Archive for February, 2009

February 26, 2009

PIOs and pride

My countrymen (or just the Indian media, possibly) generally make quite a fuss about people of Indian origin, whatever their official nationality may be, who Do Things and Get Famous abroad (except Bobby Jindal, of course; no one wants to claim him).
So why have we never appropriated this guy?

(This surge of musical nostalgia brought on by Queen Em)

February 23, 2009

Cyclical patterns in history (or, the mental incapacity of Geoffrey Chaucer)

Context: Fourteen year old characters in an Angela Brazil book (The Princess of the School, 1920) encounter Theocritus in translation.

“It’s exactly like anybody going out to-day!” commented Carmel, as Miss Adams came to a pause.

“Why does it seem so modern?” asked Dulcie.

“Because it was written during the zenith of Greece’s history, and one great civilization always resembles another. England of to-day is far more in touch with the times of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Rome, than with the Middle Ages. Read Chaucer, and you find his mental outlook is that of a child of seven. In the days of the Plantagenets grown men and women enjoyed stories of a crude simplicity that now only[97] appeals to children. The human race is always progressing in great successive waves of civilization; after each wave breaks, a time of barbarism prevails, till man is again educated to a higher growth. We’re living at the top of a wave at present!”

February 21, 2009

Religious dilemmas and Real Schoolgirls

(Disclaimer if needed: I’m an atheist and cannot remember ever being anything else)

Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy (inspired by Laurel Snyder’s essay on Jewish kidlit, Where the Wild Things Aren’t) asks about books that portray Catholic kids. I’ve read very few books that do, but she’s put up a pretty good list to get started with. Her post reminded me of a conversation I had last week with a (Catholic) friend about Antonia Forest.

I first read Forest in a coverless secondhand copy of End of Term that someone gave me, so that the name of the author and the book didn’t actually register for some time. I remembered Nicola, had vague recollections of the grandmother, and remembered that there was a joke about a lamb in a hymn in there somewhere. What I really remembered the book for was a feeling it gave me of unease that I didn’t understand at the time. It was years later in my teens when I first began to read Grown Up Books that I felt it again. It makes sense – in many ways Forest was writing children’s books for grown ups.

I did remember that discussions about religion played a major part in the story, and last week my friend said she’d been glad just to see Catholic characters. That Patrick is Catholic and that Miranda is Jewish are genuinely relevant to their lives. Religion actually matters in these books – not so much in terms of your personal relationship with Deity-of-choice, but how it functions socially. Miranda’s presence in the Christmas play (and later her part in composing an original hymn) are genuinely problematic, and she’s always a bit defensive (and she’s shown to have good reason) about her Jewishness. Patrick is actually engaging with Vatican II and what it means for him as a Catholic – religion is shown to be something you actually think about and can disagree about. He gets into trouble at his Catholic school for disagreeing with the changes in the Church.

When I compare this to the other girl’s school stories I read as a child the difference is startling. Enid Blyton never really mentions religion at all. Dorita Fairlie Bruce does, hilariously – I think there’s one book in which Dimsie saves a jaded war veteran from the terrors of atheism. Elinor M. Brent Dyer is more interesting. Her characters are religious in the most mawkish possible fashion. No one can stop to look at a mountain (and since the books are set in Austria and later in Switzerland, lots of people end up looking at mountains) without someone coming up behind them and quoting “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills” or reminding them to thank God for all the beauty in the world.

Within Christianity though, the Chalet school books are quite liberal. Some girls are Catholic, some are Protestant, at least one switches after she marries; some are allowed to go to both sets of services. Two separate chapels are built for the school and apart from the practical aspects (where each group should pray and in whose charge) no one really cares what denomination other people are. Which is a wholly admirable view to take, of course, except that what it does (for me, at least) is to make religion something you don’t think about or debate – if you belong to a particular group you just…do. And maybe that is how it is for most people, but I certainly prefer Forest’s characters who think to Brent Dyer’s who apparently don’t.

It’s when it comes to non-Christian characters that Brent Dyer’s universe finds it hard to cope. A Jewish character (I think he’s a jeweller) appears in The Chalet School in Exile where he is saved from a Nazi mob. There don’t seem to be any Jewish students at the school, though in Trials at the Chalet School Naomi’s name leads someone to speculate that she might be one. The truth is far more shocking – Naomi has been raised agnostic*! Trials contains one of my favourite lines in the series: “As for not being baptized, Mary-Lou had never met an unbaptized person before”.

I’d assume that Forest’s treatment of religion had something to do with the fact that as a woman of Jewish ancestry who was a Catholic she’d had reason to think about religion this way. But then Brent Dyer also converted to Catholicism in her thirties (and not to get married) so presumably she was examining her religion too. Just not putting it in her books.

Weird things happen in Antonia Forest books. In The Cricket Term Mrs. Marlow writes to her daughter Nicola and informs her that they can no longer afford to send all the Marlow girls to school so Nicola’s the one they’ve chosen to shaft. In The Thuggery Affair the dead (and presumably decaying, by the end of the book) body of a carrier pidgeon is carried around in order to foil the plans of a drug ring. **But the religion thing is a major part of what makes her stuff seem more real and more complex than anyone else in the (sort of) same genre.

*Mary-Lou cures her. It turns out her character has been twisted because she can’t walk***. Then she gets into a car crash, goes to hospital, and is pretty much written out of the series.

**You cannot imagine how much I recommend this book.

***Only physical disability or war-related trauma is an adequate excuse.

February 15, 2009

In which I defend my family

The Pink Chaddi Campaign alluded to a couple of posts ago has attracted much criticism from people across the political spectrum. Some of these criticisms I agree with entirely, even while I believe the campaign will have a largely positive impact. Some I don’t agree with, but still seem at least valid. Some, like this magnificent effort of Kanchan Gupta’s, are revalatory – He informs me that I have no respect for lower- and middle-classworking women, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar or vegetarians, and that I model my lifestyle on Sex and the City, a show of which I have seen exactly two episodes (and the movie). The minor factor of the Sri Ram Sene is mentioned in the last paragraph of the article, but clearly the Bacardi drinking libertines are the immediate issue.

Then there is the parent counterargument. The idea, as I understand it, is that all this “liberalism” stuff is all very well (except when the commentator is saying that it isn’t, of course), but would you like to see your daughters going to the pub? There is a definite “gotcha!” tone to it. Aha, you didn’t think of that, did you? See how I cunningly expose you as a hypocrite, since clearly no parent would ever dream of tolerating this behaviour from a daughter:


Ask Nisha how much she will love,her kids going to pub and returning back boozed up. (Shishir Aggarwal
on Rediff)

Mothers in the blog think seriously what you want you daughter and what you want for her future..unwanted pregnancies and abortions or a happy life? (Naina, at the Consortium blog. Everytime you drink a pint, a foetus dies.)

And so on. I could link to more, but this would require skimming the Rediff forums again, and…no. There’s also a variation on the theme (again, Rediff) where “daughter” is substituted with “sister” when the commentor happens to be male. It is assumed that the male sibling is genuinely invested in his sister’s social life. Not having a male sibling myself I cannot say. I do have parents, though, and quite good ones. And on their behalf I feel that I should object to the assumption that they cannot approve of my loose, pubgoing self. I’m not so sure about the looseness (I think they’d ask for a definition before committing to any particular stance) but they certainly know about, and have never objected to, the pubgoing. Getting home safely at night, yes, they think this is a valid concern. My health, yes, my mother occassionally makes pointed remarks about my liver. But going into a pub and having a few drinks? I suspect the idea that they should be horrified would baffle them both.

Favourite comments on the issue so far:

You are like street/stray dogs which have sex with different dogs and go on have sex with dogs born out of the earlier effort. (“Shankar“, at Neha Vish’s blog)

would kalpana chawla have protested in this manner? (“msbharati” at Rediff. WWKCD?)

We are modern youths of India sending pink chaddis to Muthalik and tomorrow we want to run naked on street–and who dares to stop us.

We the people of India will bring ARMAGADON together. (Sayan, at Neha Vish’s blog again)

So, while you launch this awesome campaign,I would suggest that you also maybe can get some couples to come and fornicate in public. Huh? You DO want to be pioneers, don’t you? So, yeah. Fornicate in public, after all it’s just a step further than smooching in public. Yeah. THose who DONT display affection i public are soooo boring, yes? They dont have a love life, yeah? So, all you club hopping, forward looking, convent educated, ipod owning, beer drinking, porn watching, expletive throwing, women … do it in public!! YEA!!! YEA !! Three cheers for the “FREEDOM” (to be objectified) of the Indian Woman. May we soon become like America where every Indian woman has the right to do porn if needed to support herself or merely because SHE CAN !! Oh yeah…!!! (Nagendra, at the Consortium blog. I think he’s being sarcastic.)

And I think this may be the best one ever.

This is quintessence of decadence. It is heartily sick of observing a passal of “so-called lettered” janes of India falling victim to hedonism together with playing the giddy goat by getting played into the hands of a bunch of Pied pipers of the ilk of Renuka/sonia/Nisha Susan…India has to cover a country mile if she is serious enoungh to make her presence felt in the international arena. So, it is the bounden duty of all the RATIONAL-MINDED indians to buck up their minds in executiing first things first.All these pub/disco and all such farce have no future in india and do not qualify as conversation piece. Nisha would deserve kudos had she chewed even for a nanosecond over the idea of bringing about a sea change in the lives of those women who sit at the bottom of the heap and have a feeling that society has failed them. Women of nisha’s ilk live a life in the ivory tower and totally insouciant about the tribulations of the ordinary women. They always engage in playing to the gallery and all these hoopla are nothing but one more joust to turn heads.Nisha and other joiners cudgel your brain that not even before a decade these VALENTINESAND SUCH BLAH..BLAH BLAH….were not part and parcel of our lives. We simply got swayed by some merchant princes who for their kitty’s sake made us to rise to their bait. The best answer to this kind of grotesque megrim is to ignore them.Nisha may get some headless chickens in her foolish movement but mass shall steer clear of it. (“Typhoid Mary” at Rediff. I love it.)

February 11, 2009


Brilliant: An introductory chapter in a book by quite a good publisher talking about the importance of postcolonial theory, frequently referencing Leela Gandhi’s work, and (barring the first mention of her) consistently spelling her name wrong.

February 9, 2009

See here for details. Since I’m too far away for them to reach in time, conveniently located friends in Delhi will be sending chaddis on my behalf.

Please donate generously.

February 2, 2009


However flippant I may have sounded in the column yesterday, I am furious at the thought that I could go out for a leisurely drink and chat with friends and be dragged out and physically assaulted by random religious lunatics who think that my drinking with friends is more damaging to Our Culture than them beating me up. UltraViolet has a joint statement up that’s worth a read. Otherwise, there isn’t really much to say, is there? It’s disgusting.