Aakanksha Manjunath analyzes the World Bank loans that India has taken to clean the Ganga River multiple times. Yet the river has had no visible impact.
I've always wanted to talk about things happening in India in a medium where you can debate and learn. I hope this podcast will make that happen. Every week we'll cover a topic with guests. For now, here's a short introduction.
The Weekly Hajmola is a show that--through interviews, debates, and panels--explores the issues around politics, economy, societal and culture in India that are making news and many that are not being talked about in mainstream media. We always aim to invite experts on issues, but the key focus is on what students and the youth think about the issues and topics we cover.
Cultural appropriation is a really popular phrase to use these days. It serves as a common criticism of individuals who adopt aspects of a different culture in a somewhat disrespectful way, without understanding their underlying rich histories and contexts. The term seems to be ever-present in pop culture, with many questioning the “exoticizing” of Indian culture as it serves as the backdrop for American pop stars in odd, mismatched ways.
Given the context that I usually associate this term with, it was odd to me that one day I wondered if I too was participating in a form of cultural appropriation. To backtrack a little bit, I am an Indian-American kid. I was born in Chennai, but I’ve lived in America my whole life. My parents immigrated to this country in their 30’s, and they embraced American culture but still retained aspects of the culture they knew, by enrolling us in Sunday school, Indian (Carnatic) music and dance classes. As I spent more time singing, I started going to competitions all over the US, and realized that there was an entire community of Indian- American kids like me who dedicated their time to this traditional art form.
It’s nice to watch the parents- so proud and smiling so hard that their faces could crack. “We succeeded,” their faces say. “We got our kids to appreciate our culture and its values, and even with everything else, SAT classes, band practice, volleyball, and the millions of other activities we’ve signed them up for, they still practice everyday and keep the tradition alive.” It’s honestly a beautiful thing.
But when I talk to my cousins and other kids from India, they’re confused. “Why do you guys do that? I mean some of our parents are into that stuff, but hardly any kids actually go into it, unless their parents are musicians.” Another friend had an even more thought provoking reaction. “I think your parents are stuck in time,” he said. “They brought back this music that they thought was a way of promoting Indian culture, but the truth is India has changed. Sure, people are still into this stuff but it’s in no way a representation of popular music in India.” My cousins made me feel especially enthusiastic when they candidly pointed out, “It’s not really considered a ‘cool’ thing to do here.”
I was initially thrown off by these comments, but I soon likened it to Western classical music here. It’s a subgenre, not necessarily mainstream- but there is a substantial audience for it.
But what I couldn’t understand was why my friends and cousins in India were so amused. Then I thought about it this way. Imagine if an Indian student came to America and said, I play western classical violin, and participate in competitions, and compose music, and I’m obsessed with Bach. This is what I do to learn more about and get in touch with American culture!
So it wasn’t strange to them that I was singing Carnatic music. It was strange to them that Carnatic music was largely forming my Indian identity, in many ways making me feel culturally competent.
What’s interesting to me, though, is that cultural confusion goes both ways, even within the Carnatic music community in Chennai. On one hand, musicians praise American kids for working so hard, and continuing this art even though they are so far removed from it. They spend a lot of time teaching kids over Skype, and even invite them to India to perform. On the other hand, local up-and-coming musicians don’t necessarily always see it the same way. To some of them, these American kids are just participating in a drive-by: flying in, performing, and leaving, but at the same time taking away valuable time from local teachers and booking primetime concert slots at the expense of local talent.
There is validity to these arguments- and I do feel uncomfortable infringing on a cultural space that isn’t completely mine. But at the same time I watch my Indian-American peers work incredibly hard to pursue this art form, sacrificing time to perfect the words to a 100-year old composition, or making sure that they don’t lose the integrity of the ragas (scales) that they are improvising in, and can’t help but feel impressed by their dedication to carving out a space for themselves in this field.
At the end of the day I think that as a student of Carnatic music in the US, I need to be careful about the way I approach the art. I personally hope to spend more time understanding the history, language, and context of the pieces I perform. I want to strive towards finding my voice as a musician, while never forgetting to respect the tradition.
As children of immigrants we’re always going to wonder if the Indian cultural identity is truly ours. But even amidst this confusion, I hope we can take pride in the sincerity of our efforts.
A mysterious plague had exterminated all the adults of Model Town. Large high-rise buildings hosted the corpses of India’s greatest politicians, thinkers, bankers, religious heads and their wives. Children, short and tall, slim and fat, fair and dark, girls and boys, gathered around the playground.
Sabhya, the eldest boy in the group, stood up on a stool, “Everyone, listen to me. The adults are gone. We cannot revive them. And so, as the eldest boy in the colony, I hereby take the responsibility to rebuild our society, following the time-tested traditions of our forefathers.” Vani, chipped in, “I have an idea. Lets change it a little bit. Make it better? We could try to change a few…” “Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking. Learn to respect your elders. The forefathers’ way of life needs no alteration. If you cannot learn to live in this respectable and honorable society, we will throw you out,” thundered Sabhya. Vani was silenced.
Sabhya continued, “Now I, by virtue of being the tallest and eldest, will be the new chief of our society. And as your chief, my first command is for all of you to pair up. A society of grownups is systematized through marriage. So everyone, quickly organize yourself in pairs.”
Rahul, who was picking his nose, paired up with Damini. Tanmay chose Ridhi, Akshat picked Surbhi. All the children huddled in pairs and looked sheepishly at their chief waiting for a new command, when Harsh confronted the chief, “But Sabhya… I mean chief, not all grownups were married, some adults were too young and they did not have wives.” Sabhya’s decreed, “ Yes, that right. But, we are developing a new society. We have no time for disruptions. The earlier we marry everyone, the sooner we can start organizing our society. We don’t need any single men and women committing crimes or sitting idle. So go ahead, pick any girl you like. And I, as your chief, take Vani to be my wife.”
Nitin and Arun had been best friends since kindergarten. Arun enquired, “ Chief, is it possible to pair up with a boy. I want to pair up with Nitin. Can Nitin and I be a pair, please?” Sabhya was annoyed. He did not want to go through the trouble of scribbling down rules about marriage and gender in his little notebook. He wanted to make rules about real crimes and design punishments for traitors and opponents. He thought for a while and then declared, “Nitin, you cannot pair up with Arun. It is against the culture of our forefathers and moreover, it is against the design of nature.” But Arun contested Sabhya’s declaration, “But Chief Sabhya can we not challenge these rules in a court of law. And who has made these rules?” All this opposition was getting on Sabhya’s nerves. He ordered Vani to bring his pencil and notebook. Then he wrote down the laws of pairs and children.
Sabhya spoke, “My people, I have written down after great effort and thinking the rules concerning pairs and children in Model Town. Please listen carefully. A boy is allowed to pair up with one girl. The girl must accept the boy’s offer and concede. Even if the boy treats her unfairly, that is, refuses to share food with her, she must respect and obey him. With regard to Nitin’s inquiry, law has resolved the problem. Boys cannot pair up with boys. Such a pairing will be regarded as a crime, punishable alongside, murder and robbery. Now, no arguments can be brought forth to contest the laws of pairs. Let us proceed to the laws of children. Now we will all be open about things in our society. There is no shame in discussing the ways of nature. As we all know, if a couple kisses on the lips, they will have a child. Each pair will have three chances to produce a boy. Let us all know that it is the boy who will continue the father’s profession and will perform the final rites for his parents. Thus, each couple, by default, has three turns to produce a boy. If they fail, that is, if they produce three girls, they will be punished with heavy fines payable upon marriage to the father of the groom. Thus, parents of girls are advised to begin their saving upon the birth of the girl.”
Surbhi had a question, “What if I don’t want to kiss my partner because I ate too much?” Sabhya, wanting to move on to more important concerns, responded quickly, “It doesn’t matter. If the boy wants to kiss his wife, then the wife must concede. The boy is committing no crime by demanding a kiss from his wife. It is the duty of the wife to obey.”
Akshat was already beginning to worry about his future daughters, “Chief Sabhya, how will we earn money to save?” Sabhya was glad that the subject of law had become more interesting. How boring it was to legislate on the silly details of marriage! “Yes, as is the nature of democracy, I, your chief, will assign you your professions based on the fourfold division system. Now, Ankush, Tarun, Megh and Saurav…” The boys who were called out, stood in a line before Sabhya, “you have been appointed as the servant group.”
Everyone else was relieved. Ankush felt betrayed. He was good at math and reading, he did not want to be the servant, “ But Chief, I have many other skills. Can I not choose to be a math teacher?” Sabhya believed, that in a democracy, everyone had the right to understand the chief’s decisions, “Well! Ankush, the laws have been made based on reason and logic. Let us look no further than the glorious past of our society for inspiration. In the old and virtuous world of the grownups, the servants were dark and the others were fair. Now, the four of you are the darkest amongst us all. Thus, you have been appointed servants.” Those children, who had been ensnared by Sabhya’s charm and oratory, began clapping madly. Some even danced. Tarun, argued, “Well, the servants in the old world were dark because they toiled in the Sun. The others were fair because they stayed indoors… The three of us are dark because our parents were from the…”
Tarun was hit in the head with a stone. A group of boys, held sticks and stones in their hands. They gathered beneath the chief’s stool, “We will be your army. We will enforce the law and order. If the servants try to overthrow our system, we will mete out punishments to them! Sir!” Sabhya was impressed, “Very well then! I appoint you boys as the martial group.” Vani was curious, “What about the girls? What are our divisions? Can I be a writer?” Sabhya thundered, “Silence! Stop interrupting me. Now, about girls: They will adopt the classes accorded to their male partners. So the female partners of Ankush, Tarun, Megh and Saurav are servants while the wives of my officers belong to the martial class. But this is not relevant. The girls must keep themselves busy at home. They must cook, clean, and give birth to children.” Looking at the servants, Sabhya commanded, “ Now! You servants! You will supervise the girls as they look after their homes.”
Sabhya’s followers, once again displayed their devotion. They clapped and danced frantically. Sabhya commanded, “Those who have not been accorded a division belong to the trader class. You will conduct the business affairs of our society. And now as for our temples…” Sabhya tossed over a rock and carved an “S” into it, “I have consecrated this rock here. Everyone must pray to it.”
The devotees gathered around the rock. Bowing before the “S,” the children lost themselves in a devotional frenzy. They composed song for the “S” rock and bowed before Sabhya, the guardian of their religion. In the evening they lit a purification fire before the rock.
It had come to Sabhya’s notice that Asif had been betraying the society for some time now. Many of the martial officers had reported that Asif was missing from the evening prayers before the holy “S” rock and that many traders had seem Asif praying to a tree on the outskirts of the playground.
The commanding officer handed Sabhya a spear. They decided to punish Asif for his immoral conduct. The residents of Model Town gathered around the tree. Asif had just finished his prayers, “Traitor!” Sabhya thundered. Some of the traders, who were seeking to gain the government’s favor, carried Sabhya’s stool and placed it lovingly under his feet. The martial officers surrounded Asif. Sabhya commanded his soldiers “Get him!”
The officers kicked Asif in the abdomen. One of them stabbed Asif’s legs with spears. Asif spoke as he choked and shivered, “Please Sabhya! I thought we could all follow our own gods. What is going on here? I don’t believe in your rock just as you don’t believe in my tree.” Sabhya walked up to Asif, then he turned around and looked at the tree, “So this is your tree,” he kicked the bark of the tree. Then, he ordered the servants to break a branch off the tree. Ankush handed Sabhya the branch. Shabhya commanded, “Now! Servants! Gather the rocks from the playground and bring some glue.” When the servants returned, they were ordered to cover the bark of the tree with rocks and carve an “S” on each one of the rocks. Once the bark of the tree was covered in holy rocks, Sabhya’s officer tied Asif to the tree, “Say it, you filthy tree-worshipper, say, “all praise the holy rock.”” Asif’s forehead was bleeding. His legs were pinned to the tree using spears. His arms hung from two branches like lifeless creepers. When he refused to obey the majority, Sabhya, raising the branch of tree, thundered, “ This is a democracy! My people! I give you the power to punish this criminal. Yes! Take hold of the ruffian. Yes! Stone him!”
Sabhya’s devotees clapped and broke into a frenzied dance. They danced around the tree, throwing holy rocks at Asif. Asif’s blood gushed out like a waterfall. It soaked the holy rocks that had been placed on the tree. His branch like arms could no longer support the weight of his torso. Torn, his lower body fell to the ground. Before the servants could clean up and dispose the corpse, the devotees, still dancing in divine ecstasy, lit up the bleeding unholy corpse. Where Asif’s tree had been, now stood a newly consecrated rock temple that was bathed in the holy light of the devotional fire.
The matter needed urgent attention. What was one to do with Asif’s wife? “A single woman in a society of married men could cause a riot,” thought Sabhya, “the only way to prevent men from getting agitated would be to pronounce her impure.”
The next morning, Sabhya, addressed an assembly of the residents of Model Town, “My people! Asif’s wife has been rendered impure. She is the reason that Asif became so wayward towards the end of his life. Any man who seeks contact with Asif’s wife will be ensnared in her trap. Leave her alone. Do not speak to cursed woman. She will infect you with her unholy spirit.” The devotees clapped and broke into a dance.
Before the residents had dispersed, Vani questioned her husband, “Sabhya! How can you say that? Asif’s wife is a resident of this town. We cannot isolate her. Asif did not die because of her. You killed Asif! Let her be!” The dancing devotees halted. “ I have been writing a few new laws for our rules notebook! Have a look. Now Nitin and Arun can be partners and people can worship trees if they like! Women can have professions too,” Vani announced.
The crowd began whispering. Uncertainty gripped the residents. But Sabhya did not want to incite any protests or an influx of new ideas. He did not want to change the laws that glimmered with fragments of his forefathers’ glorious societal structure. He pushed Vani onto the grass and addressed the crowd, “My people! I am your righteous chief. And to prove to you my complete dedication, today I will sacrifice before you, my own wife. It is true. I will become you Celibate Chief! My loyalties are only dedicated to the people of Model Town. It is as though I would have never married.” The crowds surged with appreciation. They joined their hands before the Celibate Chief. They bowed before the holy man who was willing to put the state before everything else.
Sabhya stepped down from the stool. First, he kneeled before the original “S” rock. The crowd stood in awe of their political head. Then, Sabhya, with one strong pull, dug the holy rock out of the ground. Swiftly, he bashed the sacred rock into Vani face. It was smashed into the ground. The crowds cheered him on with patriotic gestures. Then removing the rock from Vani’s bashed skull, Sabhya proceeded to pierce Vani’s mouth with a spear four times. Then, using the stream of blood that gushed out of Vani’s mouth, Sabhya painted the “S” on the holy rocks and placed it a few feet away from the mutilated corpse. The devotees used the blood to anoint themselves with the sacred “S.”
“Do we need these writings and argumentative ideas?” Sabhya flung Vani’s manuscript onto her disfigured torso. The residents shook their heads from side to side. Sabhya, tearing the manuscript to shreds, stuffed the pieces of torn literature into Vani’s pierced mouth. The devotees clapped and danced and set the corpse on fire.
As the crowds drowned in devotional madness, Sabhya pushed the rock into the ground and stood upon it with both feet. He inhaled the passionate reverence of the holy fire and the frenzied fidelity of his people.