Monday, May 21, 2018

Devadasi Abolition Act: Success of Reformist Movement or Evangelical Corruption of Indian Values? Bogan Sankar's Baseless Charges.

Douglas M. Knight Jr. biographer and son-in-law of legendary dancer Bala Saraswati had, in an interview, said that Bala, as she is fondly referred to, is being eclipsed due to political reasons and that her name continues to evoke a chord of fear in the field of dance as she had challenged Brahminical hegemony in that art form.

Contemporary Tamil poet and prolific writer of popular posts on Facebook, Bogan Sankar, has opined that the marginalization of legendary dancer Bala Saraswati by Brahmins had it's origin, "as usual" in the history of Christian missionary activity. He added that Knight Jr.'s own biography had traced the Brahminical opposition to Bala in the influence of Christian evangelism on Indian mores amongst other factors like imported notions of American feminism and half baked understanding of Indian ethos by Theosophists. Unable to absolve Brahmins of any responsibility, begrudgingly, Bogan Sankar, who specializes in fictional and highly imaginative narrations in daily life as poet, assigns them a 'marginal role'. I pointed to him that that was not true and lacking any substantive factual rebuttal Bogan Sankar took recourse to, what else, but my supposed Christian heritage. So, what are the facts?

Image Courtesy Publisher

Evangelism, Theosophy and The Marginalization of Bala, in Knight Jr.'s Biography

Bogan, as he is popularly known, refers to the chapter "Renaissance 1927-1936" wherein Knight Jr. traces in 4-5 pages the historical setting, in his opinion, in which Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, credited as the leader who spear headed the abolition of the Devadasi system, arrived.

In hurried couple of paragraphs Knight Jr, a musician by training and an 'independent scholar, compresses several decades of Evangelical and Colonial history. The East India Company, which had at first been lukewarm and even hostile to missionary activity, began to allow Christian Evangelism in 1830s. Barely three decades later, 1857, a major revolt broke out and almost extinguished the colonial rule. The revolt, was largely driven by religious concerns as both Muslims and Hindus felt that their religions were under assault by the new faith and the colonial regime. By 1870s the evangelical movement that had spread from UK to US and then to India had petered out and given rise to offshoots like Transcendatlism and a certain variety of Spiritualism called Theosophy. Theosophy, unlike Christian evangelism, in Knight Jr.'s own telling, had it as a principle to oppose dogmatic Christianity. Knight Jr. cites a convoluted passage from a biography of Henry Olcott, one of the founders of Theosophical Society, to establish that Olcott by refusing to differentiate himself from the Hindus and Muslims mirrored, in a curious way, the missionaries insistence of differences with native religions and thus was still an "imperial thrust" on behalf of British Colonialism.

Olcott, Knight Jr continues, to curry favor with Indians  took to "unabashed criticism of Evangelical Christianity and Christian orthodoxy" and then imported a version of women's rights "adopted by American spiritualist reform movement".

Knight Jr. is NOT a historian of the colonial era and in the packed few paragraphs he's completely ignorant or has not presented the really tangled history of Colonial governments and missionary evangelism. Pre-1857 the Company officials eagerly courted Brahmins and extensively used Shastras to codify laws in areas governed by them and they were careful not to irritate local sentiments too much. Post-1857 the Crown decided to resolutely stay out of local affairs and customs. Both of that had large implications for Indian history, conversions, Christianity in India and societal upheavals.

Bogan is also forgetting that Knight, before he transitions to Muthulakshmi Reddy, concludes the section on Annie Besant by saying that she did not understand how much her popularity amongst Brahmins and her ideas about Brahminism was threatening to non-Brahmins. In my earlier essays on the topic of Sanskritization of Carnatic Music I had pointed to this schism based on multiple sources other than just Knight. Unlike Bogan I don't pick the first information that comes my way. When I wrote that article I was careful in choosing information and opinions that several sources had independently corroborated.

The remaining question is whether the Devadasi abolition movement in the twentieth century had its roots in Christian evangelism? If not, what else drove it? For those answers we need to turn to Davesh Sonjie's exhaustively researched and sourced book "Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India".

Who Were the Devadasis?

Anyone interrogating India's past is often frustrated by paucity of records and near total absence of historical writing, of the Greco-Roman type, until the advent of Islamic regimes and later the colonial era. The colonial era saw an explosion of record keeping, commentaries, inquiries and memoirs chiefly by the regime and its administrators and the Christian missionaries. The long freedom struggle from a Sepoy mutiny to August 15th 1947 saw a nation define itself and reinvent itself. The process of reinvention involved a plethora reform movements that were more often than not initiated by Western educated Indians. The Indian reform movements were often undergirded by new awareness of social mores and reinventing an ancient society to fit into the modern world from which it had hitherto remained unaffected. Sunil Khilnani and Jawaharlal Nehru point to a salient feature of India's heritage where rulers and dynasties changed without any or little change to the society that was governed. This changed during the colonial era.

The first myth that Soneji dispels with is the narrative of devadasis as a singular category and as a group of women who held a place of pride in the society due to being associated with temples as 'slave of god'. He notes that the term 'devadasi' itself does not appear in Tanjore Maratha records. The women had a 'contentious status' owing to their non-conjugal sexual lifestyle and were alternately referred to as 'dancing woman, concubine and court servant'.

Soneji equates the pottukattuthal ceremony with kattikalyanam (dagger or sword marriage) and notes that many dancing women were betrothed to a God, if at all they were, in home ceremonies and not in temples. The Maratha records did not give any religious symbolism to this ceremony. "Dedication rituals so fetishized by scholarship on devadasis has less to do with theological symbolism than it does with economic investments". Time and again Soneji deglamorizes their lives as "quasi-matrilineal" and not 'matrilineal' because many lived as concubines and their much valorized economic independence was just a fairy tale. Annam, a a dasi in 1842 had her pottu tied at the age of ten and she, according to records, was entitled to "one kalam paddy every month and one-and-a-half handfuls of cooked rice a day". Thus the pottukattuthal ceremony was a 'transaction that secured a girl's commitment to local economies of land and guaranteed her sexual and aesthetic labor'.

"Slavery was a major part of the economy of the Tanjore Maratha kingdom". "Young girls who were orphaned or destitute were often bought by the court in order to have a pottu tied and then given to a courtesan household ...or simply lived with the concubines in seraglios". This adoption of orphans by devadasis became a key legal issue in the colonial rule.

'Nautch' and Amy Carmichael

The other myth that Soneji destroys is attributing the demise of the 'temple' devadasi system to the rise of the "nautch" performances that in turn stigmatized a glorious tradition. South India, Soneji establishes, had a vibrant courtesan culture that included both Hindu and Muslim women. The courtesans were, contrary to myths, the mainstay of dance and aesthetics. Most of the courtesans were in no way part of the temples wedded dasis.

Having established the prevalence of a courtesan culture Soneji immediately turns to 'European engagements'. "Representations of devadasis in this period emerge out of alliances between Christian evangelicalism, colonial anthropology and imperial medicine, all of which were directed toward the moral reformation of women from these communities". Part of the animosity of many like Bogan towards evangelical influence on devadasi abolition is premised on a utopian retelling of their lives. As we saw briefly, it was anything but idyllic. The system, in fact, was crying out for reform. Sonjie, specifically mentions Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) and her reform efforts. A Madhva fundamentalist supplied Bogan and others with a page from Carmichael's writings about seeing a young child being subjected to the rites of a devadasi. Carmichael went on to form rehabilitation centers for children of devadasis. It's easier to malign Christian missionaries than to at least nominally recognize the services they provided in the social vacuum that Hinduism had left many in.

The dance repertoire of the courtesans were very unlike what revisionist historians of Bharatanatyam would have us believe. The courtesans did not only dance to erotic verses but also to compositions that would be laughed today as stunts. Chennai Nellaiyappa Nattuvanar, grandson of the Tanjore Quartet, composed a performance where the dancer would tied vegetables to their bodies and would slice them off while dancing. The 'nautch' performances included both Hindu and Muslim girls.

To be sure colonial era writings and missionary records were written to portray the "civilization depravity of the 'oft-conquered people' of India". No missionary work, however noble, was divorced from proselytization. Too often missionaries impressed upon their beneficiaries that their plight was the result of not just their socio-economic circumstances but because of Hindu theology. Now, to be fair to the missionaries, there were times when that was true too. Often the conversions, to state a fact, were not the panacea that they were promised to be but that's a whole another pandora's box beyond the current purview.

While expressing umbrage and irritation at colonial era writings that are unfairly prejudiced and sometimes even hypocritical towards Indian history we often forget to contextualize how India's own leaders and Indian scriptures had spoken of lower castes and others. Even to Gandhi and Bharathi Dalits appeared as unwashed masses crying out for a savior. From Manu Shastra to India's own founding fathers it is common to see extremely uncharitable and racist views towards others. It was an era when 'political correctness' did not exist as a norm.

The Legal Code and Devadasis as Prostitutes

Introduction of modern jurisprudence and the codification of laws to govern an ancient country that had become a melting pot of civilizations became the foremost challenge of the colonial government from the East India Company days. Few realize how much Brahminical Hinduism informed the codification of those laws from the 18th century. Brahminism, long relegated to the shadows during Islamic rule, found a resurgence to prominence and position of eminence during Colonial rule. While on the one hand Colonial and evangelical writings were harsh about India's civilization its opposite also was true. Indology, as a study, established during that era has provided yeoman service to resurrecting India's glorious past.

"Victorian notions of sanitary reform and social hygiene were also influenced by the growing importance of eugenics". Devadasis were compelled to register and be tested for venereal diseases following the Contagious Diseases Act.  Exemptions, however, were given to temple bound devadasis. A British Medical Journal on the study of STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) in India (independently sourced by me) corroborates Sonjie's data that curbing STDs was a strategic importance for the British army because the soldiers had been "encouraged to have non-committal sexual relationships with natives". Guess which class of women were ripe for non-conjugal sexual liaisons and thus liable for being infected by a disease that arrived in India, probably, through the Portuguese. Soneji cites an important work that details how British feminists who used the image of Indian women as 'white women's burden' and connected it to imperialism to create a political platform for their own feminist movement back home.

An Indian can bristle at the notion that a colonial regime had to introduce sanitary reforms but let's not forget that sanitary reform was equally the Mahatma's key agenda. Whenever Gandhi entered a village he was known to inquire if the village had toilet facilities and if the answer was 'no' he'd start instructing them to construct a latrine. A key challenge even today in India is the preponderance of open air defecation. Introduction of modern medicine created its own profound frictions with an ancient society.

One of the cornerstones of modern jurisprudence is property rights and an important feature of property rights is inheritance. On framing laws Colonial officials, time and again, more than is realized, yielded to local customs. Chandra Mallampalli's "Christians and public life in colonial South India, 1863-1937" recounts a legal odyssey in establishing inheritance rights for converted christians. It is unbelievable how much the colonial governments, especially after 1857, were reluctant to interfere in local customs. This area of research is not Sonjie's primary expertise and he glides by this important backdrop. But this backdrop is important in understanding what unfolded with regards to Devadasis.

The colonial government codified laws that incorporated Hindu caste traditions and the devadasi community posed a challenge to easy categorization. The legal system categorized devadasis as a 'caste of professional prostitutes'. It is here that one should pause and ask how did the characterization happen? Was it the malicious propaganda of evangelists or racist colonial officials who did not understand a unique customs that was unheard of in their social outlook? Soneji, writing in 21st century, refers to Devadasi lifestyle as 'non-conjugal sexual lifestyle'. Such vocabulary did not exist until recent times. As briefly mentioned above even native records referred to devadasis with vernacular equivalents of prostitute. But that was not all.

Devadasis and Native Literature

Surveying native literature between 1850-1950 Soneji establishes that it is not just missionary literature that maligned the devadasis. Anyone who has a little reading of the uphill struggles of reform movements would consider it laughable that an ancient society which had hitherto, according to popular belief, held devadasis in high esteem just switched its vocabulary to calling them as whores because foreign evangelists called them so. It is useful to again recall Sonjie's assertion that devadasis always had a position of ambiguity.

Soneji mentions Sascha Ebeling's, "Colonizing the Realm of Words: The transformation of Tamil literature in nineteenth century" when discussing viralivitututu (விறலி விடு தூது). In order to get the context correct I referred to Ebeling's discussion of Cetupati viralivitututu (சேதுபதி விறலி விடு தூது). Ebeling, contrary to what Soneji characterizes, considers the work as 'celebrating' devadasis. The text, rather, as Soneji points out, in the tradition of similar works, portrays devadasis as defrauding agents. Ebeling, citing Nancy Paxton, says Christian Missionaries exerted a significant inluence on colonial policy between 1820-1850. Then she leaps to how 'The Hindu', founded in 1878, led an anti-nautch campaign. In this milieu Ebeling also situates the works of Christian lyricist Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai (1826-1889) where devadasis come in for a moral approbation. What is missing in the picture are a few details. One, how did native literature look at devadasis? Two, when the anti-nautch campaign and later the devadasi abolition campaign took root were they guided by the prejudiced writings of the missionaries alone?

Racavetikavi, a 'resident of Tiruttani', published in 1864 (3 years before Amy Carmichael was born), "Poem on the transformation in the nature of the courtesan". The poem depicts courtesans as vesya and gives extremely pornographic descriptions of not just sexual act but of venereal disease too. "Full of lust he feels the urge again...On seeing her, he pulls back the foreskin, and notices a small leakage of blood and urine". Another work, Varakanta, published by Raja M. Bhujanga Rau Bahadur, in 1904 also portrays devadasis as temptresses who lure and defraud men. Another text published in 1943 refers to devadasis as veci muntaikal (வேசி முண்டைகள்). Sonjie concludes, "representations of devadasi-courtesans in vernacular literature" gives us an idea of their "ambiguous social and moral status". These texts also go a long way in establishing the "trope of the lascivious and money hungry courtesan". It is complete nonsense to attribute attitudes to devadasis entirely to colonial and evangelical literature. Rather, native and colonial literature converged in late 19th century.

The Abolition Movement. Devadasis and 'Respectable Citizenship'

Notably, much before the anti-nautch movement began in Chennai the fiefdom of Pudukottai, in 1878, had initiated it under the guidance of the divan A. Sashiah Sastri. There's no evidence that Sastri was enthralled by evangelist literature. He did it to protect a young king from squandering his wealth in licentiousness.

What really undergirded the anti-nautch movement? Emerging ideas of nationalism that posed the questions of what kind of a nation will India be, what will be its social mores, what reforms were needed in practices that no nation entering the modern era could afford to retain and more. Reforms for women and lower caste members drew the most attention. As regards women, their education, rights, widow remarriage, raising the age of marriage occupied the forefront of reformist agenda. Did these ideas sprout from modern education and awareness of modern world and especially an understanding of biology due to modern medicine? Absolutely yes. But that does not mean that India's reformers were pawns to colonial and evangelical prejudices. Such a view does gross injustice to the many who valiantly did everything they could to make an Independent India a better place for all.

Soneji identifies Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, Muvalur Ramamirtham and Yamini Purnatilakam as the trio that waged a battle against devadasi system in South India. What connected the three women? Gandhi and emerging nationalism.

A landmark event that triggered the anti-nautch movement was child trafficking. The marital-rape death of Phulmoni Das, a 10 year old girl, became the reason for the promulgation of 'Age of Consent' bill in 1891. Bala Gangadhar Tilak, amongst many, fought the bill tooth and nail as interfering with Hindu customs. Tilak went to the extent of arguing in favor of the husband. Around the same time was the Rukhmabai case (Soneji does not mention this) where Rukhmabai, a child bride, had to resort to extended legal means to not live with her husband. She became a doctor.

Child prostitution was a reality. The many devadasis that Soneji interviews or cites became devadasis when they were, literally, children, including Muvalur Ramamirtham. Muttukannammal, interviewed by Soneji, was dedicated at a temple at the age of seven. Anyone who portrays devadasi system as some hallowed paradise torn asunder by evangelical prejudice is ignorant of history or bigoted.

Muthulakshmi Reddy's anti-nautch effort were "inextricably linked to Congress politics and Theosophical society" and "emergent notions of eugenic health". Annie Besant's Theosophical society created a schism in South Indian politics with its extravagantly enthusiastic adoption of Brahminical Hinduism as the ideal end state for an independent India. The after effects of that schism continues to ricochet till today in Tamil Nadu.

Dr. Muthu Lakshmi Reddy (Image Courtesy 27frReddyjpg

Soneji details how a section of devadasis themselves opposed Reddy's movement. A significant figure was Bangalore Nagarathnammal. Interestingly not one of those who opposed Reddy had been dedicated at a temple. This underscores how 'devadasis' is a loosely used terms. In fact the trope of devadasis as beholden to temples was assiduously promoted during this period of conflict to escape moral approbation. Later when the arts were appropriated by the Brahmins and history was re-fashioned this myth became so well entrenched that it has become an article of faith. But, facts, as Soneji marshals, are stubborn.

Soneji, citing several researchers, establishes how "health of the nation was liked to the goal of swaraj". "Politics of respectability was a cornerstone of Congress nationalism" and that was invariably patriarchal in outlook. Addressing a meeting in Rajahmundry in 1921, quoted by Soneji (and I've corroborated it in D.G. Tendulkar's biography of Gandhi) Gandhi calls for women to ensure that there is "no single dancing girl" in the region. When Muvalur Ramamirtham and another dash offer jewels to Gandhi he refuses to accept them until they led "a respectable married life". "He asked that they wear and display talis or mangalsutras". A man wrote to Gandhi about the necessity for "moral elevation" of devadasis and Dalits. Note, the twinning of two very different people. All three women reformers saw, like Gandhi did, that marriage was the respectable institution for women.

Myths and Realities of Devadasis

As regards the fabled property rights of devadasis Soneji is categorical in characterizing it as "loose matriliny" in several places and he highlights some families where inheritance continued through male and female offsprings. Likewise it is an oversold myth that Devadasis were well learned. Even researchers like Paxton, cited by Ebeling, embellish that. But material provided by Soneji says otherwise. A Telugu Brahmin wrote a treatise in Telugu, explaining dance postures, so that he "could facilitate learning for the vesya stris" without having to study abstruse Sanskrit texts. Only highly accomplished courtesans were taught texts like Gita Govind by "Brahmin connoisseurs with whom they often shared intimate relationships".

The reforms did disenfranchise the devadasis socially and economically. The collapse of the maratha regime in the 19th century and later the abolition of zamindari system in independent India essentially sealed the fate of devadasis. The human cost of the disenfranchisement is real but so was the cost of the system.

It is often forgotten that devadasis or courtesans were never really free or independent as the modern women today. Courtesans in the Maratha court were severely restricted regarding where they were allowed to dance and gain revenue. A dasi dedicated to Brahadisvara temple was fined for performing at a private event.

After witnessing a performance by courtesans (kalavantula women) where very explicit and erotic gestures were employed and middle class morality was mocked Soneji cautions us from reading too much into that as independence. "I am conscious of the fact that Kalavantula women were themselves dependent upon the world of men in ways that implicated them in larger, systemic forms of discrimination and potential exploitation". This complexity is often lost sight of in simplistic romanticized notions of sexual independence and exaggerated ideas of what that sexual independence could really be.

A historian, even a lay and itinerant student like me, should look at diverse sources and judge if a point of view can be sustained by not just other authors and other books but books on tangentially related topics.

Sonjie's accent on emerging nationalism, the debate of 'respectable citizenship' and Gandhi in the abolition movement is buttressed by Mrinalini Sinha's "Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire". Gandhi had called Katherine Mayo's 'Mother India' a drain inspector's report. But the book set off a nationalist reaction that wanted to respond by modernizing its society and an important fallout was the 'Sarada Act' that abolished child marriage.

Sinha argues that the "focus on modernizing of marriage and family life" was the result of a "convergence in the early twentieth century go particularly dense economic and social forces". Indian women and women's organizations, just as in devadasi abolition, played a key role. It is beyond uncharitable to attribute devadasi abolition to anyone other than India's own wonderful women. Colonial outlook, evangelist literature, reports of drain inspectors were but marginal factors as a nation willed itself into modernity and reformed ancient, very ancient, customs. This is why even Soneji dwells more on domestic causes than on anything else.

Did Victorian Morality Change Indian Sexual Mores?

As regards the much emphasized sexual freedom of devadasis we've already seen how that could be argued as more in service of patriarchy than a true freedom. Corollary to that is an oft repeated trope about Abrahamic faiths and particularly the importation of Victorian morality corrupting a culture that treated sex as healthy pursuit even to the point of being hedonist about it in literature and temple sculptures. Amartya Sen quoted his teacher at Cambridge to say that the "frustrating thing about India is that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true". Yes India is the land of Kamasutra and Ajanta but it is also the land of scriptures that, like every other culture, laid down the most stringent rules for women especially on matters of sex and practically treated them as creatures of wanton lust to be kept on a leash.

Arti Dhanda's "Woman as fire, woman as sage: Sexual ideology in the Mahabharata". "Mothers in the Mahabharata are frequently cast as all-wise, all capable characters". Other women are linked to sin, snake, sharpness of a razor and poison. Sexologist Sudhir Kakar, strangely he's not cited by Dhanda, labels this the 'mother-whore' dichotomy in Indian attitude towards women and their sexuality. It'd be abjectly silly to think that Gandhi's quest to become sexless, a near fatal obsession for him till his last day, had anything to do with Victorian or evangelical morality. Indians need no lesson in misogyny or suspicion of sex.

The devadasi system abolition needs to be understand against a complex tapestry as outlined above. In reality economic forces, emergent notions of nationalism, role of women in society, protection of children, introduction of modern law and medicine, all contributed to the demise of the society. This is not to mean that colonial regime, its literature and governance and evangelicals had no role in it but they were, in reality, not the driving force or even the spark. It is ironical that I, of all people, have to argue forcefully in giving Indians their due for a major reform. That is because many, these days, are ill-informed and based on myths blame the reforms for a supposedly idyllic system that was destroyed. This view is akin to Margaret Mitchell bemoaning the loss of the South's traditions as "gone with the wind".

The seminal influences on Indian culture and social mores could be more attributed to the advent of modern education and the expanding frontiers of science. Of course, on both of those counts the contributions of the colonial regime and evangelists was significant.

Who is a Historian?

When I declined to accept Knight Jr. as a historian it irked Bogan Sankar. A long forgotten argument centered around Nehru on Facebook was reminded to me by Facebook in their 'on this day' feed. Back then Bogan had referred to American journalist Ved Mehta's book like it was history and I had disagreed. My comment was "No. Completely wrong. Ved Mehta is a journalist who visited India. He did have some perspectives worth considering. But he's not a historian who takes a topic and searches across continents and archives for answers. Ex. Srinath Raghavan's book does that. I'd not call Bob Woodward a historian for the same reason. How a historian approaches a subject is completely different. Raghavan's book gives fantastic details of everything that was at stake in the multiple wars during Nehru's era."

My standards are always the same. Even when it comes to history it matters if a historian making a point is a primary authority on that and if that is the central subject else it has to be corroborated by other sources and the conflict, if it exists, needs to be resolved logically.

A Baseless Accusation

I'll now briefly address Bogan Sankar's charge of "you're a Christian". Whether it is Nehru or Gandhi or Bharathi or Radhakrishnan or the many topics of Indian freedom movement I've time and again taken it upon myself to refute canards when I can. Whenever I've felt that facts do not support assertions I've written extensive fact based rebuttals. Just recently I even wrote a rebuttal to Audrey Truschkey's patently stupid tweet maligning the Ramayana. People like Bogan rarely twitch in those circumstances and conveniently forget that my religion, or what people think of as my religion, has nothing to do with those topics. I've realized that people are more comfortable in acknowledging that someone could be bilingual but someone with no allegiance for a religion or animosity towards other religions is difficult to comprehend and people always look for "Eureka" moments to say "see I knew this is who you are". I wish such moments were grounded in facts.

I can say with a touch of pride that my essay on the Sanskritization of Carnatic may be debatable or even disagreeable or faulty in its conclusions but the bibliography is easily a handy list of books anyone could read to know the complex history. Asking the right questions, Will Durant taught me, is already half knowledge. Nobody sent me a list of books to learn from. It is by persistent questioning, mostly on google, I got to know of references and books. Then I check out sources in the bibliography or notes supplied for references for further reading. It is a lovely game of chasing the horizons of knowledge and wisdom.

Even if a subject's politics is disagreeable to me, like Savarkar or Golwalkar, I've been fair to their contributions. I've defended Savarkar against those who malign his sacrifice. After reading Golwalkar I was convinced his views on nationalism was more mainstream than is commonly supposed. That does not make it correct but it also means he was not admiring Hitler. As I said I always refute when I think facts are incorrect.

Back in 2012 when Thamizachi Thangapandian maligned U.Ve.Sa and incorrectly claimed that Christian missionary Ziegenbalg learned Tamil out of love for the language I wrote a detailed rebuttal that Ziegenbalg learned Tamil to proselytize. Even more recently I had defended K.A.N. Sastry to a Christian columnist. When I rebutted Bogan's claim he retorted "you're so predictable". Yes I'm predictable. When I've better facts I'll rebut anyone. When I suspect a narrative as not capturing the truth I'll search for facts. I've always set out the facts making sure that it's contextualized whether I agree or disagree with a point of view. I supply my references not to boast but to let any reader trace the quotes and verify for himself or herself or for an intellectually curious reader to continue his or her journey.

Alas, Bogan Sankar, you disappointed.


I heartily recommend Davesh Sonjie's book. It is a work of scholarship. As a former resident of Thanjavur for 25 years I was amazed to realize how little I knew of the Tanjore, the event filled 18th and 19th centuries, the Serfoji clan, how much Brahmins have had a long relationship with music and dance pre-dating the devadasi abolition, how brahmins were paid by devadasis to compose javelis and erotic poetry, how Hindus and Muslims and many caste participated in music, the cultural exchanges of North and South musical traditions and more. The book is a compelling read.

The book, reflecting the complexity of the topic, is multi-layered and the feeling with which I closed it was, "if only we could talk of all this without rancor and prejudice". It is a very, very rich history and Soneji has done it justice.


  1. Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India - Davesh Soneji, University of Chicago Press
  2. Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life - Douglas M. Knight Jr., WesleyanUniversity Press
  3. Woman as Fire, Woman as Sage: Sexual Ideology in the Mahabharata - Arti Dhand, State University of New York Press
  4. Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire - Mrinalini Sinha, Duke University Press
  5. Colonizing the Realm of Words: The Transformation of Tamil Literature in Nineteenth-Century South India - Sascha Ebeling
  6. Appropriation and Invention of Tradition: The East India Company and Hindu Law in Early Colonial Bengal - Nandini Bhattacharya-Panda, Oxford University Press
  7. Politics and Nationalist Awakening in South India, 1852-1891- R. Suntharalingam, The University of Arizona Press
  8. Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915 - Antoinette Burton, University of North Carolina Press
  9. British feminist Josephine Butler 
  10. India and STDs - British Medical Journal Report
  11. Sarda Act
  12. Phulmoni Das Rape Case
  13. Rukhmabai Case
  14. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi
  15. Moovalur Ramamirtham
  16. Mahatma - D.G. Tendulkar Vol2.
  17. Douglas Knight Jr.'s interview in Tamil Hindu
  18. Bala Saraswathi 100th Year Commemoration Article in Tamil Hinduபாலசரஸ்வதி&order=DESC&sort=publishdate

Monday, May 7, 2018

K.A. Nilakanta Sastri and Sources of Indian History: A seeker of facts and the mansions of history

To Will Durant "most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice". To Barbara Tuchman a historian's task was, in the words of Leopold Ranke, founder of source based history, "to find out what really happened". She added "I do not invent anything, even the weather". K.A. Nilakanta Sastri was definitely of the school of Ranke and amongst the practitioners of history in India he remains a lodestar for that maxim of Ranke. Sastri delivered three lectures on the sources of Indian history that forms a slim book that is packed with references in every sentence. Rarely do men of learning distill a lifetime's worth of seeking into so few pages.

Sastri's lectures were delivered in memory of Rev. Henry Heras of the Society of Jesuits at St. Xavier's college in Mumbai. Rev. Heras, born in Spain, was sent to India to St. Xavier's college in 1922 to teach history. In 1926 he established "Indian historical research institute" that is now called "Heras Institute of Indian History and Culture". It was Heras, Sastri says, who recommended Sastri to "be appointed to the Chair of Indian History and Archeology in the University of Madras" in 1929. Sastri recalls his first meeting with Heras when Heras showed his work on the Aravidu dynasty. Sastri  was impressed that the priest who had barely lived in India should've learned Indian languages and written a book. Heras's replied that as a Jesuit "bound by vows to obedience" he was merely heeding to the duty that he had been ordered to, 'teaching Indian history in St. Xavier's college', and that such heeding is his way to "serve God".

K.A. Nilakanta Sastri (courtesy Wikipedia)
Sastri had been invited to deliver the lectures by Father Correia-Afonso, a Goa born Jesuit known for compiling and publishing "The Jesuit letters", the correspondences by Jesuit priests in India to their home missions abroad during the Mughal era and afterward.

After duly commending his host and his friend Sastri without much ado plunges into the topic of his lectures and offers his audience the image of a mansion, as an analogy to the study of India's history, with many rooms, "some of which are steeped in darkness while the rest are lit up in different degrees of intensity, none of them, however, being so completely illuminated".

Delivering a memorial lecture in honor of a Jesuit priest at the behest of a Jesuit institution Sastri does not hold back on the merits of the many works of history by Jesuits. He correctly identifies that many Jesuits though they learned Sanskrit and Indian languages their aim was the proselytization of the Gospel. As for the merits of their works he, quoting an unnamed  'critical historian', said "the Jesuits for all their studies, gained no real understanding of India's past".

In an earlier blog I had cited Thucydides's approach to history, in his own words, and said that such language is strikingly contemporaneous and that such a academic approach to history was absent in India. Several took exception to that remark. Sastri writes, "India failed to develop a written history in the past. We come across no figure corresponding to Herodotus or Thucydides in Greece, Livy and Tacitus in Rome, or Sou-ma-chin in China". "While many of the other countries produced chronicles and semi-histories, India as rule manifested a profound indifference to the recording of historical events". The "Arab and Persion historians of the Muslim world", he adds, "are the most notable exceptions". As to why Indians may have been indifferent to recording history Sastri surmises it might have something to do with the Indian predilection to connect events to a cosmic grand picture and while that may have served a philosophical purpose the casualty would've been history.

William Jones and Charles Wilkins, the founders of Indology, amongst others, come in for a fulsome praise for their yeoman efforts in translating India's literature and philosophy. Sastri then cites, with admiration, the works of those whose names are forgotten today. Christian Lassen, a Norwegian orientalist who never visited India but learned Sanskrit in Bonn and translated Indian literature in Paris and London, wrote a 4 volume history of India. Sastri say that work "for all its marvelous learning, it is a work of great simplicity". Sastri is never sparing sharp criticism of anyone and rarely do works rise above his unyielding goal posts for excellence. Lassen, no admirer of Alexander unlike V.A. Smith, considered Hinduism, "for all its faults the rock upon which the fury of Islam broke".

Referring to the work of Belgian Indologist Louis de La Vallee-Poussin, another European who never visited India but learned Sanskrit and Indian classics and wrote a book of history, Sastri credits it with "precise and critical scholarship", "excellent bibliography" and "balanced discussion of many vexed questions relating to foreign invasions, the origins of Buddha image etc". He admires Poussin for asking historians to "admit what we do not understand".

After the examples of Lassen and Poussin Sastri, citing how Indian history is studied by history departments across the world, rues the absence of similar interest in outside world by history departments in India. An ill that still continues till today.

Should knowledge of Sanskrit be a pre-requisite for a student of history and archeology? I think it was Theodore Baskaran who said that he was not admitted for a course in history because he did not know Sanskrit. This rule is supported by many today but Sastri's experience tells otherwise and he calls for a well formed "linguistic equipment" in "Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil for the ancient period; Persian, Marathi and Portuguese for the medieval; Dutch and French besides English for the modern period". Anyone who does not extend pre-requisites to other languages besides Sanskrit is either ignorant or a bigot.

But should knowledge of "linguistic equipment" be a pre-requisite. Sastri's experience, again is otherwise. When one of his works was critiqued and he discovered that he missed sources in Dutch and French he set himself to learning the languages on his own. The man is an obsessive-compulsive seeker of a really rare kind.

C.P. Snow in a famous lecture spoke of the need to bridge science and the humanities to gain a holistic understanding. Sastri bemoans how archeologists are not linguists and linguists have no interest in field work. When literary sources, like Vedic literature, is used to reconstruct the past he's particular that only textual evidence corroborated by epigraphic evidence should be used.

On considering sources Sastri is very particular that we should judge the source for how removed it is from the event and for possible interpolations into the text. The Muslim historians come in for a fulsome praise by Sastri. That despite "partisan character, theological bias, or the didactic aims of particular writers". Though he admires Firishta he's unsparing on Firishta's possible bias in gliding over how the Vijayanagar ruler lost the battle of Talikota due to desertions by Muslim generals and other factors. Sastri identifies that lapse by comparing Firishta's account with the accounts of others including Caesar Frederic, a Venetian merchant.

While being unsparing judgmental of any work Sastri, like a true scholar, finds something of value even in a work by a demagogue like James Mill. He never fails to commend any work if it has, despite many faults, furthered the horizon of understanding by an iota.

The Hakluyt Society was established in London in 1846 to publish travel writings. Many invaluable Dutch and Portuguese accounts that Sastri rates above English sources of the Mughal era were published by this Society. Though a foreigner's writings are notable for unique perspectives Sastri cautions us that foreign sources could be "credulous purveyors of fable and gossip". He distinguishes how Greek historians, unlike Chinese historians, barely ventured beyond the edges of India and yet wrote with great certainty about a country they had known little of.

Over 50 pages Sastri flies over the vast terrain of Indian history from antiquity to near modern era and stuns the reader with reference after reference of source material with pithy comments on their merits and veracity. This chapter and the material referenced therein alone can fill a lifetime of learning. But Sastri then proceeds to specifically the history of South India in two chapters, one pre-1300 AD and another after 13th century.

Sastri is categorical on how Tamil predates Sanskrit but adds, based on evidence, that Tamil was influenced by Sanskrit. In his 1947 published "A history of South India" Sastri, with a touch of Brahminical pride, would wax eloquent how the vernaculars were raised into loftiness by the magic wand of Sanskrit. The passage is cringeworthy. In his 1964 lecture Sastri is more balanced though he rubbishes the claims of those who ascribe much greater antiquity to the Sangam era than what is epigraphically supported.

In the context of Tamil history Sastri again returns to the topic of how to use literature as an evidence cautiously. He concedes that literature enables a historian to construct the 'social and religious milieu' of an era. Then he adds, especially with reference to the Bhakti literature, "their correct understanding has been much clouded by the orthodox hagiology of a later age which has been accepted as history without sufficient critical examination". Literature like Silappadikaram and Manimekalai "should be used cautiously by a historian".

The colonial era records can overwhelm any prodigious historian but Sastri offers valuable guidance in the choice of material. He classifies the massive collection of Jesuit letters into categories based on who they were written for- for superiors abroad, personal notes, letters for the public and letters to personal friends. The audience should inform the reader that it has a specific perspective. Some publications of the letters have sowed confusion even in the minds of an eminent historian like Jadunath Sarkar because they've been edited shoddily.

As a school student I learned of "ten causes" for the decline of the French colonizers and the eventual success of the British but nowhere did I face the question of  why the Europeans conquered India and not "Persia or China or Japan". French historian G. Jonveau Dubreuil's biography of Dupleix identifies that "Because in India there had been a Dupleix. India was conquered not at all by arms but by 'Nababism', that is to say the genius of one man". Dupleix, according to his biographer, intended to be a Nawab. Sastri also recommends highly a 4 volume biography of Dupleix by Matrineau. Apparently he had read it.

Towards the end of his last lecture Sastri identifies Lala Lajpat Rai's "Unhappy India" as one of the fine works of the freedom struggle era. I had chanced upon Rai's book last weekend in Princeton University library. It was, apparently, written as a rebuttal to Katherine Mayo's 'Mother India'. Gandhi had called Mayo's book 'a drain inspector's book'. Rai's rebuttal, over 400 pages, is academic quality writing. I was taken aback by his style. Only Ambedkar, to my knowledge, had a similar style. Jawaharlal Nehru's prose, while being enchanting and indicative of a well read mind, is nowhere close to being called academic. Nehru's strength is less in marshaling facts with footnotes and more in giving expression to a grand sweep of ideas. Lajpat Rai's book is a must read. I'll review it after I have read it completely. Interestingly, Rai had spent 10 years in America and had met Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Dubois and has written a very engagingly academic quality book titled, "The United States of America: A Hindu's impression". Strangely he did not identify himself as an Indian.

A recent revisionist canard is to malign Nilakanta Sastri as a great scholar but one who could not hold in check his Brahminical worldview. This is a sheer canard because barring that one passage in one book, amongst his many, no one can show a shred of evidence that Sastri ignored evidence or glosses over inconvenient facts. On the contrary he does specify every now and then that the sources available were mostly written by Brahmins and therefore the picture that he presents could easily be skewed. This is what we expect of a historian of integrity. Nothing more nothing less.

Sastri has few regrets about how institutions in India and lack of interest in the study of history amongst students. He laments the lack of professional institutions that can catalogue and publish critical works of merit with consistency. Ever since college studies separated the study of economics from the study of history he saw a decline in the number and quality of applicants. Material resources matter little when lack of qualified candidates and practitioners are the real concern in his opinion.

As for the propensity of approaching South Indian history from the North Sastri addresses the concern straightforward in his "History of South India". He cites Professor Sundaram Pillai, note he's non-Brahmin, on the difficulty of distinguishing Aryan civilization from post-Aryan influence but nevertheless it is difficult for a historian to "distinguish the native warp from the foreign woof". Sundaram Pillai added that the further South we go it becomes relatively easy to to disentangle the pre-Aryan and Aryan influences. However the job of the historian, Sastri concedes, remains very difficult. That he was aware of such a criticism attests to his self-awareness and this canard should not become a persistent criticism as if it is systematic bias in the work. It is not. We should extend to Sastri the courtesy that he extends to even blatantly biased historians like James Mills and Farishta.

Nivedita Louis, a columnist who writes for The Hindu and historical guide, had excerpted Noboru Karashima's excerpt from a recent publication of Sastri's collected writings for 'The Hindu' highlighting just such a criticism. Soon the Periyarists came out of the woods and applauded that "there should be no sacred cows above criticism". I rubbished both Karashima's criticism and the Periyarist's pious adulation of 'no sacred cows'. I find today, as I went looking for the post on Facebook, that I no longer have access to Nivedita Louis's page. A small price to pay for defending a great scholar.

Nilakanta Sastri can be critiqued and criticized. If he were alive he'd welcome it but he'd ask, "do you have evidence? show me the facts"


  1. Sources of Indian history with special reference to South India - K.A. Nilakanta Sastri. Online edition at
  2. Collection of Sastri's books online
  3. Lala Lajpat Rai (contains links to his works including 'Unhappy India') -
  4. Hakluyt Society
  12. Practicing History - Barbara Tuchman
  13. Lessons of History - Will & Ariel Durant

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Audrey Truschke and Rama: An Academician Learns the Perils of a Trumpian Tweet

Audrey Truschke, Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University, posted a tweet that, in her words, was a 'loose translation' of an exchange between two Sita and Rama, revered as gods, from the epic Ramayana and set off a furious exchange that continues unabated. Truschke's tweet was, to use a colloquial phrase like her, Trumpian. Her oped, published in The Wire, shows she still does not get it.

Audrey Truschke (Image Courtesy from Rutgers University s200_audrey.truschke.jpg)

We live in perilous times when academic researches are being debunked and maligned in both Trump's America and Modi's India. Academicians are under scrutiny for biases, conflicts and plainly mistakes that can be used to discredit not just their work but themselves and largely discredit academia itself. Audrey Truschke by committing what can only be called abject stupidity walked right into the trap.

Screenshot from Audrey Truschke's Twitter Feed taken on April 25th

The context, apparently, was the filing of a court case against a cartoonist for a cartoon in which Sita is telling Rama that she's happy that she was kidnapped by Ravana and not one of Rama's 'bhakts'. The cartoonist is alluding to the kidnap and gruesome rape and murder of 8 year old Asifa near Jammu by a group of Hindus who committed the heinous act at a temple. The cartoon, as cartoons will be, is biting. The cartoon or the filing of charges is not the debate today. Truschke took that incident and for whatever reason chose to connect it with Sita's criticism, if one can call it that, of Rama and chides what she saw as intolerance towards the cartoon. In attempting to buttress her claim she supplied a "loosely translated" verse from Ramayana. Truschke's loosely translated verse read, "Sita basically tells Rama he's a misogynist pig and uncouth". In a country where the building of a temple for Rama has engendered riots for over 20 years and spawned a fundamentalist movement this tweet was pouring gasoline over fire.

After fending off her detractors on twitter Truschke took to writing a self-serving oped in The Wire. The byline of the oped, borrowing from her text, piously declares that "reverence is not and should not be a requirement for describing or analyzing a religious text". True, but a tweet is not an analysis and lack of reverence is different from being contemptuously derogatory, that too without basis. An academician can be provocative or espouse a provocative view but provocation, as much as reverence should not be, should not become the driving reason in a discourse. One can be intentionally provocative but one should be prepared to reap the whirlwind too.

Truschke, from calling what she quoted as a loose translation, is now characterizing her quote as "failed translation", that too, "arguably". When a translation bears little relationship to text, even contextually, then it is not a 'failed' translation it is plain stupidity and it is fair for people to attribute it to prejudice.

When Truschke was pressed by many to cite her sources and Sanskrit original she, eventually, cited a translation by Robert P. Goldman. The right leaning Swarajya magazine calls Goldman as "one of the foremost Sanskrit scholars in the United State and translator of the Ramayana". I'd love to know who else Swarajya considers as foremost Sanskrit scholars in United States. An American resident got in touch with Professor Goldman and asked him about the veracity of the translation. The email exchange was published by Swarajya. Goldman shredded Trushcke's defenses.

Truschke bristles, a tad too piously, that a private email exchange was being shared in the public. She contends that Goldman, if he had aired a public view, might have calibrated his response that would have shown that "divergent interpretations are a matter of scholarly disagreement". She further says that she only differs with Goldman on how to "succinctly encapsulate Sita's remarks". This is nitpicking and it is plain that Truschke is flailing. Goldman might have been more circumspect in public is a matter of conjecture but circumspect or blunt there's no evidence to suggest he'd have not disagreed with her. Goldman disagrees, substantively, with Truschke's loose translation and essentially calls her out.

The use of the words "misogynist pig" to translate Sita's questioning of Rama, Truschke claims in her oped, was intended to "use contemporary language to bring the text alive to modern-English speaking audiences". Where does one begin to dissemble this idiocy? What next, will Truschke then have a crucified Christ yelling skyward "dude up there, these blokes don't know what they're doing". Will she, to bring the text alive to modern-English speaking audiences, add F-bombs too? Truschke, you just  plainly f***d up.

To make a case for her loose translation she then cites a work by Goldman. Goldman, in an essay included in "Ramayana Revisited" edited by Mandrakanta Bose, cites Sita as "lashing out provocatively" at Rama for thinking of leaving her behind during his exile in the forest. Sita, Goldman's translation says, calls Rama as acting like a 'pimp'. Goldman, knowing fully well, the incendiary nature of that quote deftly supplies the Sanskrit word that he had translated and refers to the exact verse. I referred the copy of that book I've in my collection. ('Sailusa'. That word an internet search reveals could be meant to identify a man "who exposes his wife for the public). Truschke, on the other hand, uses an American crudity that far exceeds the contextual words of Sita and actually perverts a poignant interaction that does no justice to the text or the character. Truschke is perpetuating a perfidy at this point by attempting to link her idiotic loose translation with the translation that another scholar had done. This is cheap. She adds that the example shows that stilted and formal english is not the only way to translate Valmiki. Goldman's choice of the word 'pimp' contemporaneous and succinct is neither at variance with the text nor violates the intent of the text. That's not what Truschke did.

Her "perceived irreverence", Truschke writes in Wired, was the cause of much of the anger. She's right but the irreverence was not just a perception and it was not mere academic lack of reverence but a provocative gas light. She argues that Rama was deified only later to the epic and that that is not taken into account when she approaches Rama with less than reverence. This is hogwash. It took a council to deify Christ as godhead does that mean she'd tweet about Christ like that? Lack of reverence or not being bound by reverence and adopting an academic detachment towards the subject is different from being irreverent. Irreverence is what street hustlers do, not academicians.

When Norton published its anthology of world religions, edited by Jack Miles, Wendy Doniger's use of a very provocative quote was removed by the publisher who felt that the provocative material did not add value to the point being made and would unnecessarily detract attention from the perspective.  Yale university when it published a book on the Danish cartoons about Prophet Muhammad, that inflamed half the world, after deliberations decided not to include the cartoons themselves in the book. This created its own debate of a university self-censoring, a development that did alarm academics. But Yale had to choose pragmatism. I'm sure many Hindus, including non-supporters of Modi, will bristle at this cowardice and double standards. But, as Norton showed, increasingly Western academics are being careful about being provocative. So far, at least, the they're only being cautious about provoking unnecessarily and choosing non-provocative articulations when a point could be made that way without sacrificing the intent of the articulation.

Feeling besieged and under threat Truschke has gladly shared support from all and sundry irrespective of whether arguments that were offered in her support were meritorious or not. One Anamika Reddy (@AnaMyID) had tweeted passages from Valmiki's Mahabharata which referred to Rama in unflattering terms. This supporter then claims, pretty stupidly, that if one calls Truschke as unscholarly then one should extend it to Vyasa. Oh Lordy. Should a mythical writer and a 21st century academician in a university be judged by the same standards. A mythical writer and his epic are not the same as an academician justifying a 'loose translation'.

Madhu Kishwar who was once known as a feminist is now known more for her blind support of Modi and Hindutva. That's her choice. Truschke, searching for support in every nook and corner, took an old excerpt from a work by Kishwar to make a point. Kishwar had said that Hindus have a tradition of looking at their gods as humans and do not "hesitate to pass moral judgment on them". "Their praiseworthy actions are neatly soften from those where the gods fail to uphold dharmic conduct. Such criticism and condemnation do not imply people are irreligious or irreverent; instead they acknowledge that even gods are neither perfect nor fallible".

Kishwar is absolutely correct in her observation. Her present day politics is of no concern in this context. What a common Hindu does in how he relates to religious deities and religious texts is, thankfully, elastic and capacious. Rama's act of asking Sita to prove her innocence after the slaying of Ravana has always been a topic of debate and many, scholars and laymen, offer their own explanations. But even they'd not put words into the mouth of Sita. That's prejudice and beyond the pale. One can characterize Rama's actions as misogynistic but one should not make Sita say it, especially when what Sita, according to the epic, said was different. That an academic has to find refuge in the words of Madhu Kishwar, that too after sort of perverting its intent, is shameful.

The Swarajya rebuttal was on the point and, for once, stopped just there without extending into conspiracy theories or plain abuse. Probably, Truschke being Jewish could've been a reason. Swarajya is a prominent supporter of Israel and Zionism, for obvious reasons. Truschke's luck stopped with Swarajya. She had to face a torrent of abuse, including ant-semitism, and even death threats online. Now, that's where her detractors walked right into her trap. This abuse provided the perfect cover for Truschke to be aggrieved and take to an oped to color her detractors broadly with one brush and use it to whitewash her stupidity.

A popular complaint of Indians is about how Western academics talk about India's heritage, its literature and past. Most criticisms will circle around whether texts, especially Sanskrit texts, were interpreted appropriately. When the Murty library was launched a chief difficulty faced by the project was finding good Indian translators. This is the parlous state of Indian academia. One of the chief reasons behind lack of critical translations of Sanskrit texts is the attitude of Indians towards the texts itself. I've been told on Facebook by several Brahmins that India's philosophical treatises, the Vedas, are not for the uninitiated and books that would be called 'popularizers' will do a disservice to those texts. This is complete nonsense. Will Durant took Spinoza and Kant to New York City laborers in lectures and later turned them into one of the most popular books on philosophy that continues to sell nearly a 100 years on. If Quantum physics and Kant can be explained in well written science and philosophy popularizers why not Katho Upanishad. There is more to this attitude of reserving wisdom for the chosen few than just apprehension of diluting the richness of the content.

At a time when India's universities are being peopled by the likes of Michel Danino and sanitizing India's checkered past has become a national project the need of the hour is unimpeachable scholarship of the highest merit. Life is unfair. The slightest misstep, an innocuous wrong quote, a verbal slip are all that the teeming jingoists need to discredit and shame a scholar. In such perilous times when an academician, or one who likes to be thought so, becomes Trumpian in choice of words the blowback can damage not only the person concerned but will tarnish so many more. Audrey Truschke owes an apology to Hindus and to her own academic fraternity.


1. Swarajya Article - Contains screenshots of tweets.

2. Audrey Truschke's article in The Wire

3. Meaning of the Sanskrit word 'Sailusa'

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

மோக முள்: மோகமுமில்லை இசையுமில்லை

'மோக முள்' தமிழ் இலக்கியத்தில் தகுதிக்கு மீறிப் புகழப்பட்டுவிட்ட ஒரு நாவல். தி.ஜாவுக்கு மோகமும் தெரியவில்லை இசையை கலை வடிவமாகவோ இலக்கிய ஆக்கத்தின் உள்ளுறை கலையம்சமாகவோ வடிக்கத் தெரியவில்லை. இப்பதிவு கூர் தீட்டப்பட்ட விமர்சனம் அல்ல. நண்பர் ஒருவர் பேஸ்புக்கில் மோக முள்ளை சிலாகித்து எழுதவும் அதில் விவாதம் வளர்ந்தது. முறையாக தொகுக்கப்பட்ட இலக்கிய விமர்சணமல்ல இது. எளிதாகச் சொன்னால் எனக்கு ஏன் மோக முள் பிடிக்கவில்லை என்கிற விளக்கக் குறிப்பு என்று வேண்டுமானால் சொல்லலாம்.

அயன் ராண்ட் பெயரைக் கேட்டாலே இலக்கியவாதிகளுக்கும் தீவிர இலக்கிய வாசகர்களுக்கு ஒவ்வாமை உண்டு. தமிழ் நாட்டில் மட்டுமில்லை, அமெரிக்காவிலும் தான். ஆனால் எனக்கு அவர் தான் ஆதர்சம். உடனே, எனக்கு இலக்கிய வாசிப்பே பத்தாது என்று முகம் சுளிப்பவர்கள் இத்தோடு படிப்பதை நிறுத்தி விடலாம். காமம் என்பது யாசகப் பொருளல்ல என்று தெளிவுற புரிய வைத்தவர் அயன் ராண்ட். காமம் என்பதின் நிறைவு அடைதற்கரிய ஆணையோ பெண்ணையோ அவர்களின் அறிவுச் சார் அகங்காரமும் ஈகோவும் உயர்ந்து நிற்கும் போது அடைந்து அந்த அடைதலில் முழுமைப் பெறுவது. "உன் சந்தோஷத்துக்காக நான்" என்று சுய பலிக் கொடுத்தோ "உனக்கு கொடுக்க உடம்பு தான் இருக்கிறது" என்றோ அளிக்கப்படுவது காமம் அல்ல யாசகம் அந்த யாசகத்தில் திளைப்பவனுக்கு மோகம் என்பது பலகாலம் தைத்த முள் அல்ல. அந்த வகை உடலுறவில் திருப்தியுறுபவனுக்கும் சுய இன்பத்தில் கிளர்ச்சி அடங்கி வேறு வேலையில் அடுத்த கணமே மூழ்குபவனுக்கும் அதிக வித்தியாசமில்லை. பாபு அதைத் தான் செய்கிறான்.

யமுனா சவுந்தர்யமாகவும் இளமையாகவும் இருக்கும் போது அணுகும் பாபுவுக்கு யமுனா கிடைக்கவில்லை. ஆனால் காலப்போக்கில் ஏமையில் மூழ்கி, சிருங்காரம் இழந்து பிச்சைக்காரியாகிவிட்ட தனியளான யமுனா பாபுவை தன்னை எடுத்துக் கொள்ளச் சொல்கிறாள். அந்த சம்பாஷனை துயரமான சம்பாஷனை.

யமுனா: "உன் திருப்திக்காகத் தான் நான் உயிரை வச்சிருக்கேன். உன்னைத் திருப்தி செய்யறதுதான் என் கடமை. எனக்கு அது தான் ஆசை...ஆனால் எனக்கு ஒன்றிலும் ஆசையில்லை. உன் திருப்திக்குத்தான். நீ எனக்குச் செய்தது கொஞ்ச நஞ்சமில்லை. எதையும் லட்சியம் பண்ணாமல் எனக்குக் கை கொடுத்திண்டே வந்திருக்கே. நான் ஏன் உன்னைத் திருப்திப்படுத்தப் படாது?"

யமுனாவுக்கு இதில் ஆசையேயில்லையா என்று பாபு மீண்டும் மீண்டும் கேட்க அதையெல்லாம் காலில் போட்டு மிதித்துவிட்டதாக யமுனா சொல்கிறாள்.

பாபு: "உயிரில்லா பபொருளையா என்னிடம் கொடுக்கிறாய்"
யமுனா: "நீ உயிர் கொடேன்"

மீண்டும் அவளுக்கு இதில் விருப்பமில்லையா, வெறும் சக்கையையா அவள் கொடுக்கிறாள் என்று பாபு வினவுகிறான்.

யமுனா: "நி செய்ததை எல்லாம் நான் எப்படி மறக்க முடியும்? அதற்காக நீ கேட்கிறதை எல்லாம் கொடுக்கக் கடமைப்பட்டவள் நான். சொல்கிறதை எல்லாம் செய்ய வேண்டியவள்"......"கடமையைச்செய்யறதிலே என்ன பயம்"

ஒரு விபசாரிக்குக் கூடத் தொழில் மீதும் தான் அளிக்கும் சுகத்தின் மீதும் கர்வம் இருக்க வாய்ப்புண்டு. நான் இந்தியாவில் இருக்கும் வாழ்க்கையைத் தொலைத்த விபசாரிகளைச் சொல்லவில்லை. அவர்களும் யமுனாக்கள் தான். ஜப்பானிய கெய்ஷாக்கள், எஸ்கார்ட்டுகள் என்ற வகை விபசாரிகளைச் சொல்கிறேன். அம்மா பெண்ணியவாதிகளே விபசாரிகள் என்று சொன்னதற்காக வையாதீர்கள். உலக வழக்கப்படி எழுதுகிறேன். ஹோவார்ட் ரோர்க்கிடம் இணங்கும் டாமினிக் பிராங்கன், ஹாங்க் ரியர்டனிடம் படுக்கும் டாக்னி டேக்கர்ட் போன்றவர்கள் அவர்களைப் பெண்டாளும் ஆண்களைக் கவுரவிப்பவர்கள். இங்கே, 'பெண்டாளும்' எனும் வார்த்தையை அப்பாத்திரங்களை அயன் ராண்ட் சித்தரித்திருக்கும் விதத்தில் பயன்படுத்தியிருக்கிறேன். ஹாங்க் ரியர்டனுனான தன் தொடர்பை வைத்து அவனை மிரட்டி பணிய வைத்திருக்கிறார்கள் என்று தெரிய வந்தது டாக்னி அதை எதிர் கொள்வது அலாதியாக இருக்கும். ரேடியோ நிகழ்ச்சி ஒன்றில் பகிரங்கமாக "ஆமாம் நான் ஹாங்க் ரியர்டனுடன் படுத்தேன்" என்று கர்வத்தோடு சொல்வாள். அந்தக் கர்வத்தில் அப்படிப்பட்டவனுக்குத் தன்னை அளித்தேன் என்பதும் அவனுக்கு என்னைப் போன்ற ஒருத்தி தான் தேவையையாய் இருந்தாள் என்ற கர்வமும் கலந்திருக்கும். யமுனாவின் உடலை கேட்கும் பிச்சைக்காரனான பாபு வாழ்க்கையில் அந்தத் தருணத்தில் எதையும் சாதித்திராத மிகச் சாதாரணன். கேட்டவனிடம் உடம்பைத் தவிரக் கொடுக்க எதுவுமில்லாத துர்ப்பாக்கியசாலி யமுனா. இந்தக் கூடலில் என்ன மகிமை? சரி அவளிடம் பாபு அப்படி என்னத்தைத் தான் கண்டுவிட்டான்? மரப்பசுவில் ஒரு டயலாக் வரும். கோபாலி அந்தக் கதையின் நாயகியிடம் (?) "இடுப்புக்கு மேலே எல்லோரும் ஒன்னுதான்" என்பார் அதற்கு அவள், "இடுப்புக் கீழே வெவ்வேறே என்றால் இடுப்புக்கு மேலேயும் அப்படித்தானே" என்பாள். அப்படிப்பட்ட காம ஈர்ப்பை பாபு யமுனாவிடம் காண்பதில்லை மாறாக நபும்சகன் போல் பக்கத்துக்குப் பக்கம் அவளைப் பார்த்தால் அம்பாளைப் பார்த்தது போல் இருக்கிறது என்பான். பாபுவும் அவன் தோழனும் மரத்தடியில் பேசிக் கொள்ளும் போது பெண்களைப் பெண் தெய்வங்களோடு ஒப்பிட்டோ கோயிலுக்குப் போய்த் தரிசனம் செய்வதையோ தான் பேசுகிறார்கள். இந்த மாதிரி தயிர் சாதப் பசங்க எந்தக் காலேஜில் எந்தக் காலத்தில் இருந்தார்கள்? 60-களில் மருத்துவக் கல்லூரியில் படித்த என் தந்தை அக்காலத்தில் வழங்கிய ஒருவகைப் புடவை ஜாக்கெட்டை 'லஞ்ச் இண்டெர்வெல்' என்று மாணவர்கள் சொன்னதைச் சொல்வார். அவரும் அவர் நண்பர்களும் வகுப்புப் பெண்களுக்கு டெரராக இருந்தார்கள் என்று அவர் வகுப்புப் பெண் பல காலம் கழித்துக் காலேஜில் படித்துக் கொண்டிருந்த என்னிடம் சொன்னார். அப்பா ஹாவென்று சிரித்தார். பெண்களைப் பற்றித் தான் இப்படி ஒழுக்கச் சீலர்களாகப் பேசுகிறார்கள் என்றால் வேறு எதைப் பற்றியாவது இரண்டு கல்லூரி மாணவர்கள் பேசவே மாட்டார்களா? கதை நடக்கும் காலம் இந்தியா சுதந்திரன் அடைந்த காலக் கட்டம். காந்தியின் மரணம் கூட வரும் கதையில். ஊஹூம் நம்ம பாபுவோ விடாப்படியாகக் கோயில், அம்பாள் தான் பேசுவான். அந்தக் காலக்கட்டத்தில் கும்பகோணத்தில் அதே கல்லூரியில் படித்த என் ஆங்கிலப் பேராசிரியர் அரசியல் கொந்தளிப்புகளில் பங்கெடுத்தது பற்றிச் சொல்லியிருப்பார். தி.ஜா நிஜ வாழ்வில் பெண்கள் பற்றி அதிகக் 'குதுகுதுப்புடன்' பேசுபவர் என்று நினைவுக் குறிப்பில் சொல்லியிருப்பார் கரிச்சான் குஞ்சு. மீண்டும் மோகத்துக்கு வருவோம். 'பாரீஸுக்குப் போ' சறுக்கும் இடமும் இது தான். சாரங்கனும் அவன் மீது மையல் கொள்ளும் லலிதாவும் ஒருவர் மீது இன்னொருவருக்குள்ள காதலை வெளிப்படுத்தி அப்புறம் கடமை, தியாகம், சபலம் என்று அரற்றி நண்பர்களாகப் பிரிவார்கள். தோட்டக்காரனிடம் தன் இச்சையைத் தீர்த்துக் கொள்கிற அந்தச் சாட்டர்லி சீமாட்டி ஏனோ நினைவுக்கு வருகிறாள். ஷிவாகோவும் அவனுக்கு மோக முள்ளான லாராவும் கூட நினைவுக்கு வருகிறார்கள். ஓ அதுவல்லவோ மோக முள். அந்த லாரா எங்கே சும்மா திண்ணைப் பேச்சு பேசும் படிப்பறிவில்லாத யமுனா எங்கே? மோக முள் நாவலில் எந்த இடத்திலும் அறிவுஜீவீத்தனம் யாரிடத்திலும் வந்துவிடாத மாதிரி எழுதியிருப்பார் தி.ஜா. அவர் இயல்பே அது தானோ என்னமோ. யார் கண்டது. எந்த உரையாடலும் அறிவைத் தீண்டாத மாதிரி மேம்போக்கான உணர்வு எல்லையிலேயே நின்று விடக் கூடிய எழுத்து. உடனே "ஆ நீ அயன் ராண்ட் வாசகன்" என்று அலற வேண்டாம். மிலன் குந்தேராவின் "Unbearable Lightness of Being" கொஞ்சம் புரட்டிப் பாருங்கள். இசை, காமம், புரட்சி என்று அதகளம் செய்திருப்பார் குந்தேரா. குந்தேரா பீத்தோவானின் இசையை அந்நாவலில் கதையின் உட்கலந்திருக்கும் கருவாய் வைத்திருப்பார். மோக முள்ளில் இசை என்பது ஊறுகாய். அக்கதையைப் பாபு நகரின் மிகப் பிரபலமான மேஸ்திரியிடம் பயின்றான் என்று எளிதாக மாற்றி எழுதலாம். கதை கொஞ்சமும் சிதையாது. இசை என்பதைப் பல்வேறு தளத்தில் பேசலாம். இசையை வெறும் 'craft' மாதிரி ராகம், அதன் நுணுக்கம் என்று விவரிக்கலாம். அது எலிமெண்டரி நாலெட்ஜ். அதைத் தாண்டி தத்துவார்த்தமாக விவாதிப்பதும் இசை என்பதைக் கலை வடிவமாகப் பார்ப்பதும் கர்நாடக இசைக்கும் அதன் பல்லக்குத் தூக்கிகளுக்கும் அவ்வளவு எளிதாக வருவதில்லை. பிராக் நகரில் ருஷ்ய பீரங்கிகளைக் கொண்டு கம்யூனிசம் கட்டவிழ்த்துவிட்ட பயங்கரவாதத்தைக் கருவாகக் கொண்ட கதைக்குப் பீத்தோவன் தேவைப் படுவார். பாரீசுக்குப் போவின் பலம் இசை அங்கே கதையில் ஊடும் பாவுமாய்க் கலந்திருப்பது தான். சாரங்கனுக்கு அவன் தந்தைக்கும் இடையே நடக்கும் பனிப்போரில் சங்கீதம் முக்கியமான அம்சம். பாரீசுக்குப் போவை அதன் பலஹீனங்களைத் தாண்டி எனக்கு இன்றும் அனுக்கமாக வைத்திருப்பது அந்த அம்சம் தான். அந்நாவிலில், அது நாவலா என்பது வேறு விவாதம், மாடர்ன் ஆர்ட் பற்றி வரும் விவாதமும் இசைப் பற்றிய விவாதத்தோடு இசைந்தே வரும். That was an unintended pun.

ஒரு நாவலில் முக்கிய கதாபாத்திரம் செய்கிற வேலை செய்ய விழைகிற வேலையோ, கலையோ அந்த கதையில் இருந்துப் பிரிக்க முடியாததாக இருக்க வேண்டும் அப்போது தான் அது கதைக்கு மையமாகவோ கதையை கோர்க்கும் சரடாகவோ முடியும். சின்க்ளேர் லூயிஸின் 'Arrowsmith' இன்றும் அமெரிக்க மாணவர்களை மருத்துவத்துறையை தேர்ந்தெடுக்கத் தூண்டும் இலக்கியம். அந்நாவலில் கதாநாயகன் மருத்துவன் அதற்கும் அந்த கதையும் மையமான அறப் போராட்டங்களுக்கும் பிரிக்க முடியாத பிணைப்பு இருக்கும். யமுனாவை நண்பர் சுதந்திரமானவள் என்கிறார். நான் மோக முள்ளை படித்தது 2015-இல் ஜெயகாந்தன் மறைவதற்குச் சில மாதங்களுக்கு முன். அதனால் தான் அப்போது எழுதிய இரங்கல் குறிப்பில் (காலச்சுவடில் வெளிவந்தது) அந்தக் கதை முழுவதிலும் எல்லாக் கதாபாத்திரமும், முக்கியமாகப் பாபுவும் யமுனாவும், தாங்கள் ஒரு 'individual' என்பதை உணராமல் சமூகத்துக்கும், பெற்றோருக்கும், வேறு யார் யாருக்காகவோ பயந்தப் படியேவோ அவர்கள் அங்கீகாரத்தை எதிர்ப்பார்த்தோ தான் வாழ்கிறார்கள். லலிதா சாரங்கனோடு பாரீசுக்குப் போயிருந்தால் நன்றாக இருந்திருக்கும். அப்படிச் செய்தால் எதிர்ப்பார்த்ததைச் செய்ததற்காக ஜெயகாந்தன் இன்னும் கொஞ்சம் வாங்கிக் கட்டிக் கொள்ள வேண்டியிருக்கும். கதாசிரியனின் திறமை எதிர்ப்பார்த்ததைத் தவிர்ப்பதில் அல்ல எதிர்ப்பார்த்தது நடக்கும் போது வாசகனை "அது அப்படித் தானே நடக்க முடியும்" என்று எண்ண வைப்பதில் இருக்கிறது. 'சில நேரங்களில் சில மனிதர்கள்' படமாக்கலின் போது லக்‌ஷ்மியின் நடிப்பில் லயித்து அந்நாவலுக்குத் தொடர்ச்சியாகக் 'கங்கை எங்கே போகிறாள்' எழுதியதாக ஜெயகாந்தன் ஒரு பேட்டியில் சொன்னார். அந்நாவலில் கங்கா கடைசியில் சீரழிந்து விடுவாள். அதற்கு எழுதிய முன்னுரையில் அக்கதை அதன் போக்கில் சென்று அப்படித் தன்னைத் தானே முடித்துக் கொண்டது என்றும் "சரயு நதியிலே ராமன் கலப்பது" வாசகனுக்கு உவப்பாக இருக்காது ஆனால் கதை தன்னை அப்படிச் செலுத்திக் கொண்டது என்பார். 'கங்கை எங்கே போகிறாள்' படித்த போது தோன்றியது அவருக்குக் கம்பீரமான நிமிர்ந்து நிற்கும் பெண்ணைச் சித்தரிக்கத் தெரியவில்லை என்பதே. இலக்கியம் என்பதே வீழ்ந்தவர்களையும், இழி நிலையையும் விதந்த்தோதுவதாகவே இருக்கிறது. வெற்றிகளை விடத் தோல்விகளும், சறுக்கல்களும், வீழ்சிகளுமே இலக்கியமாகின்றன போலும். பாபுவும் யமுனாவும் வாழ்க்கையில் அலைக்கழிந்து இருவரும் ஒருவரையொருவர் சேர்கிறார்கள். இருவரிடமும் பெருமைப்பட்டுக் கொள்ள எதுவுமில்லை. இதனாலேயே பாபுவின் பெற்றோரின் சம்மதமும் சப்பென்று இருக்கிறது. பையன் பைத்தியமாய்க் காலமெல்லாம் பிரம்மசாரியாகவே இருந்து இசையையும் தொலத்து விடுவானோ என்று பயந்தப் பெற்றோருக்கு அவன் யாரைக் கட்டிக் கொண்டு வந்திருந்தாலும் சம்மதிக்கும் மன நிலை தான் இருந்திருக்கும். நாவலில் லயிக்க எதுவுமேயில்லையா என்றால். இருக்கிறது. ஆங்காங்கே. தி.ஜா ராஜேஷ்குமார் அல்ல. ஆனால் நாவலின் ஆதாரங்கள் சோபிக்கவில்லை. எனக்கு. திரும்பத் திரும்ப இசையையும், தெய்வீகத்தையும் குழப்புவது. எல்லாவற்றிலும் அதீத வணக்கம் காண்பிப்பது. எல்லோரும் என்னமோ போலி பணிவையே ஒழுக்கமாகக் கொண்டுவிட்டார்களோ என்று எண்ண வைக்கும் பாவணைகள். "உனக்கு இந்திய மரபுகள் அணுக்கமல்ல அதனால் இது உன்னைத் தீண்டாது" என்று சொன்னால் மறுக்க மாட்டேன். ஒரு வேளை இந்திய மரபுகளில் எதையெல்லாம் நான் மேன்மையல்லாதது என்று எண்ணுகிறேனோ அதெல்லாம் இருப்பதாலோ என்னவோ எனக்கு இக்கதை அவ்வளவாகப் பிடித்ததில்லை. அப்புறம், "அவர் அப்படியே கும்பகோணத்தைக் கண் முன்னாடி நிறுத்துவார்", "பிராமணச் சமூகம், தஞ்சாவூரின் ஒரு காலத்திய மரபு இதையெல்லாம் என்னமா சொல்கிறார் தெரியுமா" என்பதெல்லாம் டூ மச். அதைக் கூடச் செய்யவில்லையென்றால் அப்புறம் என்ன கதாசிரியன். தி.ஜாவின் பெண் அவர் தந்தை போர்னோகிராபி படிப்பதில்லை என்று ஒரு பேட்டியில் சொல்லியிருப்பார். ஹ்ஹ்ம்ம் நஷ்டம் இலக்கியத்துக்குத் தான். போர்னோகிராபி படிக்காததினால் தான் கணவனை உடலுறவில் மயக்கி தன் பிள்ளையை வேதம் படிக்க அனுப்ப வேண்டும் என்று தன்னை நிர்வாணப் படுத்திக் கொள்ளும் அலங்காரத்தை 'எந்த அலங்காரமும் இல்லாமல் குழந்தைப் போல் இருந்தாள்' என்று தயிர் சாத வர்ணனைச் செய்கிறார் தி.ஜா. தயிர் சாதம் என்று சொல்வது உப்புச் சப்பில்லாமல் இருப்பதைக் குறிக்கத் தான் வேறு நோக்கமில்லை. சூடான வர்ணனைகள் செய்த சாண்டில்யன் பிராமணர் தானே.

Who knows, some day re-reading might make me like it better. At least in portions if not wholly. Liking it wholly will most probably never happen.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Murdered Child and a Divided Nation: Candle of Civilization Flickers as Bigotry and Jingoism Run Amuck

We live in shameful times when the world's oldest surviving republic, America, and the world's largest republic, India, make it fashionable to support Neo-Nazis and rapists fueled by tribal instincts of hyper-partisanship, naked bigotry and even jingoism, that insidious sibling of patriotism. How else does one comprehend the fact that faced with a brutal rape and murder of a child a nation is divided into those clamoring for justice and those actually more interested in conspiracy theories and some more interested in establishing, on very questionable statistics, that India is a land of safety. Alas, in Trump's America and Modi's India all of the above are possible.

Image Courtesy an145537656an-indian-man-ho.jpg
Asifa Banu, 8 year old girl from the nomadic Bakarwal community, a Muslim tribe, went absconding on January 10th in Kathua, a town near Jammu. Asifa, kept captive for 6 days was dumped on January 15th and found on January 17th. Subsequent investigations reportedly showed that the child was gruesomely drugged, raped, maimed and killed. A four month investigation identified 8 Hindus including a custodian of a local temple where she was allegedly kept captive and the heinous crime committed. Jammu is a Hindu majority twin of the Muslim majority Kashmir in the state of Jammu-Kashmir that India tenaciously holds on to with the brute force of the world's fourth largest army. The accused were Hindus and the murdered was a Muslim and in a state torn asunder with communal strife that was enough to light a keg. Hindu Lawyers, yes lawyers, joined with others and organized protests to prevent the lodging of a charge sheet against the accused.

A personal anecdote here. I went to Disney World at Orlando when my child was 5 years old. One day at the park as my wife and I were looking at a map in a minute our daughter slipped away from us. We found her within 5 minutes. Within those 5 minutes we lived a life time. Our thoughts raced from alerting park police, checking cell phones for latest pictures of her, figuring a strategy etc. When we found her we hugged her like there was no tomorrow. We're in Disney World where the chances of her really getting lost is almost nil. We're in America, she knew our address, contact phones, we had cell phones, so on and so on. Yet for those few minutes we were on edge. Asifa's parents are possibly dirt poor, else why should a girl who should be at school be out grazing and they live in a state that has not known peace for over 20 years. Words cannot capture the grief of a parent to find their child like that.

The murder of 17 year old Navarasu, a medical college student, by John David shook Tamil Nadu and led to the promulgation of stringent laws against ragging which was said to have been the root cause of that grisly murder. John David murdered and dismembered Navarasu's body and dispatched them. Though John David was acquitted in the High Court, overturning a lower court sentence of double murder, the Supreme Court reinstated the verdict after 11 years and John David surrendered. I cannot remember Tamil Nadu getting cleaved along religious lines then.

In the heels of Asifa's murder I find despicable posts about children or others being murdered in a mosque or by a christian priest etc. What the posts always fail to mention is the lack of support from anyone for those let alone support from lawyers and suspicions of orchestrated support amongst even the police. That the legal establishment would brazenly rally in support of the accused is what raised the ire of the country more.

That the venue of the crime was a temple and that the perpetrators were probably intending to terrorize the nomadic Muslim tribe have provided some patented idiots with the excuse to lampoon Hinduism and that in turn has provided the perfect cover for fundamentalist amongst Hindus, who are in no short supply these days, to trot out despicable posts about Islam.

A staunch fundamentalist Madhva, as he calls himself after some arcane sect of which I know little, posted on Facebook a questionable quote from Koran alleging that the prophet Muhammad married a 6 year old and that Koran supports such marriages. Muhammad lived in the 6th-7th century CE at which time such marriages were par for the course in India too. If one attended meetings conducted by atheist Davidar Kazhagam one could learn of contentious history of Hinduism, of course narrated without a nod to any nuance or context. This Madhva then had the cheek to argue how Hindu Srutis and Smritis do not offer any scriptural support for child marriage. This is shibboleth. The support offered to child marriage in 19th century by India's venerated freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak shreds the arguments of that Madhva fundamentalist. Here's a selection from an earlier blog of mine.

Historian Stanley Wolpert charts the ebb and flow of Tilak's ideas on India being a "Hindu state" and of various people in various states cannot "have one nationality". When a colonial official wanted to open a school for girls Tilak railed against it and waxed eloquent on the duties of girls as per Hindu Dharma. Commenting on the case of Rakhamabai, an educated woman who refused to go to her much older husband after her father's death, Tilak wrote "if a woman does not go to her husband she should be punished by the king, and if she disobeys the king's order she should be imprisoned" and then helpfully compared her to a eunuch from India's epic story Mahabharata, Shikandi.

Faced with opposition from reactionary Hindus to raising the 'age of consent' for marriage and sex from 10 to 12 (yes that was the age) the Colonial government balked until a 11 year Phulmani Bhai died of lacerations during intercourse in 1890. Tilak, Wolpert notes, did not see "any need of reforming the law at present". Arguing on behalf of Phulmani's husband Tilak wrote:
"Hari Mohun could not be responsible for intercourse with his wife, 11 years old - an intercourse which neither he nor almost the whole of India, nor even her legislators, had reason to think to be dangerous to life". 
Unlike Wolpert the Indian biographers praise Tilak for "his accurate knowledge of Hindu scriptures and his legal acumen...He took up cudgels on behalf of tradition and attacked all those who wanted to defy it. His retorts were crushing, his language biting and his tone was offensive throughout the controversy". Some cudgels, some acumen indeed. 

Several of India's founding fathers, as I wrote in an earlier blog, had taken child brides. Rabindranath Tagore married Mrinalini Devi in 1883 when he was 22 and she was 10. Tagore not only had a child-wife but gave one of his daughters in a similar marriage. Bharathiar too had a child-wife. Tilak, we learn, was married when he was 16. I'm sure his wife was not 17, to say the least. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan married Sivakamu in 1903, he was 16 and she was 10.

Rajaji was married to one Alarmelu Managammal, known as Manga in 1897 (note, the biographer does not give the year I got it from wikipedia). Manga, Rajmohan writes, was a 'child-wife'. Manga was 10 years old, Rajaji was 18-19 years old. As was the custom Manga lived with her parents till she attained puberty. Meanwhile Rajaji passes his law exam in 1900. Then, aged 12 and apparently having reached puberty Manga comes to Rajaji. Manga, gave birth to their first child a "day after her 13th birthday".

20th century liberalism learned from Colonial rulers made these stalwarts recoil in horror at what their lives were and against much opposition from fellow Hindus outlawed child marriage. Only a bigoted fundamentalist would dredge questionable episodes of a religious leader's life in the 7th century while the country is mourning the mind numbing murder of a child. Apparently the Muhammad episode is very questionable. 

A simple google search led me to this column by Shaista Gohir in The Guardiam.

So why is the practice of child marriage sanctioned in Muslim countries? Unfortunately, ultra-conservative religious authorities justify this old tribal custom by citing the prophet Muhammad's marriage to Aisha. They allege Aisha was nine years old when the prophet married her. But they focus conveniently on selected Islamic texts to support their opinions, while ignoring vast number of other texts and historical information, which suggests Aisha was much older, putting her age of marriage at 19. Child marriage is against Islam as the Qur'an is clear that intellectual maturity is the basis for deciding age of marriage, and not puberty, as suggested by these clerics (
This Madhva fundamentalist cheekily asked me if I, whom he considers a Christian, had condemned unequivocally the child abuse scandal of Catholic Church in US. Unfortunately for him I had written a note on Facebook just weeks earlier after having watched the Oscar Awarded movie, 'Spotlight'. Let me reiterate, I'd have preferred that the Boston diocese, the priests who were accused, the Boston Cardinal were all prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and jailed. I wish the punitive damages were of such nature that the Church would've been compelled to root out the evil that was allowed lurk within its conscience. As for Pope John Paul II I prefer that he not be sainted, a ludicrous practice by itself, on account of how he handled the scandal. Of course, unlike me, the fundamentalist could not find it in himself to be unequivocal in this heinous crime. He had to wait to find an excuse to indulge in mudslinging to his hearts content. 

If one started citing religious texts then one can play football with any religion. When it comes to India this fundamentalist and others blather about Sruti and Smruti etc turning a blind eye to reality. Sruti or Smruti who cares, here's reality. Per the Census of Indian state even in 2001 the incidence of child marriage was 14.4%. The percentage then rapidly decline to 3.7% in 2011. Remember that's still in the thousands since it is 3.7% of nearly a billion people. Incidentally my maternal grandmother was a child bride in 1930s. She became a widow with 5 children, the youngest aged 6 months, when she was barely in her teens. This is reality and it'd be straining credulity to say that this happened over hundreds of years into the recent past without any scriptural support. Sure, India can feel proud about the reforms.

Incidentally, there are mosques, yes mosques, for LGBT in Paris, Berlin, Australia and Chicago. Two days ago I listened to a broadcast on NPR about the mosque in Chicago and need to write about it separately. I don't know of any temple that openly accepts LGBT. Protestant denominations have opened their churches and even clergy to LGBT. The Madhva fundamentalist and others exaggerate the liberalism of Hinduism while grossly underplaying the varieties and progressiveness of Abrahamic religions. The truth, as always, is in the middle. There's more theological variety and liberalism in Abrahamic religions than the Hindutva brigade and frankly even many Hindus realize. There's more unitary structure and orthodoxy in Hinduism than the Hindutva brigade would like to admit or Hindus would like to acknowledge. 

Given that my citizenship is an open secret I'm often faced with "oh is it great in America", "why don't you write about faults in America". I'll briefly answer both.

The movie 'Spotlight' deserves a blog by itself. So why would I postpone that or not write it with as much eagerness or immediacy as I write about Asifa? Simple reasons. In America I did not see Catholics rushing to defend the Cardinal or priests. In America a major newspaper published investigative articles and eventually that got made into a movie. The movie was celebrated at the world's most watched awards show. As I always says, there's no paradise on earth. Every nation and society has dark chapters but those nations that unflinchingly face up to their warts have a redemptive quality. I'm yet to see India measure  up the standards of the West on that. It is easier to get a Western Christian to accept that the Church had a bloody past than to get an Indian accept that the past in India had very dark chapters.

Columnist and writer P.A.Krishnan surprised me on a different count. While he would like to see justice done and he wages a daily battle against the worshippers of Modi his patriotism sometimes makes him take a jingoistic hue. I cannot fathom the reason as to why he chose this moment of grief to argue that India has far less cases of rape than United States. 

I looked up reports of rapes being underreported in India and I chose only reports from Indian newspapers lest I be accused of being a biased westerner. A report in Hindu says "husbands commit a majority of acts of sexual violence" and "only one per cent of marital rapes and six per cent of rapes by men other than husbands are reported to police". Anyone who has remotely lived in India will readily attest to not only that but will also add that thousands of blatant harassment and sexual violence, for example in mass transit and other places, are literally not reported. I know wives of friends and relatives who have commuted for 15 years to New York City or Washington DC without a single finger touching them and yet many of them have experienced horrifying assaults in Chennai buses. In the recent agitations for Cauvery water blatant sexual harassment of girls was recorded and shared on social media but not a single case, as far as I know, was registered for that. In another recent notorious case in Uttar Pradesh a BJP party MLA was arrested for rape only after months of the rape victim's relatives trying to register a case. 

Whether it is US or India reporting rape and prosecuting the perpetrators is a harrowing experience for the victim. The US certainly has made strides in that and India is yet to catch up. The smug question of "where's statistics" is completely a partisan question when it comes to iNdia, a nation that has a very, very long history of not maintaining history. Data and record keeping are pathetic in India, for many reasons, compared to the West. This is often used to sweep inconvenient truths under the carpet.

The movie Lion, based on a child who gets lost and comes back as adult in search of his parents, underscored the issue of missing children in India. Nearly 80,000 kids go missing in India every year says an article that also mentions that nearly 400,000 children go missing in US. The reason for the lopsided difference becomes understandable if one check the hyperlink to the data. In US the FBI maintains a data of a missing child and every time a child is reported missing it is counted, that includes children who often run away too. The missing kids website also informs that that number might still be underreported in US. 

In these days of social media lies travel around the globe in the time taken by truth to just put on its shoes. The fundamentalists are spreading a vile post by a known purveyor of lies, Shanknaad, that supposedly pokes holes in the police case against the accused. The Quint has done a decent job of debunking the lies at

I cannot for the life of me understand the Indian impulse to haughtily pretend that, against all evidence to the contrary, that things are not too worse compared to developed and advanced economies and may even be better. 

My plea to Indians is simple, "Let America be an uncivilized hell hole. That's ok. Just look at the numbers for India, even the underreported ones, it is still an unconscionable one".

Yes many American states do not have a proper age limit for marriage but actual incidences of child marriages are next to nothing in US. A PEW research report says five out of every 1000 15-17 olds in US are married. That's it. Now compare with the 3.7% (remember it is per cent not per thousand) of India's one billion are child marriages in 2011. A Times of India report puts the number of girls marrying before 18, the legal limit, at 7%. This is a problem. Accept it.

America is undergoing a pivotal moment after New York Times broke the story of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassments. The #Metoo movement spawned by that has felled many powerful men across entertainment industry and even corporations. Where is India's #Metoo movement? A court recently ruled in India that a feeble "no" by a woman is actually consent for sex. 

P.A. Krishnan angrily asked me, because of course I'm an American citizen, does not America have the world's largest prison population and are not most of them African-Americans? Guess what, today the Pulitzers were announced and in the general non-fiction category the prize went to a book titled, "Locking up our own: Crime and Punishment in Black America" by James Forman Jr. The last presidential election saw a vigorous debate on that topic. Show me when was the last time India's pathetic juvenile convicts condition was spoken of on a public platform of that nature?

India, as V.S. Naipaul, in a mellowed third part of what started as a bitter trilogy, put it, is a "million mutinies". While all my complaints and anger above are warranted it'd be unfair not to credit the part of the country, including thousands of Hindus, who would like to see harsh justice meted out to the barbarians who defiled a child. "Hope", as Alexander Pope wrote, "springs eternal in the human breast". 


7. My blog referencing Tilak on 'Age of consent'
8. My blog on Rajaji's marriage
9. Pulitzer 2018
10. PEW research report about child marriage in US
11. Child marriage in India
13. Rape cases underreported in India
14. Crimes underreported in India
15. Marital rape and other rapes underreported
16. "Lion" movie and Scary Statistics