Saturday, December 17, 2016

A.R. Venkatachalapathy on Jayalalitha and Cho: A Dilettante and Partisan Hack as Historian

A.R. Venkatachalapathy calls himself a historian and has succeeded, perhaps, beyond his own fertile imagination, in making others believe in what must have started as charade or an exercise in self-deception. Chalapathy, as he is popularly known, recently wrote obituaries for Jayalalitha and Cho Ramaswamy that are admirably mediocre and should be used to teach generations of students how not to write. Responding to a similar comment I made on Facebook a friend asked, rather challenged, that I explain my reasons for saying so. So here goes. Read further at your own peril.

Quotes from Chalapathy's articles will be in italics followed by comments.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy

Chalapathy the DMK Stooge on Jaya

"In contrast to her mentor M.G.Ramachandran (MGR), who attracted a bevy of talent disillusioned with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) under M.Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa shuffled party hierarchy with the quickness of a child bored with her toys"

Chalapathy, alluding to a story of a Greek king, says that Jaya ensured, by actively cutting down anyone capable of attaining a stature, that she left behind "the mediocre and average".

Only a partisan DMK stooge can write such nonsense and in the process pervert history. First, if the 'bevy of talent' were disillusioned with DMK and were looking to desert where is the question of MGR 'attracting' them. MGR's ADMK just became a home for the deserters of DMK. That MGR too mercilessly cut anyone who sought to rise was forgotten by Chalapathy. Also, MGR, despite the 'bevy of talent' he had attracted, sought to promote his yesteryear heroine thus effectively belittling the so called stalwarts is completely lost in the eyes of a hack posing as historian. Sexism, perhaps?

"First among unequals"

Only Chalapathy who is ill at ease with English will turn the phrase "First among equals", a rhetorical flourish that's often used to illustrate how someone outdid his peers of equal standing, to "first among unequals".

Chalapathy refers to Jayalalitha being conferred the title of "permanent general secretary" and contrasts it with DMK's practice of holding elections for the posts of district secretaries. This sleight of hand is unnaturally intelligent of Chalapathy. In the DMK too Karunanidhi has never been challenged for the post of leadership he holds. When was the last time anyone challenged M.K. Stalin's post in an intra-party election? I mean, seriously.

"While her political opponents fumbled to rationalize their decision, Jayalalithaa could switch positions without batting an eyelid"

Annathurai dropped atheism and separatism as a principle in order to contest elections and he did so with little effort. Karunanidhi shamed a circus acrobat in doing somersaults on his political positions including an alliance with the leader of a party whose actions had resulted in his own son being imprisoned. Ramadoss changed alliance partners willy-nilly for every election. Overnight DMK hitched its wagon to BJP when Jaya had pulled the rug from under the Vajpayee government. The Tamil voter and party worker rarely bothers with "rationalization" in a political climate that everyone understands is a naked pursuit of power at all costs and principles or positions can be discarded like used underwear.

"That Jayalalitha belonged to a caste with a numerical minority gave her a liminal position; she could win support across castes and communities"

The author who calls himself a historian deserves a vitriolic tongue lashing for such a stupid statement. The sentence compresses within itself a significant political happening that is torn of a complex context. Jayalalitha, a Brahmin and a woman at that, rose to political prominence in a state that had marginalized, with great hate and genocidal instinct, Brahmins from the portals of power. Jayalalitha courted few dominant middle castes assiduously and thanks to the caste connections of the coterie she surrounded herself with she achieved it. Also, it should be remembered that the DMK did its part in alienating some castes while pandering to few others. By the way what's that silly usage of the word 'liminal'? Maybe Chalapathy was playing scrabble and had learned it the previous night.

"When she divested the respected Ayyaru Vandayar of his ministership within weeks, nobody even noticed"

As one who hails from Tanjore I know a bit of that story. Ayyaru Vandayar, a local rich man and a Congress party member, joined the ADMK and was surprisingly given a seat to contest. Vandayar had no popular base in the town or the party. He was, sadly, a nobody and no wonder nobody took notice when he was unceremoniously ousted from the ministry. Again, the historian stands exposed as nothing more than a partisan hack.

"At this moment the biggest asset is the twin leaves symbol. Any force that wants to inherit Jayalalithaa's mantle would have to retain this goose that has a history of laying golden eggs"

Sigh. A person who is labeled "historian of the Dravidian movement" should be ashamed of writing such shoddy language and abysmal narration of the arc of history. Yes, party symbols are very important and the voters have emotional relationship to symbols. But, that's not the entire story. The symbol was, truth be told, was not a golden egg laying goose. ADMK and DMK alternated in winning elections for many reasons. If defeat and victory alternated with sickening regularity then how can a factor be called a golden egg laying goose. A goose would've better sense of history.

"In the drama that unfolds, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may not exactly be the Prince of Denmark".

OK. Chalapathy probably read Shakespeare's play as comics or heard 'Hamlet' narrated as bed time story and wanted to stick in the ill fitting metaphor some place to flaunt his language skills. Alas the reader gets the opposite idea.

"Will the AIADMK implode? if yes, when and how? if not, why?

In an oped titled "The AIADMK after Amma" if the author concludes with those questions what can one say? After having wasted words he concludes by saying he's clueless and just leaves  the reader with the questions that were supposed to have been answered by the article.

Misreading and misrepresenting Cho Ramaswamy:

"The end came barely a day after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa's death is coincidental- he had been in and out of hospital for a year now- but perhaps apposite"

What kind of a person opens an obituary by terming a death as 'coincidental', connecting the person with the death of friend a day before, and rubs it in further by calling it "apposite". Moron. So, why does this dilettante calls Cho's death "apposite" for having followed the death of Jayalalithaa? Chalapathy suggests that Cho, seeing the "prominence accorded" to the Sasikala family at the funeral must "have broken his heart". Barbaric. This guy is a shame to anyone who calls himself or herself a historian.

"Cho articulated the elite distrust of democratic politics, especially the Dravidian movement"

Here Chalapathy forgets that Cho had no illusion of himself being elitist and distrust of Dravidian politics was more broad based than it is remembered today. Chalapathy plays a subtle game here by ascribing elitism to Cho because Cho was a Brahmin. This caters to stereotypes and of course a DMK stooge would gladly traffic in such rubbish.

"Cho demonstrated little awareness of the modern theater in, say, Kannada, Marathi, Bengali, or Hindi"

Cho staged, as Chalapathy himself says, amateur stage drama. He was not a playwright in the literary sense. That Cho staged a Tamil version of Pygmalion does not make him a Bernard Shaw and there's no evidence that Cho "fancied himself to be a Bernard Shaw". Cho, if anything, had no pretensions about such things. He had enough self awareness to know that he was nowhere near Shaw. But I guess to a guy who hallucinates he's a "historian of the Dravidian movement" and worships the Dravidian party leaders who share his zeal for hallucinations about their literary genius it is natural to think others might be so too.

"A conference in Salem against superstition where tableaus depicted scenes from the Hindu puranas"

Chalapathy is referring to E.V.Ramasamy led conference that controversially featured not just "tableaus" depicting "scenes from the Hindus puranas" but carried portrait of Lord Rama garlanded with slippers. (Though this account is now disputed it is doesn't mean that the Hindu gods and mythic lore were referred in any laudatory manner). EVR and DK in the name of countering superstition aimed vulgar barbs at Hinduism and it was never their practice to be honorable. But the partisan hack tries to pull the wool over the eyes of the reader. Historian. My foot.

Seeking to present the reader with a list of Cho's spectrum of reactionary ideologies Chalapathy in ill contracted paragraphs pummels the reader.

Chalapathy chides Cho for lacking C.Rajagopalachari's "refinement and wider vision" when writing about "Hindu view of life" and retelling the Mahabharata". Jeyakanthan, who certainly knows literature far better than Chalapathy ever would, once ridiculed how Rajaji was being promoted as a litterateur. Brahmins miffed at the Dravidian party presenting charlatans like Annathurai and Karunanidhi promoted Kalki and Rajaji who shone by contrast and not by absolute value.

"Thuglaq articulated the anxieties and insecurity of conservative, middle-class Brahmins threatened by the new political culture and turned them into reactionaries"

It is laughable to suggest that it was Cho's rag sheet that turned a famously fossilized community into reactionaries. The Dravidian movement's biggest complaint that Brahmins were reactionaries. Brahmins needed no encouragement to become reactionaries. While Cho's magazine, especially after the ascendancy of BJP in the 90s, pandered to the reactionary sections of the Brahmin community it spoke to little else that caused their 'anxieties' or 'insecurities' in a political climate that was avowedly inimical towards them.

"He delighted with sharp and convenient quotes in English, endearing himself to Delhi journalists already biased against the inscrutable Dravidian politics"

There was nothing inscrutable about Dravidian politics and to ascribe the animosity of North Indian journalists to that is silly and, yet again, illustrates the shallowness of Chalapathy. Dravidian politics espoused militant separatism and strident opposition to the concentration of political power in the cow belt of North India. There was no love lost between the North Indian power centers and Dravidian politicians. Incidentally Chalapathy's idol Annathurai was a member of parliament and spoke English pretty well. It was not lack of speakers in English that contributed to or created the gulf between Delhi journalists and Dravidian politicians.

"Despite being an extraordinarily intelligent man, Cho never indulged in sustained argument, his aim being to flatter or stoke prejudice rather than change minds"

If Cho "never indulged in sustained argument" how did Chalapathy arrive at the conclusion that Cho was an "extraordinarily intelligent man"? Personal knowledge, perhaps? Lacking factual basis Chalapathy decorates his unsubstantiated claim with conjecturing of Cho's motives.

Chalapathy's article about Jayakanthan is another one that illustrates his lack of credentials as a writer and historian. Just a couple of examples below.

"Dandapani Jayakanthan, 71, was pushing forty when he received the Sahitya Akademi award"

Jeyakanthan was 38 when he received the award. "Pushing forty" is an uncouth phrasing to refer to a highly respected literary writer in an article that was to celebrate his winning the highest accolade in Indian literature.

"Once even took on Periyar E.V. Ramasamy who smilingly acknowledged the young man's diatribe"

The 'diatribe' that Chalapathy refers here is a speech by Jeyakanthan delivered to rebut what E.V. Ramasamy had earlier spoken of as duties of a Tamil writer. The speech, reproduced in Jeyakanthan's memoirs, is extremely respectful and is artful rebuttal of a writer. To characterize that speech as 'diatribe' only shows that the author has no felicity with choosing words or simply doesn't know what words mean.

Many would call the above as nitpicking but we've to remember that this is a man who is now invited by UC Berkley and interviewed by New York Times as 'historian'. To them, I guess, this is best that can come out of Tamil Nadu today and they're happy to use him as the face of Tamil Nadu. It is extremely unfortunate that a man who is unworthy of either being called a writer or a historian is often referred as one such. If by writer we mean one who uses words and if by historian we mean one who writes about the past, as in about yesterday, then yes Chalapathy is a writer and a historian.

Having written this I glance at my bookshelf that has books by Barbara Tuchman, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Richard Hofstadter, Romila Thapar and others and I let out a sigh. Maybe I should send Chalapathy a list of books he could start reading before he wrote again. A good dictionary and some classes in English literature may do him so good too. 

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