America, Bad Journalism, Fake News, India, media, Mediocrity, Serious Writing, Thoughts, TRUMP

On Hasan Minhaj’s Episode on Indian Elections: The Dangerous Techniques of Narrative Building

This is the third post in a short series on the portrayal of facts and events in a Patriot Act episode hosted by Hasan Minhaj. Read the first post here and the second post here

At the crux of the episode is the explicit intent to build a narrative. WHAT the narrative is has already been established by this point. (Trust me the episode has absolutely no ‘outsider’ view in it. It is just the same exact things peddled by the Indian media). He then uses 3 specific techniques to achieve this narrative building exercise.

  1. The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
  2. Reductionism
  3. Guilt by association

The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy

This was covered in the previous post in more detail. In essence, this is what happens when the spotlight is put on a select few aspects of a situation and the audience’s understanding of the situation is thus limited to just what is shown in the spotlight. HM does this throughout the episode. He uses selective facts, quotes and events to support his narrative throughout the episode. But what makes these even more dangerous is when they are used without context. Devoid of context, any fact, quote or event can be made to fit any narrative. And that is what HM does in this episode. The audience is not necessarily aware of the background of each statement he is making, which makes his job that much easier. Those that do know the background, however, recognize the flawed arguments he is making.

Reductionism

This technique is perhaps the more significant one because it is extremely effective in propagating the narrative and to keep it moving in the episode. At its core, Reductionism consists of distilling a very complex, nuanced situation into a very specific and narrow point of view. The situation under consideration may have had a long history with multiple points of view and millions of people involved. But using Reductionism, one can boil all that down to something specific of their own choosing – something that suits their objective. Reductive statements are true in the most extreme of the cases but almost always end up hiding all the underlying nuances and complexities that constitute the situation at hand. HM uses this technique extensively in this episode. Let me give you a rundown of how he has done this:

  • The entire BJP is reduced to a ‘Hindu Nationalistic Party’ under whose rule violence against minorities has increased. (Can someone please define what this HNP actually is supposed to stand for and what is actually being done?)
  • The entire Congress party is reduced to Sashi Tharoor and a passing mention of scams that took place 10 years ago!!! (Should I be overjoyed that Rahul Gandhi was referred to as Pappu for exactly 1 second?)
  • The BJP’s entire 2014 campaign reduced to ‘India First’. (I honestly hadn’t heard Modi say ‘India First’ till I saw this episode)
  • The entire Indian political system is reduced to the claim that “Every single politician has some sort of connection to either a murder charge or a killing” (Wow! Just wow! Way to portray India as a completely corrupt third world country)
  • The entire Pulwama attacks and the subsequent military response is reduced to it being a vehicle of election campaigning and as a joke on ‘Eco-Terrorism’. (This one hurts the most)
  • The entire RSS organization is reduced to it being termed militaristic and showing dad-bod RSS workers playing with their sticks. (Showing RSS workers – seemingly lacking in fitness – playing with sticks, and calling them a ‘militaristic organization’ at the same time is somehow supposed to make sense?)
  • Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adithyanath is reduced to being called ‘a monk with a gun’ and for changing street names. (Yes because of course nobody had changed the names of those places once before from what they originally were, right?)
  • The decades old Assam Accord and the National Register of Citizens’ exercise to implement a Supreme Court order is reduced to ‘the largest voter disenfranchisement in recorded history’. (Yes maybe mention that those 4 million people include both Hindus and Muslims, and is based on a law passed back in the early 80’s by a certain Rajiv Gandhi?)

These are very potent statements to make – especially when you are being selective and are not providing any context. Reductionism can take any event, person or situation in history and simply portray it to stand for something – anything – that you want it to stand for. It is extremely dangerous when selective events are highlighted and only one perspective is propagated – thereby negating all evidence to the contrary. And that is exactly what HM has done here.

Guilt by Association

The final technique that Hasan Minhaj has used to achieve his objectives is guilt by association. This technique actually plays at a subtle level – because HM doesn’t explicitly STATE the existence of the connection he is making. But once he does connect one person or idea to another, the audience has already linked the two permanently – at a sub-conscious level. For instance, if there is a reference personality that most people are already familiar with, it is easy to simply link a very specific aspect or two between any given person and that reference personality with the ultimate implication being that the two are the same and share the same values. Like I said, the fact that the host is making the connection is never explicitly stated – which is why this plays at a subtle level making it that much more dangerous.

Let us see how he has used this technique in the episode:

  • HM shows a short compilation of Modi saying ‘India First’ (without context obviously). He says explicitly that this ‘India First’ quote is how Modi’s entire campaign can be best summed up in. (Seriously? I promise I had never heard Modi say ‘India First’ prior to this episode). Why? Because then he can directly connect Modi with the most hated man in the world right now – Donald Trump who ran on an ‘America First’ platform. (Yes, I know. What a profound and valid connection this is, right?)
  • And so, just like that, Hasan Minhaj reduced Modi to the same level as the world’s most hated man by simply connecting him with Trump – using the flimsiest of connections nonetheless. (But the people watching it don’t realize it do they? They have just been told that the Indian Prime Minister is another Trump)
  • He then says “Saying that Modi is like Trump would simply be reductive” – right after doing exactly that! Ah the audacity to pull that off!
  • Modi is then shown for his tendency to hug other world leaders – yes all world leaders. But who do you think HM shows Modi hugging? Yes you got it right – more of the most hated in the world in Putin, Erdogan, MBS and even Zuckerberg. Well it’s not like he has ever hugged someone like Obama, Tredeau, Macron, Abe, Pena Nieto ….. oh wait he has. Our illustrious host just chose not to use those pictures because, you know, that would mean showing Modi with all the right people. one-hug-at-a-time-pm-narendra-modis-taking-over-the-world-with-his-embrace
  • And then the clincher is when he makes the connection between Modi to the most hated figure of all time – Hitler. Because of course he had to find a way to do it, right? That would seal the deal in the audience’s subconscious opinions about him. Oh but how does he do it you ask? Well, let me explain:
    • He starts with Modi as running a ‘Hindu Nationalistic Party’ – whatever that means.
    • Then he goes on to connect Modi with the RSS which Modi credits for giving him his discipline and hard work. (This is the truth)
    • Then he goes on to declare the RSS primarily relies on MS Gowalkar’s A Bunch of Thoughts. He also states that the RSS has recently disavowed parts of that book. (Which it has – quite explicitly, with full explanation and context).
    • But then our host anyway goes ahead and calls the book ‘Mein Kampfy’ (by showcasing exactly 12 words nonetheless)!
  • And there you have it – the connection from Modi to Hitler.

Connecting Modi to the most hated people on this planet even with the most flimsy of ways is still a dangerous thing. This is because all this plays out at a subconscious level without the people watching it actually being aware of its effects on them.

You might say that I shouldn’t read too much into these small so-called connections, and that all this is just comedy. But that approach is not only naive, it is positively dangerous. A narrative is a narrative – regardless of who builds it, who propagates it or who consumes it. And Hasan Minhaj has used every single trick in his bag to propagate the same narrative that the Indian media has been throwing up the past 4-5 years. The only difference is that, this time, the audience is different. This time, the audience is the largely ignorant/unaware western population who will happily, without question, nod and agree to whatever it is he is saying. After all, he is Indian too right? (Well, no. He is not. He is an American – even if he says he is Indian).

This and the last 2 posts may have elaborated on how comedians like Hasan Minhaj utilize many techniques to propagate a narrative instead of facts, to unquestioning audiences, and do it all under the guise of comedy. But there is a much larger wheel in motion here. People like Hasan Minhaj are essentially nothing more than a cog in a much larger, well oiled machine that sets these narratives and ensures that it is the only narrative that is consumed by the masses. It would be incomplete and incorrect to simply look at what Hasan Minhaj did, point out all the flaws in his actions, and not look beyond.

In the next post, we will look at what this bigger machine consists of and why it works so well. And no, it is not some conspiracy theory. <Insert Rolling Eyes Emoji>

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America, Bad Journalism, Fake News, India, media, Serious Writing, Thoughts

On Hasan Minhaj’s Episode on Indian Elections: An Exercise in Narrative Building

Note: This is the second post in a short series on the portrayal of facts and events in a Patriot Act episode hosted by Hasan Minhaj. Read the first post here. 

Over the past 5-6 years, there has been a significant change and growth in how comedy in the United States and the world overall is perceived. It all inevitably goes back to Jon Stewart (and Stephen Colbert to some extent) and the way he used his Daily Show as a vehicle to provide commentary on what was happening in society. The show was supposed to be a comedy show, and make no mistake, it was funny. But few would contest that it ultimately was a vehicle to deliver political and social commentary in a way no person had done before on that scale. Under the Jon Stewart umbrella, a bunch of comedians took root with small segments in the Daily Show. Over time, many of them grew out of that umbrella and started their own shows. The most well known are of course John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Hasan Minhaj. Trevor Noah is of course continuing the Daily Show in a much similar style and structure to Jon Stewart.

I have personally enjoyed the shows of all those I have stated above, though I have not been able to watch all of them (they have been airing for years after all). I particularly enjoyed Hasan Minhaj’s monologue at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2017 (and found Michelle Wolf’s follow up in 2018 absolutely disgusting). So when I found out recently that he had his own show on Netflix, I was quite excited. The episodes are structured much like John Oliver’s show with a main theme for each episode (minus the ‘recap’ of other things). The initial episodes were all funny and provided some new information on things I was previously not aware of. They all had a predictably liberal slant and I went along with all the Trump roastings. (I mean, can you even make a living as a comedian in the US without roasting Trump?)

But when I watched the episode on the Indian Elections with my wife, I kind of knew what was coming. It was actually highly predictable in terms of content, structure and narration. Content aside, first of all, neither of us actually found it funny. (OK the only time I laughed out loud was with his Suge Knight reference). And as far as content goes, the show was really nothing more than a 20 odd minute summary of things we Indians have been hearing in the Indian media for the last 5 years. And much like Slumdog Millionaire, this episode is not at all representative of the ground reality in India. Instead, much like the movie, it propagates a specific pre-determined narrative – one that has been incessantly propagated by the Indian and (to some extent) the Western media for the last 5-6 years. The essence of the narrative goes something like this:

The BJP is a Hindu Nationalistic party (with nobody defining and/or elaborating on what that actually stands for) headed by a right wing ideologue (Modi) which aims to work only for the Hindu population in India. Minorities in India are at a tremendous risk just because they are non-Hindus. This has resulted in people being killed regularly for being a minority or for eating beef. India has become a lawless state because of this government. The RSS is the parent organization of the BJP and it stands for complete and violent expulsion/subjugation of non-Hindus. People calling for the disintegration of the country are the true patriots who should be elected. Terrorist actions should be sympathized with and our military action should be criticized. Demonetization is the absolute worst thing to happen to the country ever. And Rahul Gandhi is the next avatar of Krishna.

To say that there is absolutely zero truth in this narrative would obviously be incorrect. But at the end of the day, it is still just that – a narrative, not the reality. And when a narrative is repeated a million times over the course of several years, it eventually is perceived as the truth and reality. And that is the same boat that Hasan Minhaj is riding on in his episode on the Indian Elections.

But to say that he is sticking to a pre-established narrative simplifies all the nuances that has gone into the making of the episode. In this post, I do not intend to point out the false claims or the mischaracterization of events and numbers (that are sufficient in number for sure!).  Instead, I am going to elaborate on the TECHNIQUES he uses to achieve his objective.

At the crux of the episode – like most media outlets – is the explicit intent to build a narrative. WHAT the narrative is has already been established by this point. (Trust me the episode has absolutely no ‘outsider’ view in it. It is just the same exact garbage peddled by the Indian media). He then uses 3 specific techniques to achieve this narrative building exercise.

  1. The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
  2. Reductionism
  3. Guilt by association

We discussed what the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy is in my previous post. In the interest of keeping my posts short and focused, I will discuss the other two techniques in more detail in the next post.

Bangalore, Family, Happiness, India, Serious Writing, society, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts, Updates

Our Small, Lean Indian Wedding (Part 3): Setting a Precedent

This is the third and final part describing our wedding in India in December 2018. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

My family is pretty big. OK I am not talking in the thousands. But when we were trying to come up with a guest list for our original ‘full fledged’ wedding, my parents easily came up with at least 350-400 guests to invite – and it could have easily been more! (And I am not even including Devanshi’s family here). In the coming months, some of these would-have-been guests will meet or talk to my parents and convey their wishes, and no doubt some of them will make some kind of a remark about not being invited for my wedding.  To be fair, most of them are people whom my parents or myself rarely meet, if at all. And so it really doesn’t matter that much.

But what did matter to us to an extent was what the people who had attended the wedding thought about it. My dad may well be on his way to becoming an ‘elder person’ in the family himself, but he still valued his own elders’ opinions and continues to seek their advice. So while he was understandably apprehensive initially about how this might all be perceived, he was not at all ready for what actually transpired in this regard. While we were expecting some sort of suggestions (perhaps bordering on criticism) from family and friends about how the wedding could have been done, what we actually got was quite the opposite!

We had our own family and friends pleasantly surprise us by complimenting us for the simple wedding and for eschewing all the excesses. One Uncle of mine who had his own daughter’s wedding coming up soon was left wondering if such simple weddings were even possible at all! I had friends tell me how they literally suffered through their own weddings having to stand hungry for hours on end while the steady (and seemingly unending) stream of guests came to get their pictures taken with the couple. But most of all, what blew my mind was when the elders in the family unanimously praised the simplicity of the wedding! But they didn’t stop there. They went one step ahead and said:

I am glad that someone in our family finally took the bold step of conducting a simple wedding like this. I hope more people will now look at this and do similar weddings in the future!

Knowing that these were words coming from what we would consider as the generally very conservative generation, I was really very very pleased. And my dad was definitely overjoyed to hear that as well!

As much as I was very happy with the way things went, there were inevitably some things that I wish circumstances had allowed. The foremost is the absence of family from Devanshi’s side apart from her parents. Considering this was done at my place in Bangalore, it was always going to be difficult for her family in Ahmedabad, Rajkot and Baroda to make the trip here at such short notice. I certainly wish her brother could have made it but that was not to be either. So a lot of credit goes to my wife and her family for understanding this and still go through the wedding in great spirits.

Looking back now, when we planned for this small wedding, we had certainly not thought about having our wedding be some kind of an example or precedent for others to hold similar weddings eschewing the excesses. But now I hope it does act in some capacity to let people know that this is still very much a feasible way to conduct a wedding. I am acutely aware of all the societal pressures and expectations that come with conducting a wedding in the family – invite hundreds (if not thousands) of guests, a massive buffet, sharing a professionally done wedding video online, grand setting, fancy invitation cards, etc. Make no mistake!  We had those pressures and expectations as well. But we took a leap of faith and courage and went ahead with a very simple wedding. And not only did it go just fine, we also received compliments for doing just that.

Yes there will always be families who have vast networks – huge families, business contacts, government officials and clients that need to be invited and pleased. But what people need to realize now is that the requirements that such families face are not necessarily true of most middle class and upper middle class families. I am not asking everyone to hold their weddings at their homes with a 50 person limit for the guests. All I am asking is for families to exercise basic fiscal restraint and avoid excesses – especially if they are stretching beyond their means to conduct the wedding. I am also asking them to understand that it is OK to not have a lavish wedding.

And as counter-intuitive as it may sound, that is a progressive idea right there for society to take up.

I have seen people spend money they don’t have on their child’s wedding, often making loans. Some justify it quoting the “Once in a lifetime event, make it big” idea but I personally do not buy into that. Just because something is happening only once in your life doesn’t justify making large amounts of loans that could have otherwise been used for the couple to start their new lives together. If a family can genuinely afford it, then I cannot fault them for holding a wedding within their means – however grand it may be (think Ambani). But I can never comprehend people stretching well beyond their means to have a grand wedding simply because of their own perception of what is acceptable or necessary.

So in the end, what I realized was that most of these pressures and expectations stem not from other people in the society, but mostly from within ourselves. Some of these pressures and expectations come from our own perception of what we feel is necessary to maintain our “image” in the society, some comes from the “Keeping up with the Joneses” attitude, and some comes from the lack of precedents and examples – thereby making us believe that there is simply no other way to conduct a wedding!

Ultimately, when it comes to people’s perception of what is acceptable or necessary for a wedding, Devanshi and I cannot address the issues of people wanting to ‘maintain their image’ or their “Keeping up with the Jones’s” attitude. But we have certainly tried to contribute to addressing the lack of examples by providing one of our own and hopefully setting a precedent for other weddings in the future.

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Bangalore, Family, Happiness, India, Serious Writing, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts, Updates

Our Small, Lean Indian Wedding (Part 2): Planning and Wedding Day

This is the Second of Three parts describing our wedding in India last month. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 here

The planning had to start with a complete acceptance by everyone involved regarding the small scale of our wedding. And this is where I was so happy to see all of us come together to plan the wedding – suggest ideas and make compromises. Turns out, it is much much easier to get everyone’s approval for the details in a small scale wedding than in a full fledged wedding! Who would have thought!!???!? Yes we had a few instances of disagreements that required negotiation on my part but in the end all things were agreed upon.

Then we had to figure out the venue – which actually ended up being the easiest of all decisions. We simply decided to have my wedding at my home!

So what about the guest list? Who to invite, who can we skip? This was after all the biggest sticking point between my parents and I in all previous discussions. My parents inevitably wanted to invite people they knew but whom I had never met and probably never would, and I was dead against it. The cliched thinking of “How can we not invite X when we have invited Y?” or “X invited us to their son’s wedding so we have to invite them to ours” was in full play. But we found a way out without having to actually make any compromise as such. Our home could accommodate about 45-55 people at most, so our guest list had to be planned accordingly. As it turned out, my parents have been doing a small ceremony every year for the past 12 years at my home where they invite about 40 of their close relatives and friends. So they pretty much took that list, added a dozen more and we had our guest list at about 55!

But what about the ceremony? How elaborate would it be? That was the biggest sticking point with my wife. Overly long and admittedly redundant ceremonies were her (and to an extent my own) complaints from our first conversations about the wedding. But then who comes to our rescue other than our own Purohit – the priest in charge of the ceremony itself?!?? He was more than happy to conduct the wedding ceremony and be done with all of it in less than half an hour! My parents (especially my dad) and I have some strong opinions against practices like the ‘Kashi Yatra’ and ‘Vara puja’ – the former redundant, and the latter just plain inappropriate (and should probably be made illegal) – and we were definitely going to avoid that. In fact, of all the different parts of the Kannada wedding ceremony, we only planned to perform the Mantapa puja, Mangal Sutra tying and gruhapravesha. (The kanya daana and nischithartha parts were performed previously while we took our vows in Des Moines). Our Purohit was more than happy to facilitate this simple wedding!

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Moving on to an equally important facet of the wedding – the food! Of course we gotta talk about the food! We had arranged for one full fledged meal for the afternoon of the wedding with the usual gamut of wedding dishes – Savige Paaysa, Puliyogare, kosambri, Usali, beans palya, aloo palya, Kootu, Majjige huli, Pineapple gojju, rice, rasam, aloo bonda, mysore pak and Chiroti. (I had specifically requested that the chirotis be smaller in size but the cook provided normal big sized chirotis. When asked about it, he candidly remarked “Sir our cooks cannot comprehend the idea of a small chiroti!”) We had also arranged for breakfast for about half the guests (Idli, chutney, upma, coffee, tea). And that was all we arranged for the food! End of story!

Wedding gifts was one aspect that I did not interfere even slightly because I knew it meant a lot to both our parents. Gifting nice silk sarees to all the women in both our families was something that they took a lot of satisfaction in and I was in no way going to cast a blot on that experience – in spite of the costs involved. This was one thing I was more than happy to step back from considering all the compromises they did for the wedding.

When it came to our wedding attire, I wore a silk dhoti and shalya that belonged to my dad for the actual ceremony, after which I changed into a silk Kurta and a Koti – both gifted to me by my in-laws. Devanshi wore a silk saree with some basic jewellery for the ceremony  and a nice flowing lehenga after that. I was very happy we kept the cost of our clothes to a minimum considering the circumstances.

We never printed any invitation cards and simply called everyone to invite them. Nobody seemed to complain and everyone showed up! So I guess it was fine??!!?

And that was all the planning we did for the wedding!

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The evening before the wedding, my mother surprised us all with a very cute wedding cake that she had ordered (and no one knew about). I had all my aunts, uncles and cousins and we spontaneously decided to play music and dance together. So for the first time, I saw my parents, aunts and uncles dance. Come to think of it, it was the first time they all saw me dance since I was probably a kid. And we all had a great great time dancing to old 90’s songs, gharba songs and even a song (“Masthu Masthu Hudugi Banthu”) from the movie Upendra! This has to be put in perspective because nothing like this happens in typical South Indian weddings. As ridiculous as it may sound, we were actually breaking new ground in a South Indian wedding with the whole dancing and singing. It definitely helped that my wife is from a state where they definitely know how to have fun at a wedding! But overall, even though the dancing was a spontaneous activity, we all enjoyed it and I was very grateful for my mother to have planned anything at all for that evening.

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On the day of the wedding, things couldn’t have gone smoother and easier. Both our parents were up at 630 or so and they performed the Sankalpa around 8 AM. Devanshi and I got up around 730 and were seated at the ceremony around 930 AM. Most of the guests had arrived by then and some had even had their breakfast. The purohit performed the ceremony for about half an hour – a rather simplistic ceremony. At the right muhurtham, I tied the mangal sutra knot, everyone showered their blessings with the akshathe and we were pretty much done by 1015 AM! Devanshi and I sought the blessings of our parents and all the elders in the family, and they in turn blessed us and gave us gifts. We then did the gruha pravesha with her knocking over a glass of rice and entering my house (again) – this time as my wife and as a daughter of the house. Everyone had their lunch between 1 and 230 PM and were pretty much gone by 3. Then we all went to visit my grandfather to seek his blessings. We rounded off our wedding day with a visit to the nearby temple – the first time as a married couple.

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The whole wedding ended up being completely stress free and without any issues. Though I was personally very happy with the small scale of the wedding, I was very curious to know what all the guests thought. In this day and age where weddings are getting bigger and bigger, here we were having our wedding at our home with about 50 guests. Approval from the elders in my extended family is something my father has always valued and he was understandably hesitant while we planned the wedding at my home.  After all, this had never been done in our extended families and possibly among all our friend circles. Would people opine that we should have had a full fledged wedding as a matter of general principle? Or would they accept this for what it was and just move on to the next big wedding?

 

America, India, Religion, Serious Writing, US Presidential Elections

Bobby Jindal and the ABCD

There is a colloquial term that is used among the people from India and the Indian sub-continent. It is used to describe and/or identify children of Indian immigrants in America. The term is ABCD, and it stands for American Born Confused Desi. (Desi being a generic term for the people from the Indian sub-continent). For the most part, this term is used as a tool for mockery and satire. But from what I have seen, there is a lot of truth to what it stands for. And when I dug deeper into Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Governor and 2016 President hopeful (!), and what he had to say about where his parents came from and how he identifies himself, this post began to write itself. But as I gave it more thought, this post took a different direction altogether (as is evident from below).

But first with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

Just so the reader is aware, Bobby Jindal isn’t his birth name. His parents named him Piyush Jindal, but then he changed it to a more ‘American’ sounding name when he was 10 – based on a character from Brady Brunch. He then went on to renounce his religion – Hinduism – in favor of a more accepted American South’s Catholicism. Apparently, the Bible made a big impression on him when he read it under the sheets in his bed as a kid (since he had to hide it from his parents). On the other hand, I would like to know if he even made the effort to read a single Hinduism religious text, and if he did, then what he did or did not like about it. He has publicly made statements to the effect that he wants to be called American, and not Indian-American. (There is some validity to this, but that is a separate discussion in itself). He has a self portrait of a white man in his office. Yes, that is true. And his campaign slogan now appears to be ‘Tanned, Rested and Ready’.

Bobby Jindal’s Self Portrait featuring White Guy

Bobby Jindal Self Portrait featuring even Whiter Guy

Now here is something about an ABCD who was in my circle of friends a couple of years ago:

He told me I reminded him of Rajesh Koothrapalli (the ABCD character from Big Bang Theory) in front of a bunch of white people. (Oh the irony!) He actively distanced himself from where his parents were and about his (clearly forced) visits to India. He once pointed to an Indian origin anchor on TV to me and said, “Hey man! Look on TV. It is one of YOUR people.” He once pointed to other fellow Indian immigrants on the street and remarked they were ‘Akshay’s cousins’.

Apart from the fact that that was the only time anyone has ever made a racist comment to me here in America, it is extremely ironic and disappointing that it came from a guy with the same ethnicity. My first reaction was disbelief and anger. (Needless to say, I no longer have any contact with him). But over time, I have come to understand a far more fundamental issue in play among children born to Indian immigrants in general. It is what eventually manifests itself in racist remarks to one’s own kind, ridiculous campaign slogans, as an active distancing from one’s own community, and the ‘C’ in ABCD. I am not just referring to the simple case of the identity crisis, but more importantly, to how the ABCDs deal with and respond to them.

I cannot even begin to comprehend what children of Indian immigrants have to go through growing up with kids that have zero resemblance to how they look. What kind of bond do they form with the other kids? How do the other kids react when they see a non-white, non-black, non-Asian and non-Hispanic kid in their classroom? Are they curious? Or do they already have pre-conceived opinions and look at him weird? Do the other kids make fun of his/her skin color? How does the kid with Indian parents answer the question, “Where are you from”? And what do the parents tell the kid at home? How do the parents bring him up? Do they bring him up to be an American? Or have they decided that their kid is going to be brought up with what they have understood to be Indian values? How do they find a balancing act? What kind of resources do they have to guide them? Are they even aware of the impact their potential ignorance has on the kid?

Once we begin to find the answers to questions like these, only then can we claim to truly understand how it is to be the child of Indian immigrants. These are hard questions. And the answers to them generally point to a set of circumstances where the kid is the easy subject of ridicule, bullying and casual (if not explicit) racism to the point of being ashamed of his own skin color. It points to a situation where the parents have very little to no idea about what is happening or how to deal with it. It paints a picture where the kid is torn between what he is told at home and what he is expected to be at school. They tell us a story of the parents bringing up the kids in the same way they would if they were in India -and being blissfully unaware of the repercussions. They tell us the story of the brown kid who ultimately learnt that he needed to be an ‘American’ – in style, looks and thought, not just in passport – in order to fit in with the world around him.

And it is at this critical juncture that a lot rests on. More specifically, what does the kid do about all of this? The ultimate destination is clear – be more American so that you are considered part of the world around you instead of being seen as the stranger in a strange land. But the path to get there is less evident. The kid sees two major paths to get there: embrace all the things that America has to offer while remembering your own ethnic identity and heritage, or completely reject and deny your ethnic heritage and identity while going all out to prove to everyone around you that you are an American.

It is not too hard to see which path is more easy for the child to take. An adolescent kid with a natural propensity to rebel, with no real guidance around him, whose main priority is to be accepted among his school friends who are not his own skin color, and who has ‘decided’ to be more ‘American’ has very little to choose from. Rejecting and denying where his parents came from, what his ethnicity is, what his religion is, what he eats, and which languages he speaks is – in the child’s head – the easiest way to ‘become more American’. And thus the kid reaches his destination not by embracing what the American lifestyle and freedom has to offer, but by rejecting who he is, how he looks, and all the values his parents believed in.

Popular portrayal of the ABCD has not particularly helped matters. It has almost always involved showcasing a guy or a girl in their youth, having conservative Indian immigrants for parents, and is struggling to ‘break away’ from their conservative ways to explore the ‘freedom’ that America has to offer. This has pretty much been it. I am unaware of any popular portrayal of the ABCD where there are bigger questions – identity crisis, bullying, casual racism, alienation, lack of counselling – asked of being an American born to Indian immigrants. There is no ‘why’, just a ‘what’.  And that is rather unfortunate.

And so we have a world where American kids born to Indian immigrants feel the need to reject the values taught at home in order to be accepted among friends at school. Over time, this manifests as a deeper hatred and shame towards people of one’s own kind and everything that is associated with them. And this is what leads to brown-skinned people believing they are white, changing their religions, finding Indian food too spicy or refusing to eat anything that doesn’t have beef in it, making racist remarks to people of their own skin color, and actively distancing themselves from anything remotely associated with India and other Indians.

When one looks at Bobby Jindal or my ex-friend through this frame of reference, the perspective changes from mockery and ridicule to one of sympathy and understanding. I may never actually change my opinion about what kind of a person they are now, but I do so with a better understanding of how they got to where they are. Without a shred of doubt, I am extremely glad that neither me nor my parents had to go through this daunting experience. Being born and raised in India until the age of 25, I had my identity and values well set before I made my move here. As I have slowly integrated myself with what America has to offer, I have embraced those aspects that do not conflict with my core values, and did so without forgetting where I came from. But I was able to do so only because I knew who I was and what I stood for before I got here.

I started writing this post sitting on my high horse passing judgment and mockery at a set of people whom I thought were just simply bad. But as I now conclude it, I am glad that I have a better understanding of why they are that way. I will even go to the extent of admitting that I myself may not have turned out any different than them if I was brought up here. So I can only hope that a lot more awareness is spread around on these aspects of growing up as children of Indian immigrants in this country. And at some point, maybe, we will have a generation of children who are indeed proud of where their parents came from and all the good things that India has to offer.

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PS: It would be summarily incorrect to assume or stereotype that all children born to Indian immigrants end up this way. Or that all parents have no clue about how to deal with such situations. The point being made here is that more often than not, the conditions surrounding a kid growing up are conducive to such an outcome.

America, Bangalore, Des Moines, India, Sadness, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts, Travel

Going Back Home After 3 Years

I finally went back home to Bangalore after a gap of almost exactly 3 years. I had never been so long away from home prior to that. Even with my parents visiting me in between, that long gap didn’t lose its significance on me. I stayed there for 4 weeks, visiting friends and family and spending time with myself at home. I had no real agenda apart from that and the 4 day trip that my parents had planned. Mostly, I just wanted to sit at home, eat my mom’s food and not worry about work or any of the many other aspects of my existence. But there was perhaps one thing that I was indeed looking forward to.

I just wanted to talk to people around me in my own language. I just wanted to talk in Kannada.

Perhaps the biggest handicap I have faced after moving to the US – and especially Iowa – is the complete and absolute absence of my ability to converse in Kannada with the people around me. Simply put, there isn’t a single person I have met in all of Des Moines who speaks my mother tongue. I am sure they exist, but the probability of them being someone I get to meet, develop a friendship with, and have conversations with them in Kannada on a regular basis is minuscule. Maybe if I lived in a big city, I would have stood a much better chance, but not in a city the size of Des Moines. And as a result, I have had to accept and live with the handicap of being unable to talk in my own mother tongue. It has never been problematic – considering my command over the English language – but it is something that I have constantly missed.

I have mostly dealt with it through secondary means. I speak to my parents, my relatives and a couple of my friends over the phone in Kannada on a regular basis. I also watch Kannada movies on Youtube or Videogirmit, listen to old Kannada songs, and read Kannada books. But none of this has ever come even remotely close to giving me the fulfillment I get from talking to someone in Kannada in person. Which is why when I went back home, the thing I was most excited about was just being able to talk to the people around me in the language that is my mother tongue.

Everybody from the immigration officer at the Bangalore airport (who began questioning me in English and happily changed to Kannada once I gave my responses in Kannada), the local grocery store guy who was trying to find me a pack of cards, the owner of the local medical shop (whom I have known since I was in high school), the guy serving me extra sambhar for my Idly at the fast food Darshini next to the bus stop, all the neighbor aunties who had differing opinions on the changes in my body mass, the old man at the small clothing shop where I bought part of my new wardrobe, the waiter at Vidyarthibhavan, all the nice folks of North Karnataka who made my vacation-within-a-vacation a memorable one, the guy who helped me get a Vodafone cell number on my Verizon Galaxy S5, the BMTC bus conductor who gave me a free ride to the next stop when he realized I was on the wrong bus, the auto driver who had Ambarish pictures all over his vehicle, the guy who cut open an extra coconut (eLaniru, or coconut water) for free because he felt he had given me a smaller-than-average coconut the first time around, the guy selling liquor on credit at the local shady bar, the bartender at Arbor Brewing Company (to whom I bragged about having visited the original one at Ann Arbor in Michigan), the guy who gave me all the snack goodies at Subbamma Store, the local gym owner who had a hard time understanding why I needed the membership only for 3 weeks, my friends from Undergrad and before, my family members of all ages and degrees of separation, and before I forget, Blackie – the creatively named black colored dog of the Black Dog fame –  I took great pleasure in speaking to every one of them in Kannada (including Blackie).

It was something that I had taken for granted all the time I was in Bangalore, and something – whose absence – I refused to acknowledge after moving to the US. During my visit, I sometimes almost forgot that this ‘return to how it used to be’ was only a temporary thing and something that I would very soon not have in my daily life. But I suppose that is what happens with the things I took for granted. I tend to trick myself into thinking it was all going to be OK every time I got to experience what I had missed for long. But the eventual and inevitable return – from nothing more than a vacation to the true consequences of my choices – never fails to expose the glaring deception my mind has me in. And I find myself looking to the past or to possibilities in the future when I get to experience first hand all the things I grew up taking for granted, and whose absence I am yet to come to terms with.

I am now back to talking to people over the phone in Kannada, watching Kannada movies, listening to SPB and S.Janaki’s old classics, and reading a Kannada translation of Kalidasa’s Meghadhootha when I get the chance. I do not know when I will get my next chance to converse in person in Kannada, but when it does happen, I will very likely just trick myself again into thinking it’s all back to the way it used to be – at least for the duration of that conversation.

And then I will go back to reality.

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The irony of choosing to write this in English is not lost on me. But such is the circumstances I chose and find myself in.

Arbit, Arsenal, Bangalore, Chelsea, India, Manchester United, media, Mediocrity, My sense of Humour, Rant, Serious Writing

Narendra Modi reminds me of Manchester United

Being half way around the planet from all the NaMo and RaGa and MaBa and ArKe waves during the election campaign, I have had little to no direct exposure to the ground realities in India. All my ‘information’ came from Facebook status messages, newspaper headlines quoting politicians out of context, memes, satire posts on Faking News and some input from my parents who are seeing all this first hand in Bangalore. So in order to get real information, I have had to make additional effort to look through the biased media, read a very long list of ‘expert’ opinions on both sides of the story, find compilation of statistics on so many issues that are being debated and of course, frame my own opinion at the end. In any case, the general gist of what I am hearing is this:

Screw Mario. Here comes NaMo

There is this NaMo dude who is the Uber Dude and who is expected to simply win the next election. Then there is RaGa who is going all out to let people know he has an IQ less than Timmy. New kid on the block ArKe is trying all in his power to just play spoilsport. Didi MaBa just wants to run for elections. The Left parties – wait, do they still exist?

Already the next Prime Minister of India

The common thread running through all the bits and pieces of information I am getting is not regarding RaGa, ArKe or Didi. It is almost exclusively about NaMo. But before I get to that, a little bit of football.

When I started watching football, it took me a while to start supporting Chelsea. Everyone around me was either a Manchester United fan or an Arsenal fan. The Arsenal fans were mostly proud of the whole ‘youth development’ ideal that the club apparently stood for. All good. The Manchester United fans on the other hand were mostly proud of their trophy collection and were generally branded as glory hunters. I get it. Every fan wants the sport team he supports to win trophies on a regular basis. It is a very natural state of mind.

But what was different with United fans was the unquestioned glorification of the club and everything associated with it. Most of the fans were convinced that Manchester United was the only true club in England. They would quote the rich history associated with the club and also point to the massive trophy collection. They would also point to one Sir Alex Ferguson as a ruthless winner who would stop at nothing to win trophies – and all the fans were proud of his long tenure at the club. But it didn’t stop there. United was considered to be a team that was beyond criticism. Going a step further, no other team was considered to be a valid team to support. If you were new to football and were still looking for a team to choose to root for, you would be made to believe that you had no choice. You would be made to believe that Man United were the only team worth supporting and it was some kind of a default choice.

United was also the club which had the largest fan base (and still does) in India and Asia. There were definitely reasonable United fans here and there that I have gotten to know over the years but for the most part most of them were just plain cocky about it. They just refused to even entertain the idea that the club was anything less than just the best damn club on the planet. There would never be any admittance of any imperfections in any of the club’s aspects. Nobody could level any amount of criticism without getting a good amount of backlash from its supporters. Moreover, supporters of all other clubs were looked down upon as if they did not deserve to be a fan.

All this inevitably led to a lot of distaste among a lot of fans who supported other clubs – including myself. So much so, that there was a fair amount of hate brewing against United. These people were our friends who we got drunk with and whom I am still in touch with. But the dislike and hate that was brewing was directed more at the club than at the supporters. Sure the schadenfreude that we experienced whenever we saw United lose grew exponentially. But the important thing to note was the strict polarization that Manchester United’s image had created. You either fully embraced it and considered it to be the flawless club ever, or you considered that to be the most vile, cocky, exaggerated, pretentious, falsely publicized, all powerful, corrupt sports organization in the world. There was almost nothing in between. And all this was a creation not of the club. (I am sure the club wouldn’t have wanted it this way). But this big divide was really a creation of the supporters.

The Panacea all Indians have been waiting for

And now I see the same exact thing happening with NaMo in India. He is considered untouchable and beyond criticism from the eyes of his supporters. There is so much pro-Modi rhetoric that there seemed to be little that he could not accomplish. He is treated as the solution to all problems. There is not a single ounce of criticism that can be thrown at him without ten counter responses coming from his supporters. (In the eyes of the supporters, they feel they are right because they are offering the statistically proven, reasonable response to a guy who is just making wild accusations against Modi). He is considered to have zero imperfections and his supporters quote the ‘development’ that has taken place in Gujarat over the course of more than a decade as proof of his awesomeness. And just like United fans sing the ‘Glory Glory Man United’ chant, there is now also a NaMo NaMo (and many more apparently) chant/song that all the Modi supporters consider their war cry. There is even a Modi-Brigade that you can join by giving a missed call or something.

All this isolation from criticism, unquestioned glorification of his past achievements and a level of expectations never before associated with an Indian politician have inevitably generated a strong anti-Modi fan base – just like it happened with United. Endless arguments and debates – both online and offline, opinion pieces from every Tom, Dick, Harry and his brother-in-law, articles listing statistics that prove the point each side of the argument is trying to make (never mind that they contradict themselves) – all have contributed heavily to the strong polarization of the Modi image.

The Rise of the Indian Youth or the beginning of a new Hitler Youth – depending on whom you ask

 

You are either a strong supporter and think he is the panacea all Indians have been waiting for, or you think he is the nightmare scenario waiting to happen where he ends up becoming India’s Hitler creating a Hitler Youth organization equivalent and there will be a genocide in his first month in office. The stronger the isolation and glorification, higher is the criticism and hate. Higher the criticism and hate, more is the isolation and glorification. It is like a feedback loop which just feeds one off the other but they both grow in size and content. And just like United, all this is a making of the supporters. Modi for one would have never wanted this divide. Part of it, admittedly, can be attributed to the hate against the UPA Govt and our current impotent PM. But most of the responsibility of this rests on the supporters.

I suppose there is a cut off point beyond which there would be no significant growth of pro-Modi or anti-Modi rhetoric. Perhaps that point will be reached after he is elected PM. Or Not. I for one can only hope that his supporters and haters can get to a more reasonable level of opinion. The worst outcome of this would be an American styled Democrat-Republican divide.

If you have not been able to figure out yet, this post is nothing more than an observation. It is not a criticism, support or judgment of anyone involved – from the politicians to the avid supporters and haters. It is merely a perspective which I have been looking through for a while. A lot of Modi and Man United supporters will inevitably disagree with me and some will even offer detailed explanations of their disagreement which are supposed to be interpreted as their idea of reason. First of all, do check out this thing called the Backfire Effect. Secondly, if you have you gone as far as trying to dispute what I have pointed out, you have already proven my point. So just calm the fuck down and think about it for a while.

When did an Indian Politician ever become so cool that he had his own Merchandise?

In all seriousness, I personally want to see Modi in the PM office and am really curious what this guy is all about. And at this point, I offer no response to speculation or the possibility of a genocide happening in India as a result of his election. But really, considering his competition is a circus clown in a politician’s disguise…..

…well you get it.