PRITHVI DATTA CHANDRA SHOBHI writes from Oakland: Each time a foreign correspondent moves to Jorbagh and begins her South Asia Bureau chiefdom, the West rediscovers the essence(s) of India.
If caste and Hinduism were the old Orientalist inventions, as time has gone included into that list are some new ones: Bollywood, cricket, Taj Mahal, IT, chaotic traffic, elections and a functioning democracy.
Hegel would have been proud.
The Washington Post‘s Emily Wax returns to caste and untouchability today, in two companion stories. The first story “Iron Castes” focuses on caste discrimination, educational opportunities and upward mobility for lower castes. The second story is on Kancha Ilaiah’s new illustrated story book on caste discrimination. While there are no obvious factual inaccuracies, look at her narrative and the sloppiness in the narration.
So let us look at the human interest hook in the first story:
A lower caste boy wants to study but has to wash dishes at a restaurant, where his boss would tie him to a radiator at night. Of course, the boy couldn’t escape his destiny, until a foreigner rescued and turned him into “a star pupil with a voracious and ever-changing appetite for activities including yoga, photography and film directing.”
“His (Ramu’s) school, Ramana’s Garden, is just one of many progressive, mostly private institutions that have begun trying to dismantle the barriers of India’s caste system, a centuries-old pecking order under which higher castes have access to quality schools and jobs and lower castes remain largely poor and illiterate.”
Now, I am not sure how to understand this sentence.
How is time understood in the present continuous tense usage ‘trying’? Has this been happening in the last year or decade or century? Has caste too remained the same? Is there class based discrimination, in addition to caste discrimination? Moreover, have only been progressive private schools (largely funded by the Post reading westerners) been at the forefront of social change? How about government schools, colleges and universities? How is this story representative of what has happened and is happening allover India?
Questions that rarely get answered. Not doing nuances is a new national pastime.
Anyway, the story has a happy ending. Ramu now even begun his own business: selling postcards of photographs he has taken!
Sloppiness continues in the second story too.
“It has been called essential reading for every Indian child, a lively illustrated storybook aimed at raising youthful awareness of the injustices of the country’s caste system, much as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” exposed the indignities of slavery to white America.
“Kancha Ilaiah hopes his book, “Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land: Dignity of Labour in Our Times,” will change the way young people see farmhands, barbers, leather workers and others whose jobs are viewed with disgust by upper castes. The social activists who have lauded the book hope so, too.”
I tried to figure out how these two sentences are related to each other but couldn’t. Wax’s misleading comparison to Uncle Tom’s Cabin is undermined by Ilaiah’s hope, which is to uphold the dignity of labor, as opposed to indignities suffered by lower caste artisans.
Also, who has called it essential reading? Who are the social activists? Why not name them? Others too
I have no interest in doing Washington Post copy editing. Also, others, including Indian born journalists working for western newspapers and news bureaus, are guilty of such sloppiness. Anyone who has read Somini Sengupta in the New York Times will know what I refer to here.
Recently, Dileep Premachandran wrote a provocative and somewhat critical Guardian blog posting on the extreme and one sided response by the Indian media. But the title “India: where truth is up for grabs” didn’t make any sense at all. The headline undermines his argument by characterizing India as subscribing to a less than absolute notion of truth.
Worse, he seems to be suggesting India actually cedes truth to those who make a play to grab it and are powerful enough to pull off such a trick. It doesn’t take much effort to point out the hypocrisy of Indians, but clearly Dileep is belaboring that point way too much.