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'

1 comment:

Unknown said...

In an otherwise balanced article the snide aside on Swarajya is as unbecoming as unnecessary!