Sabarimala

Here are some of the arguments I’ve heard opposing the recent verdict by the Supreme Court of India allowing women entry to Sabarimala. I’ll break them down one by one.

  1. Its a clear case of judicial overreach. These things take time and will have to happen gradually, organically from within the society itself. Rather than imposing something from the outside, the affected society should bring about this change by having conversations among themselves. Bullshit. Lets turn the clock back and discuss the rights of Dalits to enter temples as and when they please, in presence or not of a person of  upper caste. Lets hypothetically say there will be no law providing equal rights to Dalits because, you know, that right would violate the religious sensibilities of the majority of upper caste Hindus. Let that change happen organically too. Yeah. Not holding my breath on that.
  2.  But the constitution provided for equal rights for Dalits. This is an arbitrary law passed by a handful of activist judges. Granted. To a degree. But the constitution wasn’t some piece of work that magically appeared from nowhere. It was a document, and a set of laws drafted and passed by, yes, you guessed it right, people. Oh, and by the way, headed by a man, much respected (at least outside the bigot circle) today but reviled in his time. Don’t believe me? Read Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar to get a sense of how reviled he was by upper caste and really most Hindus that weren’t “untouchables” and the level of animosity between him and Gandhi.
  3. Speaking of arbitrary laws, how about we strike down another arbitrary one that decriminalized gay sex in India. A law to strike down a law to strike down a law that was passed to strike down a law.
  4. But so many women’s groups are protesting this decision. And your point is? I can also find groups that go by “Blacks for Trump, “Hispanics for Trump”, “Minorities for Trump”, and I’m almost positive if I looked carefully enough even find a “Immigrants for Trump” group. The two topics are unconnected you say? The point is that this is the Sabarimala version of “but I have a black friend so I cannot be racist” argument. Again, calling bullshit on that.
  5. But what about Muslims not allowing women to pray alongside men in mosques? Might I respectfully suggest that if we are going to look to an Abrahamic religion for practices to emulate lets look a little further and find one that isn’t famous (or infamous) for subjugating women? Just a little further. To about six hundred years or so earlier. Also, whatabout-ism is not an argument. It’s a disease more and more reasonable people seem to be suffering from these days but not an argument.
  6. “They” get to do whatever “they” want because you guys appease minorities. We poor Hindus have to bear the brunt of your liberal progressive ideas by compromising on our religious beliefs. Hindus are the real victims here. Yeah. Hindu’s are victims in India (especially Modi’s India) just like rich white men are victims in Trump’s America.
  7. You have to be a Malayalee to understand where we’re coming from. Yeah. Ok. I’d also have to be Arab to understand why men in that part of the world insist on putting on their women a full body, face covering armor with a tiny opening for the eyes . Closer to home I was told that to really understand Jallikattu and what it means to Tamil “culture” I’d have to live in Tamil Nadu. Growing up part of your life in Tamil Nadu and spending months of summer vacation there wouldn’t do. You have to go to and live in the villages specifically. Remember Jallikattu? Seems like decades ago but it’s only been over a year or so if I recall correctly.
  8. Women in Kerala are empowered. That’s why we don’t care so much about this. It’s only outsiders that are stirring up trouble. Do you know there are temples in Kerala where men aren’t allowed to enter? Yeah, ok. Granted Kerala is a progressive state and women are definitely more empowered there than most of the rest of the country, All of it possibly. As I understand there’s a certain community in Kerala where children even take their mothers’ last name instead of their fathers’. Even so you can’t tell me that the traditional practices used to discriminate against women don’t happen at all or that they happen in such negligible numbers so as to be considered non-existent. That Kerala is somehow inoculated from this scourge that affects the rest of the country. Not buyin’ it. Oh, and it does sometimes take an outsider to point out the wrongs that for centuries have been normalized because “thats how its always been done and we’ve made peace with it”. So the “please don’t stir the pot unnecessarily with your liberal progressive nonsense because you don’t understand our culture” line doesn’t work. Sorry. No can’t do. People like me will stir the pot constantly when it comes to liberal progressive ideas. If you don’t like it please make cogent arguments.
  9. The last one and this is the best: “This has nothing to do with how post pubescent and pre menopausal women are a polluting influence and have been treated over the years in India. Ayyappa is a celibate god. He took a vow never to marry and went to Sabarimala. That’s why women in reproductive stages of their lives should not enter Sabarimala.” Child please! He’s a god, isn’t he? You said so yourself. I’m sure he doesn’t need help from us earth dwelling mortals to stay celibate. If he’s still celibate, and pardon the irreverence (reiterating irreverence, not disrespect) here, I feel for the guy. I mean can you imagine the number of times he’s had the “what the hell were you thinking?” conversation with himself?  Sorry but I’m inclined to believe must have this figured out by now. Plus I’m willing to bet five bucks that there have been other acts you as humans have engaged in that he’s been disappointed by more. Acts that are probably far worse than allowing women to enter a temple.
  10. Ok, this is the last one. Not so much a refutation but a reiteration. Religious beliefs have been used to perpetrate some of the most egregious acts of discrimination against groups of underprivileged people throughout history. In fact religious beliefs were used to justify the most heinous of these acts that man has ever perpetrated against fellow man: slavery. Closer to home they have been used as an excuse to deny all manner of civil rights (and in many cases human rights) to underprivileged classes like Dalits. The premise on which denying women of a certain age entry to a temple is rooted in such misogyny that it should be an affront to every decent free thinking human being. Liberal or not. Woman or not. Anyone justifying otherwise to keep these archaic institutions in their calcified forms are just arguing semantics.

Thanks for reading.

Lakshman “insomnia ain’t such a bad thing” Hariharan.
11/12/18. Prosper, TX.

Gadfly

The Economist, in this remarkable obituary for Khushwant Singh wrote that he was India’s Gadfly. To say that I do not possess the stature, intellectual heft or the erudition of  one of twentieth century, post colonial, independent India’s most accomplished writers  would be stating the so obviously obvious that it would border on the ridiculous. I can, however, aspire to be a gadfly of much smaller proportions. There’s nothing quite like a trip back home to be reminded of all the questionable things that we Indians do. Customs from hundreds, some thousands of years ago that have no relevance in the twenty first century blindly being followed because that’s how its always been done. The bigotry that is so woven into the social fabric that acts of discrimination against certain groups of people are just part of how things are done and nobody questions them. Because, you know, who wants to disturb the decorum of a religious ritual? And to what end? You’re not going to change this by yourself, relax, I’m often told.

I am critical (some would say overly) of the place of my birth, specifically the customs and traditions, much to the chagrin of several of my fellow countrymen. As an aside, an American friend had once asked me how come now that I’m American I still refer to anything Indian as “us” or “ours”? I mean, shouldn’t it be “them” and “they” and “theirs”? I told him that’s one of the perquisites of being a first generation immigrant to a country that’s not of your birth.  You get to double dip. I get to refer to both India and America as “us”, “mine”, and “our”. Returning back on point, the closer one is to someone or something, the more one feels strongly about the flaws I suppose. As an example, I see so many of my own flaws amplified in my ten year old that many of the good things he does almost always get overshadowed in my own mind.
Another example comes to mind when the news of the Delhi rape broke a few years ago. I saw post after social media post by several of my fellow people of Indian origin lament how the west and the media is only interested in showing things when they’re bad in India. Why not show this or that they asked? About the booming economy. About the culture and the beauty of the land. Its been a common lament of most Indians for a long time now, anytime a story breaks that shows India in a poor light. Slumdog Millionaire winning all those Oscars was a conspiracy by the west to perpetuate the stereotypes of India as a poor and starving nation. Never mind that Bombay has the largest slums in the world. Never mind that if one were to look closely  — on a day that’s not smog covered — from the twenty seven story mansion of one of the richest men in the world and the richest man in India, one would see that it overlooks one of the largest slums in the world. Of course, in all these discussions I had to take it upon myself to argue about what is wrong with that attitude.

Yes, I had to bite my tongue every time someone asked me “Have you watched Slumdog Millionaire?” Or every time someone made a remark about Indian men not respecting women and so forth. In fact I have, once at a work gathering, had a couple of women who had clearly consumed more than their fair share of the free booze that was on offer, come up to me and ask me: “Do you like women?” To which I, trying to make one of my poor jokes said “Of course I do, all kinds too. Don’t tell my wife though.”
It was then that the other woman asked me: “No. Do you respect women? Do you think they are your equal?” I was taken aback by the questions and the self righteous interrogative style specifically that all I could mutter was “Yes, yes I do. Of course I do.”  After a minute or so of letting that conversation sink in I realized how offensive it was. That two women, white in this case, would look at a brown man and automatically assume that, at best, he thought women weren’t his equal or at worst, was a misogynistic wife beater. But then I had to look only a tad deeper and introspectively to realize that that question would have been legitimate for many Indian men.  One of my fellow countrymen was outraged that an American colleague refused to go to India in the wake of the Delhi rape news citing personal safety concerns. Its a small price to pay I say, bruised sensibilities, for the awareness that the news of such atrocities create and movies that highlight such stark realities.

Enough about the bad things. I was sitting in an airplane about thirty thousand feet above the ground when I looked out the window and it occurred to me that from that vantage point there really wasn’t as much of a difference between what I see when I fly cross country on an American airliner. Of course when I’m flying over American airspace, I can, given I know my source and my destination, at any given point look out the window, and with generally decent accuracy tell you that at this moment we are, say flying over, Baton Rouge Louisiana or Albuquerque New Mexico, or Cleveland, OH and Lake Erie. Something that I can’t unfortunately say about flying over the country of my birth. Its probably the perspective that the vantage point, albeit much higher, from the moon, provides that prompted the astronaut Edgar Mitchell to remark:
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

It was that perspective from the airplane that led me to wonder if there was another country in the world where at the crack of dawn one could hear the Venkatesa Suprabhatam by the illustrious and late M.S. Subbulakshmi playing in your own house while at the same time the muezzin’s call to azaan is heard from the loud speaker of the local mosque. And if one heard really carefully, possibly a rendition of KJ Yesudass’ Ayyappan Padalgal, paens to a Hindu deity by a Christian man, — Yesu = Jesus, Das = Servant/Follower, so literally the follower of Jesus — emanating from a radio in the neighborhood potti kadai. If there was any other place where I would find a man like the driver on one of my trips, a self professed “strict Hindu”, who goes to the the local church (Anthoniyar Kovil) every Tuesday and has a little statuette of the Virgin Mary on his dash as a good luck charm. If there is such a place I’m yet to hear of or visit it.
So far so good with the religious diversity. My hometown of Hyderabad has a substantially large Muslim population, so what I’m about to narrate happens every single time and riles me up like nothing else. Because of the substantially large Muslim population, at any given point one is never too far from a mosque, especially if one lives closer to the city and not in the suburbs. Sure enough when all of us are gathered at the table late afternoon for the afternoon chai the muezzin’s call for azaan will be heard. Inevitably, against my wanting to believe that it wont happen this time. Maybe just this time, no one will make a disparaging comment about how “annoying” it is for them to have to hear that five times a day. It usually comes from a person that means no harm and is otherwise probably one of the nicest persons you’ve ever met but it comes inevitably. That usually sends me into a frenzy of argument and lectures that the others on the table roll their eyes at. It is usually at this point that I’m reminded that I don’t live in India and don’t know what the ground realities are about how “these people” conduct themselves, so I obviously have to no idea what I’m talking about. Which sends me into a further mental tailspin because the topic will inevitably turn to how those benefiting from affirmative action policies for the lower castes oppressed for centuries are abusing the system and how most of “these people” convert to Christianity just for a few hundred rupees and so forth. No one ever answers me when I ask them about the irony of a bunch of upper caste privileged Hindus  sitting in their air conditioned living room discussing how “these people” should go about bettering themselves. You know, because the life experiences and viewpoints of upper caste privileged Hindus that didn’t grow up in abject poverty or being discriminated against is the same as the ones that did. No one ever answers me though, when I ask why the word “Bhangi” or “Madhiga” is used as an insult if we live such a post-caste society. Don’t we get all riled up when some white people on Fox News claim that there’s no such thing as racism?
To mimic the style of the great philosopher king Yoda; long winded I am getting so I’ll stop now.
Thanks for reading.
Lakshman Hariharan
11/10/18 Prosper, TX.

Letters from a Father to His Daughter

On a recent trip to India I picked up the book that forms the title of this post. The book was written by Jawharlal Nehru as a series of letters to his daughter Indira during the summer of 1928. My boys seem to not read as much so in an attempt to have them imbibe some of the knowledge I decided I would record podcast episodes as  short audio clips they can listen to. Perhaps some other parents would see some value in it and play it for their children….
I am loth to hearing my own voice on any form of media so if it grates on you, apologies in advance.

Episode 1: Preface and Chapter 1 — How the Pebble Became Smooth

Episode 2: Letter 2 — How Early History Was Written

Episode 3: Letter 3 — The Making of the Earth

Episode 4: Letter 4 — The First Living Things