UNCEASING WAVES

If Not Now, When?

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on November 7, 2018

Since the beginning of 2017, I have been reading ‘Soviet dissident’ literature – fictional works critical of the Soviet Union. Beginning with Bulgakov’s classic “The Master and Margherita”, I exhausted my stock with Platonov’s “Happy Moscow” sometime back. I thought I’ll finish the year with fiction on Nazism and anti-Semitism in Europe. I finished reading Primo Levi’s novel “If Not Now, When?” yesterday. This is a remarkable story of a band of Jewish partisans who endure a cruel time. Levi not only captures the wartime brutalities of the Nazis, but also the everyday anti-Semitic prejudices of those who were fighting the Nazis, be it the Russians, the Ukranians or the Poles. It is my understanding that anti-Semitism is the most fundamental form of Western racism, because it informs all other strains of racism in the West. Try explaining the paradox of Jews getting accused by anti-Semites for being bankers and bolsheviks at the same time.

Levi also brings out the unique suffering that the Poles went through in the previous century. But suffering alone is no condition for unity and coexistence, as the tensions between the Jewish partisans and the Poles demonstrate.Yet the book is not a mere detailing of Jewish suffering, but of Jewish resistance – in a poignant sense, it captures the Zionist longing for a homeland of their own. But there are also Jews in the novel who did not buy this idea – like a French Jewish woman to whom Paris, not Israel, was homeland. Levi, I believe, was himself quite skeptical of an exclusivist Zionism. And that reflects in this novel as well.

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Critical Quest

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on November 4, 2018
Critical Quest Books

Critical Quest Books

On my recent trip to Chennai, I purchased over 20 titles of Critical Quest – 10 of which were given to me on hand by the publisher, the irreplaceable G. Aloysius. In my opinion, Critical Quest is one of the most important publications out there for a critical ‘activist pedagogy’. Their titles cut across disciplines and cover a variety of themes; the aim of the publisher, I would say, is to provide the readers a comprehensive and critical understanding of the how and why of socio-political change through concise and affordable books. Most of the books are around 40-80 pages and cost, on an average, about 50 rupees (50 pence, 70 cents). Ideology, theory, nationalism, identity, caste, gender, religion, philosophy are some of the topics covered, and you get titles of Meszaros, Fraser, Engels, Emerson, Horkheimer etc for nominal rates.

Critical Quest has an amazing selection of books by Ambedkar – my personal favorite is “Philosophy of Hinduism”, which shows the Boss at his incisive best. Some of them, like “Conversion as Emancipation”, are compilations from Ambedkar’s speeches and writings, astutely brought under an apt title. One of the first books of Critical Quest I purchased was Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste” in 2009 – priced at 40, I got it at a discount for 25!

Likewise, I would argue that Critical Quest has brought out the best translations till date of some of the works of Periyar – Women Enslaved (translation of Pen Yen Adimaiyanaal?), Periyar on Buddhism, Periyar on Islam, Periyar on Village Reconstruction etc. I do hope they bring out more and more works of Periyar in English.

Critical Quest also has published important interventions by contemporary Indian authors, key among them being the works of Aloysius himself. Apart from his writings on Brahminism, social development, regionalism etc, Aloysius’ work on Iyothee Thassar is published as three titles, and they present the crucial role the thinker played in the Dravidian imagination as well as in shaping the modern Tamil-Dalit identity.

I strongly think that an endeavor like Critical Quest must be promoted, not only through the purchase of their books, but also through citations in our articles, academic or otherwise. At a time when books concerning human emancipation are marketed at a price much beyond the affordability of most of the human population that they are meant to reach, the work that Critical Quest does is nothing short of heroic. Promoting them is not a favor – it is gratitude.

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The Kingdom Of Heaven

Posted in International by Karthick RM on August 3, 2018

JerusalemJerusalem is far more gripping, moving, and intimate than most biographies of great personalities. Jerusalem emerges not just as a city, but also as a dream, a hope, a utopia/dystopia, an ambition, a cause, a sentiment, and a people already made and in the making – in all probability, never to be made. The land saw great acts of faith and love combined with cynicism and savagery, committed by saints and sinners, and often, one couldn’t distinguish one from the other. The best of men gave up their lives for Jerusalem so that the worst of men may rule it. Genocide, slavery, rape, intrigues, conspiracies, betrayals, an overall debasement of the human spirit, none of these were alien to this holy city celebrated by the three major religions of the world and coveted till date by their fanatic followers.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of a remarkable biography of Stalin, produces an account of Jerusalem that is deep and rapid – the pace of his writing is such that this 700+ page book might as well have been 70! And each chapter of Jerusalem is worthy of being made into a film. This biography of Jerusalem is also a partial but crucial history of the three Abrahamic religions and their claims to the land. Enslaved by liberators and liberated by tyrants, Jerusalem is also a profound tragedy like none other, a tragedy to which no one community can lay authentic claim to. Saladin (in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven) when asked “What is Jerusalem worth”, replies cryptically “Nothing…Everything.” A better question to ask would be “Who does Jerusalem belong to” – “No one… Everyone.” Maybe that is the key to peace, or something close to it.

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Avengers, Black Panther etc.

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on May 13, 2018

This was a boring weekend so I decided to write this. Dont take it too seriously. Or maybe you can. I dont know. 

When I watched Black Panther, I couldn’t help but draw real life parallels. The ‘villain’ Killmonger was Steve Biko, Thomas Sankara and Malcolm X combined. Of course he had to be killed. The ‘hero’ T’Challa on the other hand was Mohammed bin Salman, Benjamin Netanyahu and Shah Reza Pahlavi combined. Of course he had to be saved. Killmonger’s Wakanda would have been a nightmare to every imperialist power that bleeds the poor countries of the world in a thousand different ways. T’Challa’s Wakanda is a wet dream come true for the American military-industrial complex. Killmonger, who believes in a global solidarity of the oppressed, refuses to live in such a society and prefers an honorable death. “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Cause they knew that death was better than bondage.” Killmonger joins other great revolutionaries who were defeated/killed by Hollywood liberalism, like Magneto in X-Men, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Watching Avengers: Infinity War, it seemed fitting that Thanos should avenge Killmonger. Cannot Thanos be read as a radical person of color who is battling white superheroes and their stooges of color? And where Killmonger was motivated by fighting against global oppression, Thanos is motivated by global ecological concerns. Academic Joel Hodge correctly points out that “Thanos is selfless – he is seeking a higher good for the universe, not himself – and offering a systematic answer to the problem of sustainability.” On the other hand, western liberals, especially those suffering from an overdose of white guilt, have been thoroughly disturbed by the film. One has compared Thanos to America and complains that “America has been Thanos, and it got over the slaughter without much difficulty. America has claimed that killing thousands of people irrespective of their age, occupation, status, or personal storyline was for the greater good.”

This is blatantly untrue. America has always been selective in who it murders, who it allows to be murdered, where it promotes human rights, and where it violates it. A dictatorial North Korea and a Syria which is accused of war crimes are America’s enemies, but a Sri Lanka that committed genocide of Tamils and Turkey which indulges in ethnic cleansing of Kurds are America’s strategic partners. America has maintained its financial order by augmenting fiscal, political and ecological disorder in countries where it seeks to hold influence. Thanos, on the other hand, is truly indiscriminate in his attempts to bring balance to a world that abuses nature, technology, man and itself. His thinking and actions defeated the American warriors and their allies on screen and baffle social justice warriors who watched it. Maybe Thanos represents a posthuman politics that a few philosophers have been trying to theorize. Maybe he represents the Nietzschean overman, the one who is not afraid of the Truth in its entirety and the one who does not resent taking terrible decisions, thus casting terror in minds conditioned by a liberal human rights thinking. Maybe he just took Gandhi’s famous quote “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed” to heart and decided to act upon it.

A political reading of such films is not entirely fanciful. Consider Captain America: Civil War where Cap beats the daylights out of Ironman. The movie was prophetic. The good Captain is an ultra-militarist chest-thumping patriot with neanderthalic ideas of nationalism while Ironman is an ultra-militarist pro-assassination cosmopolitan patriot with deep roots in the arms industry. The political parallels are too obvious to miss. Trump defeated Clinton in the US Presidential elections a few months after the release of this film. But remember, at the end of the day, Iron Man and Captain America are on the same side. So are those like the Hulk, who represents the destructive potential of an angry white ‘involuntary celibate’ male nerd, and T’Challa who, as said before, represents a Third World monarchy that is a strategic partner for American interests. Thanos, however, is quite the outsider not just to the world, but to the hegemonic liberal democratic ideology of the West.

What is more important is that every Marvel movie till now has been about crisis, ending the crisis, and getting into a newer crisis in a loop – much like the history of capitalism. The multi-billion dollar enterprise of Tony Stark that invests so much in defense technology and not in health, education or sustainable aid to poor countries should be seen as a part of the crisis, not a solution. And including a diversity of characters changes nothing. Capitalism can function smoothly with any face and with any race. When Thanos eliminates half the world, he is not killing humanity – he is showing humanity a better path from the crisis-ridden one that capitalism has forced upon the world. The fact that he does not choose to preside over the new order, even after sacrificing family and friends to achieve it, but instead retires to solitude makes him the true heroic character of Infinity War. In the interests of the balance that he achieved, the Avengers should stay down.

That they won’t is another story.

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The Young Karl Marx

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on May 9, 2018
The Young Karl Marx

Marx giving it to Wilhelm Weitling

Saw Raoul Peck’s ‘The Young Karl Marx’. An excellent film, which beautifully captures the roots of the Marx-Engels friendship. Marx admired Engels and decided to engage in a partnership with him for two reasons: Engels was empathetic towards the working class. More importantly, he understood how the industrial bourgeoisie functioned. Empathy to the bottom class, alone, does jackshit unless you understand and analyze how the top class functions. In fact, such isolated sentimentalism deprived of any critical understanding only ends up reproducing the rule of the top class.

Through this basic Marxist understanding, you can also infer why Brahmin scholars are more interested in doing/assisting/promoting Dalit studies than Brahmin studies – in fact, maintaining a focus on the former prevents an interrogation of the latter. You wont dismantle caste by empathy (academic or literary) to the cheris or by glorifying them in cinema. It is fashionable, but it is also seasonal. Caste can be understood and, hopefully, dismantled only when the critical focus is turned on the power/knowledge of the modern agraharas.

For that, we need Marx, Ambedkar and Periyar.

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Doctor Zhivago

Posted in General by Karthick RM on April 7, 2018

Finished reading Doctor Zhivago few days back. It took me about 4 months to read the the first 100 pages, and 4 days to finish the remaining approx 400 pages. It is a surprisingly fast paced novel, and like all such novels, there is much sentimentality and a lack of critical substance. Though there was much politics around this novel securing Paternak the Nobel, Doctor Zhivago is not a political novel. Its a love story, which is sometimes quite cheesy and often quite melodramatic, and the revolution happens in the background. In a somewhat reductive but still justifiable reading, one could also say that Paternak was dismissing the Revolution because a couple in love – both cheating on their marriages – could not happily conclude their relationship. Soviet authorities were pissed because Paternak did not appreciate the revolution – but his true problem was that he did not understand the revolution.

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‘Islamic Feminism’ and its Defenders – A Short Comment

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on March 25, 2018

The brilliance of scholars and activists who defend forms of ‘Islamic feminism’ like the late Saba Mahmood, Sara Ahmed, and Linda Sarsour is their ability to conjure strawmen and maintain a sustained attack on them which, to the uninformed, might even seem as the articulation of a very legitimate grievance. One of such strawmen is the western liberal feminist, who does not understand the radical meaning of the veil (just as they cannot understand the radical meaning of Sati, Hindu feminists can also argue) or the radical possibilities within Islam. The accusation is that such liberal feminists contribute to a climate of Islamophobia. The manner in which these ‘Islamic feminists’ frame things, one would assume that there are only two groups critical of Islam and Islamism – the liberals and the Islamophobes – and that both are hand in glove.

Well, dig up the archives of The Guardian or the New York Times from the past ten years and find out how many articles were written by these ‘western liberal feminists’ criticizing the practice and right of wearing a veil as opposed to those blindly supporting it in the name of multiculturalism, diversity etc. The reality is that the vast majority of the so-called western liberal feminists have been cowed – thanks to white guilt – into not just accepting the veil as a right, but also into defending this practice as a duty. The ‘progressives’ maintain a vulgar silence for fear of being branded racist. The pitiful result being that it is only the right-wingers or the ‘security state’ thinkers that emerge as the loudest, screeching, and uncritical voice that is now critical of the veil, the sharia or other Islamic practices. The other historical possibilities – say for instance, like the Albanian Communist women who trashed mullahs in the streets – do no even figure in these discourses, thereby placing sharp limits on political imaginations. Indeed, Communist women scare liberals, Islamists, and right-wingers alike. No wonder, more than the Muslims themselves, it was the western liberals who criticized French leftist Melenchon when he defended the ban on the veil in France. So contrary to what Mahmood or Sarsour might state, Western liberals are more likely to defend Islamic practices than take a principled and critically informed opposition to the same.

On another note, it is quite interesting that the Western liberal university is still the best space from which Islamists can defend Islamism while simultaneously undermining the institutions and people that give them their space. But its not surprising, considering that almost all of the Hindu revivalists in India received some or other form of patronage from the British.

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The Death of Stalin

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on March 25, 2018
The Death of Stalin

Screenshot from the film

Among Western films critical of the Soviet Union, Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin” is remarkable, probably one of the best. It is also light years ahead of the usual liberal tripe (like Ivan Passer’s Stalin) in its understanding of Stalinism. Iannucci again demonstrates that organized political horror like Stalinism can be best captured through comedy than through melodrama. Gulags, executions, purges, cultural policing, the ‘Jewish Doctors’ plot, Beria’s rapist streak, the Malenkov-Khrushchev power struggle are all brought out in a humorous vein, to the point of being thoroughly hilarious at the expense of human suffering. Some fainthearted liberals have accused Iannucci of taking a flippant approach to such ‘tragedies’, but ‘tragedy’ assumes that the victims have dignity. Dignity is the first quality to be crushed in totalitarianism, especially of the progressive variety. Only a joke remains.

One insightful-comic scene showed political captives hailing Stalin just prior to being shot. You usually dont have this performance with the victims of fascism. For instance, I doubt if anyone summarily executed at Auschwitz would have shouted “Sieg Heil.” There is always some room for moral heroism under fascism. Stalinism offers no such possibility. The victim could either die for progress or die against progress, as brilliantly captured by Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon.

Yet despite its moral totalitarianism, the USSR was still an inefficient, imperfect system. Iannucci brings that out in his satire. It is not always historically accurate, but compared to “Darkest Hour”, “The Death of Stalin” is to the point.

8.5/10

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Few Points on the Andal Controversy

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on January 26, 2018

1. Andal’s poetry is beautiful. I say this with reference – and with reverence – to the aesthetic quality of her works. But what is beautiful need not be progressive, and vice versa. What is beautiful need not even be true or good.

2. It is wrong to condemn Andal’s poetry as regressive, using modern Dravidian anti-caste ethos as a standard. You cant expect that from someone who lived in the 7th/8th century. It is equally wrong to praise Andal for being a sexual libertarian. One anachronism does not cancel out the other. Prejudice of modernity does not only affect the male gaze, but also the female gaze.

3. The addressing of god in sexually intimate terms is not unique to Andal – several others in her time, after her time, have done it. Those in the Christian mystic tradition did it in defiance of the established orthodoxy and in face of persecution.

4. If ‘radicalism’ and ‘transgressiveness’ is a criteria, then Basavanna and Akkammadevi stand way ahead. Their approach is universal and social, while Andal’s is particular and asocial. But that is a problem with Vaishnavism as such.

5. Sexual liberalism alone is a lazy standard for evaluating the progressiveness of a person or a society. Sparta had remarkable sexual freedom for its women citizens. Slaves and slave women are a different story.

6. Vaidyanathan’s apology was plain cowardice. Vairamuthu should have been more assertive in defending himself. For someone who writes so much on the Tamil martial tradition, he cuts the figure of a fresher weakly protesting against the college bully. Contrast with how boldly Thirumavalavan stands by his comments on the Hindu religion.

7. Fundamentalist groups threatening and initiating violence over academically inaccurate comments on Andal (or silly cartoons on Muhammed for that matter) are enemies of democracy, decency and sanity. The argument that the poet or the cartoonist should be more responsible so as to not provoke these groups is only a cheap defense for fundamentalism.

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Some Comments on The Purananuru

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on December 2, 2017

1. On Amazon.in, the cheapest copy of the best English translation of The Purananuru (Trans. George L Hart and Hank Heifetz. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) available is at Rs. 1670 (last time I checked). I got my as-good-as-new copy at a second hand book store in the UK for 2.50 £, roughly Rs. 220. Lucky me!

2. This work of poetry is also a passageway into the world of the ancient Tamils, a people who celebrated war, love, meat-eating, wine, knowledge, and generosity. And the poems indicate a strong sense of ‘Tamilness’ in terms of a people and a geography.

3. Martial ferocity is praised. So is compassion, charity & righteousness. The strong and wealthy are urged to provide for the weak and needy.

4. Providing for agrarian prosperity, building dams, protecting order in trade and society and curtailing banditry are considered desirable qualities of kings. And the Sovereign is considered ‘the life of the world’.

5. The poems are thoroughly secular in nature, though there are occasional references to gods, including Brahminical ones like Rama – Ravanan is referred to as an ‘arakkan’, translated as ‘demon’. The first poem is an ode to Shiva. Murugan is the most referenced god in the poems.

6. There is clear reference to Brahmins who are learned in the Vedas, who are considered as holy as cows, and who are deserving of protection and gifts. Likewise, there are also vague references to the ‘low born’. (But a Tamil scholar recently told me that the system of caste in the Tamil land as we know it today originated only after the fall of Cholas.)

7. Chastity and purity of ‘women of the house’ is glorified. At least one poem attests to the practice of Sati.

8. Though it appears that war and wealth are praised, a closer reading also suggests a stoic asceticism of the poets.

9. The most celebrated animal in these poems is the Tiger. No wonder…