, it was sloppy phrasing on my part. What I meant was that the heat generated by this issue is more grossly **disproportionate** to its relevance than almost every other issue. It would be nice if people, when they see an odd statement, at least try to allow a little bit for the possibility that the author might been sloppily trying to express a more refined point.]

I think the answer is that support for homosexuality has far less to do with gay rights than the need for several heterosexuals to assert their moral superiority while coming across as just showing legitimate concern. The following quotes from Robin Hanson around the concept of "Homo hypocritus" are worth keeping in mind :
...we evolved to overtly and consciously embrace social norms against bragging, dominance, and sub-band coalitions, while covertly and subconsciously signaling our abilities, and loyalties:...
...So why don’t we just celebrate all good done, regardless of motive? I’d guess it is because most of us care less about how to help the world overall, and more about how to use the altruism of others as a signal of their personal inclinations and abilities. [more]
Stance on homosexuality seems one of the most effective ways to be subtly assertive about your moral superiority and maximize the display of your altruism signals. As to why it is so (i.e., why it is one of the most effective ways to...) would need a closer look into the stock market of altruism signaling, and I am right now too busy to spend time thinking how to articulate that.

Example applicable to Hindutva : A useful example is that of Pakistani Hindus versus Palestinians. In many eductated Indian circles, people weep more about Palestinians than about Pakistani Hindus. Why? Supporting Palestinians makes you come across as having compassion, while supporting Pakistani Hindus only evokes a "Phir se shuroo".

Muslims, like gays, have learnt how to, or have unwittingly come to, incentivize the Homohypocritus to support their positions in return for social respectability and ego-massage. We should ask ourselves what those who support Hindus get in return. Usually, nothing but "Phir se shuroo", exasperated looks and threat of ostracization.

November 26th, 2013

The article is on one Vikas Swarup, the author of a bunch of novels including "Q & A" on which slumdog millionaire was based. Here is an excerpt :


Slumdog Millionaire

Well, anyway, what followed was question time. I asked Vikas Swarup whether he was disappointed or otherwise not so happy with the changes Danny Boyle had made while turning the novel Q&A into the movie Slumdog Millionaire. He acknowledged that changes had been made. Upon signing the contract, the representative of the movie crew had promised him that “the soul of the novel” would be respected, a sure way of saying that its body would be distorted. But he took this as normal and fairly insignificant. In reality, the changes were highly consequential and significant for Boyle’s agenda and perhaps for what western audiences have come to expect from a film located in India.

He explained how he had named the protagonist Ram Mohammed Thomas, representing every street kid in India, while Boyle had changed this into Jamal Malik, a fully Muslim name. He communalized the plot, with Jamal’s mother being killed by Hindu communal rioters and a Rama impersonation presiding over the violence. Boyle turned the protagonist into a poor hapless Muslim and the Hindus into the bad guys. In this context, blinding a child-beggar to make him earn more by singing a Hindu religious song (a practice of which even the missionary sister Jeanne Devos says she has never come across an actual case during decades of social work in Mumbai), and of course not a Muslim song, adds to the image of Hinduism as gruesome. Briefly, he turned an innocent story into an anti-Hindu story.


The above paragraphs might look rather simple to write. But then one should note that employs simple prose, features a straightforward narration of several instances of bias against Hindus embedded in mainstream culture, and nevertheless makes for engaging reading. Somehow when most Hindus (certainly including me) write something of this sort, it strikes the reader as a sob story, conveys the impression of being authored by a party-pooper who is out to spoil your fun and interfere with your freedom. Hence or otherwise, few objections are raised to the all too numerous biases in popular culture such as Bollywood. What is the way out? How to get more articles out along the lines of the excerpt above? May be someone like Aravindan Neelakandan writing at Centre Right (e.g., the post on Anbe Sivam) makes a valiant effort, but still falls far short of what is required. One should appreciate his impressive effort in tackling a very difficult and unpopular subject, but unfortunately he is likely just not smart enough.

November 9th, 2013

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Wanted to vent this out long back, but better late than never.

Can any (nonexistent) reader of this blog remind me why the hell they want Anand to lose his world championship right in his home town? Which idiot decided to hold it in Chennai? Is it that people will feel upset to see Anand being taken to the cleaners and start watching the match more closely for the negative thrill or something?

October 5th, 2013

My good friend Gaurav ji is one of the few people I see pointing that "Toilets vs temples" (including variants such as toilets before temples etc.) is a false dichotomy.

I of course agree with this assessment but would like to add further comment, as there is more to the story.

For, there are several other false dichotomies to be made, none of which seems to have a chance of catching on like this one :

1. Why are `we as a nation' so obsessed with Bollywood, focusing on glitz and glamor before basic hygiene?
2. Literature and social science departments in universities do not help bring bread to the poor man's mouth, surely we would do well to replace them with people who would actually go around building toilets?
3. Cricket?
4. Various `not really necessary' but costly habits like going to expensive restaurants?

To be fair, there are people belonging to the hard left who ask some of these questions, and a small fraction among them who make some attempt to calibrate their life per these considerations. But these questions do not capture popular (middle class) imagination the way the "Toilets vs temples" comparison does. Why?

Why the other dichotomies fail

This is rather well appreciated by now, but for purposes of comparison let us spell it out. First, the incentive structures differ for those who do not have access to reasonably clean toilets vs. those who do.

Those who are too poor to have "basic sanitation" facilities seem to have only limited interest in getting them. They have adapted themselves to living amidst filth, and grown out of the feelings of disgust. Disgust is what people like us feel by proxy. It is not clear if they are really convinced that better hygiene would make a substantial difference to their health; for the impact on health is understood through "anumaana" or "inference" rather than in "pratyakSha", viz., palpably and directly perceiving the process of infestation. Thus, they would rather invest their money towards matters they viscerally feel as of more immediate and manifest relevance to their lives. In fact they would rather spend their savings on such humble diversions as they can afford. Plus we have all those reasons of practical democracy for why they don't exert pressure on the Government to provide them these facilities.

Now what about those who do have access to good sanitation? Why do we not help out the less fortunate? Well, humans as a group have agreed that (in most circumstances) it is normal for one individual to prioritize his/her pleasures above others' basic needs. Even westerners who cringe thinking of how Indians could live in luxury in full sight of stark poverty : (a) practice this to a smaller extent; and (b) generally prioritize their own individual pleasures over spending their money to support the poor in India (whom they don't see on a regular basis, but nevertheless know the existence of).

In other words, though this prioritization conflicts with some moral beliefs many if not most humans pay lip service too, people have learnt to live with this discomfort. This is why people don't mind spending money preferentially on Bollywood, cricket etc. This is also why poor men men who due to social norms have less problems finding a dumping location by a road, and who have greater control over their family's finances, do not bother to build toilets for their womenfolk.

For these reasons, attempts to "shame" people into spending their private money to help others do not work. This explains why dichotomies such as "Bollywood vs. toilets", "cricket vs. toilets" etc. have failed to take root.

Back to Temples vs. Toilets

Now what about "temples vs. toilets", how does this slogan gain traction unlike others?

The target audience for the slogan is the middle class; Modi's comment for instance was made to a bunch of students. The poor arguably have greater clarity on what they want.

We have already seen why it does not help to take the middle class to task for spending money on personal enjoyment as opposed to funding toilets for the poor. Thus, the only effective strategy is to somehow connect their spending habits to stupidity. No one wants to be seen as poor. Shaming people this way, even if it works, may not change their habits, but at least it might cause enough ripples for the person who shames to get a feeling of having accomplished something (or to get some middle class votes or to piss of a hated group of people).

And here is where the issue of faith comes in; most believers are faced with doubts. It is well known that even Mother Teresa, who was on full time religious duty, had doubts about faith. Sri Ramakrishna often said that even to be fully convinced that God exists, one had to realize first.

Thus, though not in as many words, the idea conveyed is that believing Hindus are stupid enough to throw their money down the drain, for superstitious reasons. This attacks them where it hurts, for this is so intimately related to their own personal conflicts. Even those Hindus, or those who hail from a Hindu background and have some sense of affiliation to the Hindu group identity, who do not contribute to temples, get taken to task by proxy. For "why are people like you stupid" comes with a subtext of "by extension, you are stupid too". This subtext is dangerous because it is not stated, only implied, and thus its manifestation is not concrete enough to counter.

This does not affect Muslims much since, in the world of rhetoric, vast machinery has been erected by liberals to protect the average Muslim from having to answer for what other Muslims do, or even for what they themselves do as long as they don't explicitly and physically harm others. It is pretty easy to deflect genuine criticisms of Islam as coming from Islamophobia. Muslims can comfortably remain deaf to such questions. Thus, Muslim stupidity is generally not seriously questioned, and the money they spend on mosques is merely their legitimate expression of faith, while Hindus need to answer even for what Tulsidas might have implied a few centuries back in an obscure paragraph. It hurts Hinduism very badly that it is not an authoritative religion, there is a tradition of Hindus raising questions about their faith, and also that Hindu leaders themselves have set a precedent by reforming it every now and then. Finally, Muslims feel less insecure about their faith, because space for faith is filled in with considerations of identity, crowding out questions about faith. No one really likes to screw around with his/her own sense of identity.

Finally, "temples vs toilets" is a slogan that does not just come with a stick; it also comes with a carrot. Those who are just nominal Hindus can raise their "market legitimacy rating" up a few notches by cheering for the slogan. In the context of Bollywood etc., this sense of legitimacy is trumped by the stiff resistance from others' egos as well as one's own unwillingness to forego pleasures, which will mean that not only is the `static friction' to get your legitimacy scroll moving not overcome, but also are you left with a bitter taste from a useless yet unpleasant discussion. The same with Muslims who ask about construction of mosques. But this `static friction' is almost nonexistent in the "temples vs. toilets" situation, for the Hindu's doubt about his or her own faith puts the Hindu into an emotional conflict, making resistance much harder.

Further comment : Hindus are on the wrong side of an asymmetric incentive structure in sociological warfare. Some of the features of Hinduism that are responsible for this asymmetry, which ideally liberals ought to respect, are hardly recognized, because it is difficult to argue that different religions are different without coming across as unfair (though it is pretty easy, for example, for atheists to argue that all theistic religions are bad). To open up the path towards getting these differences recognized, Hindus ought to be stressing, to the extent possible, the difference between religions. Many Hindus in fact preempt or defeat this cause by "sarva-dharma-sama-bhaava" bullshit. So far (mostly) only the most extremist of Hindutvavadis attempt to do justice to the differences between religions, and that ends up being counterproductive because genuine study of differences across religions gets thereby associated with extremism.

July 8th, 2013

Via Gaurav ji's twitter feed, I saw an exchange between Harsh Gupta and one Kavita Krishnan, wherein the latter claimed : "Pushyamitra Sunga vandalised Bodhi tree in 2nd century BC, Shashanka in 600 AD. And BJP hero Savarkar justified such persecution," and "Chinese monk traveller Xuanzang recorded Shashanka's vandalism, his attempt to replace the Buddha with a shivlinga." Ever willing to learn from poorvapakSha Harsh Gupta readily retweeted it.

So, in the unlikely event that anyone is reading this blog, let me quote the relevant excerpt from an a Koenraad Elst article wherein he calls some of the secular lies on this topic (I can't find references to whether Shunga vandalised the Bodhi tree, someone else will have to check) :
Hsuan Tsang's story from hearsay about Shashank's devastating a monastery in Bihar, killing the monks and destroying Buddhist relics, only a few years before Hsuan Tsang's own arrival, is contradicted by other elements in his own report. Thus, according to the Chinese pilgrim, Shashank threw a stone with the Buddha's footprint into the river, but it was returned through a miracle; and he felled the bodhi tree but a sapling from it was replanted which miraculously grew into a big tree overnight. So, the fact of the matter was that the stone and the tree were still there in full glory. In both cases, the presence of the footprint-stone and the fully grown bodhi tree contradict Husan Tsang's allegations, but he explains the contradiction away by postulating miracles (which everywhere have a way of mushrooming around relics, to add to their aura of divine power). If we do not accept miracles, we conclude that the bodhi tree which Husan Tsang saw, and which was too big to have been a recently replanted sapling, cannot have been felled by Shashank.

Hsuan Tsang is notorious for his exaggerations and his insertions of miracle stories, and he had to explain to China, where Buddhism was readhing its peak, why it was declining in India. It seems safer to base our judgement on the fact that in his description of Buddhist life in the Ganga basin, nothing shows the effects of recent persecutions. In fact, Hsuan Tsang himself gives a clue to the real reason of pre-Islamic Buddhist decline, by describing how many Buddhist monasteries had fallen into disuse, esp. in areas of lawlessness and weak government, indicating that the strength of Buddhism was in direct proportion to state protection and patronage. Unlike Brahminism, which could sustain itself against heavy odds, the fortunates of Buddhist monasticism (even more than those of the Christian abbeys in early medieval Europe) were dependent upon royal favours, as under Ashoka, the Chinese early T'ang dynasty, and the rulers of Tibet and several Southeast-Asian countries.

Unfortunately, seculars conveniently take such accounts as Xuanzhang's as Gospel truth. Fact-checking is only for Hindu claims, anti-Hindu claims are true unless proved otherwise.

I highly recommend reading the whole of that Koenraad Elst article.
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