November 22, 2021
It’s no joke?
To: either/view subscribers
Good morning. Apparently, America loves paneer now. Considering the country’s new obsession with everything plant-based, all types of dairy should have been on a decline. Instead, the jury is out on the paneer case and things are looking good. This centuries-old cheese, with its high protein and fat content, has made it a champion among alternative cheeses. Its high melting point, allowing it to keep its shape after cooking, has also made it a go-to for American vegetarians. Turns out, feta cheese just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Of course, we knew all this already but it’s about time paneer got the recognition it rightfully deserves!
📰 FEATURE STORY
Vir Das and “Two Indias” – Speaking the Truth or Denigrating India’s Image Abroad?
American comic actor Sid Caesar once said, “Comedy has to be based on truth.” Depending on how they see the world, comedians can either exploit their surroundings for a laugh or use it to speak truth to power. To get more specific, depending on your political ideology, you may agree or disagree with that.
Last week, Vir Das’ “I come from two Indias” video sparked a frenzy, as he spoke of the contradictions and polarity of India and its culture. He spoke about issues ranging from women’s safety to the COVID-19 pandemic. The responses reflected that polarity. Das, no stranger to courting controversy, issued a clarification. He once said his jokes never upset politicians or businessmen, only those who love the politician or businessman. Now, he seems to have angered both.
Comedians being tagged controversial isn’t new. Whether it be abroad or at home. Several issues come with comedians being political, telling political jokes, or making fun of a particular party. You can throw around many a buzzword like politically correct or woke when talking about comedy. Perspective is probably the key to understanding where a joke comes from – it can be trauma, personal or societal.
In India, the internet has opened the doors to stand-up comedy reaching a wider audience. That comes with its obvious pros and cons. It has led to various comedy troops and groups being formed that tackle issues ranging from politics to Bollywood. Sometimes, those blend together in amateurish ways and in others offer sharp critiques and commentary. In Sidharth Bhatia’s 2017 column, he wrote about how 2017 was the year Indian comedians took politics seriously.
Comedians in India are no strangers to being on the receiving end of backlash, retaliation, and even legal trouble. It’s a predictable series of events. Once a video of a joke or comedy routine surfaces online, those offended waste no time making themselves heard, and they have a right to their opinion. Comedy is subjective, you either find something funny or you don’t. Censoring it, however, goes into the realm of free speech issues. Inevitably, politicians came out vigorously against Vir Das’ two Indias. Do they have a point, or is he simply speaking the truth?
A privileged man insulting India
Das’ monologue at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC spoke of him coming from two Indias – one that worships women during the day and gang rape them at night. He did comment on other issues also. He essentially painted a picture of India that’s contradictory to our customs and traditions.
His commentary wasn’t very original, nor was it funny. Das took the easy way out – mocking all things Indian in front of a foreign audience on their turf. He isn’t the first, nor will he be the last to mock and capitalise on the skewed perception of India by peddling lies and half-truths. Das’ use of “we” is not only disingenuous, but it’s also blasphemous. It’s clear his targets don’t include non-Hindus because Das somehow knows the religious profile of all rapists in the country.
His image of India is a version of left-liberalism repackaged for 21st century Indians. His comedy comes from a place of privilege. In that privilege, he spoke about and for a particular India – urban upper-caste Hindus and Muslims. The lack of mention of caste, a problem that has plagued the country for decades, is glaring. It is present in almost every aspect of life in India, and its omission speaks volumes.
For some, like Das, it’s a privilege to not talk about it. In fact, for some, it’s fodder to punch down. When talking about India’s fault lines, not mentioning caste is a blind spot. You wouldn’t expect an American to monologue about the United States’ problems without mentioning racism, given its history with slavery. It’s a mentality among many Indians yearning for their pre-2014 India. An India that’s a utopia for them. If Das wants to speak truth to power, he should address his privilege of belonging to a dominant caste. It’s easy when he, personally, has nothing to lose.
Perpetual outrage & ignoring the truth
In the wake of Das’ monologue, if you had to predict who would be angered and outraged, you’d probably be correct. For the right-wing, it’s almost a state of perpetual outrage. Das, like any other comic who speaks on topical issues, is doing what the art form affords – question authority and seek accountability.
The style of comedy may differ, but it’s important not to lose sight of the broader message. It takes courage to stand in front of a packed theatre and talk about the contradictions of your home country. Loving India, or being patriotic, doesn’t mean you can’t criticise it. His comments about women in India might be shocking, but there’s some truth in it. Thinking otherwise is being in denial about the statistics of violence against women. Take this 2018 Thomson Reuters Survey on violence against women, which finds that India is the world’s most dangerous country for women. Would this be a more palatable way of addressing the issue?
You could say India has lost its funny bone. Sure, comedy can sometimes be a tightrope walk, and funny to you may not be for others. The reaction, some of it over the top, underscores India’s insecurities. So insecure that a comedian, of all people, is supposed to be responsible for maligning India and not the harsh realities he spoke about. Not those who commit crimes against women, or those who attack Muslims and Christians, or those who suppress free speech.
For all the outrage, what he said wasn’t new. For decades, one of India’s most popular forms of media has always spoken of two Indias – Hindi film music. They’ve touched on issues of national pride, the freedom movement, and even persistence and speaking truth to power. His clarification perhaps speaks to the importance of his act. In it, he said the whole thing was an appeal to never forget India’s greatness and be proud of it, keeping in mind all that holds it back.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Gujarat: The Myth of a Vegetarian State
For the Left:
It’s God’s Gold, Sorry
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Getting over the language barrier (Odisha) – The National Education Policy (NEP) stresses teaching children in their mother tongue. But in Odisha’s Adivasi communities, there are 21 such languages that then get divided into 74 dialects. What does one focus on? This is where the state’s “decade-long experiment in multilingual education” becomes important. The SC and ST Development Department of the state has started a project called “Samhati” to overcome language issues faced by tribal students in schools. Around 3,328 teachers, along with 222 of them focusing on language alone, have been recruited to deal with this language issue. Education mustn’t be hindered because of a technicality and Odisha is seeing this through.
The cost of a food park (Manipur) – The farmers and landowners of the Thoubal district took to the streets to protest an upcoming food park in the state. Why? Harvest-ready paddy fields are being destroyed by the government to make space for the Mega Food Park. In fact, the farmers who showed up to work in the fields were turned away. While this does affect the farmers negatively, the park will also ensure 1500 spots for direct employment in the area.
Clarifying POCSO rules (Delhi) – Last Thursday, the Supreme Court nullified two High Court judgements by clarifying certain POCSO rules. According to the apex court, the “sexual intent” behind an offence that falls under Section 7 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act is what matters. Whether one makes “skin-to-skin” contact with the victim does not matter. Before this, the High Courts have given reduced sentences to the accused due to “no direct physical contact” with the victim. The SC even said that “any narrow and pedantic interpretation of the provision, which would defeat the object of the provision, cannot be accepted”.
Hitting the drug-pot (Gujarat) – The Covid-19 pandemic and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has led to Gujarat becoming a hotbed for massive drug raids. According to an agency officer, the travel restrictions caused by the pandemic meant that “mafias could not send the drugs by individual couriers as they earlier used to.” This was followed by the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, a major opium manufacturer. Drug mafias are now keen to get rid of their heroin stock to not face executions by the Taliban. Thus, not just Gujarat but several other countries are seeing an uptick in drug busts by their borders.
Preserving Dhokra art (Telangana) – The Dhokra art-form features “one of the earliest known methods of non-ferrous metal casting” and IIT-Hyderabad is aiming to keep it alive. Normally, Dhokra artefacts are made for ritualistic purposes but IIT-H is trying to get younger generations of the Ojha community involved. The institute is also trying to “create a digital repository” of the artefacts with 3D digital printing and photogrammetry. The digital museum would then be showcased to preserve the artefacts with “non-destructive methods”.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
$10 trillion – According to a study by CEEW Centre for Energy Finance, India will need $10 trillion to reach net-zero by 2070. Around $8.4 trillion would be used to scale-up renewable energy generation, distribution and transmission. $1.5 trillion would have to go towards setting up green hydrogen producing units to “advance decarbonisation”.