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Culture Philosophy

In defence of sophistry

What does it mean to be wise? Does it mean the state of having acquired the singular, platonic truth of “wisdom”, or is it more about acting in a way that shows thought, measurement and deliberation? Or is it more than that: a way of living and thinking where you hold multiple wisdoms at once without reconciling them and reducing them down to one broad, generalized wisdom while also acting in a thoughtful way?

I think it’s more of the latter. I think that there is particular value to seeing every side of an argument, staying undecided even if you lean towards one option. For example, is abortion about the mother’s right to free choice or the child’s God-granted right to life? You can argue this way and that until the sun goes down and not reach a conclusion because the argument isn’t simply about the death of an unborn infant, it’s also about bodily autonomy and a sense of control over what your future looks like. You cannot make a teenage rape victim to give birth to a baby she cannot physically bear just as much as you cannot allow a woman to abort a fetus that’s one week away from delivery. There are other arguments for and against, but the point here is that when it comes to the abortion debate – like any other social issue with real consequences – it helps to have a sympathetic view of where each argument comes from.

Just to be clear here, I’m not saying that both arguments are equally valid or that they’re both entitled to state support. I personally think that complete choice should be the starting point and you then make concessions based on extenuating circumstances. Say the mother’s too old or too young to bear the child safely. Then, doctors should be able to recommend an abortion. Likewise, in the case of the mother opting for an abortion, if there’s real potential for damage to the mother – which seems to be the case for abortions in the late third trimester – then the surgeon should be required to counsel the mother about this. More importantly, there should be better sex education in schools and accessible prenatal counselling to forestall such unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

For me, the worth of an argument lies in the value of the action it produces. In normative ethics, I’d like to be classified as a “consequentialist“. In some situations, consequentialists are derisively reduced to being “hedonists”. I think that’s a bit of a misnomer because Western philosophers and ethicists overuse that word. I like the Sanskrit term charvaka instead. Apart from the geographical separation, the key distinction between the two shools of thought is that while hedonists believed in the doctrine of “eat, drink and be merry because pleasure is all that matters”, Charvaka philosophy is much broader in its precepts: it’s a mix of hedonism, moral relativism and materialism all packaged within a stoutly atheistic framework. It’s by far my favourite branch of Indian philosophy and you should definitely read this quick introduction to it – it’s like 4 pages long and takes about 10 minutes from start to finish.

Side note: Ancient Greek philosophy is fascinating and much more interesting than the Western European circlejerk post-Hegel. But even more fun than Ancient Greek philosophy is Ancient Indian philosophy.

But for all that, I don’t think consequentialism has much to do with hedonism. However, it does share some of the same moral relativism as sophists (link leads to a quick intro to sophism). The term has historically been a stand-in pejorative term for someone who has no real morals and can go about selling arguments and speaking to a public gathering about really anyone and anything. Yes, ‘sophists’ used to be separate from ‘rhetoricians’, but that was only for a brief period and nobody cares about that distinction anymore. Sophists were traditionally paid teachers and scholars who taught their students how to argue about a certain topic and how to hold their ground. They had no issues with crossing over to the other side when they saw a better argument, and they did not really care for the scorn society poured on them for this. Sophists were, depending on your standpoint, either “merchants of knowledge” or “tongues for hire”. Either way, they existed to educate, listen, argue and convince.

Of what use is wisdom if you’re going to hoard it and cling to it possessively? So, a wise person has to pass on their knowledge to someone else. If all you do is spout bits of knowledge, you’re not wise; you’re just a mouthpiece. A truly wise person listens more than he speaks. But what if your ideas come in direct conflict with someone else’s? Wisdom requires the willingness and humility to engage opponents and be prepared to concede to a better argument. So, a wise person is able to convince and be convinced in equal measure.

If wisdom is the ability to see everything, defend everything and argue for anything while still being able to defend and preach whatever is important to you, then true sophistry is a legitimate form of wisdom. I’m not saying it’s the ultimate form of it, or the best. Only that any good teacher, advocate and rhetorician is almost invariably a sophist.

Socrates, a sophist?

Here, I’m going to argue that Socrates, despite Plato’s protestations, is a sophist. If you’ve heard this one before, close the tab and go about you day.

Socrates and Protagoras walk into a bar …

There’s precious little we know about Socrates’ life, thoughts and beliefs. However, what little we have seems to make clear one thing: he really hated sophists. But the thing is, that ‘fact’ isn’t as clear-cut as we’ve been led to believe. Most of what we know about Socrates comes from his dear disciple Plato. Plato shits on sophists for their lack of moral fibre and often pits his mentor Socrates against them. In Protagoras (Plato’s work named after the sophist), for example, we have Socrates saying things like this:

If you are ignorant of [what a Sophist is], you cannot know to whom you are entrusting your soul—whether it is to something good or to something evil.

Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras

But if we peel away some of Plato’s own prejudices against sophists, we can start to see that actually, Socrates is indeed a sophist. Even more provocatively, he’s almost a textbook sophist. Briefly, here’s the crux of my argument:

  • In Protagoras and in other writings, Plato never speaks ill of Protagoras, who was a card-carrying sophist and a respected teacher. Socrates himself held favourable views of Protagoras and considered him a mentor.
  • Socrates’ famous “Socratic method” – a technique of inquiry whereby he asked a series of questions to better understand the other person and occasionally to trip them up – is a variant of the sophists’ own technique of using questions as part of their dialectical method. Diogenes Laertius went so far as to state that the Socratic method was actually invented by Protagoras. 2000 years ago, it may even have been a slam.
  • Socrates was known (even in Plato’s works) for being attention-seeking and a bit of a provocateur. While Plato characterised it as Socrates’ way of seeking truth, it’s actually very similar to the sophists, who liked to challenge people to a debate in front of a large crowd and then humiliate them using their own arguments.
  • Like other sophists, Socrates’ arguments and inquiries were not meant to end in any conclusive statement. They weren’t always meant to change anybody’s mind either. Rather, it was mostly an exercise in rhetoric and oratory designed to get a few laughs and make people think.
  • Aristophanes characterises Socrates as a sophist of the highest order. If there’s one thing I’m utterly confident of, it’s that writers of comedy are – by impulse and practice – astute judges of character. So, I’m willing to take his word for it. And it’s not just me: Plato writes that Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” was one reason that the public was convinced that Socrates was a sophist. If people then could be convinced he was, maybe Socrates really was (at some point) a sophist.

Even if you grant that he wasn’t a sophist through-and-through, it’s obvious that Socrates, the Western world’s greatest teacher, was a sophist to a great degree. So, to be a sophist is to be a true disciple of Socrates. To be a sophist is challenge the status quo and embrace the Socratic method for its original use: as a means to living a life of wisdom through argumentation.

If that’s so bad, slap me with a book and call me a sophist because I’m not convinced.

Categories
Culture Society

Overpopulation, or The Great Indian Lie

Unlike what Western “experts” (and increasingly Indians themselves) think, India isn’t over-populated. It’s merely under-governed.

I have a bone to pick with Hasan Minhaj. I don’t particularly like his comedy but I don’t really hate it either. He’s like this ex-Indian dude who thinks he sees things that Indians don’t notice because they’re too used to it. He combines elements of observational comedy with a casual, city babu approach which results in an oversimplified, somewhat lazy understanding of Indian people and politics. Case in point: the video below, where he talks about how there are too many Indians holding redundant jobs and doing what he sees as useless activities.

This isn’t an entirely horrible joke, but that’s not why the people are laughing. They’re laughing because they recognize the scenario and agree with the observation. Click the links for more about the evolutionary and social purposes of laughter (good read).

He alludes to a pernicious notion among foreigners and Indians alike: India is overpopulated. It’s almost a truism in policy circles, and a regular topic of discussion in upper-class family discussions. If only maybe 30% of those other people could just do us a favour and die without any trace, we’d all be so much better off. Even as most Western economies are at less-than replacement levels of fertility, Indians (and Indian women in particular) are constantly chastised for having too many kids. At various points in our history, leaders have made attempts to address what they saw as a fatal flaw of Indian society: the extreme fecundity of its populace. As recently as during the 2019 Independence Day speech, the Supreme Leader of India sought to make overpopulation a key issue for his government:

There is one issue I want to highlight today: population explosion. We have to think, can we do justice to the aspirations of our children? There is a need to have greater discussion and awareness on population explosion

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 2019

To be fair, this misconception isn’t exactly new: even the British government saw India’s population as a nuisance. Never mind that the British saw themselves as separate from the native Indians and thus at a numerical disadvantage. This constant sense of vulnerability gave rise to all sorts of weird relics that we still live with – I’m looking at you, Police Act of 1861. While Gandhi and Nehru saw the vast oceans of people as a force for good and thus harnessed them in the Indian freedom movement, subsequent generations weren’t so forgiving or thoughtful. Nehru’s daughter Indira defaulted to the British impulses of population containment. During the Emergency, her son – an omnipotent pustule, automotive engineer and cultivator of ‘chamchas‘ – Sanjay Gandhi put in place a program of forced sterilization where the state sent officials and doctors to round up men and snip their pipes. At its peak, the program was responsible for the sterilization of hundreds and thousands of Indians every day. Although the exact numbers are hard to come by, it remains independent India’s worst episode of state overreach (I have a whole theory of how this program essentially sealed the Congress’ fate in the 90s and created the space for the subsequent rise of the BJP, but that’s a post for another day).

The Indian government, as a result of state-sponsored sterilisation drives, held an effective monopoly over the production of condoms until the late 90s

Why they’re wrong

It’s an open secret that India has delusions of grandeur. A common pastime among Indian chachas is to sit around in front of TV sets gazing into their navels and gawk at the greatness they see inside. The nauseating refrain I hear is that India is going to beat China in the next 20 years. How, exactly? By treating people as pests living off the land and multiplying like crazy? No; India’s future is tied to its investment in its population.

Modern obsession with Asia’s overpopulation is born out of European colonizers’ misplaced understanding of human populations. Nearly everybody who believes Asia is overpopulated believes in some form of the Malthusian theory of population:

By nature human food increases in a slow arithmetical ratio; man himself increases in a quick geometrical ratio unless want and vice stop him. The increase in numbers is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence. Population invariably increases when the means of subsistence increase, unless prevented by powerful and obvious checks.

Thomas Robert Malthus

Most economists and public policy experts agree that this theory is not true, and that there’s no real limit to the maximum population that any piece of land can handle. Human ingenuity, technological progress and cultural attitudes all play a role in determining how large societies get before they face any issues. Malthus’ understanding of Britain may be true, but Britain is a small island stranded off the coast of a sparsely-populated woodland. Europe was never as fertile as Mesopotamia or the Nile Valley, and neither was as resource-rich as India or China. For a more detailed (yet accessible) discussion of how chance features like terrain, rivers and coastlines have a strong bearing on nations’ fate, read Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall.

Aided by geography, China grew to its present state because of its immense population; not in spite of it. The higher population gave China a huge head-start over much larger economies like the US and allowed China to leapfrog from a backward, poor, poverty-stricken medieval playground to the modern-day hyper-urban wonderland it is today. All in less than the 70 years that China has been a modern nation-state. If we ignore the years under Mao’s failed experiments from the 1950s to the late 1970s, China’s history really only begins in 1979 with Deng Xiaoping’s liberalizing reforms. So, China reached modernity in 40 years while European nations achieved it in 400 years and America in 200. There are several explanations generally offered for why – world politics, geography, historical connections through the Silk Roads, Chinese historical cycles etc. While all of these theories have a kernel of truth to them, none would ever make any sense without China’s manpower. China’s population was its passport to greatness.

Today, there’s not a single shred of evidence to show that Indian society is being strained by its population. India’s economy is in decent health, per capita consumption of energy and food are not egregious (unlike in America and Australia), forest cover is increasing (though only marginally), urban areas don’t sprawl (again, unlike in America and Australia), urbanization is proceeding at a rapid pace but is contained to a few large clusters, there’s a fairly robust legal framework to protect the environment and provide compensation to displaced peoples, and the number of refugees from India is a minute proportion of the number of refugees worldwide. So, the number of people is not really an issue right now. I agree that at some point, it may very well become one but as things stand now, India’s population is a non-issue.

But hey, you may object, if population isn’t an issue, why does India have hundreds of millions of homeless people? What’s with the unemployment and malnutrition? Why do so many children go hungry? Why are schools so crowded and underfunded? Why are graduates leaving the country in droves? Why is crime so prevalent yet under-reported? Why are Indians so blase towards violence, death and misery? Why is there so much filth on the streets? If not for population, why has India been an “emerging economy” for the past several decades? The answer is simply under-government.

State capacity

India’s state performs poorly in basic public services such as providing
primary education, public health, water, sanitation, and environmental quality. While it is politically effective in managing one of the world’s largest armed forces, it is less effective in managing public service bureaucracies.

Devesh Kapur in “Why Does the Indian State Both Fail and Succeed?

During the 19th and 20th centuries, it was common to refer to China as the “sick man of the East“, but in the 21st century, the term is more aptly applied to India. And all of India’s ailments come down to one simple diagnosis: a profound lack of state capacity born out of a misplaced zeal to appear “efficient” at the cost of being “effective”.

It’s not just me saying this, and neither am I some sort of a discoverer. Every single person in India is aware of it. I can very confidently state that most non-Indians know it as well. Writing about India’s weak state has made many journalists’ careers, and continues to be the raison d’etre for every BBC reporter in the country. But to the casual observer, India’s overpopulation and weak enforcement of laws are two separate issues. Most people – including our friends Hasan Minhaj and Narendra Modi – don’t appreciate that a weak state is the common cause of both problems.

Let’s consider for a brief while how deep it goes and how many aspects of Indian life are touched by a lack of state capacity. Consider for example the corrupt, inept and oft-maligned police. As I mentioned earlier, the police force in India was created (and still operates by) rules and procedures contained in the Police Act of 1861. That’s a 150 year-old law that is still largely the same as it was then. A law whose primary purpose was to protect the British state from the population. So, India’s policemen don’t “protect and serve” anybody other than the state. In the traditional “three pillars” understanding of government, policemen are in the border between the executive and judicial branches. But in India, the colonial nature of the force means that in reality, the police are at the intersection of executive and legislative. Their primary goal at all times is to protect their asses and serve their political overlords. But let’s say we forget this for now and just hire more policemen. Not just a few thousand, or a hundred thousand. I mean at least a couple million more, to bring the total number of policemen and women to well over 3 million individuals, possibly 4 million. What would that do to society?

I saw these all over Bangalore during a recent trip. I didn’t see it then but I realize now that this is a perfect example of a lack of state capacity. Why do you need a mannequin, especially when the government says it has a severe shortage of policemen, and there’s growing concern over unemployment? Why not employ a real person to stand around in filth and not do anything?

Bring out the crystal ball

First, existing laws can be enforced, property rights overseen and its women protected if the state hired more policemen. The extra policemen wouldn’t all be out on the streets patrolling; most would just sit behind desks filling out paperwork and taking complaints. Western police forces are more effective because they have people both out in the streets and behind desks. In India, they’re usually either out there or behind desks. So, when a non-urgent case (like sexual harrassment, rape, domestic violence etc.) is brought before them, policemen prefer to not go to the scene. They couch their laziness and ineptitude behind pretences of family values, “private matter” and all that.

Second, if you follow supply-demand logic from Econ 101, as the supply of police jobs is increased, the societal value of being a cop reduces. So, they stop enjoying exalted privileges. If every street has a policemen living around there, it reduces to just another profession, like being a tailor or a teacher. For one, a policeman cannot demand money for just doing his job. For another, off-duty cops will be more likely to be caught in random shootouts (or “encounters”), which reduces the willingness to engage in such vulgar displays of power. So in one stroke, employing several thousands more policemen would not only reduce corruption, but also extrajudicial abuse of power. No more Nirbhaya and no more Sohrabuddin.

Third, these policemen need to be paid, which means that a robust financial services network is needed to ensure timely payment of salaries and pensions. So now, you need ATMs and bank branches in more places. Where not economical, you will see the growth of cashless economies. Whereas the disastrous demonetization drive of 2017 created a scenario where regular transactions were replaced by cashless transactions (for a short while), our scenario would see the growth of a cashless economy that doesn’t compete with the cash economy.

Finally, it would spur economic growth. because there are many more policemen now, they spread out to every part of the land and start families in all sorts of unlikely places. With policemen comes a sense of safety, which dampens the urge to migrate to cities. Instead, this safety encourages local investment and small-scale entrepreneurship. Farmers don’t have to worry about theft so they invest in high-yield, high-value crops, which improves agricultural productivity. Even if all of this seems a bit far-fetched, hiring 2 million policemen at the rate of 10000 rupees per person per month is equivalent to giving the economy an additional 20 billion rupees per month. Even if the household savings rate stays at 30%, that means that over 14 billion rupees gets spent on goods and services, which would have a huge ripple effect that creates new jobs, industries and entirely unknown markets. Yes, there will be inflation, but economic growth needs inflation.

And all of this is just from hiring 2 million policemen. Imagine how radically India would transform if it hired more teachers, peons, janitors, cashiers, land inspectors and marketers; funded more scientists and researchers, trained more doctors and nurses, conducted more workshops and health clinics. India’s greatest successes – the eradication of polio, the creation of the Aadhar system, the postal system and the general elections where over 900 million people take part in a convoluted and boring spectacle – are all examples of India using its people as resources.

A conclusion

India’s population is its greatest asset. Centuries of colonialization have convinced us otherwise but we must shed this baseless, outdated, racist and often self-flagellatory opinion if we are to grow as a nation and expect more out of our leaders. In a way, a slim state is another instance of India’s socialist nature clashing with its capitalistic state – resulting in a system that claims to serve everybody but doesn’t have the necessary resources to serve anybody but itself. Decades of IMF loans, World Bank investments, US aid funds and numerous balance of payment crises have resulted in a state that almost apologises for its very existence, and hesitates to spend on even the provision of basic services. In trying to ape Western, advanced economies, Indian policymakers are only too eager to talk up efficiency measures, while saying nothing about being effective.

It’s about time we changed this. The nation needs its politicians to spend more on capacity building, which will inevitably require massive levels of public spending and job creation. But all of this can only begin when we stop talking about overpopulation and start talking about undergovernance instead.

Categories
Culture Indian politics Society

Into The -Woods: the Colourful Politics of Vernacular Cinema

So similar, yet each unique

Indian cinema, and Bollywood especially, has always been extremely political, not least because of the fact that cinema is a popular medium that needs to appeal to a critical mass of audiences before the artistes get paid. It’s not merely an economic equation, though. In my previous post, I took a historical view of what political issues India cinema chose to cover, and how they’ve changed over the years.

As much as the past is a guide to the present, movies are not merely the historical baggage of their industries. Contemporary Indian cinema varies from the nauseatingly bougie to the mundane, where class conflict, caste tensions and intergenerational culture wars vie for primacy. Indian cinema has had to wrestle with and try to rationalize larger social changes in a way that Hollywood has never felt the need to (except perhaps during the Buster Keaton-Charlie Chaplin era, when urban living, widespread poverty and social distress were important themes that every filmmaker had to contend with). Over the past 50-odd years, western cinema has undergone very little fundamental restructuring: the same studios call the shots and the same people (more or less) still watch movies. More fundamentally, the societies themselves have not had to deal with changes in family values, erosion of the cultural idea of purity, intercultural dialogue and technological progress in the same way that countries like India and China (and increasingly, Nigeria and Indonesia) have had to deal with.

As a result, Indian cinema is multilayered in a way that Hollywood can never be. Whereas all Hollywood movies are necessarily for a broad audience, India’s size and history of pluralism create the cultural and political space needed for several different industries to emerge. For example, while Bollywood – Hindi language cinema centered around Mumbai and Delhi – is still the de facto flagbearer of Indian cinema, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali and Malayalam cinema are all perfectly capable industries on their own – each of the these produces upwards of 200 movies per year.

This post deals with how these vernacular industries deal with issues of cultural change, progress, inclusion and class conflict. Specifically, I’m going to elaborate on the ideas of culture coding and jurisdiction as they relate to movies. My go-to industries of reference will be Bollywood and Kollywood, not because they’re the largest – although Bollywood definitely is – but because they’re the most representative of the two jurisdictions of cinema, viz. the national and the local. While discussing coding, though, I’m going to try to draw from as many industries as I can, because why not.

Obviously, this whole post is full of spoilers. It’s literally a post about movies, what’d you expect? But because I’m nice, here are all the movies that I will proceed to spoil to a greater or lesser degree:

  • Joker (2019)
  • Passion of the Christ (2004)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
  • Parasite (2019)
  • Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999)
  • Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011)
  • Delhi Belly (2011)
  • The Full Monty (1997)
  • Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)
  • Pedarayudu (1995)
  • Duniya (2007)
  • Thackeray (2020)
  • Pushpak (1987)
  • Jogi (2005)
  • Amruthadhare (2005)
  • Good Will Hunting (1997)
  • Visaranai (2015)
  • Ugly (2014)
  • Super Deluxe (2019)

Culture coding

In order to understand what I mean when I say that movies code culture, it’s first important to bear in mind that movies capture telltale pieces of location, scenery, accents, skin colours and spoken insults that build a world. Worldbuilding is why the Avengers movies succeeded, while DC’s attempt fell on its face and never woke up. As in the real world, most cinematic worlds also involve dog-whistling that’s expected to signal something to the viewer without saying it out loud.

For example, consider The Passion of The Christ (PoTCh). In this libcucks-go-fuck-yourselves Christian freakshow, Mel Gibson tries to imagine what went down when that one time around 30 AD Jesus Christ was captured by the Romans. Spoiler: he dies. But that’s not the point. The point of the movie is violence: more sepcifically, its antisemitism:

… fundamentally misconceives the relationship between the prefect, Pontius Pilate, and the Temple authorities led by Caiaphas. Caiaphas served at Rome’s pleasure. Yet the script shows him bullying Pontius Pilate with an amazing control of the Jewish mob. Pilate even states he fears Caiaphas is plotting a revolt. This is a total reversal of the historical reality of Judea under Roman rule.’ The scholars group remarked that ‘in the time of Jesus, Romans crucified those Jews they suspected of sedition routinely…. There is absolutely no evidence that crosses of any kind were built by Jews in the Temple.’

Another conclusion was that ‘dramatically, as the script stands, Jesus’ opponents are one-dimensional bad guys…. The film takes every opportunity to embellish the violence of the passion, thereby increasing the likelihood of an audience to be filled with outrage at those who perpetuated such a horrendous crime.’ The group added: ‘Viewers without extensive knowledge of Catholic teaching about interpreting the New Testament will surely leave the theater with the overriding impression that the bloodthirsty, vengeful and money-loving Jews simply had an implacable hatred of Jesus.

A JCPA press release, link here

The fact that PoTCh got an R rating and would never be played on many family channels surprised nobody, least of all Mel. Because it was all a part of the world building. The world Mel was portraying was a violent, materialistic, faithless region where God could find no incorruptible mortal to reveal his words to. Hence, Jesus. There were two ways that Jesus’ story can be told: that of a compassionate man helping his fellow humans through a time of hardship and suffering; or that of a world of crazed lunatics in which common decency would be considered divine. Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) was more of the former, since the movie’s list of advisors included a Jewish producer, historians, Biblical scholars, Islamic scholars, rabbis, imams and several other experts. Being the antisemite that he is, Mel of course chose the latter.

Filmmakers make such cultural choices very often, but only rarely are they purely because of their own inherent prejudices. More commonly, movies are an outlet for popular sentiment: for validation and recognition. When people watch movies, they don’t really see a Sylvester Stallone or a Salman Khan, they see themselves. When they see Iron Man defeating Thanos, they see themselves in that sweaty armour. And when Tony Stark dies, they see the loss and mourning as the mourning they would feel. I’m not saying that all movies are necessarily meant to reflect society, just that society gets out of it what it wants to. It’s “Death of the Author“, but for movies. “Death of the Director”, I suppose.

A popular filmmaker, therefore, is one who holds a mirror to the audience’s sense of self and shows it for what it is, even if it’s ugly. This mirroring of cultural cues in cinametic forms is what I’ve been calling culture coding. What the movie encodes is largely left to the writer/director, but there are three categories of markers that are key to our understanding of Indian cinema: class, language and location. So let’s go through them in that order.

Class struggle: hidden in plain sight

In 1848, Karl Marx wrote:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Karl Marx in Communist Manifesto

What was said of 19th century European society can also be said of modern Indian cinema. Nearly all of its myriad complexities arise out of simple class and power equations. So, I’ll dedicate most of this post to examining the role of class politics in shaping Indian cinema.

In the previous post, I gave a brief overview of the evolution of Indian cinema over the years. Central to that evolution was the development of the idea of a nation: it began as a unifying ideal that was open to everybody. Over time, as the nation and state fused into one, the state’s failures came to be seen as the nation’s fatal flaws. With that, the great Indian democratic experiment began to crack. These cracks were amplified when the newly liberalized India of 1992-99 created avenues by which the rich and connected could get even richer and connected-er. A resurgent nostalgic appreciation for ‘Indian culture’ led to the resurgence of Hindu transnationalist politics, as seen in Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999). Here’s a brief overview for those of you unfamiliar with this timeless gem:

In the meanwhile, these activities combined with the state’s gratuitous rent-seeking created millions of new jobs, lifting millions of illiterate, poor and contented families into respectable positions. Like a mountaineer trekking to a viewpoint before making the summit climb, India’s new middle class stopped and gawped at how unbelievably close they were to being “upper-class”. As they looked up to the skies, they dreamt of better lives, of lives they saw the rich leading. Lives of largesse and promiscuity, lives where social rules and religious norms were merely vague guidelines that didn’t apply if you didn’t want them to. The life they were looking for finally arrived – in 2011. In the form of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, an aimless-walk-in-the-park kind of movie that is billed as a “coming of age” movie, but in reality, is just a petit-bourgeousie fantasy in which three friends roam around Europe for a few days and emerge entirely unchanged. It’s a movie whose central theme is the display of wealth and of unrepentant consumption, and whose women are not so much people as they are stand-ins for virtue, belief and restraint.

In Zoya Akhtar’s movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), three friends embark on a road trip that is in fact a journey toward globalization. While the trip is meant to partly cure Arjun, a stock trader, of his workaholism and is ostensibly a critique of India’s adoption of Western corporate culture and consumerism, Akhtar’s slick framing of Europe glamorizes a late-capitalist ideology by catering to a scopophilia of Westernized leisure that that ideology makes possible. She promotes images of travel and the pleasures associated with the Mediterranean (including carnivalesque festivals and uninhibited Western women). Immersing themselves in this romanticized Europe, the men set aside the ethical demands of their individual histories. The movie serves to highlight a new value system in Hindi cinema, a shift away from traditional norms to ones that align fluidly with the signs of a consumerist utopia in a multinationalized world.

Jayashree Kamble in this beautiful paper

There’s a scene in ZNMD in which the protagonist – a banker of some sort – takes a phone call while in a car with his friends, and one of them just casually flings his phone out of the car. Just like that. Who cares about the value of the phone and its contents to the guy, right? Who cares about the job? Who cares about anything? Being rich means that you never have to.

The scene in question.

MK Raghavendra sees the scene as being one with the new Bollywood mantra of creating characters who share a lifestyle more than language, geography or anything else. He cites Delhi Belly as the other example of this trend – a group of loafers who don’t work, and don’t really see the need to either. Friend whose only commonality is their shared easy-breezy lifestyle. Fascinating read.

Surely, that is a life worth living.

Looking east, and looking west

It makes sense here to pause and notice that class struggle is an almost universal theme across industries. While Hollywood mostly shies away from making any explicit statements about the link between class struggle and morality, British movies don’t. Classics like The Full Monty (1997) and This is England (2006) are masterclasses in worldbuilding where class struggle is ubiquitous to the point of inevitability. The Full Monty, especially:

[…] takes material that could would be at home in a sex comedy, and gives it gravity because of the desperation of the characters; we glimpse the home life of these men, who have literally been put on the shelf, and we see the wound to their pride. “The Full Monty” belongs in the recent tradition of bittersweet films from Britain that depict working- class life […] “The Full Monty” is about more than inventiveness in the face of unemployment. It’s about ordinary blokes insisting that their women regard them as men–job or no job.

Roger Ebert’s review

Since 2014, however, western audiences are much more attuned to this sort of class messaging. As a result, Hollywood too is increasingly open to class messaging. I would boldly state about 70% of this change is due to politics. Of that, a significant portion is due to the rise of Bernie Sanders. Bernie’s sharp critique of America’s irresponsible kleptocapitalism was lapped up by his fellow countrymen, and this unexpected popularity of a socialist message in America created an opening for other like-minded artistes and activists. While Bernie did not create socialism for the 21st century, he definitely amplified its message.

So, it’s no surprise that in 2019 (the eve of another presidential cycle) came two movies that made many many viewers deeply uncomfortable about the class structure of capitalistic societies. Parasite and Joker both have the same basic skeleton: society rewards the rich and unfairly punishes the poor for no fault of their own. They try to look at poverty as it exists in their respective countries of origin: South Korea and America, respectively. Both, predictably, arrive at the conclusion that rampant exploitation is to blame. And both put the blame on the rich, who’ve taken so much but always find ways to give back very little. They’re both equally compelling movies for trying times. Yet, their worldviews could not be more different.

Parasite shows class conflict from on high: a bunch of unkempt quasi-slaves whose lives only take shape and meaning from their masters. Their lives are messy, chaotic and comical. If they weren’t so damned poor, they could just as easily have been clowns. Funnily enough, Joker takes the opposite tack. The poor live lives of quiet misery; their lives are predictable and mundane, and the end result is painfully obvious from the first scene. Whereas Parasite sees poverty akin to a lottery, Joker sees it as a slow-moving trainwreck with only one possibility. Whereas Parasite is colourful, mischievous and playful in its delivery, Joker is bleak. Where one sees the possession of material goods as an end in itself, the other sees a whole Byzantine conspiracy preventing poor people from living lives of decency. Robin Hanson puts it best:

Parasite is done in a setting and style designed to appeal to upper class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more upper class perspective. Joker is designed to appeal to lower class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more lower class perspective. Which is partly why upper class critics prefer Parasite.

Robin Hanson in Overcoming Bias

How class coding works

Upper-class discomfort with the themes in Joker is precisely why the initial pre-release reception was tepid at best, and why the movie didn’t win an Oscar despite being much better than Parasite. The snotty-nosed, Yale-educated litterateurs of white-collar media just couldn’t stomach a mainstream movie that captured class struggle in such a visceral fashion. They didn’t care that the source material was undeniably dark, or that its very popularity was a reminder for them to mend their ways. All they cared about was its monochromatic portrayal of upper class society, because that’s exactly what politics does: it frames everything around us in novel ways, so that you end up rethinking the mundane and unremarkable. A wonky wheel became a symbol of fascism, a green frog its renaissance, and an orange provocateur its ultimate form.

Similarly, class is coded into Indian movies as well. How do viewers know what the class being coded is? How does class decoding work? More often than not, viewers understand that an upper-class coded movie tends to not talk about it, whereas a lower-class coded movie tends to wear it on its sleeve. It’s kind of like how the rich kid in class can afford to try to pass off as a regular guy, whereas the poor kid generally can’t. The privilege of having privilege confers upon you the ability to mask it.

In other words, privilege is an honest marker of privilege. As stupid as it sounds at first, it’s useful to remember it when watching a movie. If it shows privilege, assumes it or speaks of privilege without addressing it, it tends to be upper-class coded. If it’s coy about it, tries to frame privilege as something you earn or as something that society confers upon you for your (unexplained) greatness, it’s either upper-class revisionism or it’s made for the aspirant or upwardly-mobile middle class. If the movie does none of the above but still doesn’t really show any scorn for the upper-class, it’s meant for the lower-middle class. On the other hand, a movie that sees poverty, doesn’t shy away from exposing the rotten roots of privilege and doesn’t try to hide its message in any sort of apologeticism is for the lower class.

Some examples

First, upper class coding in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015). A very cliched, bland and typically Zoya Akhtar movie, it sees privilege and pokes lgiht-hearted fun at it, but doesn’t spend any time seriously examining it. The characters all drift in and out of focus as they try to figure out their purpose, while going on a cruise through some typically Mediterranean locales. With that much context, here’s an otherwise unremarkable scene that manages to code class pretty effectively.

Everything in the movie is a code. First, there’s the cruise. Who even goes on cruises? Most of the reason Indians go on cruises is to announce that they’re rich. No other reason. So, that’s a pretty strong code right there. But apart from the obvious, there’s the content itself: divorce. India, for all its pretences, is still a very very conservative country vis-a-vis family values. Divorces just aren’t a thing. When they do happen, on-screen divorces tend to be due to violence, affairs or some sor of dowry-related issue. All of those are rooted in Indian society’s historical problems of female disenfranchisement and insecurity. And more often than not, the locus of control is the man: it is the guy who broaches the topic, and it is he who decides if the divorce goes through. But this movie, and the above scene, are unusual in that the it’s the woman who’s in control: she decides that she doesn’t want to be with this guy anymore, and gets what she asks for. Even more unusual is the reason why; it’s not because he clobbered her face with a vase, or because he’d been sleeping with her mum. No. She wants a divorce because she deserves better.

That’s a level of female-empowerment that is still largely missing in Indian families. The only people who believe that women have just as much right to a happy marriage as men are upper-class Anglophone audiences. And that’s exactly whom the movie addresses.

Next, upper-class revisionism. We see this quite a lot in yesteryear movies, because the economic reality of the time didn’t allow for movies to show any markers other than those of wealth and caste. My favourite example of a very weird (and extremely cringey) intersection of these two is in Pedarayudu (1995). Specifically, this one scene.

This movie is one of several similar ones from the 1992-99 period – when India’s rising economic tide lifted all boats and thus came into direct conflict with the traditional caste system which mandated that some castes lead lives of austerity and deprivation. You have parallel themes in Bollywood blockbusters like Sooryavansham (1999) starring Amitabh Bachhan as the benevolent patriarch whose traditional values save a decadent family from losing sight of Hindu morality.

Here, the brown-shirted dude (“Pedarayudu”) commands deference because he and his father (and so on) are apparently the reason the guy in the suit is now a wealthy merchant who commands respect in society. Whereas the suit is a self-made man, the plainer looking guy is not. He’s merely held the position of village head, a hereditary position that he would like to pass on to his son some day (and eventually does). Yet, the dialogue shows that while material possessions wax and wane, what survives forever is your lineage and the word of God – of which your lineage is proof. So, the conclusion is that while wealth and accomplishment may place you in a higher class than that Brahmin/Thakur village elder, you will always be a social inferior by dint of your birth. That’s how upper-class revisionism works.

Finally, an example of lower class coding. This is kind of hard to find, partly because of issues of jurisdiction (which I’ll come to in a later section), but mostly just because there is no real Indie movie scene in India. So, any movie has to pass through several powerful people and institutions before it makes it to theatres. This kills any subversive themes, and whitewashes the movie of all substance, rendering it a toothless critique of class structure. While this is true of all industries, Bollywood suffers from this self-censorship more than regional language cinema. So, my pick for lower class coding is a scene from Duniya (2007), a movie that not only launched several careers but also inspired many imperfect imitators.

Ignoring the gratuitous violence and comically bad acting, the scene summarizes some key aspects city life from the eyes of a poor, unprivileged nobody. The crass language, unsophisticated mannerisms and inability to engage with higher classes are seen as central to the life of a poor person. When they do come in contact with power, the interactions tends to be violent and exploitative. Continued exposure to this kind of power breeds constant suspicion, numbness and complete apathy towards policemen, politicians etc. This scene, while imperfect, encapsulates what it takes to speak to lower classes in modern India.

Role of language: the medium is the message

So, yes, class is a killer theme for movies to explore but it doesn’t need to be packed and labelled as ‘class’ per se. India’s varied society offers filmmakers several options on how to go about it. As seen in the examples above, education is an easy wrapper. Another go-to is caste, which is by far the most efficient way to summarize class, status and education all in one. However, above caste and way beyond education is another useful carrier of class markers: language. But unlike class, depiction of language cannot be monolithic and homogenous because language cuts across social segments and carries its own history independent of the history of class struggle.

The politics of language is as old as humanity itself. Among the short list of things considered “uniquely human” is our ability to communicate complex ideas to each other in detailed, expressive ways. The exact origins of language are still up for debate, but what’s not being debated is the utility of language. We use it to express feelings, relay facts, store and alter information… If politics is even possible today, it is undoubtedly because of the unifying power of language. So it’s no surprise that in a country of over 30 major languages (at least a million speakers), popular politics is inextricably tied with language politics. To understand one is to wade waist-deep in the world of the other.

Consider this statement: the primary use of language is to act as a placeholder image that the audience can build upon. In some cases, the movie never moves past this “first impression” whereas in most cases, the writer then weaves in a story to humanize the character a bit more and gives the script some legs.

Let’s see some examples. The first is Nayakan (1987), for which casual readers of Indian political history may need a little detour and historical context. Skip ahead if you’re familiar with the story of Bombay’s uneasy acceptance of migrants.

A little detour

The movie shows a petty smuggler’s rise to power in 1980s Bombay. The movie is a curious intersection of the “underworld don” era of Indian cinema – 1970s to mid 90s – which I wrote about in the previous post, and the resurgence of Tamil identity politics in the late 80s.

Unlike most other states, Tamil Nadu has always been home to a rather progressive, urbanized and proud people. Icons such as Periyar and Karunanidhi were not only progressive, secular reformists but also staunch secessionists. Periyar famously railed against Brahminical orthodoxy of the time and called for the creation of a “Dravidian state”, to be called Dravidanadu, made up of the present regions of Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with some debate about the latter. Periyar saw that these states were progressive, dominated by non-Brahminical people (although this has changed now) and were largely under the thumb of the Brahminical institutions imposed by what he called the “Indo-Aryans”, a reference to the polarizing debate around Aryan Invasion Hypothesis, which posits that somewhere around 3500 BCE, hoards of invaders from Iran (“Aryans”) started pillaging and settling into northern India, bringing with them their language (Sanskrit), culture (diety worship), religion (Hinduism, proto-Zoroastrianism) and practices such as wheat cultivation, horse rearing and archery.

The spread of the Steppe pastoralists and their descendants across ancient Eurasia. The Steppe population is identified here using the name Yamnaya which refers to an ancient archaeological culture on the Pontic Steppe. It is the Yamnaya people who spoke the a language which was the ancestor of every Indo-European language in existence today, be it Bhojpuri or Welsh. The arrows show plausible routes while the years refer to rough estimates of when the Yamnaya and their descendants arrived in a place. Source: Science

Around independence, questions started being raised about the structure of Indian states, which were drawn almost haphazardly by the British for the sake of administrative ease. Independent India resolved to reorganize states along linguistic lines, leading to protests by unionists and Hindu-Hindi nationalists (mostly from RSS) on the one hand who worried that this exercise would upset the delicate peace after Partition, and secessionists on the other, who wanted more than just linguistic states – they wanted the states to have near-complete autonomy in deciding their fate. This tension subsided during the late 60s and 70s, as the wily authoritarian Indira Gandhi found a way to stitch together convenient coalitions where she had political capital, and imprisoned dissenters where she didn’t. The end of Emergency, and the Hindu-pleaser PM Rajiv Gandhi allowed the political class to catch their breath after nearly a decade, leading to the resurgence of hitherto-suppressed ideas into a country that had burned through what little Gandhian spirit was left.

In the midst of all this strife was Bombay, India’s financial capital and the jewel in its admittedly mangy crown. Before Independence, Bombay was part of Bombay state, a Presidency ruled directly by the British crown. As a crown region, it included a melange of peoples from modern Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra. In 1956, the States Reorganization Act split Bombay state into Karnataka and Maharashtra, with a further split occuring in 1960 as a result of the Mahagujarat movement which demanded a separate state for Gujarati-speaking people in Bombay state. This resulted in the creation of Gujarat, and the leftovers of Bombay (along with some parts of Madhya Pradesh and Hyderabad) were rechristened Maharashtra, or “great nation”. Bombay was a point of contention, and in the resulting tug-of-war, Maharashtra won out. It kept Bombay but would forever harbour a deep wariness of “outsiders”.

After the passing of the States Reorganization Act of 1956, Bombay split into Maharashtra and Karnataka, largely along linguistic lines. In 1960, the Mahagujarat movement also forced the creation of Gujarat out of the leftovers.

Into this volatile state of affairs entered Bal Thackeray, a fearmongering populist with an especially strong hatred for the non-Marathi population of Bombay.

It’s impossible to understand the new leader of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without understanding his right-wing party’s cousin, the Shiv Sena. And it’s impossible to understand Shiv Sena — or for that matter, the city of Mumbai — without understanding the late Bal Thackeray

Aayush Soni in Ozy

Thackeray began his career as a regular writer and cartoonist. He forged his political career in the flames of the Maharashtra movement as it took shape in response to Mahagujarat. In 1966, he created Shiv Sena, an ethnonationalist party with a strongly Hindu background that puts regional identity before national ones, although recent whitewashing has made people forget this fact. This curious combination caused many clashes between Shiv Sena and the Hindu-nationalist RSS, its ideological parent and longtime frenemy. Over time, Shiv Sena’s violent hatred would consume everyone including Tamils, Kannadigas, Muslims, Biharis and Uttar Pradeshis. Even as the Shiv Sena now tries to wriggle out of this ideological corner that Thackeray has confined it to, it’s impossible for modern Mumbai to escape its association with this icon of Marathi identity.

Back on track

So it makes sense to also consider a recent biopic of Bal Thackeray, creatively titled “Thackeray” (2020). This movie was released in two languages – Hindi and Marathi (a fact we will return to while discussing jurisdictions), and below are the two trailers.

Thackeray – Hindi trailer
Thackeray – Marathi trailer. The infamous lungi comment is made around the 1:00 mark.

Notice that whereas the Hindi one is more artistic and romantic, the Marathi one is less wishy-washy and more explicitly antagonistic, with lines such as “Uthao lungi bajao pungi” (lift the lungi and fuck him), a reference to the ‘lungi‘, a skirt-like loincloth commonly worn by Tamil men. There are also references to ‘idli‘, a supremely tasty simple dish made of steamed rice flour and lentils, also common among Tamils and other South Indians. The Marathi trailer also explicitly shows stone-pelting at a “Udipi Coffee House”, a reference to cafes owned by outsiders from Udupi, a temple town in southwestern Karnataka. While the Hindi version is fairly blancmange in its depiction of Thackeray as a fairly ordinary religion-baiting populist, the Marathi one goes much further and shows Thackeray for the violent patriarch that he really was. In this lies the power and utility of regional languages – whereas a Hindi movie is necessarily meant for a diverse audience, the Marathi one isn’t, and so can focus its messaging better. Where a Hindi movie is a hammer, the Marathi one is an axe.

And so it is with Nayakan (1987), a wildly popular Tamil movie set in 1980s Mumbai, where relentless waves of anti-Tamil riots were threatening to cause widespread chaos. Elsewhere, Sri Lankan Tamils too were facing repression under the Sinhala government that refused to grant Tamils any political power. In 1976, several disparate allegiances coalesced under V. Prabhakaran the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers. The LTTE was a shot in the arm for a latent Indian Tamil identity movement, which was built from the ground-up by grassroots activists and nurtured by political godfathers like Karunanidhi and M.G. Ramachandran. Thus was created a political environment where Nayakan (“leader”, “lord” or “hero”) could have existed.

The beauty of piracy means that the full movie is now available on Youtube

The movie follows the rise to dominance of the adopted son of a Tamil-speaking Muslim man. One of the earliest scenes in the movie sets the stage for the coming confrontation between the Tamil migrants living in a filthy yet harmonious shantytown and corrupt, violent Hindi-speaking policemen exemplified by one Kelkar – himself a wink and a nod to Shiv Sena’s Marathi pride displacing millions of destitute Tamils from Mumbai. To this, we add the perception of the Indian unity experiment as having largely failed Tamils, who should have stuck to the demand for a separate Dravidanadu which could have governed itself well and prevented such large-scale squalour. So, Nayakan at once rebukes the ascendant Marathi sentiment while also thumbing its nose at the Indian nation-state, which has failed its duty and must now transfer power to extrajudicial vigilantes.

In Nayakan, a transfer of power from state to subaltern is achieved through a violent ritual battle between Velu and the Hindi-speaking inspector Kelkar. Kelkar is depicted as a cruel racist cop, described variously as mirugam / animal or kaattaan / barbarian, who terrorizes the migrant Tamil populace of the shantytown. If Nayakan exhibits a strong “preference for vigilante justice in the absence of the legitimate authority of the state”, according to Professor Gopalan, the ritual battle becomes a means of discrediting the state, delegitimizing the law, and empowering the subaltern.

Kumuthan Maderya in Popmatters

So, language is a crucial accelerator of the creation of a strong “imagined community”, a la Benedict Anderson. It serves to unite people under specific ideas and personalities while also acting as a bulwark against overarching national ideas that threaten to subsume regional identities within them. Its role in creating more focused communities within the Indian nation acts as a check against the excesses of demagoguery and jingoistic fervour. At the same time, divergent themes in vernacular cinema highlight that there is no monolithic “India”, and one community’s prosperity and pride seem to always lead to another’s poverty and predation.

Location, location, location

Our previous discussions of culture coding in terms of class and language have at their core the assumption that these are macro-identifiers capable of transmitting messages faithfully to all constituents within the group. But what if this isn’t necessarily true? What if class and language aren’t always enough to fully encode the cultural backdrop of a movie? What does a director do when she needs to narrow down her focus further without losing any class or language connections? She localizes the movie.

Giving a movie a specific location is oftentimes essential to the story itself. For example, Good Will Hunting (1997) could never work if it wasn’t set in Southie. Its examination of residual tensions between Irish-Catholics and Protestants is part of the imagined community that Will and Chuckie inhabit. Everything about the movie, from the colour palette to the drinking habits, is a constant reminder of Boston and its Irish immigrant population (even though the in-film “MIT” was actually University of Toronto).

As the car begins up the street with the four young men, the filmmakers insert a visual register which guides the progress of the film: the paint scheme of two homes on the left side of the street form the Irish flag. The first home adjacent to the car is large and green; the home across the street, which the car passes second, is smaller, and paint-ed white and orange. We later learn that the four men are Will Hunting (Matt Damon), Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), Morgan O’Mally (Casey Affleck), and Billy McBride (Cole Hauser). These four representthe Irish Catholic interests and culture in the film, and their metaphoric journey from Catholic South Boston into the Protestant north—portrayed by Cambridge—begins on this camera angle.

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera in Revisioning Migration: On the Stratifications of Irish Boston in Good Will Hunting

Similarly, many Indian movies just don’t work without location markers. Take for example the masterful Pushpak (1987) written and directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao. Pushpak is a standout example of what Indian directors can achieve when their hands aren’t tied by commercial interests alone. It’s entirely without dialogue, which meant that all cultural markers had to be conveyed visually only. This means that more often than not, the director had to place the characters in settings where either (A) the location did not matter, or (B) the location is obvious, or (C) the location is easily replacable by one that the audience could relate to. Try to figure out which category the scene below belongs in:

How about this one?

Pushpak is a masterclass in blending location cues into quotidian scenes without making it overbearing or restrictive. Yes, it has other cultural codes as well – most notably its slightly rose-tinted view of class struggle – but to the audience of 1987, Pushpak’s location was unmistakable. Bangalore was a symbol of aspiration and sophistication. It wasn’t Bombay where only the most cutthroat survived, or Delhi where being politically connected was a prerequisite to success. Bangalore in the late 80s was the symbol of a gentrified, urbane city where you could rise to the top with just hardwork and dedication. All the location markers used in Pushpak point to this – from the Windsor Manor hotel where the above scene was shot to Commercial Street where the shopping scenes are set, Pushpak uses Bangalore to make a statement about the characters and therefore, of the audience. There are no crass song and dance sequences or over-the-top fight scenes that go on forever. Pushpak uses its location to make the audience feel good while entertaining without any of the frills commonly associated with Indian cinema.

But once again, Tamil cinema shows alternative ways to use location. Visaranai (2015) and Super Deluxe (2019) both use explicit location cues as part of a signalling strategy. Visaranai (“interrogation”) uses the age-old trope of Tamil oppression at the hands of Telugu overlords, but unlike Nayakan, instead of traversing an extended period, it almost freezes the movie in time and focusses on the goings-on around the interrogation of one group of men. The movie aims to lay bare the brutality of policemen towards migrant labourers but instead produces a jarring look at law enforcement in India in general.

Super Deluxe instead uses location almost nonchalantly, as if the locations of the characters don’t matter at all, except that if you’ve watched the movie (MAJOR SPOILER!) you know it really does in the end – it turns out that all the characters in the movie inhabit the same middle-class locality. Yes, there are other culture codes like caste politics (there are pictures of Ambedkar all over the movie), institutionalised violence, the consumption of porn in modern India etc., but those are all intertwined in the location. Using the cues in the movie alone, we can try to pinpoint where it’s located. So what are the cues we’re given? Here’s a few:

  1. Tamil boards everywhere
  2. Moderately-populated areas
  3. Low-cost housing
  4. Presence of a Marwari trading community
  5. Presence of a prominent film industry that employs
  6. Vast amounts of flat, empty land previously used for industrial purposes

You can almost immediately tell that the movie is based around suburban Chennai, possibly some of the northern parts like Manali or Ennore. Simple cues like the ones above are generally enough to know where the characters are located, and good directors always find a way to use the location effectively. Anurag Kashyap uses Mumbai’s various faces to great effect in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Ugly (2014), with the latter intertwining location markers with cultural codes like police brutality, mob justice, vulnerability of women and children, juxtaposed with an apathetic urban population’s “arrey yaar, there’s always some drama going on” attitude towards your neighbours.

Whereas class and language are broad-based and used to express sympathies or solidarity, location offers filmmakers something else, something more. It lets them use society to make a statement about society. I began with the statement that popular filmmakers hold a mirror to society and show it for what it is. That mirror is location, with class and language acting as the frame holding it together and giving it shape and maneuverability.

Jurisdictions of cinema

So, you may now agree, cinemas serve a political purpose and a cultural one. But that’s only the message and medium. What about the people watchign the movie whom it aims to inform or influence? This amorphous entity I call “jurisdiction“.

The audience of a movie is not the same as its jurisdiction. To consider why, let’s go back to the example of Thackeray. I noted briefly that the movie was released in two languages: Hindi and Marathi, with each getting a trailer that is markedly different from the other. Whereas the Hindi one is more artistic, the Marathi one is rougher, plainer, more honest. So, in reality, there is no single Thackeray: there are two entirely different ones. There’s the populist one made for national audiences, and the more pointed one for local audiences. These separate spheres of influence form the two dominant jurisdictions of Indian cinema. The national jurisdiction is broader and has largely convergent themes of Hindu orthodoxy, upper-class apologeticism, modernity and the irrelevance of regional boundaries. The local jurisdiction is narrower and has special quirks that make sure that each local jurisdiction diverges markedly from the other. Across local jurisdictions, identities are rigid and sticky whereas within each one, these same identities can be quite fluid and open to interpretation.

Language is, once again, the primary basis for the formation of local jurisdictions. In both trailers of Thackeray, the lead actor does not utter a single word in English, even though a supermajority of Indians would struggle to complete a sentence without using at least one word from English. In other words, Thackeray’s speech is an anachronism that serves to elevate the speaker to a higher level than the regular politician. In Super Deluxe, the language being used is not Tamil; it’s a very realistic amalgam of Tamil and English that’s the lingua franca of most urban Tamils. Delhi Belly (2011) barely uses any proper Hindi: instead, it’s almost entirely in Hinglish, an urban blend of Hindi interspersed with English. Most of rural India uses words that native speakers from urban India don’t understand at all. Likewise, urban India’s weird mix of English and vernacular is endlessly mocked by rural, “less sophisticated” people.

In the previous post, I spoke about how Salman Khan is almost the perfect foil to Shah Rukh Khan’s sophisticated, urbane Indian. This is all it boils down to: whereas SRK speaks to the national jurisdiction, Salman Khan speaks to the local. Their successes also remind us of something else: these two spheres aren’t necessarily opposed to each other, or unequal in any way. In most parts of India, movies are made to appeal to local and national sensibilities, and – all things being equal – both have the same potential to succeed.

Let’s consider for example the year 2005 in Kannada cinema. On the one hand, you had a clear local movie, Jogi, that was just the most perfect distillation of everything wrong with mainstream Kannada industry and its lionization of extrajudicial violence. It enjoyed a great amount of popularity in rural areas since it was seen as speaking to a local population about the corruption in cities, value of remembering your roots, respecting your mother, staying humble and all that commie jazz. Of course, most urban audiences disliked the movie, since they’d already moved away from graphic violence and were trying to embrace a more cosmopolitan filmography. Around the same time was released Amruthadhare, a very obviously national movie that tried to place marriage and traditional family values within the context of a modern India. While the language restricted its audience, there was no reason why Amruthadhare could not have been dubbed into Hindi, Tamil, Assamese or any other language without losing its cultural relevance. While Jogi spoke of specific and local issues like losing ones mother and not having enough to bury her properly, Amruthadhare picked up broader cultural issues which would not have appealed to rural audiences that were still grappling with lower-level issues.

To conclude, outsiders and pan-India urban audiences tend to be influenced by national movies, and rural and/or lower-class audiences tend to be influenced by local movies, and these two form two independent, overlapping and perfectly compatible spheres of influences that I will continue to call jurisdictions.

Thank you for your patience.

Categories
Culture Indian politics

The Unappreciated Politics at the Heart of Every Indian Movie

Movies are a huge part of Indian society. When I was a kid, movies were part of the tacit agreement between my grandfather and I: he would take me to one or two every weekend that I was staying with him, and in return I would safeguard some of his dirty little secrets. I got to share some of the snacks he got (roasted sunflower seeds, salted peanuts, popcorn and the such), even though there were some snacks that were off-limits (ice cream, soda, etc.) Overall, though, it was a fantastic deal.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Indian filmmakers have been some of the most active innovators in pushing the limits of the medium. International acclaim notwithstanding, Indian cinema has produced some undeniable masters of the art like Satyajit Ray, Girish Karnad and K Balachander. Several prominent political leaders have built virtual empires out of a start in film and theatre: think NT Rama Rao, MG Ramachandran, Prithviraj Kapoor etc.

Yet, despite its colourful history, there’s this notion that Indian cinema and politics are (or ought to be) separate. As if politics has never been an issue that Indian cinema has taken up and should thus be left out of the narrative. There’s a strong and persistent effort to make it seem like they they are just spectacles of colour, gaudy visuals, tasteless songs and crass humour. We see this in the recent uproar over CAA-NRC, which a number of filmmakers and actors have publicly opposed and protested against. Actors’ personal stance on politics have now become grounds for the public to reject movies and condemn them to failure.

My estimation is that this idea is false, both historically and contemporaneously. Furthermore, it stands to no level of scrutiny whatsoever. This post is my attempt to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Indian movies have never been far away from the politics of the day. To do this, I’ll be looking at the statement “Indian movies are heavily influenced by politics” from three different angles: geography, culture and history. Most of the sources in this post are from works and articles by MK Raghavendra; specifically from bits and pieces of ‘Bollywood‘, ‘Bipolar Identities’ (I haven’t read either, but I’ve managed to skim through them enough to get the gist of his argument). Stay with me throughout the text or skip to whichever section you find interesting. As a token of gratitude, I’ll also present some movie recommendations at the end.

But first I need to introduce to you … you: the moviegoer.

Supply and Demand

The Indian movie industry is vast: it employs upwards of 250,000 people, produces well over 1600 movies and rakes in over a billion dollars in documented revenue annually. The real revenue it generates is far in excess of this paltry number, since Bollywood has long been a known conduit for money laundering operators, especially the Mumbai mafia (colloquially known as the “underworld”). In fact, during the ’70s and ’80s, it was quite common for the mafia to hobnob with the rich and famous and bankroll blockbusters with absolutely no issues at all. Haji Mastan – one of India’s most well-regarded producers – is one of the most visible relics of that bygone era (read this article for a brief look into this love affair between Bollywood and the mafia).

Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Deewaar was based loosely on Haji Mastan’s life as a gangster. It would go on to become one of Bachchan’s most popular movies

Today, though, the picture is slightly different. Although the involvement of the underworld is quite well-known and continues quite unabated, it tends to be less overt and has mostly been substituted by entities from the political class, who see the movies as a sort of secondary income stream that they can bank on when not in office. For many art movies and movies that end up going straight from film festival to obscurity, the production cycle therefore begins and ends in the same place: a state-funded institute such as the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. From time to time, some end up being played on some Doordarshan channels, and absolutely nobody watches them. Because of funding pressures, these movies are intensely political because they are made by the political class for the sake of the political class.

Consider for example, the (fugly) website of the Films Division of the Indian government. As you click around, you realize that this is an organization with a strong Mumbai-centric view of Indian cinema: scrolling through the catalogue confirms this suspicion: there are several hundred dedicated to life in Mumbai, Hindi movies over the years, promotion of the Hindi language (there’s a whole category called ‘Hindi Promotional’) and hundred and hundreds of movies on Gandhi. We also find some movies on Bose, a couple on Savarkar and the Hindu right, a few on “South Indian cinema” and reams and reams of news videos (mostly from foreign sources). The catalogue is a reflection of how the political class sees cinema: a record of important events, an outlet for policy priorities, and a repository of ideas to be preserved for future generations. It is also a reflection of the underlying political purpose of Indian cinema: assimilation of the various Indian peoples under a broad Hindu-Hindi umbrella.

Although not produced by the state, Pardes is a good example of the Hindu-Hindi message suffused into Indian cinema. Ghai is also a known political actor with a filmography that can be gently described as “middle-class conservative Hindu”

So, art cinema and niche cinema is intensely political. But that’s not what most people mean when they talk about movies. They mostly mean popular cinema that you watch in cinema halls and on (non-DD) TV channels. Here, it makes sense to further separate the two major groupings that make up the audience: urban audiences and rural audiences. Some regional peculiarities aside, in the largest metros Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai, movie audiences tend to be more or less the same and can be studied as one bloc. Rural audiences, however, are vastly different across states, geographies and religious communities. For example, a Tamil Muslim audience has a vastly different worldview to a Marathi Muslim one. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll split “rural” movies along linguistic lines.

So, with the outline all figured out, let’s start with the most prolific and popular: mainstream Bollywood.

Bollywood and the art of class warfare

In order to understand Bollywood, it’s useful first to understand briefly the idea of “nationalism”. In order to do that, we need an idea of what it means for a group of people to become a “nation”. Benedict Anderson in “Imagined Communities” argues that nations are essentially self-declared political entities where every person feels that they belong to that group. In other words, a nation is an imagined community that is limited in its extent and membership, sovereign in its ability to handle its affairs, and shared among the members. A state, on the other hand (according to Bodin and Hobbes), is an entity that has a monopoly over violence and law-making. In contrast with nations, states are real – you don’t need to imagine India to be subject to its laws. The most powerful entities emerge when the idea of a nation coincides with a state actor: a “nation-state“. Most countries such as India, USA, Russia etc. are nation-states. The Irish nation, however, extends across the states of Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Within Russia, we find the nations of Tatarstan and Chechnya; but they don’t qualify as nation-states since they do not have full control over their affairs and Russia has the final say in most matters. India the state was created by the British over the course of the 19th century, but before India could break free of British domination, it had to become a nation. And that is where movies came in.

Since its inception, “Bollywood” has always played a vital role in nation-building. Before independence, Bollywood movies were filled to the brim with messages of the need for patriotism, valour and bravery. The need of the hour was to construct a national identity out of a vast number of disparate states and territories that had very little in common with each other. Writers such as Kavi Pradeep courted arrest and state pressure by using movies and songs to draw support towards the emerging freedom struggle. For example, at the peak of the Quit India Movement in 1943, an arrest warrant was issued against him for lyrics in the song ‘Door Hatho Ae Duniya Walo’ from the movie Kismet. The lines in question are:

Aaj Himalay ki choti se phir ham ne lalkaaraa hai

Door hato

Door hato

Door hato ai duniya waalon Hindustan humara hai

(Today we have declared from the Himalayas

Go away

Go away

Go away, Hindustan is ours)

Kavi Pradeep, ‘Door Hatho Ae Duniya Walo‘ from Kismet
The song ‘Door Hatho Ae Duniya Walo‘ from Kismet earned Kavi Pradeep an arrest warrant and he went into hiding for a month, waiting for the controversy to die down

The father of the nation, though, remained unconvinced. In interviews with the BBC and NYT, Gandhi was unambiguous in his view that cinema had nothing of value to offer the Indian public. However, his more pragmatic protege – Jawaharlal Nehru – was acutely aware of its potential as a unifying tool. When India gained inpendence from the British in 1947, Nehru made movies a key part of his popular outreach (a strategy that would be used by his daughter Indira during her reign from the late ’70s to early ’80s). It wasn’t just Nehru; wartime communication had taught world leaders that movies and radio were great tools of propaganda. None were more acutely of this than the USSR. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union felt the need to censor all subversive media, one of the first things to be banned was possession of Hollywood movies. But people need entertainment, and the Soviets saw this as an opportunity to push an anti-capitalist sentiment on its subjects. So, Bollywood was offered as the most benign, Catholic and infinitely more desirable alternative to Hollywood. Personalities such as Raj Kapoor, Sunil Dutt and Nargis were not just celebrities, they were also cultural ambassadors who conducted what’s come to be called “soft-diplomacy”, helping bridge the gap between India and the Soviet Union through song and dance.

By the late ’70s, Bollywood was an expected part of growing up in the Soviet sphere. To anybody with even a cursory understanding of 20th century geopolitics, it’s obvious why: from independence in 1947 right until the liberalizing market reforms of late ’80s and early ’90s, India was an intensely socialistic country that had quite openly rejected the American predatory-capitalist economic model. While most Indians may have been ambivalent about the capitalism-socialism debate, the state was not. The exemplary lives of Vinobha Bhave, Mahatma Gandhi and JP had lent some moral weight to simple choices such as cleanliness, simple living and personal freedom. The Indian state impressed these ideals upon the nation by using movies and books to drill the need for fraternity, charity, frugality and inclusivity in all social spheres. The widespread popularity of socialist values is precisely why we see the flood of movies with Marxist-socialist themes in the decades before 1991.

But the immense popularity of mid-century movies such as ‘Awaara’ cannot be explained in terms of outside support alone. Often, these movies were popular precisely because they acted as an outlet for the zeitgeist, allowing the masses to contextualize, verbalise and better articulate their reality. In other words, they were creating imagined communities or shared publics that viewers could then inhabit and communicate with.

Raj Kapoor’s ‘Awaara’ is a perfect embodiment of what made Bollywood an invisible arm of the Indian nation’s struggles, dreams and aspirations.

‘Awaara’ contains many elements of the quintessential mass-appeal Bollywood movie, so it’s worthwhile to articulate them properly. The movie follows a budding romance between a poor thief and a rich and well-meaning – but somewhat naive – heroine. Briefly, here’s the sparknotes version. The moral messaging is not even subtle:

  • Everybody’s created equal and is fundamentally the same in terms of joys, sorrows, shame, biases and inner conflict
  • Poor people are poor only due to the circumstances of their birth, and if only the rich shared their wealth more, there wouldn’t be so much desperation in the world
  • Everybody has a right to fair trial and a life of dignity
  • The court is an impartial entity that provides justice, regardless of a person’s ability to access it; but bad actors sometimes derail the process by relying too much on biases and prejudices

All of these are a reflection of independent India’s new democratic norms as dictated by a generation of erudite, anglophone Oxbridge leaders such as Nehru, Gandhi, Menon and Ambedkar who valued the primacy of the individual and wanted the Indian state to use its authority to educate the masses and reform society through impartial, sacrosanct institutions such as courts of law. Seen in the context of contemporary politics, ‘Awaara’ is an intensely socialistic movie that argues for people to set aside their prejudices and be more sympathetic to the plight of the poor. In pre-1992 Indian cinema, such motifs of equality, tolerance and smiling through struggle are everywhere. These motifs, in turn, produced a popular sentiment that valued poor underdogs, honest cops, charitable zamindars and benevolent dictators (a legacy of Indira Gandhi’s stranglehold over the Indian psyche).

The 1970s and 80s saw the reshaping of these ideals to fit a modern age: an age of gangster capitalism where stealing from your fellow man was the only way left to survive. A persistent “Hindu rate of growth” had created a painful shortage of things that India has no paucity of: food, skilled labour and hope. This was the peak of the “angry yound man” phase of Bollywood, where the restless protagonist raged against a system that no longer provided what he was promised, and constantly finds ways to undermine his worth. So, denied the right to a decent life, he takes a life. Denied a right to livelihood, he robs people. Denied a job, he makes his own: of conning people, robbing them and smuggling things he is not allowed to legally move. The state’s rules and restrictions around what is and is not allowed leeches into every part of society, and creates a whole new genre: the crime drama.

‘Sholay’ encapsulates the latent rage of the ’70s and ’80s in India

But in 1991, everything changed.

1991: The birth of the middle class

In 1991, as the Soviet Union descended into infighting and fragmented into a dozen new nations, India opened up its markets to Western firms. Althought the process had been going on in fits and starts since 1986, it really took shape in 1991 in the shadow of the balance of payments crisis. Under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank, the Indian government at the time went all in on long-pending market reforms. Business conditions were relaxed, key sectors opened up to private players, “Licence Raj” was abolished, export-import systematized and a vast bureaucracy was created to feed the aspirations of an emergent Indian middle class. Modern India was created. The impact on Bollywood was akin to a sugar-rush. As millions of new jobs opened up in the public sector and the private sector was energized like never before, the Indian populace forgot the principles of socialism, and got high on capitalism. A growing interest in Indian products, places and services (yoga, meditation, ayurveda etc.) upended social contracts prioritizing Gandhian ideals like redistribution, charity and humility.

It also brought more revenue, both in amount and in variety. As a result, the patrons of Bollywood were no longer the humble, huddled masses in UP or Bihar. They were increasingly to be found in Bombay, Poona and Madras. Starting in 1992 and continuing to the present day, Bollywood’s political compass took a sharp turn to the right. It decided that it was done pandering to the poor and would instead take a more militant approach towards their role in society. Where pre-1992 Bollywood emphasized equality and opportunity, post-1992 Bollywood spoke of utility, consumption and stratification. It glorified the acquisition of wealth, and began a process of undermining social institutions such as courts, police and bureaucracies that’s had a devastating effect on their perceived legitimacy while also lowering the standard they’re expected to live up to. (This is an idea I’ll revisit in some future post, but for now suffice it to say that the idea of the Indian nation was beginning to unravel a bit.)

In its place was inserted a sort of postnational, transcendental identity that sought to revive a long-lost Vedic ethos and bring it back to the centre of Indian thinking. These seemingly innocuous social conditions also led to the birth of neo-spiritualist organizations such as “The Art of Living” and “Isha Foundation” that sought to strip Hindu religious practice of its external religiosity while preserving the spiritual core. Part of this process was purely incidental: India was opening up and the opportunities brought foreign ideas and institutions into a conservative and aloof country. A large chunk was, however, entirely political: the statist Congress had read the writing on the wall and agreed to loosen market regulations, and by doing so had created the pirticular conditions for antistatist parties from the right – BJP, Shiv Sena etc. – to thrive. The emergent right churned out movies glorifying “desi culture” and repackaging old wives’ tales as heroic patriotic acts.

The archetypal post-1992 movie actually came out very early on: in 1996, in fact. When ”Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” came out, it shook the industry’s conception of where its audience was and what their aspirations were. The movie was so popular that for several years, new movie halls opened up in every small town and village just to play this one movie. It has been argued that the movie singlehandedly shifted the trajectory of Bollywood rightward, and led to an avalanche of pseudointellectual Hindu apologisms all using variations of the same tropes:

  • Indian culture = Upper-class Hindu culture (vegetarian, Ram-Sita worshipping, chaste, etc.)
  • Indian culture is superior to any other culture out there (even ones that are materially better off, like USA or UK)
  • Respect for elders is of utmost importance
  • Divorce is immoral and Western culture has been debased by indulgent men and women who marry people of their own volition
  • God decides how much money a person gets to have, so possession and accumulation of wealth is an indicator of piety. So, rich, upper-class people are paragons of morality and wisdom who must be obeyed at all costs
  • Superstition is okay as long as you say “science doesn’t know the answer to everything”
  • The ideal Indian-American family does not assimilate at all: they have a puja room, eat Indian food 3 times per diem, celebrate diwali every other day and harass white women when given the tiniest opportunity
  • Indians often forget how great their culture is, and must be reminded by the twice-born hero, who too was once seduced by allure of the West, but gave it up to be with his family and marry the girl they chose for him
  • Cool people wear shades indoors, play basketball, double-dribble like they’re having a seizure and have an indecipherable accent

Here, it makes sense to take a small detour and examine the explosion of country music. Country music was actually not popular at all when a majority of Americans still lived in the country; it took development and mass migration into cities before “country” went from mildly-offensive to nostalgic. Similarly, development and secularism brought awareness and heightened pride, which fed a feeling of nostalgia, that then created the necessary political economy for many Indians to revert to their Hindu roots. DDLJ practically created the classic Yash Chopra-Karan Johar stereotype of the sanskaari family. The movie, and more of its like (Dil to Pagal Hai, Pardes, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Kal Ho Naa Ho), were released at the same time that the BJP went from a two-bit regional player in central India to holding power for a full term in 1999-2004. The Hindu right was not only responsible for propping up the whole conservative faction in Indian politics, it also made cultural space for the idea of a spiritualist supranation that extended far beyond the country’s borders.

In doing so, these movies acted as a sort of homecoming for scores of non-resident Indians (NRIs), who could now call themselves Indian without any of the actual poverty, pollution, discrimination or misery of actually living in India. In a sense, Bollywood in the 90s gave a face to the metropolitan, modern Indian diaspora of the new millennium. And it was the youthful, cherubic visage of Shah Rukh Khan in his various incarnations as Raj, Rahul or Karan.

And he wasn’t the only Khan around.

The two Khans

In the midst of all this, the silent majority remained intact: scores of rural, Hindi-speaking youth migrated from villages to towns in search of jobs and a better life. The space vacated by emigrating upper-class Indians was quickly filled by a vast and growing wave from the inner reaches of the country where decades of development had failed to percolate. Villages where the panchayat was supreme and schools failed their tests were now centers of untapped political power; dusty, unpaved roads that led to unnamed villages living with prejudices that urban (and urbane) India tried to pretend had never existed. Soon, these communities found their political voice. After years of thumb-twiddling, the Mandal Commission’s recommendations were finally enacted, guaranteeing OBCs quotas in government jobs. The Act did more than just revolutionize politics: it brought the promise of power and jobs to those communities that had been denied them for millennia. The new millennium looked like a new dawn for India.

But there was a catch: in order to access that power, they had to hold on to their identities, for the selfsame caste and religious identities that formed the backbone of oppression now formed the basis of opportunity. This uniquely Indian contradiction was to be the basis of a new and revived polity that took pride in regional identities, did not care for English (except when they did) and wanted nothing more than to be seen and heard. They would no longer be mere sidekicks and punchlines: they were heroes in their own right. Proud, sturdy and garish heroes that were together more important than the suave, educated, smooth-talking, English-speaking urban elite.

In other words, the re-enfranchisement of rural India that brought to power people like Lalu Yadav and Deve Gowda also created Sallubhai.

If you’re feeling dizzy, I don’t blame you. We just sped through 60 years of Indian politics through the lens of Bollywood and the urban-rural divide. But it’d be disingenuous of me to suggest that the urban-rural divide is the only political rift playing out in Indian cinema. In my opinion, there’s at least one more essential factor to be considered here.

In the next part of this series (out next week, hopefully), we’ll examine the questions: why are Bollywood films so recognizably different from Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam or Kannada films? And why are they so different from each other?

The answer, of course, is politics. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Categories
Culture Indian politics Politics

A 2020 Guide to Talking Politics at the Dinner Table

It’s a new year, but it’s the same old shit. As usual, the world is burning in more ways than one, people are dying of entirely preventable causes, there’s a war in the Middle East, and on top of all that, there’s widespread discontent over our society’s treatment of women, minorities and economically weaker sections.

Inside, outside and all over everything – like sand at the end of a day at the beach -there’s politics. As MAGA culture competes with woke culture for primacy in the public sphere, it seems that we simply cannot avoid politics anymore. The class of people who say they’re “just not that political” appears to have disappeared entirely. In its place, we have a bold, militant and confident populace that seems to know the answer to every question, and a solution to every problem. Like an obese guy on an imbalanced diet of pure fat and sugars, many of us have unwittingly foregone a balanced news media diet, choosing instead to rely on Facebook and Whatsapp for all our information. While the exact ramifications of this shift will take a few years to unfold, what’s abundantly clear is that family dinners and social gatherings are now infinitely more contentious and uncomfortable. Nobody is willing to give an inch because we no longer share the same “undisputable facts” from which we can all agree to diverge.

The earth’s a sphere? Nope, fake news. Humans evolved from apelike creatures? That’s an opinion; not fact. Vaccines are the best thing ever? Think again. Climate change is real and is wiping out animals at an unprecedented rate? Debatable. Propositions that could easily be dismissed as “conspiracy theories” have been legitimized, propagated and amplified by world leaders who see them as immutable facts. As a consequence, public discourse has worsened, and disagreements go in endless circles, with each side seemingly chasing the other down an endless loop of Penrose stairs. More importantly, we’re starting to realize that the men and women we grew up around, looked up to and loved are really not great people.

In fact, some of them are just assholes. Remember that uncle you thought was nice because he got you candy from whichever country he was travelling to? Well, turns out he’s racist and thinks people trying to sneak across the border should be shot at sight. Your own father, who taught you to respect everybody regardless of their religion, skin colour or gender? He’s now a zealot cheering for every populist who vows to get rid of everybody who doesn’t look like him. Your distant relative who only shows up to weddings and always has the wildest, more fantastic stories to tell? He’s a literal Nazi.

This guide is for navigating conversations with these people. More generally, it is to allow you to cut through fluff and understand the heart of the matter without getting sucked into the argument.

OK, let’s do this.

Don’t try to avoid confrontation

This is the first and most important thing to do. If you try to avoid conflict by hanging around the potted plants, slinking out of arguments or just staring at your food without eating any, you will be spotted and called out. Some people (myself included) enjoy arguments, and some others also enjoy getting a rise out of people and making them feel uncomfortable. You know the type. That guy who wears a MAGA hat to a environmental event. By avoiding these people, you’re paradoxically making it more likely that they’re going to find you and confront you. So, don’t.

Always begin with a statement 90% people will have no problems with

For example: “such a shame that Australia is burning and the PM is away on a holiday in Hawaii. What an asshole.”

This does two things: first, shows that you mean well and allows you to break the ice fairly easily; second, you get to gauge the reactions from the crowd and see who the wackos are so you can focus on them. You can now be confident that not everybody hates you right off the bat.

The responses to the above example should ideally be some combination of “hmm, yes”, “I can’t believe his insensitivity”, “I’m sure he has some other competent person taking care of the fire, but it’s certainly not a good look”. The wackos will say something like “NO! That is NOT true! ScoMo is a genius who can direct his people from far away”, or may even jump the gun and say “wildfires are perfectly common in Australia in the dry season. It’s only the environmentally-conscious, bamboo-socks-wearing SJW libcucks who are whining about it.”

Resist the urge to say “OK, boomer!” because you are better than that.

Ask. Ask. Ask.

This is something I like to do, but I understand that it doesn’t always work, and takes a bit of patience to fully bear fruit.

Once you’re managed to get a feel for who the truly weird ones are, make a mental note of it. Then, begin asking them questions to help clarify their stance on the matter. After they’re done answering one question, ask them another follow-up question. Then another, then another. But keep in mind that you’re not trying to argue with them. Not yet. So, don’t state your opinions on the matter too clearly and try to stick as closely as you can to the question-answer-followup-answer-question […] format. Typically, you will want to frame questions in the following ways:

  • What do you think about <recent controversial event related to the argument at hand>?
  • Why do you think that?
  • Oh, is that an actual quote?
  • Where did you read/watch/hear that?
  • Do you have any personal experience of that?
  • Do experts in that field agree?
  • How do you know?
  • How come?
  • I have a friend who thinks <slightly weaker formulation of their view>. Do you think that’s true?
  • I read somewhere that <much stronger formulation of their view>. But that seems too extreme, right?
  • So, if you believe <statement A> and <statement B>, does that mean you also think <statement C>?
  • Am I correct in assuming that you also think <related statement other people generally make>?

While asking these questions, bear in mind that you’re not interrogating them, and nobody likes to feel like they’re being interrogated. So, try to keep things jovial and throw in a joke or two here and there (unless you don’t mind getting into screaming contests, in which case I suggest you go for it.)

If your adversary is a noob, they’d have tripped over themselves a few times already and said a few patently wrong/wildly offensive/absurd/contradictory things. When they do, call them out on it. If you are still trying to avoid conflict, you can just ask them if that’s contradictory and wait for a response.

Another pro tip here: follow this Q&A format when talking to someone you don’t entirely agree with. Who knows, their reasoning may just end up changing your mind.

Know the difference between “fact”, “opinion” and “belief”

Practically everybody knows the difference between fact and opinion. So, why do we still fight over what’s a fact and what’s an opinion?

The way I see it, a fact has to be more-or-less universally agreed upon to be of any value in an argument. If you’re bringing a statement to the table, it needs to be a “fact” to avoid spawning side-arguments about the legitimacy, sources, reasoning etc.

For example, “the earth is a sphere” could be considered a fact (until recently). However, “two out of three marriages end in a divorce” is not a fact. That’s because while the former statement is true regardless of when and where you make the statement, the latter is not. The statement “two out of three marriages end in a divorce” may be true in the USA at a given time, based on information from a certain website/data provider and for a specific time frame. It is NOT universally true: if you’re trying to have an argument about the legitimacy of marriage as an institution, it is completely unhelpful to make such broad claims because that’s asking for recursive side-arguments.

At an abstract level, practically everything we say is an opinion. That holds in arguments as well: you can make the wildest claims you feel like making because you’re entitled to an opinion. You can support your opinion and strengthen it by invoking famous personalities, scientific sources or popular media. However, that doesn’t necessarily make your opinion an “informed opinion” because:

  • Your reasoning may not be watertight
  • You may just have one source or nobody really believes your sources
  • You made a logical leap that your audience did not follow
  • Your predictions don’t make sense
  • There’s not much to be gained either way

So, whenever you argue based on facts, take care to mentally distinguish between solid facts, opinion and informed opinion. Separate them and build arguments using mostly facts and informed opinions. Try to avoid stating empty opinion.

Slightly apart from the above categorization of fact and opinion is “ideology”. Ideology is a set of governing principles or beliefs that you use to organize, structure and reconcile opinions. It may be fact-based, but doesn’t need to be. Ideology is the third key element of political thinking that people often forget. Disagreements about ideology are why some arguments can go on for hours without ever reaching a conclusion. For example, the opinion “people should be able to say whatever they feel like” is built around the beliefs that:

  1. expression is a fundamental right,
  2. people should be guaranteed a set of basic rights,
  3. everybody should be guaranteed the same set of basic rights, and
  4. individuals should be able to enjoy their rights however they see fit

Unlike opinions, beliefs are impervious to logical argumentation. For example, if I believe very strongly that humans are created unequal and therefore cannot be treated equally, how will you convince me using logic? Logic is inferior to beliefs because a logical system itself derives from some set beliefs about the importance of cohesion, the necessity to avoid contradiction etc. So, when your argument drills through layers of fact and opinion to finally strike a belief, know that you’ve gone as far as you’ll get. At that point, step back a bit and summarize what you’re agreeing about, and what you will continue to disagree about. You won’t always get them to agree to disagree, but you don’t need to keep disagreeing knowing it’ll get you nowhere.

Build your own ideological map

Pick any two beliefs that you think are the most significant in trying to understand someone’s political leanings, and try to judge where they stand on both those beliefs. For example, here’s a chart from Vox showing the ideologies of various American political figures:

It maps belief in two statements: “government support for minorities is good” and “wealth redistribution is good”. Not everybody believes in both, and belief in one is not an indicator of belief in the other.

Not entirely okay with that chart? That’s fine, because charts such as these are tools to view the politics of one specific country, at that specific time. Beliefs vary across regions, people change over time, and parties shift their ideologies to better reflect those in power (not the voters, silly!) The most perfect example of this shift over time is the rise of the Indian political right, which has caused the utter demolition of centrist positions.

Here’s a fantastic infographic showing the same thing (courtesy Rahul Verma on Twitter):

In Verma’s charts, he examines India’s political parties along two dimensions: “politics of recognition”, or the belief that some sections of society (lower castes, religious minorities etc.) have been treated badly through history and thus need to be recognized as such; and “politics of statism”, or the belief that the Indian state needs to actively involve itself in shaping societal norms and practices.

The two charts above are starkly different both in their scope and in the type of questions they ask. Yet, they are both useful in seeing people’s outward behaviour through their individual ideological lenses. Pick up one of the above, or make your own. It doesn’t matter as long as you have a certain framework to place people and their beliefs relative to each other and (maybe) pit them against each other.

Descend into the particulars

Because people have a whole range of beliefs inside them, it’s generally impossible in one sitting to know how similar they are to your own. So, it makes no sense to get into a virtue-measuring contest.

Instead, get down to the fighting pits and get your hands dirty. Ask them what they mean when they say something. Ask for details. Shed the ideology talk and get down to the argument: what is the specific statement, action or cause that is being argued over? Do not engage any “high level” bullshit about equality or rights or tradition. Define your stance and make them define theirs. If you’re arguing with multiple people, make everybody clarify their position and understand how each one is similar to another, or how it is different from the other.

So, instead of arguing over how good Mexican immigration to the US is, you should be discussing whether separating refugees from their children is a good idea. In place of saying Xinjiang is a humanitarian nightmare, you can be saying that “detention and reeducation camps” in various cities throughout Xinjiang have the potential to be places of immense violence and unspeakable horror, especially when you factor in the fact that China is as closed-off as a country can get. Instead of squabbling about whether the NRC-CAA is anti-Muslim, you should be fighting over the moral validity of making people produce documents they cannot possibly have, to please politicians that cannot possibly be convinced that an Indian Muslim can have just as much right to citizenship as an Indian Hindu.

Avoiding hoity-toity talk lets you keep the discussion civil because you’re not calling each other names. All you’re doing is discussing the relative merits of the two sides to a specific idea. That’s it. You also immediately get the moral high ground because you took the care to understand everybody’s position before jumping into the ring. Therefore, you are now the referee as well, and can exercise control over everybody in the group and call for peace and calm when things get out of control. And once the discussion is over, you harbour no animosity and can continue to try to chip away at their bigotry. Not only does specificity make your argument that much more convincing, it also gives you another opportunity to try if you fail the first time.

Imagine that. Change that keeps on changing.

Know your own biases and blindspots

As I said earlier, we all walk into an argument with our own beliefs and ideologies. And unlike opinions, you cannot easily shake beliefs. So, it always helps to audit yourself. Once in a while, sit back and take stock of where you stand with respect to a few fundamental questions: do I believe I’m equal to everybody else? Do I believe I need to be given any special privileges for being intelligent, smart, successful, rich etc.? Do I believe that the state should play a major role in deciding what is and isn’t acceptable in society?

For each question, rate yourself along a scale of 0-9, and file it away. Anything that’s less than 2 or more than 7 is a strong belief, and therefore a potential blind spot. These are your Achilles’ heels in any argument. Before placing someone on your ideological map, ask yourself whether your rating of them has anything to do with your biases. Over time, you’ll realize that many people you’d dismissed as “extreme” probably seem that way because you are pretty extreme yourself.

A conclusion

In testing times such as these, the world can seem bleak and hopeless. Maybe it is. But there’s also hope: schoolchildren are fighting for their world, the disenfranchised are clawing into positions of power, women are taking over businesses and businesses are taking responsibility for their actions. It will take time for the world to correct its path, and 2020 won’t be the year we all see a better world. But, one person at a time, we can make sure that we aren’t hating when we can be convincing, fighting when we can be arguing, or hurting when we can be educating.

But beware the peddlers of Moore’s paradox: “it is raining, but I don’t believe that it is raining”. Or, in its more quotidian form: “what you are saying is right, but I don’t believe that you are right”.

Categories
Uncategorized

Year-end book review: 2019

For all its political and economic turmoil, 2019 was a good year for me. I managed to get through 25 books including 6 audiobooks. This was a marginal improvement over 2018’s tally of 22 books. As a standard from now, I’m going to be using the rigorous FPOS-BOTY ratings scale developed retrospectively over several minutes:

RankRatingExplanation
Best of the yearBOTYThe bestest, most truly impressive work of the year. Generally, a work of pure genius or profound understanding. Not to be trifled with.
Not quite best of the yearNQBOTYA truly outstanding work, but for whatever reason wasn’t as impressive as the BOTY. Has some flaws, sure, but who doesn’t really?
Good, great or whateverGGWA work so good, I thought it was good and made a mental note of some good ideas. Points were probably docked for bad writing, excessive length etc.
Fun readFun!Works that made me laugh, cry (unlikely), emotional in any way or contributed to my growth, improvement or general wellbeing.
Great idea; could’ve been betterGI;CBBThought-provoking, but no more. I remember bits and pieces of how I felt reading it, but the book didn’t leave a strong impression. Either that, or I’ve forgotten all about it.
Orl KorrectOKWorks that deserve the equivalent of a consolation prize for valiant effort but pathetic execution.
Fine read; but don’t botherFR;BDBEither it started good and went to shit later, or took a good idea too far. Either way, just read an online summary or something.
Meh.Meh.A work of true mediocrity. In spite of all my efforts, I couldn’t find one reason to recommend this book. But at the same time, if you’re stuck in a room with nothing else, I wouldn’t really hate you for reading it.
Tiresome, repetitive or unnecessaryTediousA frustrating read. More than likely that I gave up midway and picked up something else.
GarbageTrashI have strong opinions about this, and will remember why I hated it so much. Express any admiration for the book and I’ll come at you.
Flaming piece of shitFPOSAn unmitigated trainwreck of a book that I wish never existed. I hate the author for wasting my time with this horrendous attempt at writing, and my views on the matter have soured my relationship with whoever suggested it in the first place.

With that out of the way, here’s the full list of books (I understand that audiobooks can be affected by several factors such as narration, editing, production quality, recording quality, pacing etc. that have nothing to do with the writer. So, I’ve tried to be fair by only rating the content of the audiobook)

Title (A: Audiobook)GenreRating
Silk RoadsHistory, Military HistoryBOTY
Ideology and IdentityPolitics, HistoryNQBOTY
The LaundromatEconomics, Finance, PoliticsGGW
The Idea of IndiaPolitics, HistoryGGW
Lord of The FliesFictionFun!
1Q84 (A)FictionFun!
Bad BloodBiography, BusinessFun!
Origins of Political Order (A)HistoryFun!
Discovering BengaluruHistory, CultureGI;CBB
The Future of CapitalismEconomics, Politics, BusinessGI;CBB
Gita Press and The Making of Modern IndiaHistory, PoliticsOK
Fall and Rise of China (A)HistoryOK
In My Father’s House (A)Crime, PsychologyOK
Mughal WarfareMilitary History, HistoryFR;BDB
ErebusHistoryFR;BDB
HungaryHistory, PoliticsMeh.
The Future is AsianEconomicsMeh.
Greatest Love Story Ever Told (A)BiographyMeh.
This Unquiet Land (A)History, PoliticsMeh.
Elephants and KingsMilitary History, History, EconomicsMeh.
State of AfricaHistory, GeopoliticsTedious
Strategy (A)Military History, HistoryTedious
1421Historical Fantasy*Trash
How to Win Friends and Influence People (A)Self Help, BusinessTrash
The Moral LandscapePsychology, History, Self HelpFPOS
* 1421 is based on historical figures such as Zheng He, and captures some of the personalities’ lives very well, but veers off into speculative reasoning using some very flimsy evidence. There’s a whole world of actual historical evidence to rebut some of the points made in the book. But since it’s impossible to prove the absence even in the absence of proof, I’ve had to label it “Historical Fantasy”.

Findings

Books in each genre
  • As expected, fiction didn’t really figure in my reading decisions. The lone exception – ‘Lord of The Flies’ – is because it’s now considered a modern classic and essential reading. So, it was almost inevitable that I’d read one or two
  • The range of topics I’m interested in appears to have shrunk a lot over last year. This is easy enough to explain: I tried to read fewer books on philosophy this year because I felt like I was done going over the famous works, and the rest seemed either too esoteric or just unreadable (eg. Kant, Hume etc.). So, I realized that there’s only so much my casual interest in philosophy can get me and I simply moved on.
  • History and Politics dominate like never before, and it’s come at the expense of books on Science and Business. My tastes are what they are, and I don’t try to control which direction I should take my mind in. So, while the lean towards history is very interesting and somewhat surprising (even to me), I’m not going to consciously correct it.
  • My reading got decidedly more diverse this year, encompassing cultures, histories and personalities from China and India to Africa and Easter Europe. This is soemthing I’ve been trying to achieve, and I’m glad that I’ve made some progress towards having a more cosmopolitan understanding of my place in society.
  • As usual, I still hate Self Help, Biographies and preachy books on “Psychology” that have no (or extremely flimsy) factual evidence to support their thesis.
  • Recent bestsellers are prominently absent, which is something I’ll have to work on in 2020.

What made ‘Silk Roads’ 2019’s BOTY?

There’s so much that’s great about Silk Roads that I just have no idea where to begin. For one, it completely shakes up the traditional understanding of history as a mostly Eurocentric process that began with democracy in Athens and ended with the rise of the USA after the end of the Cold War. Silk Roads takes a sledgehammer to that silly notion and shows that actually, world history has always revolved around the silk roads that passed from China to the cities of Venice, Acre and Vienna in Europe.

From the dawn of civilization in Nineveh, Ur and Akkad to the plunderous raids by the Huns, Mongols, Visigoths and Timurids in the middle ages, the Silk Roads have dictated which people rose and who fell. From the ancient flow into Europe of silk, metals and porcelain from China, lapis lazuli, gold and spices from India to the recent flow of oil, arms and migrants, these same silk roads have also shaped the choices that nations and cities have made.

‘Silk Roads’ as a book is so beautifully crafted that it leaves the reader in doubt that history as we’ve learned it is completely wrong and useless. It also serves as a clear example of why the study of history is valuable, and gives you an idea of how to teach history: as a great story involving imperfect people making flawed choices in pursuit of relatable objectives. Not a simple procession of people, kingdoms and objects with no clear beginning or end.

A note about this year’s FPOS: ‘The Moral Landscape’

No other book has disappointed me as much as ‘The Moral Landscape’. The book not only managed to completely miss the whole point, but also completely unironically became its own caricature. At times, reading it felt like some sort of penitent self-flagellation for having considered myself a fan of Jordan Peterson many many years ago. From the first line, the author never tires of using outdated metaphors, offensive characterizations and completely fallacious arguments. Name a logical fallacy (follow link for big brain intellectual names given to commonplace mistakes people tend to make) and you can find it in ‘The Moral Landscape’. Ad hominem? It’s there. Straw man? Yep. Big Lie? Oh, yessir!

The thing is, Jordan Peterson is actually trying to show that “liberals” are the fools. In the process, he reveals how much of an airhead he is. For all his professed calm, calculated nature, he comes off as an unhinged lunatic fanatically opposed to giving an inch to anybody, whether on the right or on the left. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at the evidence: my (relatively) detailed notes about why I hated it so much. Enjoy. And have a wonderful 2020 by avoiding this book at all costs.

Categories
Indian politics Politics Society

Lynchings and Hangings Solve Nothing

Another day, another brutal murder-rape in India. This time, the scene of the gruesome gangrape and murder of a veterenarian wasn’t Delhi, Gurgaon, Allahabad or Patna. It was the relatively safe, “progressive” city of Hyderabad. Understandably, everybody is furious. A widely circulating video on social media asks for the lynching and chemical castration of the accused.

There is a perverse kind of logic here: if you brutalize people enough, they are going to think twice about brutalizing women. Not only is this kind of thinking reductionist and against constitutional norms, it’s also completely missing the point. At best, brutal punishments are a bad solution to the wrong problem; at worst, they are inhumane and ripe for abuse.

The reductionist manifesto

The most important reason societies fail to prevent such heinous crimes against women is actually quite simple: they fail to realize that rape by an individual is fundamentally different from gangrape. The former is a power equation between the two people involved, but the latter is a reflection of the dynamics of the victim’s and the rapists’ identities within the community.

A lone rapist needs two things to carry out his act: proximity to his victim, and the knowledge that he can get away with it. An uncle molesting his underaged nephew is aware of these factors, as is the boyfriend taking advantage of his new girlfiend. Sometimes, proximity comes from mere physical distance: as we can see in the numerous cases of rapes committed by cab drivers. But other times, the perpetrators use emotional proximity as a lever to coerce the victim into acts she may not be comfortable with. Assaults of this kind are common to the point of invisibility: in college dorms, buses, homes, schools, parks. Everywhere you can have two people in seclusion, you can find the potential for sexual attacks. Proximity is the biggest factor in rapes: according to the NCRB, in 94% of all rapes, the victim and the culprit knew each other before the rape. So, rapes are personal.

However, gangrapes are a different beast. The perps only really need to be aware of one thing: the weakness of their victim’s identity. Every woman is acutely aware of this. Walk through any large city and you see signs of it everywhere: men leering at every woman walking past them, making passes at them while every man nearby pretends that nothing’s happening. Time and time again, victims of gangrape have to pierce through layers of inscrutable prejudice against their identity.

When the victim is a young person with hopes, dreams and careers she aspire towards by dint of her equal constitutional rights, the rapists see a woman. A weakling who cannot resist. Nothing else matters. Does not matter if the woman is rich, famous or outspoken. Every woman is fair game for the gangbanger. This helplessness of the Indian woman is exacerbated by onlookers, authorities, the general public and even some parents that follow the familiar logic of: “oh look, a young woman who wants to look good! I bet all that attention from those men is exactly what she wanted.” So, if you want to fix the problem of gangrapes, it is useless to target the individuals who are directly responsible. What you need a much broader definition of what it means to “be responsible”. Whereas rape by an individual is an inherently personal act, a gangrape is necessarily communal.

It takes a whole village

Take your mind back to the now-forgotten gangrape of Asifa Bano in a village near Kathua. She was abducted in broad daylight, sedated, raped over several days and murdered. The most important part of this whole horrible affair is that she was held captive in a temple where villagers offer prayers thrice a day. The family was known to be part of a socially weak community facing severe pressures to move out.

When the accused were found to be members of a radical Hindu outfit, leaders quickly picked sides. Women and child rights activists picked the side of the victim, while village elders, community leaders and politicians implicitly took to defending the accused. Several members of the ruling party took part in protests supporting the accused, where women threatened to burn themselves in public if the accused were not released. Even lawyers showed up at courts blocking authorities from filing the necessary paperwork. Civic communities expressed their outrage by demanding the death penalty for the accused, calls which were routinely suppressed by the police, media and politicians playing their own cynical games.

A further level of responsibility lay on the officers responsible for the investigation. Several policemen were found to have tried to prevent witness testimony and some were arrested on suspicion of trying to tamper with evidence. Many of them had received bribes to suppress the case. When the attention turned to the relationship between the policemen and the accused, it was shown that the policemen had allowed patently false “evidence” to be produced.

Look at the chain of events and you see a familiar pattern emerging: between the victim and justice lies a whole world jealously guarding the rapists. And none of it is addressed by reflexive demands for lynching and castration.

Harsh punishments don’t deter crime

This is a simple point, but one that popular media has yet to realize: harsher punishments don’t really deter crime. Time and time again, academics have shouted from every stage that would allow them that the current retributive attitude towards justice is completely wrong.

A 2014 study undertaken by the National Research Council announced that one of its “most important conclusions is that the incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best.” In other words, threatening people with increasingly harsh punishments doesn’t discourage crime. And it’s not just for longer prison sentences; even death penalty has little effect on the incidence of crime. Amnesty has said so for years now, but like everything these days, it’s fallen on deaf ears.

If anything, harsher punishments encourage bargaining behaviour, which makes it less likely that the perps actually face any action. For the sake of simplicity, let’s take an example of a traffic offence. If you’re facing a fine of $50, you’re likely to try to bribe the policeman with $30 so you can walk away and the cop can pocket the bribe. When facing a criminal sentence (like for drunken driving), you may decide to negotiate with him the price of your freedom. Let’s say you’re looking at a 6 month prison sentence. You may take the view that 6 months in the can is worth $5000 to you. So, you bribe the policeman the amount and walk out. Now, let’s say that a rich guy killed a few homeless people while driving under the influence. Let’s say this changes public attitude towards DUIs and the authorities decide that punishments need to be stricter – maybe 5 years in the can. Now, if you’re caught driving drunk, you’re going to think that 5 years is worth at least $15000. You promptly pay the cop and he pockets the money. The cop tells his cop friends and they realize that there’s money to be made in catching people drunk. Now, even otherwise decent cops get into the game, offering to free “harmless” or “just over the limit” alcoholics for a price. If corruption was at a 20% level earlier, now it’s likely to be 50%. If you raise the punishment further because everybody seems to be getting away with it, you’re likely to find nearly 100% corruption, under-reporting and a complete breakdown of the logic you began with.

This is exactly what we find in India with rapes. In our zeal to impose higher and higher punishments on rapists, we’ve given rise to a system where policemen take bribes to not register cases, intentionally perform shabby investigations, falsify evidence and tamper with witness testimony. India is not unique in this aspect: most countries with harsh punishments for rapists suffer similar issues. A BBC article quotes a lawyer saying “police are biased against women and are hesitant to even register cases of gang rape as that would mean the death penalty for a group of men. To circumvent that, often the case would be registered against one man only.” Even a government-appointed panel in India did not think that raising the intensity of punishment was going to have any effect.

So, yes, we all want justice. But there is a better way to achieve it than by simply increasing punishment.

The role of institutions

Research shows that the certainty of punishment is much more important than the severity. If you know for sure that your actions will face consequences, no matter how small, you’re likely to stop and evaluate whether it’s worth the effort. Countries that do a good job of providing a safe space for women do so from the ground-up.

A crucial part of this chain of trust is the role played by institutions such as the judiciary, law enforcement, civic groups and governmental agencies. Which one of us can confidently state that a stricter rape law, if enacted, would be enforced with equal vigour? None apart from the most delusional think that anything will change by increasing the sentence. Other than the possibilities of bribery, corruption and bargaining, there are countless other problems with Indian institutions that make them woefully inept at handling crimes against women.

First, there’s the universal “boys will be boys” defence offered by most men. This coupled with the fact that marital rape is not a crime means that most policemen don’t even recognize rape when they see it, and will therefore try to kill the crime before it even makes it to a police report. Second, there’s the bhav system endemic to India. If a policeman recognizes one of the accused, he’s likely to arrange for a negotiation and try to broker a deal that saves the culprit any public shaming. Once this is done, the policeman gains prestige and respect for being an “honourable man”.

A third problem, sometimes overlooked, is that laws that are “tough on crime” are almost always just “tough on minorities”. Government statistics show that the overwhelming majority of death row prisoners are from lower castes or religious minorities. Does this mean that upper-class Indians are somehow more virtuous than the rest? No, not at all. Quite the contrary. They are just very good at using institutions to cover their tracks.

Which brings me to the fourth and final problem: “incompetence on demand”. Indian policemen, investigative agencies and lawyers are fantastic at feigning incompetence when it’s convenient. When pursuing a case against a Muslim or an SC culprit, every single arm of the government works overtime; the PM comes out to congratulate the country when the guy is hanged, the burden of proof is shifted to the accused and “innocent until proven guilty” is all but forgotten. But a funny thing happens when the accused is upper-caste, or when they are politically connected. Suddenly, the system bends over backwards to mess up at every single chance.

As an example of the level of institutional incompetence I’m talking about, consider the Malegaon blast case from 2006. To a time when Times of India was a respectable newpaper and two full years before 26/11 blasts, and before all this hullabaloo about Islamic terror. The Malegaon case charged several high-profile political actors of conspiring to cause terror with the intention of making it seem like a Muslim plot. The case was watertight from the beginning, but somehow languished in the courts for 8 years. As soon as the BJP government came to power in 2014, the documents went “missing”, key witnesses turned hostile and the case just began falling apart. Many of the accused like Sadhvi Pragya Singh and Lt. Col. Prasad Shrikant Purohit got out on bail and now roam as free (wo)men.

Is this the institution that’s supposed to uphold stricter laws and bring rapists to justice?

Any way you look at it, the Indian criminal justice system is completely incapable of doing its job. Anybody placing their faith in this lopsided system is either unaware of ground realities or just plain complicit in the takeover of our institutions.

Crimes against liberal values

As I said earlier, no gangrape can exist divorced from the identities of the victim and the rapists. And yet, societies do precious little to elevate the weak and vulnerable. Every time we talk about the need to burn the accused or lynch them in public, we are failing the victim all over again.

Where the need is for a recognition of institutional blindness to women’s issues, we get calls for surveillance. Where we need to be giving young women more agency in matters of personal choice, we talk of even less choice. Where we need to be expanding the right to live a life of dignity, we want instead a world with more restrictions. When we should be expanding access to legal intruments, we talk instead of giving these corrupt and venal policemen even more powers. How does any of this make sense?

Burning the accused solves nothing. Mandatory death penalty does not change the fact that our insititutions are filled with corrupt actors. Village elders, panchayat leaders, politicians, policemen, lawyers all conspire to suppress the discovery of crimes by the powerful. Where are the accountability measures needed to keep them in check?

When a case like Kathua that the entire nation was watching can end up in a farce of a trial, how can we ensure that any trial will lead to a conviction? How can we even be sure that the ones we set on fire are the ones who committed the crime? In every single major crime, the impulse is to frame some convenient outcast: generally a Muslim, lower-caste or poor person with limited influence in the political sphere. By extinguishing their life without due process, we are shutting out any possibility of finding out who actually commits these crimes. How can we reform society without any insights into whom it’s actually benefitting? We see lynchings, hangings and burnings as a quick solution. But why does a solution need to be quick? Whom are we actually helping by impulsively punishing the first ones we can find?

Is all this righteous outrage for public consumption? I believe that yes, it is. Every time some Jaya Bachchan or Maneka Gandhi condemns “crimes against women” by asking us to take the law into our own hands by punishing some convenient scapegoat, they are depriving the term “justice” of all meaning.

Why do we need elected leaders and the powerful if they’re just going to ask us to resort to some DIY justice?

Outrage is a weapon for good

No tempest or conflagration, however great, is harder to quell than mob carried away by the novelty of power

Cicero

India is no stranger to social change. In recent years, everything from the Vishakha Commission to the Nirbhaya Act has been as a result of relentless public demand for something to be done about the impotence of women in public spaces. The very bottom-up nature of this means that nothing happens without us speaking up and holding up values we find dear.

But in the process, let’s not forget that justice is not the same as retaliation.

Categories
European Politics Politics

Swiss Neutrality: Convenient Practice More Than Steadfast Principle

There’s a whole laundry list of things that modern societies want out of their nation: a strong economy, stable democratic government, rule of law, friendly relations with neighbours, unchanging racial makeup, positive trade balance, an admiration for art and culture, a sense of history and patriotism and, finally, neutrality in international affairs. On the latter criterion, for most people, there exists an actual place that seemingly has it all. To them, the embodiment of neutrality is a small alpine nation wedged between France and Italy: Switzerland. Switzerland has not only never fought a war against another state for 500 years or so, but is actually recognized by the UN as a neutral country in most international affairs. I like the idea of “perpetual neutrality”, but I think the Swiss case demonstrates an important point about the reality of neutrality: staying neutral doesn’t automatically make you the good guy. I see neutrality in three dimensions: military, economic and political. Let’s begin at the deep end: military neutrality and why it was never the same as pacifism.

What even is military neutrality?

Switzerland has stayed neutral for a long, long time. In 1815, after Napoleon’s death released Switzerland from France’s grip, the Congress of Vienna enshrined the “perpetual neutrality” of the Swiss state. Even in the two World Wars, Switzerland remained neutral, as article after article breathlessly declares. There are two issues with this narrative: first, it hides the extent to which Switzerland was actually complicit in the affairs of repressive regimes; second, it also obscures how gargantuan Swiss military really was (and is).

Switzerland was never as neutral as we now think it is. In 1998, an independent inquiry headed by the Swiss historian Jean-François Bergier found that Swiss officials helped Nazi officials achieve their goals by closing off their borders to Jewish refugees, essentially dooming them to the concentration camps. Not only that, there was also a growing anti-Semitic movement within Switzerland itself that fanned the flames of the Holocaust. And what did the Swiss in their high chairs do about it? Nothing. Actually, worse than nothing. The Swiss authorities used their “neutrality” as an excuse to continue to allow Nazi sympathizers extraordinary freedoms within the borders of Switzerland, while denying Jews the same. None of this came as a result of pressure from Nazi Germany or lack of information either. The report spells out all the ways in which the Swiss military actively conspired with the Nazis. For example, Switzerland introduced “J-stamps” on the passports of Jewish citizens. So, if a Swiss Jew were to even try to help a German Jew, Nazis could easily find out who was helping whom. These stamps made surveillance and censorship comically easy. It did not stop there. Unlike the US and UK, which had no real understanding of ground realities until very late in WW2, Swiss authorities knew better than anybody else what was going on in Germany. Local exiles, aid groups and other humanitarians gathered a mountain of evidence – including photographs – that showed in remarkable detail how Jews were being deported and exterminated in concentration camps. And yet, Jewish refugees were denied entry into Switzerland.

Second, Switzerland wasn’t exactly a helpless little puppy. In 1942, Time reported that man for man, the Swiss army is second only to Germany in Europe. At its height, Switzerland maintained an army of 600,000 men that could be mobilized in less than an hour. These two armies even got into some limited confrontations from 1942-45, most famously when German planes were shot down by Swiss aircrafts for violating their airspace. Throughout the war, Switzerland was also bombed by the Allies several times, both intentionally and otherwise. Beginning in 1943 and over the space of a year or so, the town of Schaffhausen was almost flattened by Allied bombing, which led to some intense moments but no lasting damage to their relations. The Swiss also maintained a network of prisons and internment camps throughout the border regions. These were known to be places of squalor and intentionally brutal treatment of Jews. Here’s a bit from an article summarising the conditions:

The commandant was a pro-Nazi sympathiser called Captain André Béguin. He was in command despite having been expelled from the Swiss Army in 1937 for fraud and assaulting policemen. He was known to wear a Nazi uniform and signed his correspondences with “Heil Hitler”. He was hardly the right man to run a neutral internment camp and it showed. The barracks were cold sheds and prisoners slept on wooden boards covered with straw. The latrines were slit trenches, the food was atrocious and there were vermin everywhere.

Béguin publicly berated Americans, held them in solitary confinement and denied them Red Cross parcels. Prisoners would emerge from Wauwilermoos malnourished and ill. Many Swiss citizens reported that conditions in the camp were paradoxically in violation of the 1929 Geneva Convention. Despite protests from Allied countries and Swiss army officers and journalists Béguin was not removed until 1945.

Cut to the present day and the Swiss army is still no stranger to conflict. Since WW2, it has been on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea. Even after the realities of the Iraq War were revealed, Switzerland took its own time about pulling troops out of there.

So, the facade of neutrality hasn’t exactly stopped Switzerland from brutality and violence. Is this what neutrality looks like? To most, not at all.

No such thing as free policy

Okay, the Swiss don’t have any military neutrality. But what about political neutrality? This is a moot question. There can never be a truly politically neutral state. The Non-Alignment Movement of the mid-20th century was a great statement of autonomy by its signing members, but ultimately failed. That’s because over time, staying neutral on the international stage while having to face democratic politics at home becomes untenable. Switzerland is no different. While not a part of the NAM or NATO, Switzerland is a NATO partner state. As such, it has actively sided with the US and its allies for the longest time and, at least on one occasion, sanctioned Soviet officials by preventing them from using the country’s ski resorts. Of all he things it could have done, the country picked ski resorts! Bold move, Switzerland.

Let’s also not forget that it hosts several arms of the UN, Red Cross and various other humanitarian missions. Its position, therefore, is similar (if not identical) to the positions of these agencies on most geopolitical matters. So, for all intents and purposes, Switzerland is a traditionally “liberal” Western democracy.

Where’s the neutrality in that?

War is undiluted opportunity

Quick quiz: we all know that the Nazis stole gold, jewelry and artwork from Jews throughout Germany and many parts of France. So, what happened to all that wealth once the war was over? Was it returned? Was it confiscated? And what happened to the people who helped stash all this wealth?

The answers: Not much, not really, no, nothing.

Switzerland was the country of choice for Nazi officials looking to stash their ill-begotten gains. An investigation by Israeli authorities showed that approximately 80% of all the wealth plundered from Jews was never recovered. In 1946, Switzerland returned $250 million of cash, gold and artworks and washed its hands of all responsibility. In 1997, declassified documents and deeper inverstigations showed the extent to which Swiss bankers were willing to work with any and all who were willing to bank with them. After the war, they proved impossibly hard in the Allies’ efforts to return stolen goods to their rightful owners. For Switzerland, “neutrality” just means that you can take money from all and give it back to none.

The thing is, this is an old trick that “neutral states” have played for centuries, if not forever. During the crusades, as Christian Europe was locked in a pseudo-religious battle with the Muslim states of Asia, the city-states of Venice, Genoa and Pisa projected themselves as principled “neutral” parties who could not be convinced to join either side. However, as soon as it became clear that the potential reward was Constantinople itself, everybody picked sides in an instant. And once together, they sacked and pillaged the most magnificent city of its time.

Venice in the Dark Ages was very similar to Switzerland today: a mercantile state with a strong economy and relatively stable institutions. During the Fourth Crusade, when the Christian armies fancied an attempt to take Constantinople, Venice was under the rule of Enrico Dandolo: an ambitious, cunning and mercantile Doge who justified joining the crusade by proclaiming that Venice had a duty to protect and advance her interests.

In April of 1204, Constantinople was sacked and pillaged by the Venetians and the European crusaders. After the fall of Constantinople, the Venetians and the European crusaders established the Latin Empire. The Latin Empire was the division of the city of  Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine territories throughout the Mediterranean region among the Venetians and the other crusader-nations. The majority of Constantinople and the other Byzantine territories were held by the Venetians, and subsequently the most strategic ports, beneficial for the continuation of trade throughout the new Latin Empire, also came under Venice’s control.

University of Mary Washington, from John Norwich’s “A History of Venice”

To add another level of historical parallel to the stories of Venice and Switzerland, the Venetians brought many Byzantine spoils back to Venice and affixed them to the exterior of San Marco to represent their dominance over the fallen Byzantine Empire. Even today, many of the major landmarks of Venice like St Mark’s Basilica shamelessly bear artworks stolen from Byzantium. Just like how Switzerland today shamelessly exhibits the instruments it uses to steal works and shield them from international scrutiny. This article in Eurozine perfectly captures the blatant hypocrisy of Switzerland’s claim to neutrality:

In the post-war negotiations between the Allies and the Swiss government on the handling of German assets and looted gold, Swiss politicians at home defined the issue as a case of David versus Goliath. A strong body of opinion saw the struggle as a vain attempt to uphold the sanctity of private property against infringements by the Great Powers. In November 1946, the chief Swiss negotiator, Walter Stucki, accused the Allies of having violated the principles embodied in their own Atlantic Charter. The fact that, in March 1945, Switzerland had bowed to American pressure and agreed to freeze all German assets, prohibit dealing in foreign currencies, and restrict the purchase of gold from Germany, was, he stated, the result of pressure worse than anything Göring had ever attempted, a violation of principles in a world “lacking material and moral foundations”, where Switzerland found itself in “dangerous political isolation”. The irony of a singularly narrow-minded definition of Swiss national interest proclaiming itself to be the embodiment of universal norms only became apparent to the world five decades later, when the World Jewish Congress and the Eizenstat report confronted the Swiss authorities on the matter of wartime Jewish property.

Arne Ruth in Eurozine

William Tecumseh Sherman said “war is hell”. Switzerland heard “war is opportunity”.

Neutrality of convenience

The most perfect encapsulation of Switzerland’s strategy of “enrichment by neutrality” is this dour building in Geneva roughly twice the size a Walmart Supercenter:

Geneva Freeport

This building hosts the Geneva Freeport, the most important building of its kind in the world. This, like any other Freeport, is a building designed to be outside any financial scrutiny, and thus, exists almost as an island completely insulated from any attempts to know what goes on inside.

Such a thing, naturally, is very useful if you happen to have expensive tastes and don’t want to hide them or pay taxes on them. If you stash an artwork in the Geneva Freeport, you don’t have to pay any taxes on it. Better still, you don’t even need to pay any charges or make any disclosures if you sell it to another person who also happens to use the freeport. It’s like a black hole into which several important pieces of art have a habit of disappearing. And a bit like the black hole information paraox, there also exists a “Geneva Freeport Information Paradox”, as exemplified in the case of the Nahmad family’s attempts to hold onto a painting stolen by Nazis and then stashed away in the freeport.

The Swiss Army knife of excuses

I know I haven’t really bothered to build a strong narrative through this post. But this post isn’t about a story. It’s about the utility of “neutrality” as an argument of convenience for countries that lack the spine required to do the right thing. Yes, I’ve picked on Switzerland and yes, some of my arguments are based on a specific reading of history. But this point can just as easily be made about Sweden, Venice and Israel at various points in their respective histories. Staying impartial, many times, is just a coward’s way of agreeing with the powerful.

The case of Switzerland shows that staying “neutral” is much easier than we think, and also much more profitable than we realise.

PS: A great peek into the world of secrecy and the economics of abetment is in The Laundromat by Jake Bernstein, which breaks down what makes Switzerland such a shady dealer in the financial world, and dedicates a whole chapter to the Geneva Freeport.

Categories
Culture Reviews

Walden Ponderers

I have a problem with Henry David Thoreau. I know Americans love him, and I also know that everybody who’s anybody quotes Thoreau like they were included in his will. So forgive me for saying this, but I don’t think he’s really all that. I’m saying this despite the fact that he was a huge influence on Gandhi, whom I can almost write a whole book about my admiration and respect for. Most of my knowledge about Thoreau’s writing is from ‘Walden‘, a wee little story about the two years he spent living by himself in the woods by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. I’ve read a few other essays as well, but this is the only one I’ve suffered through till the end. Let me go over some of my issues with the book, and Thoreau – which have been repeated so many times by writers so much better than me that I’m beginning to think it should get a whole shelf at the bookstore. But don’t worry, I won’t dwell on its flaws for too long. Yes, the book is bad and I don’t recommend it, but the point of this post isn’t to beat a dead horse. I’ll get to the real point after this small detour.

Pond Scum

For as long as Walden has been in circulation, people have had problems with it. One of the best takedowns of Thoreau and the Walden cult came form Kathryn Schultz in an essay in The Atlantic, provocatively titled “Pond Scum“. OOOOOOOH. Burn. Take that, you pesky environmentalists! Actually, not a burn; the magazine decided that the title was too much for them, and quietly changed it to “The Moral Judgments of Henry David Thoreau”, but the link still has some clues to the older, more appropriate, title.

Before I dig in, I’ll be honest here: I hadn’t fully read Walden before I read the criticisms. I’d begun to read it on a trek to Geocha La, but I found it so utterly dry and unreadable that I stopped around 50 pages in and picked up “Three Men on a Boat”. I will never regret that decision because Jerome is a far better write than Thoreau, and Three Men on a Boat is infinitely more readable and full of memorable scenes like this one, where the gang is having lunch on private land:

We had just commenced the third course – the bread and jam – when a gentleman in shirt-sleeves and a short pipe came along, and wanted to know if we knew that we were trespassing. We said we hadn’t given the matter sufficient consideration as yet to enable us to arrive at a definite conclusion on that point, but that, if he assured us on his word as a gentleman that we were trespassing, we would, without further hesitation, believe it.

He gave us the required assurance, and we thanked him, but he still hung about, and seemed to be dissatisfied, so we asked him if there was anything further that we could do for him; and Harris, who is of a chummy disposition, offered him a bit of bread and jam.

I fancy he must have belonged to some society sworn to abstain from bread and jam; for he declined it quite gruffly, as if he were vexed at being tempted with it, and he added that it was his duty to turn us off.

Jerome K. Jerome, “Three Men on a Boat”

Outstanding book, and one of the best short novels I’ve ever read. Definitely worth a read. So, with that little detour nested within a detour out of the way, let us proceed to Walden. The prose of the book is fantastic, and definitely gives any budding writer a lot of tips on how to engage your reader and draw them in. More accurately, it serves as a manual on how not to write a book that’s supposed to be for the general public. For a book that begins with a chapter on the value of economy, Thoreau spares no thought for the reader and fills the book to the brim with stupid little digressions, endless repetition, inane trivia and superficial “insights” into how beautiful nature is when man isn’t around to muck things up. Let me put forth three (only three!) examples of Thoreau’s horrendous writing.

Exhibit A: Repetition

When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned any thing of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me any thing to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

This is just in the first few pages. It gets worse: the first two chapters are basically the same absolutely worthless rubbish said in a million slightly different ways. Reading them is like going on a merry-go-round that’s going so slow you don’t feel any thrill, but you’ve been on it so long that you’re beginning to feel bored and slightly nauseous.

Exhibit B: Owls

When other birds are still the screech owls take up the strain, like mourning women their ancient u-lu-lu. Their dismal scream is truly Ben Jonsonian. Wise midnight hags! It is no honest and blunt tu-whit tu-who of the poets, but, without jesting, a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernal love in the infernal groves. Yet I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the wood-side; reminding me sometimes of music and singing birds; as if it were the dark and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung. They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling. Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks. Then—that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and—bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods.

I was also serenaded by a hooting owl. Near at hand you could fancy it the most melancholy sound in Nature, as if she meant by this to stereotype and make permanent in her choir the dying moans of a human being,—some poor weak relic of mortality who has left hope behind, and howls like an animal, yet with human sobs, on entering the dark valley, made more awful by a certain gurgling melodiousness,—I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it,—expressive of a mind which has reached the gelatinous mildewy stage in the mortification of all healthy and courageous thought. It reminded me of ghouls and idiots and insane howlings. But now one answers from far woods in a strain made really melodious by distance,—Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer hoo; and indeed for the most part it suggested only pleasing associations, whether heard by day or night, summer or winter.

I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have. All day the sun has shone on the surface of some savage swamp, where the single spruce stands hung with usnea lichens, and small hawks circulate above, and the chickadee lisps amid the evergreens, and the partridge and rabbit skulk beneath; but now a more dismal and fitting day dawns, and a different race of creatures awakes to express the meaning of Nature there.

I love owls as much as the next guy. Matter of fact, there are at least three on my list of top 10 birds. It makes me sad, but I have to say, what did I do to deserve this?

Exhibit C: The rest of the book

Most of us have been in a forest, and the earliest memory I have of being in the woods was when I was 8 or 9, when our family had gone on a trip to Ooty. I remember being so excited about everything I was seeing around me, I was losing my mind about the tiniest things. I thought I’d tell the whole world about that one brilliant yellow mushroom with a cute frog sitting on it. But I could only go on about it for no more than 2 minutes before someone shut me down. I could never have talked about it for any longer than 15 minutes before people would have drowned me out. But Thoreau don’t care. Walden is full of tiring details about the woods around him. You saw the part about owls hooting into the night. That’s not all, though. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to beans and how to cultivate them properly. There’s another where he goes off on how a pond needs to be cared for, with exact instructions on how to clear pond scum, what depth you can allow it to be, and how to measure the depth of the pond. According to Thoreau, a pond is deepest where its two widest sections meet. Okay sure, that makes a lot of sense, Mr. Naturalist.

The Hyppie

So, thoreau was not very knowledgeable about nature despite the years he spent living by himself and braving the savage elements of the wild. Which begs the question, “how did he survive for so long?” Don’t wonder anymore because I have research to answer that question.

Actually, I didn’t have to read too much to get to this. Here are the first few lines of Walden:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.

“A mile from a neighbor”? How’s that even close to living in the woods by yourself? If you screamed from a mile away, it has a decent chance of being audible. Thoreau himself says that he could hear the train whistle from his pondside shack. You don’t have to be a detective to suspect that this man may have been cheating. And he was. Here’s a great example of why:

The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am. I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth.

His laundry was done by his mum, as practically everybody knows (and this writer for some reason detests that they know). He lived on a piece of land owned by his friend, and got his food from the friendly and often just confused villagers near the pond. Thoreau says he was self-sufficient and only went to the village just to hear some gossip and “exchange” what he’d grown/gathered. Self-aggrandizing though he was, the man would have known perfectly well that the villagers were being quite generous towards him. They give him food and supplies, even though most of what he has to offer is probably worthless to them because they can grow it themselves. In other words, Thoreau was a squatter and the townsfolk regarded him as a curious oddity they didn’t mind providing for.

For a squatter, Thoreau is awfully glib about everybody else around him. Here is the man hating on a farmer for the cardinal sin of having named a little pond after himself:

Flint’s Pond! Such is the poverty of our nomenclature. What right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this sky water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it? Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own brazen face; who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and horny talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like;—so it is not named for me. I go not there to see him nor to hear of him; who never saw it, who never bathed in it, who never loved it, who never protected it, who never spoke a good word for it, nor thanked God that he had made it. Rather let it be named from the fishes that swim in it, the wild fowl or quadrupeds which frequent it, the wild flowers which grow by its shores, or some wild man or child the thread of whose history is interwoven with its own; not from him who could show no title to it but the deed which a like-minded neighbor or legislature gave him,—him who thought only of its money value; whose presence perchance cursed all the shore; who exhausted the land around it, and would fain have exhausted the waters within it; who regretted only that it was not English hay or cranberry meadow,—there was nothing to redeem it, forsooth, in his eyes,—and would have drained and sold it for the mud at its bottom. It did not turn his mill, and it was no privilege to him to behold it. I respect not his labors, his farm where every thing has its price; who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get any thing for him; who goes to market for his god as it is; on whose farm nothing grows free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, whose trees no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars. Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth. Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor,—poor farmers. A model farm! where the house stands like a fungus in a muck-heap, chambers for men, horses, oxen, and swine, cleansed and uncleansed, all contiguous to one another! Stocked with men! A great grease-spot, redolent of manures and buttermilk! Under a high state of cultivation, being manured with the hearts and brains of men! As if you were to raise your potatoes in the church-yard! Such is a model farm.

Throughout Walden, Thoreau makes it a point to go after people he sees as beneath him: worthless idiots who don’t deserve to breathe the air that the forest provides for them. Without a hint of self-awareness or irony. Bill Bryson, that upstanding gentleman, writes in “A Walk in the Woods”:

The American woods have been unnerving people for 300 years. The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a vist to Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core. This wasn’t the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, but a forbidding, oppressive, primeval country that was “grim and wild … savage and dreary,” fit only for “men nearer of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we.” The experience left him, in the words of one biographer, “near hysterical.”

Bill Bryson, “A Walk in the Woods”

The word “hippie” is generally used to mean “hipster”, originally meaning “someone who knows”, but more usually used as shorthand for “spiritualist vagrant who may be on some drugs”. And it’s in this sense that many people refer to Thoreau as the world’s first hippie. But after reading Walden, I can only see Thoreau as a “hyppie”, short for “hypocrite”. And he wasn’t the first or the last.

The Perks of Being a Paper Tiger

As much as he was a boring holier-than-thou hypocrite, Thoreau actually started something. His works sparked doubt in enough people’s minds about the supposed value of “civilization” and all these vestiges of paternalistic power that a whole movement of “transcendentalists” began to emerge. Put together, Thoreau, Emerson and Tolstoy formed a great wall of literary defence against the encroachment of humans upon nature. With “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau created a template for individuals to resist institutions; a template used by all manner of protestors including Gandhi, MLK and Mandela. Yes, I want to hear about what kind of grand organizing framework Mandela would have liked to create. But it wouldn’t have been as inspiring as Thoreau’s. Why? Because Mandela was a practitioner and Thoreau was a paper tiger. And only a paper tiger operating in a safe little sandbox can construct a narrative and give people hope.

Thoreau appeals to us because his thoughts on being alone in the woods are universal enough to appeal to practically everybody: either as a reality, or as an aspirational goal. There’s no real danger in Thoreau’s works: he doesn’t have to run for his life while being chased by a grizzly across some sodden vegetation. He doesn’t even spend any time talking about all the dangers that lie beyond his little suburban refuge. All he sees is a postcard version of the “struggles of solitary life” without any of the actual strife in nature. All he has to wrestle with is one thing, and one thing alone: “what does it mean to live with yourelf?” That’s it. He doesn’t actually have to think about how to farm in a forest, how to fend off predators, how to ration materials, how to stay sane when isolated from everybody you care about, how to survive, nothing. He sees the beauty of a mushroom without having to wonder if it’s poisonous. He can see a way to find the deepest part of the pond without thinking about whether he should jump in there and end his miserable life. You can connect to the material in the book whether you’re out there slugging it out in the mountain highlands of Papua New Guinea, or in a suburban park resting under a tree. Just as the themes it explores are universal, Walden’s messages of self-sufficiency, discipline and economy are just as relevant in the benign undergrowth of Rotorua, New Zealand as in the spectacular woods of Concord, Massachusetts. So, Walden can be a beacon for anybody that loves their little corner of the planet: from white nationalists to PETA-lovers. You can make a case for protecting the beauty of just about any piece of land by quoting extensively from this book.

And that is the value of paper tigers: they give you a message uncontaminated by the awful, ugly truth of reality. Yes, I’m all for a realistic portrayal of what survival in the woods entails, but it doesn’t have to be all grime and grit. For a person living in dirt-poor conditions in Malawi, Walden has no real survival advice to offer. In many ways, it can be patronizing to see Thoreau wax poetic about the virtues of freeloading and staring at still water all day. But to those same people, Walden can also be something to aspire towards, precisely because Thoreau doesn’t have to bother about being hunted or sold into slavery. Walden offers a sanitized version of free living, free from the nastiness of having to survive.

I don’t mind people living in their own little coccoons, giving the world “advice”. To me, the value of a Kardashian’s advice on dealing with hardships, adversity and discrimination isn’t the advice itself. But just the existence of these little corners of the “upper echelons” of society where people feel hurt by some bizarre little thing makes you say “man, if that woman’s biggest problem today is that she has decide whether she wants to wear makeup, I want to be a Kardashian”. It makes you realize that if you’re rich enough, famous enough, free enough, powerful enough, bold enough, attractive enough, talented enough, successful enough, creative enough or smart enough, you can choose to suffer for a couple of years in a shack on your friend’s land in the Hamptons, and live to write a book about it that, decades later, kids will be forced to read.

Paper tigers give people hope. For that reason, there’s something of value in being a paper tiger.

Categories
History Military History

The Better Cavalry (pt. 3)

This one’s for the forgotten

This is the last leg of my trilogy examining various types of cavalries used throughout history. In part 2, I talked you through some reasons why I think elephant cavalries were the absolute best. There are other reasons, of course, but there are also other alternatives. If cavalries are like milk, horses are like dairy; previously, we’ve looked at coconut milk (elephants) – the obviously superior milk.

In this post, I’ll introduce you to some unconventional, bizarre and sometimes just WTF alternatives. These are the soy, rice, oat, cashew and other “mylks” that honestly deserve more love than they receive currently.

Look at all these alternatives! Source: Frankly Fodder

But first, some housekeeping

In the last part, I kind of glossed over the facts of how truly useful horses have been since some drunken maniac in Central Asia decided to jump on a kicky, bitey, foul-tempered animal and somehow managed to survive. Horses have been used for every part of their bodies: from their hides and hair to milk, meat and even bones. That last item is still a popular product and has some anti-wrinkle properties (on a side note, I will never get people’s obsession with having wrinkle-free skin).

But actually, it’s even more than that. Horses have been the single most useful thing for people who want to kill other people and get away with it. Here’s a picture I took of rock carvings in Wadi Rum in Jordan from around 5000 years ago (or so I was told). You can clearly see the depictions of humans coexisting with (and hunting, presumably) what look like horses and oxen.

But here’s the thing: horses have only ever been useful as a great draught animal. And as meat. Their use as cavalry was mostly just experimental until Central Asians started attacking Rome and Romans were so enthralled by the superiority of these nomadic archers that they started adopting all of the Central Asian tactics blindly without any question.

Here’s how I see things: nomadic “barbarians” were simply better at wars than Rome because of their mobility. That’s it. And the role of cavalry was mostly incidental. Urbanised civilizations like Rome and pre-Yuan China always lost to militaristic barbarian invaders; and their loss was always because they were stuck in one place while the barbarians were nomadic, more loosely organised and therfore, more nimble. We see this time and time again throughout history: Gauls were a constant annoyance to Rome, but they had no horses. Vikings overran Britannia in no time and completely displaced the native culture. Was that because of their superior horses, or stirrups or some other stupid reason people always use? No. They were nimble, ruthless and constantly towards the horizon for their next quest. It was this same military zeal that created invaders such as Alexander, Genghis Khan, Timur and countless others. Instead of learning their strategies, we just picked up their tactics.

Imagine you were asked to define what makes a great leader. Let’s say you start to look for clues in history, and go through the biography of every world leader in the last century: Roosevelt, Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, Che, JFK etc. The right way to approach a solution is by outlining some broad, high-level traits they display. Trying to find common personality traits shows us that they’re almost all charismatic, gifted with words, persuasive, empathetic and so on. This is what we are supposed to do with history: take particulars and add a few levels of abstraction. What we’ve done instead is obsessed over details and decided that history is all about the tactics; the particular. Going back to that example, it’s like we went through the biographies and decided that great leaders smoke, drink, sleep and beat their wives. This kind of faux depth in historical analyses is what gives us completely nonsensical books like ‘7 Habits of Highly Successful People’. That book is stupid, shallow and is obviously a very cynical way to appeal to vulnerable people who don’t know any better.

So, to recap: horses were mostly useless as cavalry and their popularity is incidental. Rome was just a convenient target for nomadic Central Asian tribes, which used horses for everything just because they had horses in abundance and knew what to do with them.

The quest for the second best war animal

So, horses are pathetic. Noted. What other options did people have? The answer is: lots. And at some point or the other, nearly every continent on earth had viable alternatives to horses.

The most obvious: cows. Or, to be more precise, bulls and oxen. People have used cows as farm and draught animals for at least as long as horses. There are remains in Harappa and Egypt that show that at least 5000 years ago, people already knew how to tame oxen and use them to transport loads. They offer many advantages over horses: much more sturdy animals, easier to feed and house and can carry heavier loads. As anybody who’s faced up to a bull can tell you, they have a much greater willingness to stand their ground and fight. Disadvantages: slow, clumsy, kinda dumb, hard to train, easy to topple, not pleasant to ride.

If it’s good enough for Mongo, it’s good enough for me.

Overall grade: B-. More or less the same grade as mules and slightly better than donkeys. Way better than zebras though.

On a slight tangent here, we’ve seen from history that moose cavalry was a thing. Sweden and Russia both tried their hand at using moose in war, and Russia almost deployed them in WW2. You can see the allure here: moose are fast, strong and adept at getting through deep snow. The only trouble is, the cavalrymen soon found out that moose are just terrible for war. The biggest issue is that they’re almost comically frightened of gunfire. And even when trained to ignore it, they were unwilling to charge at humans, got all sorts of diseases and as soon as the rider got off, the moose just fled. So, if you lost your footing, that’s it. You’re walking home now.

Next up, pigs and boars. Massive boars are a staple of medieval fantasies: they’re scary, aggressive, almost freakishly indestructible and are definitely capable of carrying a grown man. And war pigs have actually been used in recorded history. Appropriately, they were used by Romans to scare off war elephants because they thought that elephants were scared by the sound of a pig’s squeal. I have no idea if that’s been scientifically shown, but I can see people riding giant boars to battle war elephants.

That’d be quite a sight.

In case you’re thinking “that’s not physically possible! There’s no way a boar can carry a full grown man and all that armour”, think again. There are wild boars in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region that regularly reach heights of over 5′ and weigh close to 250 kg. A few centuries ago, before rampant overhunting made boars smaller and smaller, there were probably giants the size of mules. And people ride mules. You’ve most likely watched this video already, but here’s a video of a bush pig running at a decent speed with a monkey on its back. That’s a pig running with a load of over 40% of its own body weight. So, forgive me for entertaining a notion that riding boars into battle was a thing at some point.

Wishful thinking aside, this never came to be. But, because of the difficulty of proving a negative, we have no proof of its non-existence either. So, my grade is a solid B, but no more. Still way better than ostriches, though.

A ‘war ostrich’ stretches the limits of what might be possible, but not as much the highly dubious idea of a ‘war rhinoceros’, an idea so stupid on so many levels that I absolutely would have liked to pick it apart at some point. Not anymore, though. It got some screen time in ‘Black Panther’, and that got people thinking. Inevitably, everybody realised that it was unrealistic. Even for an idea out of a superhero movie about a prosperous all-black civilization hidden in the mountains of Rwanda and ruled by a strong African leader whom all the white guys respect without any prejudice.

So, I’ll just refer you to this Kotaku article about the challenges of domesticating rhinos to see what I’m talking about here.

Cool concept though.

With all the consolation prizes given out, it is time now to talk about the real second-best cavalry: the humble camel. Specifically, the “hill camel”, a small but sturdy variant of the dromedary camel widespread across much of Africa and west-central Asia. They were common across the deserts of the middle east, parts of western India and northern africa. Beyond the Sahel, though, they were uncommon but not unknown. Through a predictable chain of events, some people decided to populate Australia deserts with camels. And now, even after years of merciless “culling”, Straya has half a million of them, just roaming around, eating cactus shawarma, destroying native plants and having fun making white people feel like shit for letting immigrants in.

The best breed for use as a mount is supposed to be the ‘pahari’ (or hill) breed, found in Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Iran.

The best camel breeds in India were the small but strong Afghan or
Pahari dromedaries that were also fit for the cold and hilly conditions
of Central Asia. The Mughals were very well aware that good bukhti
dromedaries could be produced from interbreeding one-humped female dromedaries (arwanas) with two-humped male Bactrian camels (bughur).

Jos Gommans, in ‘Mughal Warfare’

A lot of African and Asian countries maintain camel corps. We saw a bunch of them in Jordan, but the camels looked mangy and unimpressive. Despite the obviously Muslim nature of the import, India maintains a small number of camels to patrol the western borders with Pakistan. And for some reason, the same Rajasthanis that reject all things Muslim have taken quite a liking to camels.

That’s some cool cameldung you’ve got there.

They’re actually, a surprisingly useful and versatile animal. For one thing, a camel can carry weights of over 200 kg, more than a horse or ox. Unlike horses, they’re gentle, eat whatever they can find, can go days without food or water, don’t bite and for the most part, get along with very well with humans. The best part: a camel with a human on its back can probably run at least as fast as a horse. Even without any loads, camels are only slower than horses.

Disgusting thumbnail, I know. I’m sorry.

Across the regions where they could be used, camels were the most versatile type of cavalry. Not least because they were larger than horses while having the same kind of mobility. They’re more sturdy, don’t have many natural predators so don’t really get spooked by anything, could be easily trained to ignore gunfire, had low operating costs, sang beautiful songs from the Arabian Nights, and were generally more chill companions to spend a month or two with while making your way across an unfamiliar land to sack a city.

When I put it like that, of course! It’s obvious, right? Yes. Solid A. Can’t give them an S because they’re kind of stupid animals, take forever to grow to a battle-ready size and are highly sensitive to changes in climate.

Camel Camel Camel!

So, to recap, elephants are the undisputed #1. Camels are great in some conditions, but just useless in others. Horses are good overall, but not great at anything. Here’s the full tier list a la TierZoo:

This took a while to make. So, if you’re going to use this image, credit me.

Armed with this knowledge, you are now legally required to convince everyone else around you. Let’s build a movement. No more horse worship! Only prostration at the elephant god’s feet.