31 October 2007

On Titles and Such

I’ve changed the title of the blog since, as a friend put it, I wasn’t really “examining much whyness”. The current title comes from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, albeit slightly distorted to suit the purpose. (Next person to mention the name “Elvis” dies.)

And speaking of titles, why are posts (or any other mode of writing) expected to have titles? Giving something any particular title pre-supposes the implication of a central concern of that piece of writing. This ignores other possibly relevant issues within that text. It would, for example, be foolish to argue that Pride and Prejudice is only about qualities of pride and prejudice; or that Hamlet is about this young prince with a dilemma.

And yet, titles seem to be indispensable in order to know what is being talked about. I shudder to think how a paper on “that book by that Hosseini guy” would be graded. Or how this post would be distinguished from that one. Hmmm...

26 October 2007

Scary Stumbles

I happened to stumbled upon what seems to be some sort of an over simplified 'reading guide' for Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences". I'd almost given up reading when I read this:
Many people lament the decline of the humanist model, and the rise of poststructuralism, because poststructuralism throws out ideas of God, truth, self, and meaning and replaces them with relativism, ambiguity, and multiplicity. According to some people, this is EXACTLY what's WRONG with the world today. If only we could return to the old-fashioned values of humanism, and believe in absolute truth, fixed meaning, and permanence, everything would be OK--or at least a lot better than it is now.
I can only cringe.

25 October 2007

Colour and Cricket

I know this and this are old news now but I think the issue deserves attention still. This is especially so in the light of the telling responses it has evoked. A lot of cricket fans have retaliated by insisting that Symonds' shouldn't be the one complaining since racism exists in Australia too. While most others have dismissed it as not racist at all. A few very passionate cricket fans in the crowd, they say, were only just animatedly reacting against Symonds' consistently good performance in the series. They simply got carried away, that's all. I don't know which of the two is more disturbing. How is pointing out instances of racial abuse in Australian cricket significant for this issue? I agree that the Australian team and crowds can get very aggressive too, or that what happened to Sharad Pawar wasn't exactly pretty, but that surely does not give people watching the game in Mumbai the right to jeer at Symonds the way they did. It's kindergarten logic to argue that two wrongs don't make a right. The rejection of any racist implications to be applied to the incident similarly does not hold.
"The Aussie all-rounder was not heckled because he is black. His ridiculous hair-do, clown-like face mask and show-pony fielding leave him open to the elements."
Allusions to his "clown-like face mask", "ridiculous hair-do", and later "clown make-up mask" are nothing but euphemisms for his ethnic background. It's almost equivalent to saying he was taunted not because he is black but because he has an element of blackness in him. Granted that Symonds had had a spectacularly good tour and that he does tend to get aggressive to the point of being theatrical at times. But that could also be said of several other players in that team too. Or in the Indian side for that matter. (Haven't people seen Sreesanth or Bhajji?!) So why was only Symonds singled out for such treatment? What is also mind boggling is BCCI's meek response and refusal to give the incident the sort of weight it deserves. All there was provision for was arresting the individuals under Section 110 of the Bombay Police Act, 1951 for indecent public behaviour. They were reportedly released half an hour later. I usually do not use the approach citing legal, constitutional provisions, but the lack of such provisions is obviously illuminating. *sigh* Why do we pretend that racism does not exist here? [It's not just areas like sport, where racism is so visibly manifest, but in several other places as well. More posts on that soon.]

21 October 2007

Rejoice!...For Dumbledore is Gay.

To talk about other things, Rowling has declared that Dumbledore was gay. I suppose I should celebrate considering how I had always rooted for the Sirius/Lupin, Sirius/James, Parvati/Lavender pairings as a counter to the more popular speculations about Ron/Hermione, Neville/Luna, etc. It is wonderful that there can be character with an 'alternative' sexuality and yet not be caricatured on the basis of it. But I somehow resent the fact that this declaration is being made now after all the books in the series have been published. Couldn't this have been put directly in the books? I am aware that the most common argument against this would be that the majority of readership for these books constitutes children and young adolescents. But this has not deterred Rowling to insert other such "unsuitable themes" before. If she can focus on things deemed very "mature" such as death, betrayal, racism, war, etc, why not homosexuality as well? Or is Dumbledore's sexuality to be taken as something only incidental to his person, serving no other purpose in the narrative? Besides, the very notion that a homosexual character doesn't fit into/is unsuitable for writing meant for children needs to be reexamined too. Are we saying that it is unsuitable because we are talking about something apart from the ordinary; something different from what we define as "normal"; something then that would condition kids the "wrong" way because it would lead them to see something "abnormal" in a normal way? Having said that, however, I must say that I still remain slightly fond of the series. I still am willing to settle for this incidental revelation about Dumbledore's sexuality instead of none at all. And I can only hope that critical work done on Harry Potter will take this fact into account much more than the books themselves have done.

Walcott, Universality and Criticism

“how chose/ Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?/ Betray them both, or give back/ what they give?”

-- Derek Walcott, ‘A Far Cry from Africa

It is interesting to think how something like an informal discussion in class about Walcott’s poetry could teach me the extent to which certain types of criticism can be damaging. The thrust of the discussion was on the poet’s sense of fragmented identity and divided allegiance with a special emphasis on language and history. In a classroom full of Indian students only too familiar with this type of division, a comparison between the Caribbean and Indian context was inevitable. But the comparison somehow led to the declaration that Walcott’s concerns are “universal in nature”.

There are several things wrong with such a statement. I do agree that it is relevant (and important) to see how we, with our colonial inheritance, face a dilemma similar to that expressed in Walcott’s poetry over the use of language. It is equally significant to argue that, like in Walcott, our knowledge and response to history is similar. (By studying British literature, for example, I am aware of Britain’s political history. Yet I can not say the same is entirely true for some periods within Indian history, despite studying Indian writing.) But at no point of time am I willing to concede that Walcott is a “universal poet”. The reason for this is not only because I acknowledge the existence of people who happily face no such dilemma, of societies who have been fortunate enough to not be colonised, but also because of the connotations of such form of a reading. It would, for instance, be considered wrong today to read Shakespeare as illuminating the universality of human experience considering that this ‘universal experience’ usually connotes Eurocentric bourgeois ideals. Much the same way, it would be a mistake to accord a ‘central’ position to a different set of values/ themes/ concerns with the sole purpose of universalising them. Moreover, the argument that the text is a medium through which ‘experience’ can be directly transmitted from author to reader is problematic as well disallowing for its socio-political contextualising. Is it relevant to say that Walcott’s inability to completely denounce or embrace his cultural heritage is something every human being experiences without actually looking into the nature of that cultural heritage itself?

It is not simply a matter of preferring a particular critical approach to another. What is at hand is looking at what the critical approach consequently implies. Relegating Walcott’s lament “of being white in mind and black in body” to an aspect of the ‘human condition’ is a silencing so many immediate social concerns that Walcott and other writers from the Caribbean seek to voice. Such an approach then does more harm than good.

16 October 2007

On Manto and ‘Other’ Things

[I haven't yet been able to write what I'd originally intended to post. The following is something I wrote quite a while ago. I don't particularly subscribe now to everything said below, but I'm still somewhat attached to this piece. It is, of course, not a critical analysis of the writer’s work but, among several things, a personal response which was evoked by a re-reading of some of his writing.]


My association with Sa'adat Hasan Manto began, unfortunately, only in a classroom. As an undergraduate student of literature, it was compulsory for me to study Partition literature and Manto was one of the prescribed writers. One lecture on, I was completely submerged into Manto’s world of thieves, madmen and prostitutes. His Toba Tek Singh was most tragic, his Thanda Ghosht most horrifying.

He is often set apart for his ‘objective’ characterisation. And what struck me most about him was his complete abstinence in delineating his characters in a particular manner solely on the basis of their religion/nationality. In class, the professor had passingly remarked about how ‘Manto stays with you forever’. She could not have been closer to the truth. Each side, in Manto’s work, mirrors the other, and questions the ‘reality’ of the Indo-Pak border.

Contrast this with what the children of this country are taught about the Partition at school. Notice how the history textbooks construct a story quite different. We, according to them, were “the good guys” and they (used on separate occasions to imply the British, Pakistanis, Muslims… ) were “the bad guys”. They were always responsible for all the 'bad, evil things' that happened to us. This difference between us and them is created at such a deep-rooted, intrinsic level and is accepted so passively that it becomes difficult, virtually impossible to unlearn this “truth”. Despite everything, there still remains a sense of mistrust of ‘the other’.


A few years back, among my list of internet friends included a Pakistani girl my age. We frequented the same discussion boards. We got talking and found we had much in common. We liked the same books, listened to the same music, cribbed about the same things. She, like me, had pre-occupations any teenage girl would be expected to: school, friends, television, movies, books, parties…

I was quite amazed how easy it was to talk to her. Inevitably, the Partition came up. We exchanged noted on how differently history was constructed on either side of the border. I toldher India’s Independence Day was on the 15 August, a day after theirs. She’d had no idea. It hadn’t been important. She told me about how they celebrate their Independence. (We discussed them as though they were different events.) I’d never before given it a thought.

All my life, I’d been conditioned into believing how all Pakistanis were ‘evil, twisted monsters’ whose sole purpose in life was to destroy our peace and ruin our happiness. And then I’d read her latest e-mail asking how school was, what movie I’d last watched, whether she’d be able to complete Anna Karenina within the next lifetime…

It was only this one-on-one interaction that initiated a change in my sensibility. I’m sure it was the same for her too. I’m aware that I can’t expect the same response from every Pakistani, just as it would be too idiotic to expect the same from every Indian. It did, however, teach me an important lesson. Instead of believing a ready made opinion, I discovered that I’d rather make up my own mind.


The fundamental point I’m trying to make (after a whole lot of digressions) is an old established one. It is the state machinery which relegates Pakistan(in this case) to the position of ‘the other’ in order to aid their self-definition, and thereby retain their authoritorial position. In other words, they are responsible for constructing Pakistan as ‘different’ from India - for if they both were ‘the same thing’, what point would it be for the state to exist?

[EDIT: I have managed to locate Manto's Toba Tek Singh online. It's a terrible translation though. But it was sadly the only one I could find.]

14 October 2007

Getting Started

I thought I'd post this before progressing to more serious discussions. (Or not. They may turn out to be frivolous ramblings. Time will tell.) I imagine this to be a good way to siphon thoughts which otherwise would stay muddled in my head. And it would be fabulous if I can simultaneously improve the way I write. Formation of consciousness and ideas, it has been said, happens by way of dialogue. It is for this, rather than a deluded assumption of mass readership, that I would imply the presence of an audience/ reader. But if an actual reader does indeed come across this, a comment wouldn't hurt!