Book Review: The Vanishing Generations

Some of my favorites novels have been family sagas. Books like Middlesex, Roots, The Immigrants, and One Hundred Years of Solitude have profoundly illuminated the passage of time through the intimate stories of families. Since grade school, we’ve grown accustomed to associating history with dry, old textbooks, from which we’ve forced to memorize dates and be tested on our abilities to mindlessly regurgitate the names of places and so-called important historical figures. In contrast, family sagas allow us to look at history through the lens of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. We get to know these characters intimately, immerse ourselves in their privates thoughts and personal struggles, and watch how their lives interwoven with the events we’ve learned about in history class. We learn how the lines between the personal and political are often blurred, and rather than being some abstract, ethereal thing, how political circumstances impacts the personal lives of our lead characters.

36237100The Vanishing Generations is the English translation of the Malayalam novel, Manjupokunna Thalamurakal, written by T.V. Varkey. It’s a multigenerational tale that centers on the Paalat family, a Syriac-rite Catholic clan. The novel opens in Kudumon, a small village situated on the Malabar Coast, during the 1850’s. Our first lead character, Kunjilona, of the Cholkunnu house, is arranged to marry Mariamma, the only daughter of a widow named Thandamma. Mariamma is from the Paalat house, a clan notorious for an alleged curse resulting in the deaths of its sons-in-law. In the Syriac Christian community during the 19th century, it was customary for families without male children to adopt the husbands of their daughters. Therefore, following his marriage to Mariamma, Kunjilona left the Cholkkunu house and formally joined the Paalat clan. Despite anticipation of an untimely death from marrying into the Paalat House, Kunjilona manages to live long enough to start his own business and raise a family of his own. Kunjilona’s success raises the status of the Paalat House to a level of respectability and prestige.

Kunjilona and Mariamma have two sons, Kunchacko and Abraham. Kunchacko is celebrated for his cleverness and intellectual interests, which he eventually channels into his life as a Catholic priest. In the late 19th century, parish priests are often the most learned men of the village, and Kunchacko uses his role as a priest to advocate and inspire social change both within the church and the broader community. Abraham, on the other hand, is less intellectually-inclined. Unlike his brother, Abraham eschews scholarly pursuits and social activism and chases after materialistic endeavors, investing in tea and rubber plantations in the high ranges and reaping its profits. In addition, he’s an hedonist who pursues servant girls to satisfy his insatiable carnal thirst, even with the quiet acknowledgement of his silently-suffering wife, Claramma.

Being a Catholic priest, Kunchacko forgoes family life to tread the path of priestly celibacy. On the other hand, Abraham, if you were to ignore the possible illegitimate offsprings he may have sprung from his many dalliances, has two children with Claramma, Francis and Susannah. While, Susannah resolutely pursues a life of celibacy as a Catholic nun, Francis marries a girl named Agnes and they have two sons, John Paul and Mathew. While Mathew renounces family life to dedicate himself to revolutionary causes, John Paul marries a girl named Philomena and they have two children, Jesus (yes, that’s his real name) and Joan. The family saga concludes with Joan and her daughter, Annie, being the sole occupants of the Paalat house.

The advent of modernity is the central theme of this saga. As the story progresses, we, the readers, witness Kudumon transform from the bucolic, yet backward village without even a single paved road, to a respectable intellectual hub with its own printing press. The hegemony of the iron-fitted upper-caste Hindu elite crumples in the face of western education, springing forth progressive values and modern sensibilities. The lead characters marvel at the speed of changes that occur in their humble town.

Accompanying the advent of modernity is the gale of creative destruction. Just as the processes of industrial mutation revolutionizes economic structures, destroying the old in favor of the new, the same applies to cultural institutions. In the opening pages of the novel, the local parish is the pillar of the village. During the mid-to-late 19th century, magisterial authority was often vested with the parish priest. The lives of the Nasrani villagers revolved around their local parish, and the broader Roman Catholic Church.

However, the succeeding generations of the Paalat clan gradually start to regard the church and Christian doctrine with varying degrees of skepticism. Abraham declines to step foot in the parish whenever Qurbana is in progress. Francis, while maintaining his identity as a Catholic, adores the advancements of science, regarding it as more relevant and useful to the lives of ordinary people than ancient religious doctrines. And John Paul flat-out rejects religious dogma, and unabashedly voices “blasphemous” remarks to the ire of his colleagues and supervisors at the Catholic-run college where he teaches.

The Hindu residents of Kudomon similarly fall victim to the sword of modernity. The matrililial joint-family tharavad system is overthrown in favor of male-led neutral families. The prestige of the once-elite Brahmins decline as they’d proven unable to maintain pace with the ever-changing times. In contrast, the so-called untouchable castes become educated and politically-conscious, motivating them to strives for equal rights and dignity. By the turn of the century, the rise of nationalism pose a threat to ancient, supposedly-divine-ordained hierarchies. The frequent political agitations signal the revamping of an entire culture, forcing the vanquishing of old traditions.

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T.K Varkey

T.K.Varkey integrates the many stories of the Paalat family with the history of the Syriac-rite Catholic community. As readers, we’re introduced to a myriad of characters who are clearly allusions to well-known historical figures. Our protagonists are active actors in the crucial events that impact the Syriac-rite Catholic community. For example, Kunchacko is fictionalized blend of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Nidhiri Mani Kathanar. He fights tirelessly for the dignity and self-respect of his Syriac-rite community against the goliath that is the European-dominated Latin-rite hierarchy. Francis is a loose allusion to Kandathil Varghese Mappilai, the celebrated founder of Malayala Manorama. The various historical events that are referenced in this epic story include the Rokos schism, the Malayala Memorial, the formation of the Syro-Malabar Catholic hierarchy, the two World Wars, the Indian independence movement, the advent of communism, the formation of the state of Kerala, and the Vimochana Samaram that was followed by the dismissal of the state government by Delhi.

I’m a major history buff. However, as much as I appreciated all the historical references, there were a number of passages of the story that annoyingly read like a wikipedia article. It seemed that I was getting more information about a particular historical event, at the expense of the plot and basic character development. In fact, the lead characters themselves, were superficially-written, based on a handful of archetypes. The characters seemed to be conceptualized as carbon copies of their relatives before them. For example, Francis was the spitting image of his uncle, Kuriakose: intelligent, erudite, and passionate about social activism. Similarly, John Paul seemed to be molded from that same clay. In fact, whenever a couple has two children, one child is always written to be conspicuously more intelligent and academically-driven than the other. Undoubtedly, it’s common for relatives to share similar traits, however, I rarely got a sense of the lead characters as actual people. They seemed too archetypal and one-dimensional, some of them (i.e Kuriakose, Francis) being nothing more than “gary-stus”, perhaps a projection of the author’s own sensibilities.

I read a review of this novel by Latha Anantharaman (herself, a novelist). She was harshly critical of the female characters being “not worth mentioning. They alternately weep and hang about the house being curvaceous”. While I don’t exactly echo her critique, it is evident that the story is intensely male-driven. To be fair, the Syrian Christian community has historically been staunchly patriarchal and the author is a elderly man (whose predilections for voluptuous women are made quite obvious!), so male characters will undoubtedly play a greater role. However, the female characters of later generations project a more visible presence compared to their foremothers. To complement the idealistic and head-in-the-clouds John Paul, Philomena is written as a grounded, practical woman who efficiently runs the household and manages the family budget.  Their daughter, Joan, is paid special attention through the last few chapters of the novel. In fact, Joan is probably the most evolved character of the entire story, whose wide spectrum of emotions and inner conflicts are thoroughly explored and contemplated. As we approach the conclusion of the story, we, the readers, take on her lens and view the world through her eyes.

Throughout the novel, modernity, social activism, and political agitations are viewed through optimistic lens. They symbolized hope for progress and enlightenment for the forward-minded and educated. However, as we approach the concluding chapters, the writing takes a darker tone. This becomes apparent when Mathew, the firebrand revolutionary, returns home, disillusioned by the prospects of the so-called revolution. John Paul, who held similar convictions but approached them through a literary/artistic angle rather than political methods, joins him in decrying the infighting and internal corruption rampant in the leftist movement.

John Paul poignantly points out how “man’s nature is more fickle than the seas and oceans”, and cynically asserts that a person’s professed beliefs may change once he acquires an ounce of power. However, despite his urge, John Paul holds back from telling his brother in a paternal manner, “A revolution of the kind you envision will not happen in this land, my child. The darkness of centuries reigns here. The spirits of men are lost in murkiness. Gloom girds the soul and marrows of even those who preaches revolution. We cannot see such an awful contradiction among any other people in this world“. In this passage, Varkey makes it abundantly clear that despite the strides Kerala has made through social and economic progress, the residual sentiments of its repressive, caste-ridden past continue to live in its current generations. Misogyny and castism continues to thrive among Malayalis, just in a more subtle form.

The most surprising part of the saga is Joan’s relationship with her husband, Philip. Philip was a former student of John Paul who had since secured a position as a corporate executive in Bombay. He openly displays his affection for Joan and seduced her into marrying him. Following the wedding, Joan realizes that Philip was not the romantic she envisioned him to be. Rather, he’s an dedicated sensualist who prioritizes lust over love. To Joan’s initial shock, Philip often indulged his carnal urges with other woman. Surprisingly, he encourages Joan to do the same with other men, “Why do you object, Joan. Can’t you enjoy this variety too?”. While Joan was initially appalled by the very suggestion, she eventually acquiesces and proceeds to have dalliances of her own.

I’ve always thought of polyamory as a 2010’s millennial hipster trend. I would have never imagine anyone of my grandparents’ generation, especially two Malayalis from small-town Kerala, partaking in a practice that our current culture still considers to be salacious. Even more scandalous were the hints of a homoeroticism between Philip and one of his male friends, “He was a fair-complexioned young man with a stout, hairless body. Joan had found the nature of the two men’s relationship quite mystifying. Hugging and kissing before her very eyes, they had shut themselves up in the bedroom even as she watched, aghast. Squeals of pleasure and the sounds of heavy breathing emerged from within”. (Okay, maybe “hints” is an understatement!).

Polyamory and Homosexuality, although they’re not explicitly labeled in the novel, are portrayed as unconventional experimentations that are likely to accompany the prevailing reign of modernity. Philip is shown to be explicit contemptuous of traditional marital norms demanding strict monagamy and faithfulness. In his words, “We become human beings only when we experience life in all its variety”. Amazingly, Philip sounds exactly like a sex-positive blogger.

These unconventional practices are depicted in a relatively neutral light. However, despite her string of affairs, Joan later discards that lifestyle and focuses her attention on raising her daughter alone, following the death of her husband. Her polyamorous endeavors were merely symptomatic of a dysfunctional relationship with his husband.

Death is another recurring theme in the story. Like every sentences ends with a period, a person’s life must also end. Throughout the saga of the Paalat clan, death emerges as a poignant, somber conclusion to a life well-lived. However, in many cases, death strikes from behind, blindsiding its witnesses until they’re at a lost for words. John Paul, a man who had lived through two World Wars, gloomily comments how death shed light to the fact that life is fleeting. Within the vastness of the universe, human life is ephemeral and meaningless, as we are merely sparks of dust. Ironically, despite his stance on religion, it is this realization that causes him to sympathize with the priests, with whom he engaged in many wars of words.

Death also alludes to the very title, “the Vanishing Generations”. Every death marks an end of an era. People cease to live, and their memories vanish away, completely forgotten by succeeding generations. In a passage, Joan alludes to “the soft footprints of time, none of which contained any trace of the history or memories of this ancient house”. The final paragraph poignantly marks the relinquishing of cherished memories.

T.V Varkey’s The Vanishing Generations would appeal to a certain readership. I’d recommand this novel to hardcore history buffs. While the novel lacks developed, flesh-out characters, its philosophical musings and meticulous historical analysis makes it worth reading. Most Syro-Malabar Catholics are unaware of their own history and how our religion was actually practiced by our ancestors. Modern-day Malayali Syrian Christians, would gasp at the thought of consulting Hindu astrologers for our horoscopes, yet, like Kunjilona, Mariamma, Claramma and Abraham, that’s exactly what our great-great-grandparents did. This highlights how the passage of time evaporates old customs and rituals, and the memories of those practices have simply vanished.

 

 

 

 

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Anti-Semitism and Christianity

Yesterday, on October 27th, 2018, a deranged gunman open fired at a synagogue in Pittsburgh during a worship service. Eleven people were killed, marking this tragedy as the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history. Jews across the country lament, at the fear that they be no longer be safe to worship and pray.

The shooter is being charged with a hate crime. The fact that he made anti-Semitic statements during the shooting indicates that the crime was rooted in his own bigotry. If convicted, he’ll face the death penalty.

Interestingly, in response to the shooting in Pittsburgh, Margaret Pritchard Houston, a novelist and children’s work adviser for the Church of England, tweeted the following:

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This is no doubt that anti-semitism has a long history within the Christian community. After all, the Jews had long been shamed as “Christ-killers”, for the unpardonable crime of “deicide” (the murder of God). While most of us are familiar with anti-Semitic prejudices of our medieval ancestors, I believe we’re less aware of how deeply rooted anti-Semiticism was in the early Church and how those prejudices have crept into the scriptural and liturgical texts used by churches today.

1st century Palestine consisted of multiple sects and schools of thought that competed for domination of the Jewish community at large. The Sadducees and the Pharisees were the two most prominent groups. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the Jewish-Roman war, the Sadducees, whose ideology was centered around the Temple, had evaporated into obilivion.

At the same time, a new sect emerged within the Jewish community, and was swiftly gaining popularity. This new sect struck many Jews as peculiar. The adherents of this sect had believed that the prophesized messiah had only arrived, but was crucifixed and had resurrected after three days. According to this sect, this messiah was not just an anointed descendent of King David. He was the “son of God”. In fact, he was the incarnation of God Almighty himself.

This sect, although Jewish in origin, had attracted numerous gentiles. In fact, the prohibitions and rules designated for practicing Jews were discarded by this sect. Its adherents were free to eat non-kosher meals, including pork, and didn’t have to undergo circumcision. In fact, there was question as to whether they could even be called “Jewish”.

In Antioch, the term “Christian” was coined to describe members of this sect. They were named after their supposedly-resurrected leader, Jesus of Nazareth, who was called “Christos”. Following the destruction of the Temple, the Christians competed with the Pharisees for dominence over the Jewish community. Anti-Pharisaic diatribes crept into the early Christian writing, including the four gospels. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is depicted as a preacher launching several verbal attacks on the Pharisees, berating them for being “sons of vipers” and “hypocrites”.

Anti-Judaic polemics continue through the works of the early church fathers. The Early Church Fathers opined that Rabbinic Judaism, the faith that would arise from the Pharisees, was incomplete and inferior compared to Christianity. Origen of Alexandria, a ascetic and theologian, accused the adherents of Rabbinic Judaism of not having a proper understanding of their own laws, and held the Christian Church to be the “true Israel”. Tertullian, an apologist and polemicist, argued that the Gentile Christians were chosen to replace the Jews, because they were “more worthy”.

Augustine of Hippo, a Christian bishop and theologian, unmercilessly argued that Jews should be left alive to suffer as a reminder of their murder of Jesus. In fact, he wrote “”Not by bodily death, shall the ungodly race of carnal Jews perish … ‘Scatter them abroad, take away their strength. And bring them down O Lord”. Augustine identified all Jews with Judas Iscariot, the loathsome betrayer of Christ.

Among the Church Fathers, none could be so appallingly hateful as John Chrysostom. The Catholic editor Paul Harkins admitted that John Chrysostom’s theology is “no longer tenable…for these objectively unchristian acts, he cannot be excused, even if he is a product of his times”. John Chrysostom vociferously asserted that Jews were “the ultimate evil”. John held that because Jews “rejected the Christian God in the human flesh, they therefore deserved to be killed”. If he was born centuries later, John Chrysostom might have found a friend in Adolf Hitler!

The Christian liturgy is the sequence of rites used by Christians during their worship service. There are several forms of liturgies used by Christian churches today. These liturgies were penned and refined by the early church fathers. So, it’s no surprise that the anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic prejudices of these clerics and theologians would occasionally creep into the liturgical rites which they authored. This is evidence in the Good Friday Prayers for the Jews.

In the old-fashioned Tridentine Latin liturgy, before the mid-20th century, the phrase “perfidis Judæis” (perfidious Jews) was used. However, reflecting on the carnage of the Holocaust, Pope John XXIII decided to remove the phrase from the prayer out of sensitivity for the Jewish community.

However, the eastern liturgies continue to employ derogatory terms in their prayers for the Jews. For example, the service of vespers on Good Friday in most Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches describe the Jews as a “impious and transgressing people”. In addition, the Orthos of the Good Friday service speaks of “the murderers of God, the lawless nation of the Jews” and beseeches God to “But give them, O Lord, their reward, for they devised vain things against Thee”.

As painless as it is for Christians to hear, the Christian church, since antiquity, has planted and nourished a culture of antisemitism that has carried over into the broader culture of the Western World. It is the culture that had sparked rumors of blood libels during the middle ages. It is the culture that inspired the anti-Jewish pogroms of Imperial Russia. And it is the culture that gave rise to Adolf Hitler, who unleashed the blood-soaked carnage that swept through Europe. Politically-motivated terms like “Judeo-Christian heritage” and superficial calls towards unity with the Jews cannot erase the thousand years of intolerance, discrimination, bigotry and persecution.

At the very least, Christians can acknowledge their own blemished history. Churches would benefited from taking Margaret Houston’s advice and replace the phrase “the Jews” with “mob” in John’s passion narrative. It’s a small step in rectifying past atrocities.

 

 

Literary C haracter Analysis: Beneatha from Raisin in the Sun

I’ve been wanting to write a review for Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. After all, despite being a mere debut by a then-unknown aspiring playwright, the play has had such a lasting impact on the American literary scene. Professional critics, who are far more analytical and insightful than I, have highlighted the myriad of universal themes touched by this play. I highly doubt  my review will provide any novel contribution to literary criticism.

However, as someone who was first introduced to Hansberry’s work through a 2008 made-for-TV adaptation staring P.Diddy (or whatever the hell he calls himself nowadays) and Phylicia Rashad, I thought I’d offer my perspective, detailing what the play meant to me.

Raisin in the Sun is a beautiful, sentimental story about a family living in a dilapidated apartment in Chicago’s South Side. In the opening scene, Lena, the matriarch of the family, awaits a life insurance of ten thousand dollars, following the death of her husband. Lena’s son, Walter, married to Ruth with a son, seeks to invest the money in a liquor business and reap the profits. However, being a fervently religious woman, Lena strongly objects. She’d rather fulfill her life-long dream by using the money as a down-payment for a new house.

Lena’s daughter, Beneatha, also wants a share of the money to finance her dream of becoming a medical doctor. Although Lena and Walter are fascinating characters worth exploring, for this review, I’d rather focus on Beneatha.

Throughout the play, Beneatha definitely sticks out as the oddball of the family. She’s an ambitious college student in a working poor Black family. As a college student, Beneatha absorbs the values echoed by the fellow classmates and professors.

Beneatha’s worldview conflicts with the outlooks held by her less-educated family members. In one scene, Lena mocks Beneatha’s fickleness, as she swiftly changes from one hobby to another. Beneatha argues that she is exploring herself, attempting to find a means towards self-expression. However, Lena dismisses her claim as a sheer lack of commitment and practically scoffs as the mere mention of self-expression.

Individualism, self-expression and self-introspection are hallmarks of the American (upper-)middle class value system. At some point, every college student has written a diary entry on his/her existential angst and the need to “find myself”, despite their privileged backgrounds.

Working class folks are not immune to existential angst. Whether it be a waitress, a factory worker or a taxi driver, minimum-wage slaves also seek self-fulfillment. However, their means to achieve that goal differ from their affluent counterparts. The working poor are driven by survival instincts. As they struggle to live paycheck to paycheck, financial stability takes precedence over their desire for self-expression. Lena  looks to Beneatha’s jumping from one hobby to another as a waste of time. And to quote Benjamin Franklin, “time is money”.

There’s one particular scene that could trigger the attention of anyone with a religious upbringing. When Lena assures her daughter that she will ” become a doctor, God-willing”, Beneatha retorts “God hasn’t got a thing to do with it”.

Despite her mother’s rebukes, Beneatha continues:

“I mean it! I’m just tired of hearing about God all the time. What has He got to do with anything? Does He pay tuition?….I mean it! I’m just tired of hearing about God all the time…..Mama, you don’t understand. It’s all a matter of ideas, and God is just one idea I don’t accept. It’s not important. I am not going out and be immoral or commit crimes because I don’t believe in God. I don’t even think about it. It’s just that I get tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simple is no blasted God — there is only man and it is he who makes miracles!”

Of course, anyone who’s seen this play remembers how Lena, after slowly absorbing her daughter’s words with an insurmountable amount of fury, delivers an abrupt, painful slap across Beneatha’s face, coercing her to repeat “In my mother’s house, there is still God”.

Now, Lena is not some bigoted religious fanatic. In fact, throughout the play, Lena is portrayed as a wise and nurturing woman. And being an atheist herself, Lorraine Hansberry certainly does not endorse Lena’s response to Beneatha’s outburst.

The scene merely illustrates the differing perspectives held by Beneatha and her mother, respectively. As a college student, Beneatha has, undoubtedly, been exposed to plethora of ideas. Throughout her courses, she was probably introduced to a number of philosophers who held views that contradicted the values of her Christian upbringing. In asserting that “it’s all a matter of ideas”, Beneatha had objectively weighed out the Christian doctrines with the atheistic counterarguments and concluded the latter made more sense. Therefore, the idea of God is simply an idea that she doesn’t accept.

However, for Lena, it’s not about logic and reason. As a poor woman who endured endless hardships, God is more than an “idea”. Lena’s faith is the engine of hope that propels her optimistic spirit. As a woman who was denied opportunities to pursue an education, the Bible was her only resource for wisdom and guidance. Lena’s religious belief defined her entire being. Therefore, for Lena, denial of God’s existence is a negation of herself.

Beneatha fails to look at religion from her mother’s perspective. She’s so wrapped up in her own convictions and ideals that she prevents herself from empathizing and understanding her mother and her mother’s convictions. Not only does this conflict symbolize a generation gap, but it also illustrates the gap between dreamers and the general public.

Raisin in the Sun is an intellectual descendant of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and artistic movement centered in Harlem, New York during the 1920s. In fact, the title “Raisin in the Sun” is a line from Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Deferred.

During this period, Black artists and intellectuals were struggling to define their cultural identity as Black people in America. The idea of “the New Negro” was conceptualized. Through his pursuit of literature, art and culture, the metaphorical “New Negro” would challenge the degrading stereotypes of Black Americans. During the Harlem Renaissance, artists took a novel interest in African culture, in attempts to reconnect with their ancestral roots. A Pan-African perspective was promoted, connecting the struggles of Black Americans with the struggles of Black Africans under European colonial regimes.

Beneatha embodied the spirit of the “New Negro”. In partial embarrassment of her family’s working-class habits, Beneatha immerses herself in high culture through literature, music and art. She takes a particular interest in African culture, enthusiastically donning Nigerian robes gifted to her by her African boyfriend, Joseph Asagai, while scorning her “assimilationists” counterparts.

In numerous ways, Beneatha represents progress. She embodies the drive towards success and betterment. In fact, according to Mrs. Johnson, the Younger’s neighbor, Beneatha is the only one in the family to “make something of herself”.

However, Beneatha also demonstrates the naivety and consequence of that same yearning for progress.

Beneatha’s naivety is rooted in her youthful idealism and lack of foresight. Beneatha strives for the unconventional. Her yearning for self-expression stems from her longing to access all that the world has to offer. She strives to broaden her horizons and transcend beyond the values and conventions of her upbringing.

Unfortunately, Beneatha refuses to acknowledge the discrepancy between how she perceives herself and how the world sees her. She blinds herself to the ever-present obstacles that threaten her ambitions. Her gender, her ethnicity, and her economic class are all stumbling blocks to her goals of self-actualization.

It is only when Walter loses the insurance money that Beneatha realizes the fragility of her dreams. Her vision of herself earning her medical degree “fester like a sore”. When she’s confronted with harsh realities of her life, she cynically gives up, concluding that progress is futile. It’s her suitor, Joseph Asagai, who points out that life is an eternal line where you can’t see the beginning, end or the changes in between.

When energized by idealism, we earnestly push to realize our dreams, unaware of the challenges that lie ahead. When confronted by reality, we instinctually resort to giving up and abandoning our ambitions. Beneatha’s story shows us that striving for our goals is a worthy cause. Yet, we’d be deluding ourselves by not acknowledging the challenges that need to be addressed.

To be an effective agent of change, a dreamer must be armed with idealistic energy and a realistic temperament. This is what Beneatha starts to realize by the conclusion of the play.

The Politics of “Minority Representation” in Pop Culture

Earlier today, I read Celeste Ng’s scathing review of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. The Good Earth, published in 1931, is a heart wrenching story revolving around an agrarian peasant family in pre-WWI China. Pearl S Buck, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries from West Virginia, spent the first forty years of her life in China, straddling between the “white, clean Protestant world of [my] parents and the big, loving, not-too-clean Chinese world”. She grew up bilingual, speaking English and Chinese with equal fluency. During childhood, her friends and playmates were all Chinese and she was even introduced to classical calligraphy by a local scholar. Her complete immersion in Chinese culture allowed her to write an intimate story set in China.

Celeste Ng, a well-known American novelist born to immigrants from Hong Kong, makes it clear that she does not object to Buck, a White American woman, writing about Chinese people. In fact, she states “ I don’t hate it—as was once suggested to me—because it’s a book about China written by a non-Chinese author. Even if Pearl S. Buck hadn’t spent most of her life in China, she’d have every right to write about it“. Ng goes as far as to acknowledge that The Good Earth is a “powerful story that has been popular for more than three-quarters of a century”.

The roots of Ng’s resentment lie in the public reception of the novel, especially in the Western World. In her review, Ng expresses annoyance over the habits of readers assuming they know all they need to know about China and Chinese culture just from reading The Good Earth. The novel is presented, whether it be by Oprah’s Book Club or a typical high school English class, as an authentic, National-Geographicesque picture of China.

Celeste Ng highlights a broader problem. Stories set in “exotic”, “non-Western” parts of the world are received by the Western public as encyclopedic accounts of contemporary life in those far-away lands. Ng points out a similar issue with the reception of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Set in Kerala, India during the 1960s, Western readers were enthralled by Roy’s raw and “authentic” depiction of life in Kerala.

As a Malayali from the same religious-cultural background as Roy, I love The God of Small Things. I’m not surprised that the novel won the Booker Prize in 1997. However, the lives of the characters depicted in The God of Small Things were not relatable to me. Believe it or not, people from the same demographic group don’t lead the same lives or even hold the same values. Arundhati Roy was drawing from her own life experience when penning her novel. In fact, she had once claimed her book to be “semi-autobiographical”. However, her experiences are not my experiences, nor are they shared by other Malayali Syrian Christians.

This brings me to the hype surrounding the latest rom-com to hit theaters–Crazy Rich Asians.

Crazy Rich Asian is the cinematic adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same title. The story is about a Chinese-American economics professor who travels with her boyfriend to Singapore to meet his family. She finds out that her boyfriend is the scion of one of the wealthiest clans in the Asian city-state and the hilarious cultural clash between the lead character and her boyfriend’s “crazy rich Asian” family forms the rest of the story.

The film was hailed by critics and media personalities as the first movie with an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club. Asian-American journalists and bloggers praised the film as a cultural step forward for the Asian-American community.

However, many Asian-Americans leveled scornful critiques at Crazy Rich Asian, accusing it of presenting a narrow view of Asians that focused solely on the wealthy elite. These critics had expressed their disappointment over the film’s supposed failure in not providing adequate representation of all Asians.

Just because a film has an all-Asian cast, it doesn’t mean it’s meant to represent all Asians. After all, that was not Kevin Kwan’s goal when he wrote the novel. Kwan had just sought to write a affectionately satirical depiction of the Singaporean Chinese elite, which was loosely based on his own upbringing.

It’s unrealistic to expect a novel, a play or a film to encapsulate all the cultural layers of a particular demographic. No community is a monolith.

The Joy Luck Club has been the target of unrelenting criticism from Chinese-Americans, who lambast Amy Tan, the author of the novel on which the film was based, of pandering to “western tastes” and “orientalist distortions”. These fault-finders complain about the “lack of authenticity” and their inability to relate to the lead characters.

What exactly is “cultural authenticity”? How does one distinguish an “authentic” experience from its antithesis? Amy Tan wasn’t trying to represent all Asians with her novel. She was projecting her own life experiences onto the characters and therapeutically coming to terms with her own personal issues as she penned the novel. Tan’s novel gained popularity because it resonated with many readers, but obviously, she never meant to provide an encyclopedia of the Chinese American experience.

But maybe that’s not “authentic” enough for some readers.

We, as consumers of literature and cinema, should be mature enough to receive stories as just plain stories. We should acknowledge them as simple narratives and nothing more. A tale revolving around a particular ethnic community could easily be countered by a contradictory tale centered on that same group.

If you want to learn about a culture, you should make the effort to study all its facets. Limiting yourself to The Good Earth will not make you an expert on Chinese culture. So, do more! Read a few more novels that are set in China. Watch a few Chinese films. Visit Chinatown. Make a few Chinese friends and take an active interest in their individual lives.

Even after all that, you wouldn’t be able to qualify as an expert on China, Nevertheless, at least you would now have a well-rounded insight into a culture that’s different from your own.

“Drinking the Kool-Aid”

We are slowing approaching the 40th anniversary of the tragic mass-suicide that took place in Jonestown, Guyana. On November 18th, 1978, 909 people, including 304 children, took their own lives via cyanide poisoning. Before the September 11th attacks in 2001, the Jonestown mass-suicide was reported to be the largest number of American lives lost during a single event. This horrendous event inspired the euphemism “drinking the Kool-Aid” to refer to anyone who has deluded themselves into accepting dangerous ideas.

Rather than debrief on the timeline that led up to the mass-suicide, I want to delve into the movement itself. I want to analyze the people who took part in the movement and examine why they would have brought into the message.  Who were they? And what were they searching for?

I want to explore the psychological effects that political and religious movements have on people. I want to analyze the mass marketing behind such movements and how they’re able to lure people who are otherwise quite mentally-competent.

I’m not an expert in psychology. I’m just merely an ordinary person who’s always been fascinated by ideologies, religions and movements. I’m astounded yet horrified on how potent beliefs are, and how they can often lead to a path of destruction.

The phrase “drinking the kool-aid” implies that the members of the People’s Temple at Jonestown were dim-witted and easily impressionable, and therefore, they’d allowed themselves to become deluded. However, for many of the members of the People’s Temple, that was not entirely the case. In fact, many of them were well-educated working professionals–physicians, lawyers, engineers, businessmen. These were smart people who wouldn’t normally be susceptible to the tactics of cults. So what inspired them to join People’s Temple? What drives anyone to join a cult?

The People’s Temple was originally founded by Jim Jones in racially-mixed neighborhood in Indianapolis in 1956. Jim Jones was a well-read young man who was enamored by communistic ideals. Frustrated with the harassment the communists received in McCarthy-era America, Jones reasoned that the best way to disseminate his philosophy was to “infiltrate the church”.

The 1950’s was the heyday of religious revivals. The Southern Baptist minister, Billy Graham, became a household name as his “Crusades” were attended by thousands, in addition to be televised across America. The Roman Catholic bishop, Fulton Sheen, won several Emmy awards for his television program, Life is Worth Living. The phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, solidifying America’s identity as a devout, God-fearing nation, as opposed to those godless Soviets! During the 1950’s, church was recognized as an integral part of the American way of life. So, it’s only logical that Jim Jones would co-opt religion to further his own agenda.

What distinguished Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple from the other parishes in the neighborhood was its promotion of racial intermingling. In pre-Civil Right era America, Blacks and Whites led separate lives and they did all they could to avoid crossing paths. At the People’s Temple, Blacks and Whites stood side by side. Jim Jones had even recruited a Black preacher named Archie Ijames to be his associate pastor.

In addition, the People’s Temples committed itself to community outreach, far more than any other parish in the neighborhood. Soup kitchens were opened for the homeless. Rent assistance, job placement services, and free clothing were offered to anyone in the local area who was in dire need. Jones’ reputation in the community was further elevated when he was appointed to the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission. Jones used his position to encourage racial integration of local businesses. He made quite a name for himself in the local papers.

So far, there’s not a lot to complain about the People’s Temple. In fact, to many onlookers, The People’s Temple appeared to be an admirable organization dedicated to social good and community spirit. Many idealistic people, who were distraught by the heartlessness and hypocrisy of their own churches and society at large, were drawn to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple.

They weren’t stupid. They weren’t greedy. And they weren’t even desperate. They were simply dreamers. They were visionaries who wanted to make a difference.

Jim Jones cynically weaponized the idealistic yearnings of his parishioners to strengthen his hold over them. He incessantly presented himself as a savior, as Jesus was to the Christians or Vladimir Lenin to the Bolsheviks. It was Jim Jones who would usher in a new era featuring a racially-integrated, classless utopia.

Collectively, human beings are like orphans. We don’t exactly know where we came from. Therefore, our purpose in life is unclear and we constantly conjure up legends that seemingly provide us with meaning in a meaningless world.

We take refuge in our convictions and ideals. We dream of a world that’s infinitely better than our own. When a charismatic leader, particularly one with an air of mysticism, emerges with a vision of a immaculate utopia, we latch to them like a baby cub to a mother kangaroo. Jim Jones was just an addition to a long list of figures that include Jesus of Nazareth, Simon bar Kochba, Mohammed, Martin Luther, Hong Xiuquan, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, Mao Zedong etc. etc.

 

Book Review: Fresh Of the Boat

Men in their early thirties usually don’t write memoirs. However, Eddie Huang is no ordinary man. He’s an Asian-American infatuated with Hip-Hop culture. He’s a law school grad who made his fortune selling Taiwanese street food. He’s the product of a one-night stand in a college dorm-room. He’s attracted praise and admiration for his work. But he’s also been the target of controversy and scorn.  The Human Panda is indeed one of a kind.

Fresh Of the Boat is the name of a popular ABC television series, on which the memoir is based. Created by Nahnatchka Khan and starring Randell Park and Constance Wu, Fresh Of the Boat has been one of the most successful TV series of the 2010’s. For two seasons, Eddie Huang played the narrator of the show. However, before the show’s premiere, Huang penned a scathing essay criticizing ABC and Nahnatchka Khan for manipulating his life story into some “cornstarch, reverse-yellowface” sitcom. It’s surreal for anyone to have their life story depicted on screen, especially when excessive creative licencing had been exercised to boost “mass appeal”.

ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat is a hilarious show, despite being molded with the cliched tropes one would expect in a family sitcom. Nevertheless, the original memoir is far more gripping, gritty and loaded with raw insight.

Eddie Huang was born in Washington DC and spent the first decade of his life in DC’s Chinatown. At the age of eleven, he and his family relocated to suburban Orlando, where his father, Louis Huang, chased his dream in the restaurant scene. Despite being an Asian immigrant, Louis earned his fortune running a successful group of steak and seafood restaurants including Atlantic Bay Seafood And Grill and Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse.

The term “fresh off the boat” (or FOB) is used to describe freshly-arrived immigrants who have yet to integrate into the culture of their host country. In my experience, the term is  used by second-generation Americans to describe their immigrant counterparts, sometimes affectionately and other times, pejoratively. Which is why I found it so intriguing that Eddie Huang, being a native-born American, would identify himself as “fresh-off-the-boat”. However, as noted frequently throughout the memoir, Eddie Huang takes tremendous pride in his ancestry and cultural heritage.

Huang’s cultural isolation as an yellow-skinned boy in a White world is a frequent theme throughout the memoir. His frustrations and struggles are echoed by countless nonwhite second-generation American. However, the target of his scorn are not his white neighbors. Instead, he reserves his wrath for the “uncle chans”.

The term “Uncle Chan” is typically used as a derogatory for Asian-Americans who conform to the standard of the White-dominated culture, at the expense of their own culture and identity. Eddie Huang slightly broadens this term to Asian-Americans who adhere to “model-minority” expectations. “Model-minorities” refer to ethnic minority community who are deemed successful, and therefore favorable, by the majority population. Huang criticizes the model-minority stereotypes, claiming that it pushes Asian immigrants to be focused solely on money and status, while sacrificing their own identity. Eddie Huang also makes references to the “bamboo ceiling”, and how Asian-Americans, despite their academic success and admirable work ethic, always find themselves subservient to their White bosses.

While deconstructing the model-minority stereotype, Huang conceptualizes an alternative identity for him. Throughout his memoir, Huang refers to himself as a “bottom banana”. A typical banana is yellow on the outside and white on the inside, and therefore, is used as a prejoative for Asian-Americans who “act White”. In contrast, a “rotten banana” is black on the outside and yellow on the inside. Huang strongly identifies with hip-hop culture. In his words, hip-hop culture was an cathartic release during this very tumultuous childhood. his words, “Our parents, Confucius, the model-minority and Kung-fu-style discipline are what set us off”. It was through Hip-Hop artists like Naz and Tupac that enabled him to conceptualize his sense of self in relation to the outside world.

However, despite his outward infatuation with Hip-Hop, Huang’s pride in his Chinese heritage was unquestionable. He frequently spoke of his roots in Hunan and, at the same time, chastised his fellow American-born Chinese kinfolk for disregarding their own heritage, to the point where they can’t speak the language.

I was most struck by the loyalty Huang had for his parents, despite all the trauma he endured from them. Louis and Jessica Huang were not ones who would “spare the rod”. Throughout their childhoods, Eddie Huang, along with his brothers, Emery and Evan, survived through physical torture and emotional abuse by their parents. In fact, Child Protective Services was called by their school when Emery showed up for class with bruises on his face. Despite all the abuse he endured, Eddie Huang went through tremendous length to defend his parents when questioned by police officers. Huang hated his parents and, in his opinion, they deserved to imprisoned. Yet, to him, familial loyalty overrides his personal feelings.

I can’t say that, if I would in Huang’s shoes, I would have done the same. Actually, to be honest, I don’t even know what I would have done. Familial loyalty is undoubtedly powerful. Most children would be hesitant to report on their own parents, even against their better judgement. I find it both remarkable yet disturbing that Huang still speaks of his parents with fondness. Both Louis and Jessica Huang have been featured on Huang’s World, a television documentary series produced by Vice Media and hosted by Eddie Huang. In numerous episodes, Huang is shown interacting with his parents as if they were close friends. As if he hadn’t been whipped with a belt, beaten-ed across the face with a hairbrush, or called “good-for-nothing” by either of them. I suppose we all have our ways of coming to terms with the past. And I suppose some of us are more capable of forgiving than others. I can’t say I would have done the same.

As much as I enjoyed Fresh Off the Boat, I was annoyed by Huang’s frequent usage of colloquialisms and slang. I’m an old-fashioned person and I staunchly believe that if you’re going to write a nonfiction work, especially a memoir, you should write it in the standard register. I don’t care if that makes me a joyless prude. I understand that Huang’s prose is his expression of nonconformity. However, I think avoiding colloquialism would have made his memoir more understandable for a general audience.

I also strongly disagree with the dichotomy Huang  had constructed, differentiating the “Uncle Chans” and “Rotten Bananas”. Those terms are just as irritating as “oreos”, or “coconuts” or “Uncle Toms” or “ABCD”. I think it’s infuriating to expect members of a particular minority group to adhere to the standards of behavior that are arbitrarily decided by someone from that same group. Just because Huang was a misfit, it doesn’t mean that everyone else is a sellout. There’s nothing wrong with someone adhering to the characteristics exemplified by the so-called “model minority” standard. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with taking the road less traveled, as Eddie Huang has done. We’re all individual and we all have the right to take the path that best suits us.

Nevertheless, Eddie Huang’s memoir was a fantastic read. As the son of immigrants myself, many of his observations and views actually resonate with me. I found his life story extraordinary and he really demonstrates himself to be one of a kind. If you don’t mind a rather unorthodox style of storytelling, I would recommend Fresh Off The Boat.

 

Movie Review: Guru

Gurukanth Desai is India’s answer to Howard Roark. His story is a classic rags-to-riches tale, centered around an ambitious iconoclast who dared to tread on the path less taken, to the chagrin of his father. He was told not to dream, because dreams never come true. Undeterred, he ignored that advice and as an aged gentleman, reflecting on his life and the choices he made, he holds no regrets.

Mani Ratnam’s Guru is a fictionalized account loosely based on the life of Dhirubai Ambani, the founder of Reliance Industries, the largest publicly-traded company in India. The opening scenes of the film are set in a bucolic Gujurati village in 1951. After failing his exams, Gurukanth announces to his father his decision of accepting a job in Istanbul. After his initial berating, Gurukanth’s father reluctantly gives his blessing to his son, sending him off across the Arabian Sea. In Istanbul, Gurukanth, played by Abhishek Bachchan, enters the spice trade, where he makes a respectable salary, of which he spends on partying it up with Mallika Sherawat, the token item girl.

Some time later, Gurukanth is offered a promotion by his supervisor. So, in between dry-humping belly dancers and making bank, life in Istanbul was going quite well for Gurukanth. However, Gurukanth politely refused the promotion. He was determined to become an self-employed entrepreneur. And therefore, he would leave Turkey and return to India.

Upon returning to his beloved village, Gurukanth reunites with his childhood friend, Jignesh, played by Arya Babbar. Gurukanth and Jignesh mull over their plans to make their mark in the business world. They resolve to relocate to Bombay, the big city itself, and establish themselves there. Gurukanth marries Jignesh’s sister, Sujata, mainly for her dowry (hey, gotta get that money!). The three leave their village and embark on a new life in Bombay.

Upon arriving in Bombay, Gurukanth and Jignesh are blindsided by the harsh reality of the business world. The two discovered that they were in the cruel hands of a byzantine bureaucracy. As a struggling businessman, Gurukanth sought refuge and support from Manik Dasgupta, the elderly editor of the newspaper, Swathantra, whom Gurukanth affectionately called “Nanaji” (grandfather).

In Bombay, Gurukanth and Jignesh establish Shakti Corporation, an import-export business. Gurukanths learns early on that the only way to achieve success in the Bombay business world was to be ruthless and crafty. He resorted to smuggling machine parts for manufacturing while evading taxation. He illegally created goods. And he manupulated stocks and participated in inside trading to churn a substantial profit.

Gurukanth’s vicious ambition alienated Jignesh, who felt that Gurukanth was becoming a egomaniac while being pushed into the sidelined. Eventually, Jignesh cut ties with Gurukanth and returned to his home village. In addition, Manik Dasgupta also turned against Gurukanth, after becoming aware of his cruel and manipulative business practices, which directly conflicted with his ideals and convictions. Gurukanth is eventually indicted by the state court for his corrupt business practices. In front of the courtroom, the only person to stand beside him is his wife, Sujata, who assertively informs the judges that she and her husband are “50% partners” and wherever he goes, she will follow. Gurukanth’s battle with the court and the subsequent aftermath forms the rest of the story.

Throughout the film, Mani Ratnam successfully manages to strike a balance betweenImage result for mani ratnam guru celebrating its protagonist’s ambition, shrewdness and undeterred zeal while exposing his deception, ruthlessness and cunning. While the film justifies Gurukanth’s morally questionable actions by evoking the machivellian, “I-did-what-I-had-to-do” trope, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that Gurukanth made his fortune through sheer manipulation, at the cost of his close relationships.

Through his film, Mani Ratnam defends the lead character by indicting India’s “License Raj” policies, which were enacted from 1947 to the early 1990’s. Following Independence, the Nehru Administration implemented a planned economy where almost all sectors of the economy were controlled by the state. Under these policies, business licenses were given to a selected few and up to eighty governmental agencies had to be satisfied before private companies could manufacture a product.

The new system was a major headache for aspiring entrepreneurs in India. In fact, the esteemed independence activist and statesmen, Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, coined the term “License Raj”, sarcastically implying that India was no better off than it was under the “British Raj”.

Gurukanth Desai was a simple villager who journeyed to Bombay, hoping to revel in fortune. However, he discovered that there were more barriers than he anticipated. If he played by the rules, he was never going to fulfill his dream. Therefore, Gurukanth did what so many businessmen did during the License Raj era. He resorted to corruption and bribery. As he passionately stated in his final speech before the court, “I kicked doors when I needed to kick them and I saluted those whom I needed to salute”.

Gurukanth was no angel. The film clearly depicts him as a crafty opportunist. While he and Sujata formed an endearing, life-long bond throughout their marriage, we shouldn’t ignore that fact that he originally married for a dowry package, which he planned to invest in his business. Whether it be Jignesh, Manik Dasgupta, or even Sujata, Gurukanth utilizes people as tools to achieve his own goals, without any regard for their sentiments. Gurukanth is not a sociopath. However, India’s hyper-bureaucratic business world engendered a morally-grey environment that convinced Gurukanth to be sly and vicious, at the expense of his empathy, loyalty to loved ones, and allegiance to the law.

Mani Ratnam’s Guru succeeds in demonstrating the lengths a simple man will go to fulfill his dreams, despite the innumerable obstacles he’s forced to jump over. Abhishek Bachchan proved himself to be a incredible performer, able to live up to his father’s legacy. His performance as Gurukanth Desai was moving as it was electrifying. I would highly recommend this movie.

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Book Review: Go Set A Watchman

If you had spent your high school years in America, it’s safe to assume that you were assigned to read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. We were told by our 11th-grade English teachers that To Kill A Mockingbird is an American classic that captured the zeitgeist of pre-Civil-Right-era America and compelled its reader to never judge a man by the color of his skin. Atticus Finch, the father of the lead character, Scout, was portrayed as an honorable, dutiful lawyer who earned the admiration of general public. In fact, many lawyers claim that their career aspirations were nourished by the inspirational example of Atticus Finch. Atticus Finch has been lionized as the epitome of integrity, steadfast principles, and sense of humanity.

However, despite the acclaim bestowed on the character of Atticus Finch, his critics were few but certainly vocal. While his colleagues expressed their admiration for Atticus, law professor and legal ethicist Monroe Freedman questioned the fictional character’s status as a role model for the legal profession. Freedman argued that while Atticus was willing to defend a Black defendant against a racially-charged accusation, he still worked within the system of institutionalized racism and sexism. Freedman further argued that Atticus was dishonest, prejudiced, misogynistic and did nothing to challenge the status quo of 1930’s Maycomb, Alabama. For example, he ate at segregated restaurants, and regarded the local chapter of the KKK to be “a political organization more than anything else”. His male chauvinism was on full display when, during his closing arguments to the jury during trial, he dismissed then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt as a “distaff side of the executive branch in Washington”. Furthermore, while encouraging his son to pursue law, he did not extend that same motivation to his daughter, who was under the impression that she “will be some gentleman’s lady”.

Needless to say, Freedman’s views were met with furious backlash, with one legal scholar, Timothy Hall, retorting that “Monroe really wants is for Atticus to be working on the front lines for the NAACP in the 1930s, and, if he’s not, he’s disqualified from being any kind of hero; Monroe has this vision of lawyer as prophet. Atticus has a vision of lawyer not only as prophet but as parish priest”.

In 2011, a typed manuscript was found during an appraisal for Harper Lee’s assets in Monroeville, Lee’s hometown in Alabama. Upon the discovery, it was revealed that Harper Lee originally wrote this manuscript for her debut novel, which she had titled Go Set a Watchman. After being rejected for publication, Lee’s publisher suggested that she construct a new story based on the childhoods of the lead character. This new story would be published as the critically-acclaimed To Kill A Mockingbird. 

For over fifty years, before its discovery, the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, had been gathering dust in a safe-deposit box in Monroeville, concealed from the general public. However, Lee’s enthusiastic fans were priveledged to access this mysterious manuscript when it was published in 2015 by HarperCollins.

Go Set a Watchman follows a grown-up Scout, who had since shed her childhood pet name in favor of her official birth name, Jean-Louise Finch. Living in New York City, she returns to her hometown of Maycomb for a two-week visit. During the time of her visit, the groundbreaking Brown V Board of Education decision was passed by the US Supreme Court, declaring segregation illegal. This latest ruling is not viewed favorably by the townspeople of Maycomb. As the novel progresses, Jean-Louise starts to view her beloved hometown in a radically different light, discovering that her childhood was not as idyllic as she had originally perceived.

As a child, Jean-Louise had tremendously adored her father, Atticus. Unlike most parents, Atticus was not one who thought that his children should “be seen and not heard”. He had a very open relationship with them, treating them as his equals and encouraging them to speak their minds. Being a widower, Atticus was Jean-Louise’s sole parental influence. The way he conducted himself had inspired her values and sense of character

Jean-Louise had always pictured her father as a stalwart advocate for racial equality. She had admirably remembered him defending a Black defendant, as recalled in detail in Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird. She remembered his pleas for empathy, stressing that “you can never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk in it”. That statement in itself had shaped Jean Louise’s entire ethos.

Unfortunately, Jean-Louise was forced to grapple with the unbearable truth. Her father was not the progressive icon she pictured him to be. To her horror, Jean-Louise discovered that not only did Atticus have prejudicial views, but that he was a member of the Citizen’s Council, a white supremacist organization that sought to counter racial integration and intimidate civil rights activists. Atticus’ rationalized his views by claiming that the Supreme Court decision was inherently unconstitutional, being a deliberate imposition of federal intervention into state jurisdiction. He furthermore opined that Blacks were not civilized enough, thus, they weren’t ready for full civil rights.

In response to her father’s controversial remarks, Jean-Louise stood aghast and flabbergasted. The man she revered as a hero–a crusader for justice and equality, was no different from any other bigot in 1950’s Alabama.

Go Set A Watchman could not have been released in a more fitting time. The 2010’s has become the decade when everyone became “woke”. We’re become all too aware of the inconvenient truths buried underneath the rug. We’ve learned that Christopher Columbus, celebrated in that charming rhyme “In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, was a unabashed psychopath who kidnapped Taino tribesmen, brought them to Spain and sold them into slavery.  We’ve learned that Thomas Edison was a selfish business tycoon who forced film producers out of Menlo Park. We’ve learned that Mohandas Gandhi was a racist who frequently struck his wife. We’ve even learned that Bill Cosby, long beloved as “America’s Dad”, was secretly a serial rapist.

We’ve become disillusioned by the horrific actions of our long-venerated heroes. It seems that we have no one to admire. No one whose example we can emulate. We’ve left disenchanted, distraught, betrayed and more cynical than ever before.

Undoubted, this was exactly how Jean-Louise felt when she learned the truth about her father and his views. However, by the conclusion of the novel, Jean-Louise is not left with a disdainful outlook on her family, her town or the world at large. In fact, interestingly enough, the story ends on a positive note. By acknowledging her father’s sordid views, Jean-Louise forces herself to reexamine her relationship with her father. As a child, she has looked to her father as a saint. However, since discovering his views on race, Jean-Louise is able to perceive him as he always was: a man. A man tarnished with insecurities and many, many faults. But a man, nonetheless.

By acknowledging her father as just a man, Jean-Louise was able to make the final leap towards adulthood. She was no longer a naive child, living within the shadows of her admirable father. She was her own person. An independent woman who held views that contradicted her father’s.

Go Set A Watchman proposes that disillusionment enables one to carve out a path towards individuality. When we start acknowledging our “heroes” to be flawed humans, we liberate ourselves from the that web of hagiographic obsequiousness. We grow in touch with our own principles and our own values, allowing us to cultivate our own sense of self.

 

Making Much Apu About Nothing

In 1987, a cartoonist named Matt Groening, famed for his Life in Hell comic strips, pitched a series of short sketches for a TV variety program called Tracey Ullman Show, which aired on a recently-launched television network called FOX. The shorts revolved around a dysfunctional family that loosely mirrored Groening’s own family. While the character dynamics stood in contrast to the hypermoralizing, “family-values” norms of 1980’s sitcoms, the shorts became a huge hit with audiences. A couple of years later, the sketches were developed into a half-hour prime time TV program that garnered high ratings within months of its debut on December 16th, 1989.

That TV program was called The Simpsons. Not only was this cartoon instrumental in  propelling its parent channel, Fox, onto a competitive standing with more seasoned television networks like NBC, ABC and CBS, The Simpsons became a household brand for American family, acquiring the distinction as “classic Americana”. After over twenty-eight years, The Simpsons continues to air new episodes and Fox has no intentions of cancelling the show anytime soon.

The golden years of the series was during the 1990’s, when its writers were bursting with novel ideas and making incredible strides in screenwriting. The Simpsons had gracefully combined cartoonish gags, absurdist humor, intellectual wit, and sociopolitical commentary into a entertaining blend palatable for a wide audience. Although, since the mid-2000s, the writing has become derivative, bland and indulgently self-referential, The Simpsons will always occupy an auspicious place in the pop culture pantheon.

Recently, however, many critics have accused The Simpsons of projecting harmful stereotypes through its character caricatures. This leads into the controversy surrounding Apu. If you’re a fan of The Simpsons like I am, you’d recognize Apu as the Indian convenience store clerk famed for his catchphrase “Thank you, come again!”. He is an immigrant who becomes naturalized as an American citizen. Once an eligible, swinging bachelor in his single days, Apu is married to Manjula and has octopluts with her. Despite the perpetual risks of getting shot on the job, Apu enjoys his job and, despite holding a doctoral degree, continues to work as a convenience store clerk simply because he’s made so many friends and had grown to love his customers.

As a child, I’ve loved Apu. In fact, the character had helped me reconcile my Indian heritage with my American upbringing. In The Simpsons, Apu is shown to be an immigrant who not only values his adopted country, but knows more about American history than most Springfeldeans (granted, given the collective IQ of Springfeld, its not a high bar). He enthusiastically participates in community events, once served as a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, and was briefly a member of the barbershop quartet, The Be Sharps, with Homer, Barney, and Seymour Skinner.  Nevertheless, Apu remains steadfastly attached to his Indian heritage. He proudly displays the Ganesh statue on the check-out counter of the Kwik-e-Mart, adheres to a strict vegan diet in accordance to his Hindu faith, and continuously keeps his promise to his parents to “never forget who [he] is”. Apu represents that ideal balance between integration in the new world and loyalty to old-world traditions.

In November of last year, comedian Hari Kondabolu released his documentary The Problem with Apu, which was a 45-minute diatribe against the character of Apu, featuring input from A-list Indian-American celebrities including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi and even the former surgeon-general Vivek Murthy. The Problem with Apu was a manipulative bitchfest that paints The Simpsons writers as out-of-touch and prejudicial, asserting that Apu, as a crude, one-dimensional character voiced by a White actor, has traumatized second-generation Indian-Americans. During his appearances on The View and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Hari Kondabolu insisted that he had no problem with Apu and his documentary was merely about lack of Indian representation in American pop culture during the “pre-Aziz-Ansari-and-Mindy-Kaling days”.

Now, I will acknowledge that before the mid-2000s, the only representations Indian-Americans had in Hollywood and American television were orientalized caricatures like Sabu, Hadji from Johnny Quest, and Amrish Puri’s character in Temple of Doom. However, I would argue that in comparison to those characters, Apu was actually fairly fleshed-out and well-developed. Granted, his thick (inaccurate) Indian accent and his typical Indian-uncle mannerisms come across as cartoonish. However, Apu’s stereotypical depiction is no different than Luigi, Fat Tony or Groundskeeper Willie. And unlike those characters, I would also argue that Apu’s positive attributes-his intelligence, his work ethic, his devotion to his family (despite one instance of infidelity) and his determination-outweigh his stereotypical traits.

A potentially nuanced and in-depth conversation over minority representation in media was completely overshadowed by Kondabolu’s seemingly personal grudge towards Hank Azaria, the voice actor for Apu, and his obsessive quest to get him to appear in the documentary.  When Hank Azaria responds to Kondabolu’s request, through an email, by declining to appear, citing his fears that his responses will be misrepresented. At which point, Kondabolu poignantly turns to the camera and berates Azaria of being hypocritical because, according to Kondabolu, as a White actor voicing an Indian character, Azaria is guilty of misrepresenting Indians. Of course, from the way Hari Kondabolu has framed this entire topic in his documentary, I can’t say I blame Azaria.

Kondabolu’s documentary came across as petty and self-indulgent. Kondabolu purports himself to speak on behalf on all second-generation Indian-Americans. He managed to recruit the Justice League of Indian-American celebrities and yet neglects to seek the opinions of ordinary Indian immigrants, including the thousands of hard-working convenience store clerks scattered throughout the country. If I could be honest and blunt, this documentary seems to be nothing more than a pedestal to bolster Kondabolu’s career. And while he fancies himself to be a voice for marginalized communities, Kondabolu has no problem launching shaming campaigns targeting figures like Bobby Jindal and Ajit Pai due to their respective politics, accusing them of being whitewashed and race traitors. In December of 2017, in light of Ajit Pai’s decision to revoke FCC net neutrality regulations, Kondabolu accused Ajit Pai of being servile to his White corporate masters and admonished him for disrespecting his Indian roots. However, Pai has been known to be extremely prideful of his Konkani Indian roots and Hindu heritage. Whatever you think of Pai’s politics (and believe me, I have no respect for his views or political ambitions), it’s extremely egregious to accuse him of being whitewashed. And Hari Kondabolu continues to yelp about “misrepresentation”. Talk about hypocrisy!

 

Ram Bagai: A Tale of Bigotry, Despair, Loss and Optimistic Hope

In order to commemorate Martin Luther King on (what would have been) his eighty-ninth birthday, I would like to highlight the connection South Asian Americans had with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement by displaying a snippet from a letter written by Ram Bagai to Martin Luther King, where he wrote:

With great respect–and deep admiration, we watch your concerted effort for the dignity of the Negro in the United States. We want you to know that your dream is our dream–that your prayer is our prayer

Ram Bagai was well-known among Hollywood circles. He had served as the president of The Hollywood Foreign Press Association before establishing Films of India, an organization that screened Hindi films in the United States. As a brown-skinned man in a White-dominated world, Bagai’s appreciation for the Civil Rights Movement was immeasurable. In fact, in 1965, he was willing to donate the proceeds from the screening of the 1957 Golden Globe-nominated film, Do Aankhen Barah Haath, to the MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Ram Bagai was one of the very few Indians to have been raised in the United States, long before the term “ABCD” was coined. Ram’s upbringing in California was the product of his father’s quest for liberty and revolution.

Ram was born to Vaishno Das and Kala, in the rural outskirts of Peshawar, located in present-day Pakistan. He had two older brothers, Brij and Madan. During the first decade of the 20th century, Vaishno Das was growing increasingly resentful of British hegemony in his homeland. His grievances and youthful rebellious spirit attracted him to the Gadar Party, a political activist organization based in San Francisco that aimed to fight and secure Indian independence from the British Raj. For a few years, Vaishno Das nurtured his dreams of raising his children in the United States, which he romantically hailed as a free country where he and his family could better themselves. When a high-ranking official from the Gadar Party invited him to settle in California to assist them with the revolutionary cause, he unhesitatingly accepted.

In the early 20th century, a sizable number of young men from the Punjab, in northwest India, had settled in rural California, where they worked as farmers. They labored alongside Mexican immigrants, who similarly were marginalized by social mores of White America. Being burdened with typical male cravings, the Punjabi farmers found companionship with Mexican women and eventually married them. These interracial couples had children with creative names like “Antonio Ahluwalia” and “Salma Singh”.

Indian male sojourners were common on the American West coast during the 1910’s. However, across the entire North American continent, an Indian woman was a rare sight. So, when Vaishno Das Bagai arrived with his wife and children on September 6th, 1915, Kala’s face appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Call-Post with the caption “first Hindu woman to enter the city in ten years”.

Apparently, it was a slow news day.

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Vaishno Das at Bagai’s Bazaar

Vaishno Das integrated in California almost effortlessly. Relishing his new life in America, he donned himself in western-style suits, adopted American mannerisms and spoke English impeccably. In addition, he exemplified the American entrepreneurial spirit by operating his own general store in San Francisco, which he christened “Bagai’s Bazaar”. His loyalty still laid in the prospects of an independent India, as demonstrated by his active involvement in the Gadar Party. However, after becoming naturalized in 1921, it was undeniable that Vaishno Das Bagai had become as American as apple pie.

 

Unfortunately, the family had faced overt discrimination. When they had planned to relocate their residence to Berkeley, they found that their neighbors had locked the doors of their new house so they wouldn’t be able to move in. Picking up on cues of hostility, Vaishno Das and Kala reasoned that it would be more prudent to remain in San Francisco and reside in the room located above Bagai’s Bazaar.

Despite certain drawbacks, Vaishno Das lived the American dream. However, his life would turn into a unforeseeable nightmare in 1923. In the case of US V Thind, the Supreme Court ruled that Indian immigrants were not “White” and therefore, were ineligible for citizenship. Vaishno Das was one of sixty-four Indian immigrants who had their citizenships stripped following the Supreme Court ruling. Deprived of the rights guarenteed by US citizenship, Vaishno Das was subjected to California’s alien land law. Eventually, he was forced to liquidate his property and he lost his business. When he wanted to visit relatives in his native Punjab, he was refused a US passport to travel. While he did have the option of reapplying for a British passport, his loyalty to the vision of an independent India discouraged him from doing so.

Vaishno Das was heartlessly betrayed by the country in which he placed all his hopes and dreams. He realized that the American dream was nothing but an illusion for a brown-skinned man. He drowned in an devastating depression. One day, Vaishno Das  traveled to San Jose on a business pretext. When he arrived, he rented a room and wrote letters to his family along with the San Francisco Examiner, explaining the circumstances that led to him to his heartbreaking final decision. After sending the letters, Vaishno Das committed suicide by gas poisoning.

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(From Left to Right) Madan, Brij, Kala, and Ram

Kala and her children were traumatized by Vaishno Das’ suicide. While the immigrant woman, who barely spoke English, was taken aback by her husband’s actions, she, nevertheless, focused her attention on raising her three children. She did a series of odds jobs to ensure a steady income. She assured her children a stable upbringing and stressed the importance of education. A few years after Vaishno Das’ death, she married a close family friend, Mahesh Chandra, who, like Vaishno Das, was involved in the Gadar Movement. As decades progressed, an influx of Indian immigrants settled in San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. Among the ever-growing Indian community, Kala was affectionately referred to as “Jhaiji”, meaning “grandmother”.  Her funeral on October 13th, 1983 was attended by thousands.

 

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Ram Bagai

After completing his high school education, Ram Bagai enrolled at Stanford University where he pursued a degree in chemical engineering. After earning his engineering degree, Ram felt compelled to shift gears, being drawn towards filmmaking. He furthered his education at the University of Southern California where he earned a master’s degree in cinematography in 1938. Shortly after completing his studies, Ram Bagai became enthused in the Indian Independence movement, and travelled to India to become involved, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. He returned to the United States in the mid-1940’s, where he married a White American woman and had four children. While residing in Los Angeles with his family, Ram made use of his engineering degree for his plating business while attempting to get his foot through the doors of the film industry. While he was unable to become a prominent film director, Ram’s efforts in networking enabled him to eventually become the president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

 

Ram was fortunate to live the American dream. He had a family, a house and a lucrative career. His father was deprived of such boons. The agonies of failure and betrayal left a deep wound for Vaishno Das, which Ram took to heart. While writing that letter to Martin Luther King, each pen-stroke was done in memory of the unfulfilled ambitions of Vaishno Das Bagai, and the hope that was snatched from him thanks to blatantly racist policies implemented by the United States government.

Ram, along with his mother and his brother, Brij, received their US citizenship following the passage of the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which, in addition to setting the quote of incoming Indian and Filipino immigrants at 100 per year, allowed Filipino and Indian immigrants currently residing in the States to naturalize and become US citizens. Undoubtedly, it was an emotional moment for the family, vindicating decades of unjust hostility and bigotry. Unfortunately, they, along with Blacks and other ethnic minorites, were continually treated as second-class citizens.

It’s no surprise that Ram would strongly identify with the Civil Rights Movement. The fight of the Black man for equal rights was also his fight. Their pain and struggles were his pain and struggles. And their final victory was his victory.