No Alternative

The “pulping” of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History by Penguin is yet another blow to the freedom of expression by the religious radicals and fundamentalists who take offence at the drop of a hat. The instances of such attacks — started in 1989 when the Indian government banned Satanic Verses — have increased dramatically in recent years, and the offence-mongers’ purview has expanded from books to movies, artists, and even celebrities. This is not surprising. When a society obliges to a culture of mutual intolerance by capitulating to those who are easily offended, it results into an if-them-then-why-not-us race, with every faction of society vying appeasement for their injured self-esteem.

the hindusI read this book back in 2009. Although the size and scope of this epic was prohibitive (with more than 700 pages), I found Doniger’s vantage refreshing and thought-provoking. The book offers an alternative history of the Hindu religion, looking through the prism of scriptures and tales, zooming into the role of women, members of the lower caste, and animals. It’s a story about the alternative people and characters. Her rationale is to provide an auxiliary viewpoint to show that the so-called marginalized groups (women and Pariahs) actually did have substantial contribution to the development of Hindu tradition. The book is a “celebration of diversity and pluralism, not to mention the worldly wisdom and sensuality, of the Hindus “.

By renouncing such scholarly work, the Hindu radicals are not only attacking the liberal values of our society, but (ironically) also weakening the pluralistic nature of Hindu tradition. It doesn’t surprise me that this regressive act is braced by the right-wing Hindus that are often politically motivated. What troubles me more is the passive support from the moderates. “Yes, I believe in freedom of speech as well, but we have to draw the line somewhere”, “We need to be careful about hurting other (religious) people’s sentiments”, “No one gets away with an offensive book about Muslims, then why shouldn’t we protect Hindu sentiments as well?” are some common responses to this controversy by the religious moderates. It’s dismaying to see a rather large section of the Indian society supporting (however passively), and hence fortifying, the spirits of offence-mongers.

A culture with no space for alternative interpretations and ideas is a culture of putrid orthodoxy. We must not succumb to these regressive forces that are destructive to an open society. 


Recent Reads

I read A Case of Exploding Mangoes few months ago, and absolutelycase-of-exploding-mangoes loved it. The story is set in Pakistan in the late 80’s — several months before the death of General Zia ul-Haq. It revolves around some very interesting characters – many of which would, one way or the other, get associated with that mysterious plane crash in which the dictator died. What exactly caused that plane crash remains a mystery till-date, but the author proposes several farcical theories ranging from a blind woman’s curse to… well, exploding mangoes. Consistently amusing and often hilarious, Hanif’s witty and satirical trance, and the fast-paced storyline make this book a stimulating read.

A biography of the great Indian mathematician Ramanujan was not as interesting as I though it would be. I felt that The Man Who Knew Infinity lacked an involving narration, the story-telling was too… “text-bookish”. It’s filled with myriad tiny details about Ramanujan and people around him. I congratulate the author for his meticulous research as he pinpoints almost each and every character that came in contact with the eccentric mathematician. But the narration was somewhat sluggish, and some details often hindered the flow of events.

I don’t read a lot of fiction so my judgment can be biased, but I think In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is probably one of the best debut non-fiction work coming out of South Asia in many years. It’s a collection of short stories, some of which were released in the New Yorker magazine over the years (Here’s one of them.) The stories are set in different classes of society and locality, and they involve different generations of people but they all have a cohesive thread and are deeply moving.

I haven’t finished reading The Hindus: An Alternative History yet but I am inclined to move on to other books that are lying on my book-shelf for a while. This book started with promising introductory and first chapters, but somewhere along the line my interest meandered. Since I have not completed this book, I will refrain from giving any verdict.

Nudge was remarkably insightful and refreshing. I’ve already written about the concept of “nudge” some posts ago (here).

[Picture courtesy: NY Times]

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