Week of 25 May, 2020

  • America is burning. India has been burning for months. Unable to contribute much to what’s going on, I’m educating myself. The only thing I really know how to do is read and write, so I’m reading. Maybe one day I will write.
  • I cooked a giant pot of creamy, buttery dal bukhara and I’m unreasonably proud of this achievement. I’d make a great house-husband.
  • Darkest Dungeon was free for the weekend, so I’ve spent the last two days gleefully getting my ass kicked by eldritch horrors. I’ve been wanting to play this game for months, and I’m happy to report that it lives up to the hype.
  • Tehanu is incredible. You can tell within the first few pages that Le Guin was an entirely different person by the time she got around to writing it.
  • Work has been frustrating. I’ve been spinning my wheels trying to build a thing that should be straightforward, but isn’t. It’s been making me not want to even look at my IDE. I’m close to a solution now, so hopefully this period of reduced productiveness will only last a few more days.
  • Charli still on repeat.

India is No Longer India

Aatish Taseer writes:

By the time I was an adult, the urban elites and the “heart of the nation” had lost the means to communicate. The elites lived in a state of gated comfort, oblivious to the hard realities of Indian life—poverty and unemployment, of course, but also urban ruin and environmental degradation. The schools their children went to set them at a great remove from India, on the levels of language, religion, and culture. Every feature of their life was designed, to quote Robert Byron on the English in India, to blunt their “natural interest in the country and sympathy with its people.” Their life was, culturally speaking, an adjunct to Western Europe and America; their values were a hybrid, in which India was served nominally while the West was reduced to a source of permissiveness and materialism. They thought they lived in a world where the “idea of India” reigned supreme—but all the while, the constituency for this idea was being steadily eroded. It was Bharat that was ascendant. India’s leaders today speak with contempt of the principles on which this young nation was founded. They look back instead to the timeless glories of the Hindu past. They scorn the “Khan Market gang”—a reference to a fashionable market near where I grew up that has become a metonym for the Indian elite. Hindu nationalists trace a direct line between the foreign occupiers who destroyed the Hindu past—first Muslims, then the British—and India’s Westernized elite (and India’s Muslims), whom they see as heirs to foreign occupation, still enjoying the privileges of plunder.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/05/exile-in-the-age-of-modi/609073/

Arundhati Roy on the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write

What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write? is one of my favorite pieces of writing on the Internet. At its core, the essay is about using translation as a primary form of literary creation in a country as linguistically diverse as India. Put another way, it’s about Arundhati Roy’s quest to bend English in such a way that it captures some of the flavor of India’s many tongues.

While I haven’t read any of Roy’s novels, I recently read a different book that pulls off this feat admirably: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. One of my favorite scenes from Midnight’s Children is where a mother yells at her child: “Fool from somewhere!”

Roy’s essay covers a lot of ground. If I start quoting from it then I’ll end up reproducing the entire piece here, so I’ll just mention two of my favorite parts. The first one is how English is perceived in the Dalit community:

[English] is also the language of emancipation, the language in which privilege has been eloquently denounced. Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the most widely read, widely translated, and devastating denunciation of the Hindu caste system, was written in English. It revolutionized the debate on perhaps the most brutal system of institutionalized injustice that any society has ever dreamed up. How different things would have been had the privileged castes managed to contain Ambedkar’s writing in a language that only his own caste and community could read. Inspired by him, many Dalit activists today see the denial of a quality English education to the underprivileged (in the name of nationalism or anticolonialism) as a continuation of the Brahmin tradition of denying education and literacy—or, for that matter, simply the right to pursue knowledge and accumulate wealth—to people they consider “shudras” and “outcastes.” To make this point, in 2011 the Dalit scholar Chandra Bhan Prasad built a village temple to the Dalit Goddess of English. “She is the symbol of Dalit Renaissance,” he said. “We will use English to rise up the ladder and become free forever.”

The second one is about how Devanagari—associated at the time and perhaps even now with Brahamanical oppression—came to be the primary script in which modern Hindi is written, erasing the once-popular Kaithi script from public memory:

In order to clearly define itself and mark itself off from other competing constituencies, the newly emerging Hindu constituency [in British India] needed cultural symbols—something to fire the imagination of its evangelists and its potential recruits. The holy cow and the holy script became the chosen vehicles for mobilization. Gau Rakshak (cow protection) societies proliferated, and simultaneously the demand was raised that Devanagari (Deva as in Dio/God—the script of the Gods) be officially accepted as a second script for Urdu. Devanagari, originally known as Babhni, was the script of Brahmins and had, like Sanskrit, been jealously guarded, its purity protected from the “polluting influence” of lower castes, who had, for centuries, been denied the right to learn Sanskrit. But the changing times now required that it be promoted as the indigenous script of “the people.” In fact, the more widely used script at the time was a script called Kaithi. But Kaithi was used by non-Brahmin castes like the Kayasthas, who were seen to be partial to Muslims. Extraordinarily, in a matter of a few decades, Kaithi was not just discarded, but erased from public memory.

I’d never heard of Kaithi before reading this essay. Digging around a bit, I found a wonderful piece about the script on Satyagraha: कभी हिंदी और उर्दू से ज़्यादा इस्तेमाल होने वाली कैथी खत्म कैसे हो गई?