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Full Spectrum Sexism: India’s Problem Isn’t Just Rape

As chilling as the rape in 2012 of Nirbhaya are the opinions of the lawyers of the convicted rapists. You can hear these opinions in the banned BBC documentary India’s Daughter. That doesn’t mean words spoken by ostensibly educated men who should know better—one lawyer declares he would set his own sister or daughter on fire if she were to engage in premarital sex—are equivalent to a horrific collective act of rape that resulted in unspeakable physical trauma to the body of the woman and, eventually, murder. One (rape) is as chilling as the other (expression of opinions) not because the two are equivalent in intention or in effect but because each reveals in its own way the depth of India’s problem.

India’s problem with sexism can’t be reduced just to rape; India’s sexism is far more wide-ranging and pervasive, seeping into the most ordinary of acts, in which men routinely belittle women in myriad ways or else, equally problematic, idealize them away into passive nonexistence. As the bizarre political posturing on India’s Daughter showed, shock at the rape of Nirbhaya is not incompatible with patronizing attitudes towards women (some male commentators, for example, declared that they did not need the BBC to protect “their” women, they could do it themselves). Some men just don’t seem to get it—rape is not an isolated social phenomenon separate from the ways in which they themselves relate to women. No, most men are not rapists, but neither are they not part of the problem. Are you a man who considers himself entitled to have his morning cup of coffee brought to him by a woman (your mother, your wife, your sister)? You are part of the problem.

India was always like this, but it wasn’t always exactly like this. I don’t suppose there is any period within memory that India was not patriarchal; still, we err if we think the present is always better than the past. Last week there was news of an attack on Puthiya Thalaimurai, a Tamil television station that had prepared a program debating the pros and cons of some women choosing not to wear the traditional “wedding necklace” (thaali). The program was cancelled when Hindu extremist groups objected and set off a bomb at the television studio in Chennai. When I read the news report, I was reminded of a scene from Komal Swaminathan’s great 1980 Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer in which the female protagonist rips her thaali from her neck and throws it in her husband’s face to denounce him. Thaneer, Thaneer was a tremendous hit and played on stage for years. It was indeed controversial, but not for this scene in which a married woman discarded her thaali (the controversy concerned its ostensible Marxist-Leninist perspective). Now, we cannot even debate the thaali. Compared to 1980, what exactly is our “progress”?

To be blunt, contemporary India has a problem with women. I suppose it is necessary that I try to inoculate this blog against imbecilic attacks by noting (1) that the same could be said about every other country in the world, including the US where I have lived for a good portion of my life (the nature of the problem might differ but not the fact of its occurrence); and (2) that there are many aspects of Indian culture and the Indian present as well as past worth preserving and recovering for their potentiality to fight discrimination against women. These qualifications notwithstanding, the matter is simple: contemporary India has a problem.

There is no point in sticking your head in the sand about this: India suffers from full spectrum sexism. The phrase “full spectrum” originates in military doctrine and is used to describe a complete and comprehensive dominance over the enemy through every means available. It seems to me an appropriate term with which to characterize contemporary India’s problem with women—not the reality of Indian women, for after all women (and some men) through many deliberate as well as covert acts do get in the way of the achievement of a full spectrum sexism. I mean the phrase to identify patriarchal intention rather than reality.

Full spectrum sexism—that is India’s problem, and things won’t change until we understand and confront all that this phrase means.

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Karl Marx/Winston Churchill/London in 2015

Karl Marx: The memorial to Karl Marx is a bust at his gravesite in Highgate Cemetery in North London, far from the madding crowds of Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. If you visit, you will find flowers, candles, perhaps three or four visitors lingering around the statue. This is the way London remembers a man who profoundly affected recent world history. The victors write history, it is said. Surely, London is the creation of the victorious British bourgeois class that so impressed Marx, though he was no friend of it. Why would London support a grand memorial to Marx?

On the other hand, looked at in another way, it is fitting that Marx’s memorial is so modest. Imagine a towering, grand edifice built to commemorate a man who, in all his immense personal ambition, still aimed to undo the Great Man view of history—the Ayn Rand notion that history is made by and is the story of Great Men. It is good that there is a memorial to Marx, and just as well that it is a modest one.

Winston Churchill: Churchill is a Great Man, at least to the British elite. Witness the recent celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his funeral. He is everything that Marx is not. British bulldog. Nationalist icon. Wartime savior of Europe. Arch-imperialist. Racist. Failed defender of empire—did he not in his own lifetime watch the Empire slip out of British grasp?

London is his city. And it’s not. For every solemn notation on tourist maps of shrines to the man who called Africans “savages” and sent millions of Indians to their death to save Europe (see: Bengal famine), there is a black or Indian Briton whose very presence in the streets of London is a kind of repudiation of Churchill.

London in 2015: Where is London’s Lincoln Memorial? Where is its Raj Ghat? Architecture is not just visual—it is not just some structure that you gaze at from a distance. Rather you experience architecture tangibly. You touch it, feel it, walk through it. Even in 2015, London assaults you at every turn with its architecture of war (Trafalgar Square), torture (Tower of London), pillage (British Museum) and privilege (Buckingham Palace). London manhandles you with its buildings.

Then again, tear away your eyes from the buildings and consider the ordinary people beneath the extraordinary architecture. Consider the languages on the tube, the foods on offer in the restaurants, the local cultures on display on the television channels. A different—global—city emerges. A post-imperial city, with all the contradictions implied. Not necessarily the city of Marx, but nor so obviously the city of Churchill.

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Time for Class Warfare on College Campuses: How the Managerial Class is Taking Over the Public University And Why We Have to Stop It

What good is a university if it doesn’t educate students?

Strange question? Not in the ever more bizarre world of the American public university.

Don’t get me wrong: many American public universities still do a great job of educating students, but creeping rot is indubitably here (including at my own university). The worrisome trends are plain to see. Higher education is being defunded, the university is being corporatized. Universities are being driven ever further from their core mission of educating the future citizenry.

Full disclosure: I’ve got skin in the game. After all, I’ve worked in an American public university for more than half my life. In that time, I’ve watched the developing crisis up close.

The two most commonly cited causes of the crisis are ever decreasing allocations from state legislatures and ever increasing costs of facilities and services. No doubt, these causes are real. Less frequently mentioned, however, is the equally real runaway corporatization of the university.

The perception has steadily gained ground in the last couple of decades that a public university should be run like a private corporation, rather than treated as a common good in which citizens invest for the well being of the society we all live in. As if private corporations—the same polluting, gouging, hierarchical, non-accountable private corporations that have presided over and enabled an enormous transfer of wealth to the already wealthy in the last few decades—are such great models of spreading benefits to society at large! (For a critical analysis of the private corporation, see: Cultural Critique and the Global Corporation, ed. Purnima Bose and Laura Lyons, Indian UP, 2010.)

It’s not hard to see how corporatization creates and adds to the crisis of defunding. Who really benefits from corporatization, after all? Certainly not students, whose tuitions have gone up year after year, who are piling up debt, and who are being offered distance learning and online classes in place of classrooms. And certainly not permanent faculty, whose numbers have dwindled year after year, to be replaced by super-exploited adjunct labor.

No, think of corporatization this way: it is the redirection of funds to an ever larger and ever more well rewarded managerial class of administrators and their cronies outside the university. This class knows nothing about a classroom, which is at best a distant memory and at worst alien territory (students? what students? we manage clients!). No wonder resources for students and faculty are scarce.

The American university today is a crime scene. The perpetrators of the crime are the heedless members of a managerial class in cahoots with naked business interests outside the university. And the crime? Nothing less than a callous disregard for the dreams and hopes of students, many from difficult backgrounds. Sadly, my own university is not exempt—it too is witness to the slow murder of real education by corporatization and cronyism. (See http://fixuhmanoa.wordpress.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/IMuaManoa.)

We need to save the university from the managerial class. It’s time for class warfare on college campuses.

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My Playlist, with Annotations and YouTube Links (The Music of the World is on My IPod, But There Is No World Music)

Here are five representative tracks from my iPod (with YouTube links):

1. Harris Jayaraj, Vaseegara

Everybody knows A. R. Rehman (of Slumdog Millionaire infamy) but Harris Jayaraj is another master of contemporary Tamil film music—soulful and super melodious. Another track of his I could have listed as a favorite is June Ponaal from Unnaale. (If you follow the link, try to ignore the video.)

2. V. Doreswamy Iyengar, Dasara Pada: Pogaadirelo Ranga (Raagam: Shankarabharanam)

The music of my childhood. Classical South Indian music. Idli, sambhar, and coconut trees. Except that the purity of sound produced by Doreswamy Iyengar’s veena defies all cliché.

3. Cheikh Lo, Né la Thiass

Senegalese music with cross-Atlantic touches of jazz and blues. The Black Atlantic sounded out in musical notes. Years ago, I heard Cheikh Lo in Dakar in a club owned by Youssou N’dour. The performance started at 11 PM and ended long past midnight. Wondrous.

4. Bob Marley, No Woman No Cry

Enough said.

5. The Byrds, Mr. Tambournine Man

If ever a cover could rival an original, this one does. A sunny and deceptively naïve rendition by the Byrds of a Bob Dylan classic. Marriage of American moods with the imported sounds of Swinging London that becomes a complete reimagination.

So there they are; but, should I want to, how should I classify them? Perhaps the only truly discernible pattern of my playlist is a highly personal one—one that reflects my personal biography and tastes—but what if I (or you) wanted to look for meaning beyond the idiosyncrasies of the personal?

We like to make comparisons, to look for patterns, to discern design. There is no avoiding this impulse, for it might very well be that all knowing is pattern recognition (though I will leave the final word regarding this to cognitive psychologists). It might, then, be tempting to call (some of) the tracks on the list World Music—as in the section of a music store all the way at the back in which you might find the first three artistes, for example.

Let’s not. World Music, perhaps even more than the similar sounding World Literature, is a sales gimmick—a classification through which music corporations set out to create a market for music that does not in their opinion easily fit into popular existing categories. The challenge for us—as opposed to the corporations—has always been to find ways to talk about the world without reducing it to formula. The world is not formula. Certainly, I have the music of the world on my iPod, but there is no World Music, a designation as absurd as World Literature (about the indubitable absurdity of which I have written at length elsewhere).

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A Happy Atheistic Deepavali (aka Diwali) to Each and Every One of You!

I’m an atheist. There was a time—a green adolescent time of stumbling discovery—when because of my atheism I refused to enter temples, choosing rather to wait outside while my family disappeared inside for a while. I remember very well an old and beautiful temple in Thirunelveli, quiet and dignified and redolent with the incense smoke of centuries. To the shock of relatives we were visiting I refused to enter it. Later, there were arguments about superstition and casteism and the dead weight of tradition that seemed—and actually were—urgent and unavoidable to me and my emergent atheism.

There was a time when I refused religious festivals too. I grew up with the annual wonder of Deepavali (which this year falls in the middle of next week). Waking up early; oil bath in the dark of pre-dawn to “cool” your body; new clothes; firecrackers; playing cards; endless feasting through the day; visiting friends and relatives. Festive sociality. Escape from routine. All this I gave up at a certain point. How can an atheist, I thought to myself, celebrate Deepavali?

I am different now. I enter temples. And in my own way I mark Deepavali. I understand now that people do not live by reason alone and that great things can sometimes be found hidden in (oppressive) tradition, including temples and festivals. I have learned the reverse of Walter Benjamin’s great dictum that a document of civilization is also a document of barbarism: I know now that many (certainly not all) examples of barbarism and oppression also have suppressed within them their own negation, their own more optimistic opposite. Mined in the right way they might very well be made to yield up egalitarian nuggets from within their dark barbaric depths.

And so, in that spirit, I wish each and every one of you (an advance) happy atheistic Deepavali. After all, the core of Deepavali, unlike many other Hindu festivals, is not caste-ridden ritual but sociality—the celebration of community, of relationships of friendship and kinship. The variety of stories associated with Deepavali shows that the festival has its origins as much in the folk and “lower” caste “little” traditions of India as the classical and “upper” caste great ones. What, then, is to stop us from taking the festival, with its festive lights and firecrackers and food and bonhomie, and making of it not a celebration of Rama or Krishna (as often done) but of our idea of community, of our notion of our connection to each other as human beings?

Yes, a very happy atheistic Deepavali to each and every one of you!

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Srinivasa Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy: Notes on the 100th Anniversary of their Friendship at the Height of Empire

Sometimes communion is harder to parse than antagonism. What leads people to take risks and violate taboos to express solidarity and friendship? This is a central question for E. M. Forster in Passage to India, which I am teaching right now. It is also the central question in the fascinating real-life story of the friendship between the British mathematician G. H. Hardy and his Indian counterpart Srinivasa Ramanujan, who went to England to collaborate with Hardy a few short years before Forster wrote Passage to India. (An Indian film about Ramanujan in Tamil and English has been released this year to mixed reviews.)

Srinivasa Ramanujan was, I am told, one of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century—I have no expertise in mathematics, and so I rely on the testimony of others here. But, mathematics aside, how do we evaluate the personal dimension—not to be understood as separate from the ideological—in Ramanujan’s relationship with Hardy? For five years following his arrival in England in 1914, Ramanujan formed an unlikely friendship with Hardy—one that Hardy called “the one romantic incident in my life.” Against all odds in that great age of empire and racism, Ramanujan and Hardy, so different in backgrounds, managed to regard each other with respect.

It might be tempting to conclude that in the Ramanujan-Hardy episode we have evidence of the objectivity of science—of the capacity of scientists to recognize worth regardless of background. But Hardy was not the first British mathematician to whom Ramanujan wrote. E. W. Hobson and H. F. Baker, also renowned Oxbridge mathematicians, had already rejected Ramanujan by the time Ramanujan’s famous letter introducing himself reached Hardy. Ramanujan’s biographer Robert Kanigel recounts too the prejudice that got in the way of Ramanujan’s success once he was in Cambridge.

How then do we account for the Ramanujan-Hardy relationship, so contrary to its times? Kanigel in his biography emphasizes how much at a tangent Hardy’s character was to the mainstream. He was a militant atheist, a pacifist, possibly homosexual, who routinely espoused sympathy for unions and labor agitations. In short, Hardy was all at the same time a feted insider to British privilege and a queer fellow at the margins of this privilege. Is it that privilege enabled his successful advocacy of Ramanujan, while queerness impelled him to attempt the advocacy in the first place? And what about Ramanujan? Was there anything more than ambition in the way he searched out Hardy and formed a friendship with him? We can only speculate about some of this. The paucity of the archive when it comes to Ramanujan ensures that some of the answers in the Ramanujan-Hardy relationship will never be known to us.

Because of trends in scholarship since Edward Said’s Orientalism (published in 1978), we know much about the antagonisms of colonialism. But what of the unlikely and romantic—to echo Hardy’s language—solidarities? A fuller understanding of how these came to be sustained despite contrary ideological currents remains an ongoing scholarly project, one that presents us with the knotty theoretical problem of having to read against, and often without, the public record. History is not only little help in this regard, it is a formidable obstacle.

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The Literature and Politics of Shit (Shit Does Not Happen, It Is Allowed to Happen)

I

This might be the blog post nobody reads. Who wants to read about shit? (Yes, I too am wrinkling my nose.) But for reasons mentioned in this important Human Rights Watch report prepared by researcher Shikha Bhattacharjee there is no getting away from writing about it, especially now: http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/25/india-caste-forced-clean-human-waste.

There is no getting away from shit, period. It is the most human of things, and also the most inhuman.

II

I can remember visits as a child to the home of relatives in Thirunelveli in South India during which the inhumanity of shit in all its domesticated ordinariness was illustrated for me through a toilet. The toilet in this old and rambling house was an outhouse in the back, open to the sky and without a door. When in use, a chombu of water placed strategically on a wall was warning enough to await your turn. Inside was a long dry trough I remember well, only too well. It was cleaned manually by a scavenger (you should not have to ask me about this person’s social status), who daily came early in the morning before anyone in the house had need to go.

What does it mean that I remember this outhouse so vividly decades later? Let us just say that on my visits I woke up as early as I could.

III

This very outhouse makes a brief appearance in my last novel No End to the Journey, which is set in a similar village. But the most famous Indian novel in English about shit and manual scavenging is of course Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, written nearly eighty years ago. In that novel, Anand, writing in the midst of the Indian nationalist movement, depicts the life of Bakha, an “untouchable” boy who is a manual scavenger. Towards the end of the novel, Anand has Bakha imagine the flush toilet as the utopian solution to his life of degradation. Technology, Bakha imagines, will free him from a desperate profession through which the untouchability of shit is reconstituted as the untouchability of his body and identity. Eighty years later, and manual scavenging still goes on in India. The technological solutions exist, as do the financial resources; still the horror of manual scavenging has not ended.

The simple truth about shit is that it doesn’t just happen, it is allowed to happen. Read the Human Rights Watch report.

IV

Some of my fellow Indians have no doubt begun to groan by now. They are thinking: One more bit of writing on shit in India! Hasn’t V. S. Naipaul done this already? Haven’t we had enough?

No, we haven’t—not as long as the outrage of manual scavenging exists. I’m no Naipaul. Long ago I wrote critically about him for his silly and ignorant declamations about shit and India. I am not about to join his camp. There are many things of which we Indians should justly be proud. I have written about some of them in earlier posts. Manual scavenging, however, is not one of them.

V

Manual scavenging is shameful, but the shame of it sticks to us (Indian and non-Indian, frankly) rather than the scavengers. Thank you, dear reader, for getting to the end of this post even if only with wrinkled nose.

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Who cares about Palestine? (The Magical Arithmetic of Moral Imagination)

I do, and so should you.

The dividers of humanity will say: what is Palestine to you? You are not Palestinian, or an Israeli. You are from India and live in Hawai’i.

They will say: why don’t you care about the undocumented Central American children being rounded up on the US-Mexican border?

They will say: why don’t you write about the Dalit girls raped in the villages of India?

I do, and I have, and I will. I do care about those children and girls, and so should you.

But does that mean I can’t care about Palestinians today?

I’m talking about moral imagination, you understand. I know there are only so many hours in the day, and so many days in a week. Everyone can’t do everything. I get that. But how much time does it really take to expand your moral imaginative capacity (a good starting place)?

Here’s the crux of the matter. Most things in the world get smaller when you divide them. Money, land, water, oil. These get smaller when you spread them out amongst many people. That’s the tragedy—the war, the political economy, if you get my drift—of the world.

And then there is the call of moral imagination—which is in its own way a magical kind of answer to the tragedy and the war and the political economy. Do you really think if you divided your capacity for caring between two things rather than showering it on one you would care less? Do you really think your compassion for others would shrivel if you cared for the homeless and terrorized in Gaza? That it will now be impossible for you to be moved when you read Primo Levi or Anne Frank? (I am moved when I read them, and so should you.)

Here’s the crux of the matter. Most things in the world get smaller when you spread them out, when you divide them. But some things get bigger. That’s the magic: sometimes division multiplies! And then it multiplies you too in all the right, the magical, ways.

What does it matter if I am not a Palestinian or an Israeli? What does it matter where I am from, or where I live?

I care about what is happening in Palestine, and so, magically, should you.

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Teaching and Learning from Nadine Gordimer

Inarguably, Nadine Gordimer, who died recently, is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. She is not an easy writer to read. I should know since I teach her books often. Most of my students, undergraduate and graduate, have to be taught to appreciate novels like Burger’s Daughter—brilliant, dense, formally and politically challenging novels that demand the reader work to comprehend (for in Gordimer comprehending cannot be separated from working).

Gordimer, to my mind, is a writer’s writer. You could do worse than read her to learn the craft of writing. No doubt, in the school of Gordimer you would not learn “workshop” prose—none of that apolitical realism written in smooth prose taught in creative writing workshops. Alongside stunning feats of technical virtuosity, you would find a certain kind of didacticism. You would learn about being didactic in all the right ways, in ways we have ceased to expect of our “literary fiction,” which we have exiled to professionalized creative writing programs.

Gordimer’s unfamiliar marriage of ethics and aesthetics, earnestness and nuance, is part of her toughness. In Gordimer, didacticism is not the enemy of art. On the contrary, unlike the bad variety, Gordimer’s didacticism is internal to her aesthetic vision. I think this is what she means when she says in interviews that her writing took her to politics rather than the other way round. If your artistic vision helps you produce richly imagined political characters or, for that matter, apolitical characters confronted by deeply political situations, politics will necessarily enter your novel. And then you as a novelist have no need to be didactic, for your characters are didactic for you. This is what I try to get my students to see with a novel like July’s People, beginning with that didactic epigraph from the great Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci.

Gordimer often said that she did not set out to be political. Rather, politics entered her work because of the nature of her preeminent subject matter—life in apartheid South Africa. She is an unusual postcolonial writer—a white writer fully deserving of the term. This too provides great opportunities in the classroom. It is instructive to teach her alongside her peers Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ousmane Sembene—extraordinary African contemporaries who too in very different ways struggle with the tension between art and politics.

Wherever the art of the word is honored as a challenging and deeply ethical practice, Nadine Gordimer will continue to be read.

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Learning Soccer in Nigeria: Reflections, Prompted by the World Cup, on the Beauty and the Morality of Sports

I learned my soccer in Nigeria, at St. Gregory’s, the school I attended in Lagos in the 1970s. I remember one game in particular in which I scored from a half-back position, bursting uncharacteristically through opposing defensive lines to score a goal. It was an exhilarating moment of pure physical exertion. As the teams trudged back to their respective halves for kick-off, a rival player ran up and demanded, “What? You’re scoring nuclear goals now?” It was only after the game that I found out India had detonated an atomic device at Pokhran, thereby announcing its nuclear ambitions to the world. My Nigerian schoolmate, clearly more aware of world news, was alluding to this event in his irate challenge to me.

I confess I later, oblivious to the immorality of nuclear weaponization, swelled with pride at this acknowledgement of my prowess on the field. I was a postcolonial Indian boy in postcolonial Nigeria, not at all a simple thing to be, united with as well as separated from my Nigerian schoolmate in myriad ways by a global colonial history (subject for a future blog). Let us just say that the encounter on that Nigerian soccer field was overdetermined.

By now, you might be thinking I want to draw conclusions about sports and geopolitics but, no, this is a blog that heads in another direction. We know the intimate links sports has with identity—the ways in which, for example, nationalistic decolonizing movements were and are intertwined with sports. Global sports events, such as the cricket or soccer world cups, can hardly be free of these entanglements—indeed, they might very well be primary modes of establishing and advancing identitarian claims.

We know all this. As the soccer world cup in Brazil concludes, as a fan I want to ask rather about the converse—about what might be called the aesthetics of sports. What does it take to isolate the utter beauty of a great sporting event from its political connotations? What does it take to isolate my enjoyment of my own humble goal decades ago on a soccer field in Lagos from the postcolonial context in which it was scored? And what form might a defense of such aesthetic value take? Students of literary criticism will recognize the familiarity of these questions.