Monthly Archives: October 2006

Communal Riots in Managalore

Standard

I am sorry my fear has been proved right about communal riots in Karnataka. I dont know the death count, but today’s newspapers say that it has spread over a few talukas and the situation is not in control. Curfew is on. Hope things will come under control soon. And experiments of the killing fields stop.

Tipu Sultan, Kannada Nationalism and Communal Design

Standard

D. Shankar Murthy, a minister in the Karnataka Government, initiated a public debate surrounding Tipu Sultan. I do not have access to all the opinions expressed in this debate. I have followed some of the debate in the Kannada daily, Vijaya Karnataka. It does seem a royal sling match, with Kannada writers and intellectuals reacting to each other with the readers throwing in their bit.

The moot question is whether Tipu Sultan deserves to be respected in Karnataka. The minister apparently said something to the effect that Tipu was against Kannada and hence Kannadigas should not bother about him much. The debate of course makes Tipu’s religious faith the core issue. One set of opinion, expressed in detail by the novelist S. L. Bhairappa, is that he was anti-Hindu, anti-Kannada, and was no way a patriotic figure; another set of opinion, with Girish Karnad holding the brief (he has a play on Tipu, published recently), which says that the anti-Tipu sentiments are a sign of the growth of Hindu fundamentalism in Karnataka.

Both parties take antagonistic positions and hence it is not really a discussion. As it is with these issues, there would be no final word on it. Controversy about the Datta mandir resurfacing again, this debate may end soon, with media busy with things more juicy.

It is true that the question involves the issue of historical interpretation. But, I would be interested in the question of the interpretation of the history of such a controversy. The historical debate, if competent historians participate, may or may not conclude. (Btw, a group of historians from all over
India, have released a public statement asserting that Tipu was not anti-Kannada; but the opposite party wouldn’t hear any of it, as they would term these historians as leftists). But, we can see some reasons why such controversies are generated and sustained by media and other vested interests. Few would really bother about whether or not Tipu was anti-Kannada, and some would say, if he was, so what, and if he wasn’t so what. I think, political class in Karnataka are smelling elections. So the frying pan is hot. It is useful if polarizing issues such as Muslim Tipu vs. Kannada or
Belgaum for Karnataka kind of issues are on the top of peoples mind. I suspect, with the kind of noise on Kannada gaurava, border issue etc. the present dispensation will rush to the electorate soon. There is something apart from the elections coming, I think, something more ominous: communal riots.

Oh! These political gimmicks. And look at us, taking their baits and troubling our little heads over the crumbs of sensationalism that they throw at us. Recently somewhere, there was a report on how Karnataka is presently the site for
Gujarat experiment. No wonder, there is a hurry to invoke the Muslim kings and their anti-Kannada stances. After all, in Karnataka, only Ram cannot wean the electorate; mix Ram with Kannada nationalism, lo, you have a heady mix for some bloody drama on the street. Even as I write this I think tools for the street fight are getting readied. In the Tipu sultan debate righitists are busy with complaints about Muslims who speak Urdu at home and not Kannada. Surely, if the B.J.P. gets its Ram + Kannada nationalism right, as Mody did in his second innings, they can almost get the assembly maths right.

Shame has no limits when power play is in full swing. Kill, oh! Kill, for the elections are near. That seems to the real ‘mantra’. 

Globalization, Public Policy and the Secret Agents

Standard

Bhupinder Singh has an interesting post on globalization (here). I am inclined to think that globalization or not, things remain the same with us. I don’t buy the argument that with a better economic policy, one that is less committed to globalization, we would do better. This is so because, in our society, despite economic factors, underdevelopment and misery are socially maintained. I mean to say, as long as we keep the caste system alive, no amount of economic force will eradicate hungry masses. Because, caste is both a social and an economic structure. Elitism in India is caste determined. Class therefore largely becomes an insufficient category for both mobilization as well as analysis, as discovered by some communist intellectuals in the recent past.

In India caste framework is the source of the nature of much of the public policies and their implementation. Let me take the example of primary education. By and large, the aim of primary education for all has been achieved as far as the upper castes are concerned. Now, illiterates are nearly always from the ‘lower’ castes. This is not entirely wrong in the case of health care too. I am sorry I am not providing the necessary data here, but I am sure my readers would upon reflection find enough signs of the truth of this statement around them. So this means that implementation of policies is not always a problem; nor is it always the policy that is wrong. I agree that India boasts of some of the most radical social policies and initiatives. Globalization may have lessened this urge among our legislators. But, when it comes to implementing policies that would undermine the dominance of the upper castes in any field, we see a problem. True, there are millions of upper caste poor. It is true that the country hasn’t yet been able to feed all the upper caste masses. But, if we do see the proportion of the upper caste society that has benefited from any of the system since modernity came to India with the British and compare it to the proportion of the oppressed castes’ social improvement, we see the truth of my statement.   

Globalization’s present avatar is doubtlessly discriminatory and in countries like India, it will benefit a few by dis-empowering many; it wears the mask of progress, while it hides the millions who are no more even exploited, just thrown out of the system. But, in a caste ridden society most policies will not fare better. Indian socialism never addressed annihilation of caste oppression. What I believe is urgent is the creation of a public sphere which is public enough for the policies to represent the interests of all social groups in India not only at the level of framing it but also at the level of implementing it. When we have a situation where terrorist attacks invite the full fury (justifiably) of the country but not when a colony of the dalits is burnt; when caste oppression becomes the affair only of those castes and not of the ‘society’, we are miles away from making a system work for the benefit of all.

Indian Writing in English and Neocolonial Viagra

Standard

Indian Writing in English began taking ascendant steps after the British departed from
India. This is an opinion that is very often expressed and I have come across at least three people who say this: Vilas Sarang in his anthology published in 1989; Jayant Mahapatra in an article in WLT in 1994; and Sumanyu Satpathy in an article in Many
Indias, Many Literatures
(1999). I am sure it is noted by many more readers of IWE. This view receives support by the thinness of the literature produced prior to independence both in quantity and as some say, quality. But historians of fiction may object to this view being generalized to all genres as mid 1930s saw the first offerings of three novelists who have dominated the field of Indian English fiction until the flush post-Midnightera. Apart from these three it is perhaps true that there wasn’t much happening in the IWE scene as compared to the 70s or 90s.

But the question to ask is: why is it so? Commentators are content to note the irony in this situation. More than the irony, one may notice solid sociological and political reasons for this which are many surely and I wish to mention a few. One is that with independence we moved with life and the burden of English as the oppressor’s language began to wan. The nationalist force that saw English as the weapon of the colonizer was becoming relaxed as the post-independent
India’s dependence on English continued. Add to this the Nehruvian bureaucratic system that was in the mold of its master, Nehru, which was truly a band of ‘gentlemen’. But more importantly the spread of education created local readership tiny though it may have been and a larger number of potential writers. Universities grew and that gave further impetus.

But, there is another important reason. This becomes noteworthy if we keep in mind the poetics that began to be developed by the 70s and after by writers like Kolhatkar, Mahapatra, Ramanujan, Mehrotra etc. This has to do with the influence of
America. In other words, with America as the new power, with Russia on the other end, English in
India began to get greater acceptability than rejection. It has a lot to do with the development model, which despite socialist pretensions, was basically in the capitalist mold.
Americasignaled the goal ahead for Indians. Thus neocolonialism has its share in making Indian Writings in English acquire a new vitality in the post-independence period. The greater the American prominence in the neocolonial world order, the more vigorous IWE became. Good that IWE started to produce some notable works though we would regret neocolonialism’s role in engendering it. With the American academy’s search for specializations and its interest in ‘the other’ in the 80s and 90s making ‘postcolonialism’ a darling of cultural studies programs, IWE received another boost and increased visibility and a vast market. Such is the success story of IWE. These reasons are nothing to thank for; the number of books published and the number of truly good works have increased a lot and that is good news. But the wagon is driven by devil, as it is the case with most other phenomena. So as my friend Anand Thakur says, should we simply say, ‘god is in hell, all is well’?        

Nissim Ezekiel, U. R. Ananthmurthy and the insensitivity to the ‘Other’

Standard

Here is an excerpt from Nissim Ezekiel’s poem ‘The Railway Clerk’:

I am never neglecting my responsibility,

I am discharging it properly,

I am doing my duty,

but who is appreciating?

Nobody, I am telling you.

 

My desk is too small,

the fan is not repaired for two months,

three months.

I am living far off in Borivli,

my children are neglecting studies,

how long this can go on?

The poem goes on in this manner, listing the railway clerk’s grievances about his lower middle class life full of economic hardships and the difficulties springing from them. It is one in a series of ‘Very Indian poems in Indian English’ that Nissim wrote.

For sometime now, poets, novelists and linguists have begun to take Indian English seriously and there have been attempts to provide formal descriptions of this variety of English language. The use of Indian English sometimes is employed for ‘subversive’ purposes. In poetry such an example may be found in Kamala Das’ poems.

I remember Anita Desai’s acclaimed novel In Custody which chronicles the decadent Urdu poet whose recent life is being researched by the protagonist, a Hindi lecturer. It is highly unlikely that this Hindi lecturer requires to speak in English to his acquaintances or with the great Urdu poet about whom he is writing an article. So, as readers we grant that the novel is recording events in translation, and that the conversations we hear are reported in English. We, nevertheless, find Anita Desai making a character speak in Indian English. Pray, why is one speaking in English? Why should a speaker who in the situation portrayed should be using Hindi or Urdu made to use Indian English in the narrator’s recording of it? Not to forget, the narrator for her prose uses the British English. It intrigues me when writers cannot even resolve such simple issues. It for me indicates only a cynical and almost capricious view of both the character being portrayed and the language being used.

In Nissim’s above quoted poem we see the same capriciousness. The clerk is frustrated with the difficulties of modern urban life. This is a common motif in modernist poetry and in Nissim specially. But, Nissim in this poem is not talking about the modernist urban anxiety. His use of irony in many other poems with similar motif presents a critique of the social milieu. But, in this poem (and in general in his Very Indian poems in Indian English) his target of irony and satire is the speaker of Indian English. Satire in literature is a technique that is aimed at attacking the immoral, unethical and suchlike. But it is rare to find a poem where the character’s lack of fluency in a language other than his own becomes the target of satire. Nissim does precisely that. His irony towards the railway clerk is with reference to his inability to speak ‘correct’ English and not that he is morally culpable or his grievances reveal his idiocy.

I feel this reveals the superciliousness of the poet towards his subject – a lower middle class clerk not fluent in English. I think this also indicates the manner in which Nissim becomes elitist. There are other poems where we find further proof for this conclusion about Nissim.

This elitism in some of the Indian English writers is seldom questioned, busy as we are either in a debate over why Indians shouldn’t write in English (dumb) or with the postcolonial thematic. I am not for a minute suggesting that this malaise is to be found only among the Indian English writers or this is the only form of elitism in their work. One does find a variety of other ways in which some of the Indian English writers project their elitist perceptions of the society.

In fact we also see the superciliousness hidden in the works of many other Indian writers, whether in their literary works or in social / political prose. Here I am looking at a particular kind of insensitivity. In Nissim’s poem if we find it in the manner in which the clerk’s lack of fluency in English becomes a target of satire, we do find such insensitivity in many other forms. Let me take a writer who writes in Kannada and occasionally, some socio-political pieces, in English. U. R. Ananthmurthy is a major public intellectual. In one of his articles, titled “
India of the Rich & Bharat of the Poor”, Ananthmurthy criticizes the exclusivist private schools of today where only the rich students study. He argues that this disables them by not giving them an opportunity to meet and interact with people other than their type and thus limits them. He campaigns for inclusive system where a school accommodates not people of only one class but from all classes:

These days in expensive private schools the children of the rich don’t have an opportunity to expand their experience by coming to know of the rich life and culture of the poor of this country. This will create two countries, the
India of the rich and the Bharath of the Poor. I want common schools empowered again so that all the children of this country have an opportunity to share their joy of learning together and also learning from one another in a mixed school.

Valid point. No disagreement here. Ananthmurthy is basically a story teller. So his social or literary commentaries also have anecdotes or little narratives. In this article he refers to his school days and says, “The school opened up my world for I sat there with all boys and girls who belonged to all castes in the village”. I am sure Ananthmurthy’s gratitude to his school atmosphere where he was able to study with students from other castes is genuine and he is thankfulness is because he was able to go beyond the caste limits. But the question that comes to my mind is: what happened to the children of other castes who studied with him? Did they also grow up to thank their school life? Did the schooling as it did exist then that enabled Ananthmurthy to grow out of narrow caste limits, helped those from the other castes to grow without the social stigma? In the essay alluded here what to me appears insensitive is the neglect of this. The author tells of the benefit he got and not of the benefit that the other students got. Considering that Ananthmurthy is recommending a pattern of schooling in the essay, we might conclude that he recommends the kind of schooling that his anecdote makes a reference to.  But, the schools of his time are hardly remembered by the victims of caste system as an ideal place. Even a little knowledge of the history tells us that those days caste system was much worse and schools were no exception. Given this broader context, how can Ananthmurthy evoke nostalgic anecdotes about the educational system of the past in an argument about the desired form of schools he wishes to recommend for today’s society? Ananthmurthy in his article articulates the reform he was able to undergo living within a caste society. Good. But, he fails to show sensitivity by denying to record what the system, which proved good to him, did to those from the lower castes. In his novel Sanskara too one finds the same problem. The novel concerns itself with the degradation of the brahmin society, but does not bother to record the state of affairs with that of other social groups. This results in Sankara with a situation where the brahmins are seen mobile whereas those from other castes inert, undergoing no change, not even degradation! This restricts the novel’s view of the society and accords to the lower caste society a very limited space, relegating them to the sidelines.