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.

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