Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Bogan Sankar's Charge of Bigotry and Why I Write.

Last year an editor of an online magazine asked several writers to write a column on why they write. He contacted me too. For many reasons I never got around to writing it. Now is a good time to write that long overdue column. When I say I am not a professional writer or a professional historian what do I mean? What motivates me to write?

Two quotes, from Will Durant’s ‘uses of philosophy’ in ‘Story of philosophy’, pretty much can be called my credo. 
“Life has a meaning. To find its meaning is my meat and drink” - Robert Browning
“(We’re) one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions” - ‘Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov”.

10 years ago I was exchanging emails with a cousin about EVR and his wife, seeing the futility of the conversation, suggested, "Aravindan, take it to a different forum. Write a blog". I started writing for a very small group of 5 or 6. I've never been a member of any blog aggregator and since I did not know how to type in Tamil and being that Facebook did not take off until 2011, for me, the readership was severely limited. Today sometimes a few hundred hits happen, sometimes a few thousand and few become viral. But, what remains consistent, I hope, is how I write. If anything I handle weightier topics now and take far greater care on verifying facts.



Facts matter. Its that simple. I realized an innate nature of me quite recently. A relative of mine was cursing another relative. I could've kept quiet but I could not. I refuted the charges, quite vehemently on behalf of someone I did not share a deep relationship with. Sometime around that time I had taken up on behalf of a then Facebook acquaintance with another cantankerous and very pugnacious person. The exchange was that the latter was misinterpreting what the former wrote. I could've jolly well gone my way but I could not. I had to wade in. Thereafter the pugnacious person, for a while, trained his guns on me and finally blocked me. No big deal. For the record the person I stood up for did not return the favor. I did not expect it either. I just told myself its not his nature and it was not a quid pro quo I expected. 

Nearly a 100+ people heard Thamizhachi Thangapandiyan claim that Tagore took back the title Mahatma he had bestowed upon Gandhi. Yet only one felt compelled to come home, rummage through books, verify and cross reference facts and write a blog debunking that nonsense. That included rushing to Amazon and buying a book. Soon after that I came across another video where she praised Protestant missionary Ziegenbalg and portrayed U.Ve.Swaminatha Iyer as a casteist. I wrote, with facts, that Ziegenbalg learned Tamil, not out of love for the language but to communicate with the 'heathens' to proselytize them. 

Propagandist falsehoods that reduce complexity to simplicity, mainly to malign, abhor me. The abhorrence becomes loathing when facts are not just perverted but mixed with outright lies. Mathimaran, a notorious rabble rousing speaker is an eager peddler of such stuff. I've had a fondness for Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Gandhi, Nehru and Bharathi from my college days. When Mathimaran maligned Radhakrishnan and Gandhi I felt compelled to react, with facts. When he ridiculed India's Independence Day it was me, of all people, who felt compelled to write why August 15th is a great day not just for Indians but for mankind as a whole. After hearing his speech my mind and thoughts, through out the day, kept returning to the memory of millions of ordinary Indians who sacrificed their all for liberation and I felt a rebuttal is necessary to honor at least their memories.

More than any of the above I've total abomination of bigotry and intolerance of all hues. There was a time, before my blog on Brahmin hegemony of Carnatic music and the recent rumor mongering about my religion, I was thought of as an apologist for Brahmins simply because I've written consistently about the Nazi like hatred of the community in Tamil Nadu and condemned the hate filled politics whenever and wherever I've seen posts on social media that were plainly anti-Brahminical. Whether it was Swathi's murder or Brahmin hatred in Tamil associations, anti-brahminism as a social phenomenon I've always felt I should actively condemn it. And condemn it repeatedly. My dad used to say that even an amoeba, a unicellular organism, reacts to its surrounding and how can we, as mankind, not react. 

Bogan Sankar, a prolific poet on Facebook, after I called him out for peddling bigotry he in turn called me a Christian bigot. Note, I only said he was peddling bigotry with a specific post of his but he turned around and accused me personally. Even when I rebutted him earlier on the Devadasi issue I was careful not to call him personally a bigot.

Bogan was once popular for writing snippets mocking Jeyamohan on Facebook. That was when we became acquainted. For a while, though we had our disagreements here and there, he expressed, dare I say, an appreciation of my fact based approach. Today in an addled state of mind he guffaws when I cite that saying, "hey I said even then I disagreed". One can disagree with stupidity because it is stupidity or one can disagree with a view point, however well articulated it may be, because one holds contrary facts or worldview. Only in the latter case would one even offer a note of appreciation. 

So why does Bogan think I'm not just a bigot but, specifically, a Christian bigot? Simple. The only times we seriously disagreed and the arguments became heated were about some of his contentions regarding Christianity and its history and likewise about colonialism. 

That Aravindan had written reams rebutting falsehoods about Gandhi, Nehru, Bharathi, Savarkar, Golwalkar, Brahmins, even India are all forgotten. That I refuted, what in my opinion was, incorrect perspectives on Church history becomes reason enough to label me a Christian bigot.

It was a staunch Hindutva acquaintance who once asked me "Aravindan have you read Golwalkar? Can you, in all honesty, say he admired Hitler?". I took up his question and I read Golwalkar's books, especially his 'We or our nationhood defined'. Then I wrote a detailed blog and I, despite my revulsion for Golwalkar's politics and ideology, concluded that Golwalkar did not admire Hitler and that his ideas of nationalism mirrored that of Gandhi's or Ambedkar's to a great extent. 

Researching for writing has always helped me expand my understanding and always I've been more impressed by the complexity of history. Only when I researched about Savarkar I came to know of the extent of suffering and sacrifice that the entire Savarkar family had undergone. About the humiliation heaped on Savarkar's brother I wrote, 
"The Raj decided to make an example out of Babarao by parading him in chains through the streets of Nasik. He was made to wear an yellow cap to signify that he was being sent to the dreaded 'Kaala Paani' prison and he had to balance a set of clothes and a water bag on his back. One has to remember that the Savarkars were, like Tilak, Chitpavan brahmins and for them the humiliations carried a sting that is too difficult to imagine today."
I've never made bones about the fact that my reading is 99% non-fiction. I don't know about Bogan's reading habits. He has, in his infinite wisdom, opined that somehow my lack of reading in fiction affects my ability to perceive history. Sure, one could say that but one has to provide evidence. An ability to imagine, connect the dots and a spirit of empathy can more than compensate lack of reading fiction. When I read about the humiliation heaped on Babarao I could pause and imagine what that must mean for a Chitpavan Brahmin. When I read that Dalits, in Maharashtra during the Peshwa regime, have to wear a spittoon on their necks when they walked a street lest any saliva dribbling out of their mouth accidentally, it is not just that inhuman humiliation that stuns me but the tragedy of a father or a mother explaining to a little child of theirs why they've to walk around, unlike others, with a spittoon tied to their necks, is the heart breaking one. One doesn't have to be a Tolstoy reader to be capable of that. Not just Tolstoy readers but Tolstoy himself could be heartless and tyrannical. 

Speaking of expanding my understanding the finest experience was knowing what an intellectual colossus Bharathi was when I managed to acquire, at considerable expense, all 16 volumes of his collected works that Seeni. Viswanathan put together. The best reward I got for writing a review to popularize the amazing anthology was a reader wrote to me saying he bought a set for himself. I cannot say how much it thrills me to learn more about Bharathi. How he responded to a critical female reader, his harsh criticism of Vivekananda on the latter's views, his love of science, his ethics as a journalist and more.

My current interest is studying about the history of how Christianity took root in India. While some, just some, might know about the efforts of Arumuka Navalar in South India to defend Hinduism from the relentless propaganda of missionaries by making Saivism change there are even less who'd know of a great debate between Muslim scholars and a missionary priest in Agra. 

Much of Aristotelian science is now known as wrong. But, Will Durant reminds us, asking the right questions is already half knowledge. When I published my blog on Brahmins and Carnatic I gave a detailed bibliography that included books that several knew though not all knew all the books cited. Nobody gave me a list of books to read when I decided to tackle the topic. Questions and more questions led me to the books. Why did I ask the questions? Simple. T.M. Krishna talked about M.S. and made some assertions. He did not cite any academic reference or books. I took the assertions and questioned them. Yes with google. As I was researching on Church history I just googled about the relationship of Muslims with Christianity and I came across a wonderfully produced book and that book, a series on the topic of Christianity, referred to another book about Hindus and Christianity. It's an Alice in Wonderland phenomenon.  

Both personally and professionally I've found that my best strength is to connect dots and to see a connective tissue between seemingly disparate themes. Reading about American history has certainly made me understand and appreciate parts of Indian history much better. I've been appalled by Indian women speaking about minorities in a chilling manner. Then I came across a book that explained how White women could outdo their husbands in racism. Then a bulb went off. I know I irritate many with my endless talk on American history. It is simply fascinating that these two countries, most important democracies, have so many parallels that are instructive in understanding about each other.  

Few things animate me as much as connecting the dots and bringing a fresh perspective to even well worn topics. Aravind Panagariya wrote an acclaimed book on India's economic choices and he gave a passing grade to Nehru. Too often I exasperate many with my carping about someone not being a historian or a specialist. Panagariya is an economist but he's not a historian. In the West a Physics degree holder is not considered as qualified to write the history of Physics. What did Panagariya miss? He completely missed even mentioning the biblical refugee crises that, Yasmin Khan, historian of the Partition, identified as a key determinant of economics. Also, Panagariya, did not adequately contextualize the choices of the Nehru era against the world stage. Those were my key findings in my largely appreciated blog on Nehruvian era economics. 

So what do I mean when I say I am not a professional writer or a historian? I think I've said this quite often that people like Bogan take it too literally and I blame myself for being little casual with that confession. I don't earn my bread by being a writer. I'm more of a blogger who picks what fancies him at the moment and writes. The lines between a blogger and writer are getting blurred though. On the non-fiction side I can collect a decent set of my blogs and turn it into a very readable book and by the standards of non-fiction in Tamil it'd be miles ahead. But when I say I am not a professional writer or a historian I am thinking in terms of someone like Francis Fukuyama. If someone like me wrote a book on Nehru my comment would be, "he's not an academic or a professional". Nehru, just to pick a topic, needs to be badly updated. The last comprehensive biography of Nehru was published decades ago. Recent scholarship on Cold War and books focusing on Nehru era are unknown to many in Tamil Nadu. 

While I am not in the league of Fukuyama I can certainly steal a march over the run of the mill history professors in Tamil Nadu and many who dabble in non-fiction in Tamil Nadu. That's a low bar to clear. I'm quite confident in my ability to flesh out a perspective that'd be refreshing. Case in point is my recent article I wrote after coming across Jinnah's correspondences. Bogan is yet to produce anything that comes close in that genre. While he mocks that I am twice removed from humanities as a discipline he'd not know what the discipline itself is. He's more than welcome to say I cannot write poetry but when it comes to writing history he has no record beyond a few scrawls on Facebook. Another column that I am proud of is the one I wrote after perusing microfilms of US Consulate filings from India. That column addressed a popular rumor about Gandhi dispatching Bhulabhai Desai on a peacekeeping mission to Jinnah. While I'm humble enough to know I'm not Fukuyama I'm not into self-debasement to think Bogan can write better history than me. I know Bogan would flaunt a post of mine where I said he can write poetry as long as he leaves writing history to others, others meaning, not me. Again, when I said that I was referring to the legends and real professionals that I adore.

To be called a bigot one has to heap abuse on what one is not and be blind to any fault of what one believes in. I'm neither. I've written a highly critical blog on D.G.S. Dhinakaran, I've written Nehru's criticisms of the Church activities in India, written in 1940, are still relevant, I've been unsparingly critical of the Catholic Church's conduct on the sex abuse scandal (on Facebook posts) and even my post on papal visit had its fair share of criticism appropriate for that column. 

That said when Bogan lambasts the Church of being opposed to science implacably and impeding the progress of science I demur because it is indeed a fraught relationship between science and Christianity but it is a complex and layered one. Galileo, Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking are buried inside Churches as a mark of honor. The last two are buried at Westminster Abbey. Galileo is buried in the same Church as Michelangelo (he was buried elsewhere earlier but the Church later relented). Yes religious conservatives continue to challenge Theory of Evolution but in US, the Christian West, there are fantastic secular scientific establishments that wage court battles and put out fantastic books to defend evolution and debunk other bogus theories. 

On the other hand while Hinduism is not explicitly against science it is not uncommon, especially these days, to find Hindu dominated scientific institutions peddling cockamamie theories at Science conferences. When science and religion are seen as incompatible and one goes to war with another there's at least an element of honesty there. On the other hand playing a game of 'everything can be true' only engenders an intellectual complacency towards even understanding why religion and science are two different paradigms. It is not without reason that Fritjof Capra's 'Tao of Physics' remains a bestseller in India. 

Pointing out the above doth not make one a bigot. Similarly, Bogan tried to foist the complete blame for abolition of devadasi system on Christian missionary propaganda. I had dismantled that argument in an earlier blog. Bogan happily dishes out criticisms of one religion, in propagandistic manner, then when his errors are pointed he screams, 'Christian bigot'. Even if I was a Muslim I'd do the same.

One fine morning Bogan Sankar posted this, "J.C. Kumarappa's view on conversions and Christianity can be eye-brow raising. Kumarappa says the Church,too, is a military. Colonialism used conversions as a hidden tool to recruit for military (or military like). Usually people say Hinduism is not a religion. Kumarappa says Christianity is not a religion and that Christ did not start Christianity nor was he a member of it. J.C. Kumarappa's full name is Joseph Cornelius Kumarappa".

No wonder I commented "Kumarappa is an idiot". I then pointed him to read Rupa Viswanath's The Pariah problem" which explains how pariahs, as they were then called, demanded to be converted. Incidentally my recent readings on history of Church in India completely attests to what Viswanath said. Just because Kumarappa is Joseph Cornelius should we swallow his quote as wisdom? That was, I say it again, a patently idiotic remark. Those who know me know that on any given day on social media I'd have called something or the other stupid or idiotic. And they often truly are. Apparently Bogan tried to remind me of this in some other argument and I had denied calling J.C. Kumarappa an idiot. Some are under the impression that social media posts are research articles and that I should remember everything I've ever said. Bogan claims I ran away when he posted a screen shot of that exchange. I don't think there's anything in that to run away from. But here's the interesting part. Why did Bogan think that such a remark is ok to post? Why would I not point out that that's stupid.

I've several Hindu friends and relatives who'd post uncharitable DK style posts on days of Hindu festivals and I've reacted against that too. That's just who I am. I've wondered that most of my posts tend to be rebuttals or denials and I've figured out that perverting facts and intolerance irks and if I knew better facts I feel compelled to react.

As much as I call myself an American today and I consider Tamil more as my second language I attach no important to what is purely an accident of birth like religion. To call myself a Christian is an insult to the millions like my father who are indeed good god-fearing and church going Christians. Also to ignore my Hindu heritage is an insult to that part of the family too. And it is not Bogan Sankar's choice to impose an identity on me. I'm not calling him a Muslim or a Parsi. I don't think I've even called him a Hindu. 

If I can be critical of the papacy and televangelists I can jolly well be critical of Hinduism or any ism as for that matter. If I can be critical of Soviet Russia or America it is every bit my privilege to be critical of India. Even if I am uncritical of something and  partial to being critical of another that is still my prerogative and what'd still matter is my criticism is valid. Bogan Sankars of the world don't get to decide what I can criticize and cannot criticize. What anyone can demand is intellectual integrity and an honesty in discussion. That is what I owe a reader or a friend or an acquaintance. 

Another reason for me consistently saying 'I am not a historian' is because I've rejected many others for not being historians. Once I posted a photo of nearly all Time magazine issues that had Nehru on its cover. Bogan, as usual, came running to opine that Time magazine had featured Marilyn Monroe too on its cover. Then he cited Chester Bowles (whom he consistently referred to as Fowles), Ved Mehta and Kumarappa as those who paint an unflattering picture of Nehru or at least one that's less complimentary. I said Bowles was a diplomat and not historian and likewise Mehta was a journalist. Bogan replied that Bowles was a diplomat during 'watershed moments in Indian history". Bowles was a diplomat to India during November 1951- March 1953 and from May 1963- April 1969. As we can see his time overlapping Nehru was sparse. This is the kind of stupidity I've to contend with on a daily basis. And in that exchange I had asked if he had read any full length biography of Nehru. Of course he had not. It is this distinction that I continue to maintain and it is against this backdrop I inhibit from calling myself a historian.

Bigotry seeks not the best of what one is not. I'm an unabashed anglophile. That's another misunderstood remark. What I admire in the West is their intellectual approach, the universities and their books. It took a Jeyamohan column to help me learn that in India's philosophical tradition one philosopher refutes another by citing the previous work and subsuming it. He had cited how Sankara and Ramanuja wrote treatises on Gita. A notorious work on Gita that habitual haters of Hinduism love is "The other side of Gita" by K. Veeramani. I'll not touch it with a ten foot pole. I ridiculed a Hindu cousin for thinking that that's a work of scholarship. (I am citing the religious affiliations for obvious reasons. All my friends and relatives are just friends and relatives to me). After visiting the temple at Chidambaram I saw a book store in the vicinity and as usual stopped by. I came across a fantastic edition of Gita that included the expositions of Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva. Along with Gandhi's and Radhakrishnan's expositions on Gita this too is in my collection. I've my bundle of differences with Jeyamohan but I've learned from him and others too. I buy books based on recommendations from Facebook friends and Economist and NYT and TLS. What Subramanian Swamy does is true bigotry. I've heard him mock Arjuna for being confused about killing. 

While many wax eloquent about the Socratic tradition in Hinduism there's not much writing about the Socratic tradition in Indian Islam. That's what surprised me when I was reading about a public debate between a Muslim scholar and a Christian cleric. I did think of that perspective I gained from Jeyamohan and wondered "here too is such a tradition but one that's rarely spoken of". By the way don't blame me for not knowing about India's philosophic traditions. Blame the fact that India did not produce a Will Durant. Recently a Brahmin Hindutva bigot argued that Indian philosophy is not for all to learn. I was stupefied. Durant's book grew out of his lectures to lay men. If lay men can learn about Kant and Spinoza what makes an Indian think he cannot be taught Upanishads? We know the answer. 

Even when I seek a work that criticizes a person or an idea I am extremely careful that I don't pick works by rabble rousers or dabblers or of questionable agenda. When I pick a work the scholarship or motives of which are questionable I don't let myself forget that. On any given day one can lampoon Gandhi or Nehru or Hinduism with quotes from all sundry. But that's what Bogan does and one that I avoid, at least in a serious blog. 

I refuse to see complexity when the issue is black and white, like Nazism. I refuse to see black and white when the issue is complex like conversions or caste or Brahminism. That said, blogs are not full length books and they cannot flesh out a complete perspective. Since many that I write are in rebuttal mode it is too easy to say "if you are rebutting camp A then you must be in camp B". Sometimes it may be true and sometimes it may not be. Even when I was highly critical of how Brahmins turned Carnatic music into a caste fiefdom I happily conceded and pointed out that Pillais and Devadasis too were notoriously guarded in imparting their craft. In the same blog I had also pointed out that the charge of Brahmins denying education to all but themselves does not hold water. In both cases I cited facts and figures. 

A book of stellar scholarship that I recently read and one that moved me immensely by the sheer intellectual range and intellectual integrity of the author was a book by K.A. Nilakanta Sastry. I've quibbled with some parts of his works but I've the highest possible regard for the man and his integrity. While I was reading his 'Sourcebook on Indian history' a columnist who writes on Madras and its history, Niveditha Louis, posted a blurb on a recently published anthology of Sastry that, I felt, unfairly pilloried him as a person blinkered by caste prejudices. While I was commenting on her post and refuting that another person, a Hindu, piously said that there should be no holy cows. Then the good journalist blocked me. After that, having finished reading the book, I wrote a blog and recounted this strange incident of me, of all people, having to defend a Indian historian to a Christian.

If I 've to cite one or two books that best illustrate what I love, cherish and try to be one would be Will Durant's 'Story of Philosophy' and another would be Enrico Coen's "Cells to Civilization: The Principles of Change that Shape Life". Science, besides history, fascinates me endlessly. It is another area where Bogan and I violently disagreed. He's an unrelenting critic of modern medicine and I'm its unyielding advocate. Coen takes a Cezanne painting, explains why the artist left an imperfection as is and then connects it to an explanation of the complex mechanism of how we breathe. THAT is precisely what excites me. That is also why I love connecting the dots. Of course one should have a sound reasoning and factual basis for the connection to be an acceptable one. This is why I refuted Kumarappa so harshly.  

No, I am not recounting these to burnish my credentials or even to remotely apologize for what I am. I first thought of brushing aside Bogan's innuendo, a plain mud slinging that he resorted to because his quiver had no arrows, but ruminating on the topic made me think it provides me an opportunity to write on what motivates me.

I told Bogan that he needs to learn English because his rebuttals consistently showed his comprehension was incorrect and I was being charitable in ascribing the cause as unfamiliarity with a language. I don't know French or any language besides English and Tamil. When I re-read Bogan's remarks on Nehru, that he wrote in English, I found that I was indeed correct. A confession. I am indeed not at all proud about the grammatical mistakes that plague my Tamil writing. It is not even flippancy. I apologize to all my Tamil readers.

None of the above should be construed that I never make mistakes or probably free of biases. Many tend to take my Facebook posts too seriously. Please don't. They're instantaneous reactions akin to a conversation near a water cooler with a colleague amidst a busy day. Many of my posts actually come amidst a busy work day and they carry that flavor. Even the blogs will have mistakes. By the time I finish writing I rarely go back and edit. I am just plain tired and I want to get it over with. Like now. But most of my blogs are written after due deliberation and weeks of researches that include hurried buying of books on Amazon or a run to Princeton University library. Yet there may still be mistakes. 

A principle weakness of mine is an insatiably curious minds that literally loves every topic. While that has its advantages it also could mean I am yet to form a systematic study of a single topic and formulate a systemic idea. That is another reason why I consistently say I am not a professional historian. 

The journey so far has been interesting. I've lost friends and relationships, like the cousins who set me on this path, and I've gained friends and relationships. I'm sure I'll lose some friends when I publish my long overdue blog on Christianity and Carnatic Music and I may win some and I may convince some. I'm sure some will rally to Bogan's side and yell 'bigot' and I am sure some wold say "difficult to agree with all but he has raised interesting issues". I can only guarantee that I think of neither when I write. I write what I think as valid perspectives formed after reasonable due diligence that a blogger can do and offer what I think of as perspectives that merit attention. 

When a friend tells me, "Aravindan I've learned to respect Nehru thanks to you" I consider that the years have not been spent in vain. I'll continue to plod on.

Two other key motivations to write are, one, it is cathartic and two it really helps me formulate an opinion. In this blog both were, more than anything else, to key drivers. This blog is less to honor a baseless silly charge with a refutation and more out of a desire for catharsis and reflection.

PS: I decided its unnecessary to post screenshots and references to my earlier blogs. And this blog is one where I just decided to post without going over the content once again. Too tired with too much going on. 

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