Friday, October 26, 2007

Identity, and whereabouts

I have been busy, criss-crossing this vast wonderful country of ours, soaking in the experience of meeting different people from different societies and walks of life, catching up on a few winks here & there. And as the juggernaut has just taken a short temporary break, I thought maybe put up my thoughts on a cussed topic where my morality has always been ambiguous.

I read Amitav Ghosh' The Shadow Lines at a very imprssionable age, just when I was about to achieve the legal maturity to vote. The tale is a fabulous depiction of identity, and the resulting actions which appear totally believable in this compelling book. I do my bit of stereotyping - chinks, Biharis - what not, but I can honestly claim that I do not have a single casteist bone within (casteism is possibly the worst form of institutionally-sanctioned racism in the world, usurping the place of South African apartheid in the new century). Moreover, the stereotyping is often used in the context of humour, as is obvious from the Scottish and Sardar jokes which abound.

The problem is, because of socio-cultural factors, this stereotyping and the humour is ingrained into us. Mind you, we are not the best people to enjoy a joke, especially when it is on us. If you put in the context of religion or region, the situation becomes explosive. For instance, in the blockbuster DDLJ, SRK (playing a casual-about-life-loverboy) tells his lady-love that he was taking a leak in the church (when he was actually praying for her). The joke was in him taking a leak, not as to where he was answering his call of nature. Yet, Yashraj had to remove the offence caused to Christians. I use the example because it typifies the unique Indian problem, where Catholics in India wanted The Da Vinci Code banned, not withstanding its undeserved mega-success in the Christian world.

Nitin (alias Jonathan Brady) was (I sadly use the past tense as he is currently still unemployed) my favourite RJ. He came up with absolutely stunningly apt and funny insights on our daily lives, something which radio as a mass-medium is tailored for. He also ran a great imitation of MTV Bakra on Red FM, called Band Bajaana. While Cyrus possibly has a more inane sense of humour, both he and Nitin were perfectly capable of causing offence to the victims of their jokes. Even our leading superstar, Shahrukh Khan was not spared by Amar Singh, when in jest, SRK saw darindgi (sadism) in Amar Singh ji's eyes.

I considered Nepal the most out-of-job country, when an entire bunch of folks rioted on the streets, just because Hritik Roshan was quoted in a definitely fictitious interview that he did not like them. I cannot fathom a good enough reason why Hritik would say that. However, what is even more bewildering is for a entire nation to believe him, and stop all work to protest the thoughts of a young star from a neighbouring country (would it make any difference to us if Orlando Bloom, or even Tom Cruise, does not like Indians).

Nitin's offence is serious. I do not know the exact joke he cracked (apparently something about if Gurkhas becomes Indian Idols, who will be the security guards; the same stereotype has been used in movies like Hrishikesh Mukherjee's cult classic Chupke Chupke to commercials like Naturefresh using Sharmila Tagore and Soha Ali Khan). However, the issue was damning enough for a star RJ to lose his job. And I am not sure if he can make a comeback as easily as Dean Jones did.

However, the second recent incident of identity-abuse involved Andrew Symonds, who was booed when he became the 'Man of the Series' in the Future Cup. As misinterpreted by the Aussies, it is not actually a case of classical racism, as I am unsure how many Indians are actually aware of his aboriginal roots (and here I include myself). The incident was simply the unique Indian syndrome of mocking anything that is unconventionally different. Symonds carries himself like a tribal warrior, and he suffered the same fate which white women (easy lays) or South-East Asian tourists (see Munnabhai MBBS) can possibly vouch for.

I struggle to maintain my ambiguity in such instances, at what point does a good joke turn into offensive slander. The gentlemen in Mumbai above definitely behaved stupidly. Nitin was simply cracking a drawing-room joke. But I guess Mukul Kesavan asks us to correct our prejudices best.

Here’s a hypothetical circumstance. Tiger Woods is playing golf at the US Open. He sinks a putt, there’s a pause and the commentator, thinking he’s in a commercial break, says to his colleague, with the microphones on, “The nigger’s holed another one.” How long do you think that commentator would last on prime time? How many golf correspondents and commentators would characterise his comment as a ‘bit stupid’?


svety said...

i think its a real fine line when it comes to identity related sensitivities...the meaning of identity is to be known for uniqueness...the group comes into play only to amplify this set of unique characterisitics..therefore,to resent people for associating u with them and stereo typing would seem a tad self defeating...but then as in life..u need to tread with fine restraint...i would like to assume the best and say that humour would be a large part of the curative process..unfortunately, it seems to have backfired here..

beutifully composed post...since u're traveling so much u could start a travelogue..just pushing..i know u dnt have the time..i need to work my way through The Shadowlines again...

Parul said...

The incident was simply the unique Indian syndrome of mocking anything that is unconventionally different - Is it that,Abhi? Or we're just sore losers...I haven't seen Indians being particularly mocking anywhere except the playground. In fact, we are more likely to fawn over goras...and I use another stereotype. Agree?

Travelling? Where? With whom? When back? Hope you can write about it!

You write so, so, so well.

Amit Bajaj said...

that nigger bit is inspired from the Dean Jones -Amla-terrorist bit i guess..good piece..awaiting your gauhati diary now.