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.

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“Aaghosh mein le le”….Don’t mind if I do 😀

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.

Book Review: Early Organized Crime in Detroit

As a lifelong resident of Southeast Michigan, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of Detroit, stemming from its days as a humble French-occupied fort. Henry Ford’s company revolutionized the city, attracting newcomers from throughout the United States and around the world. Many of these newcomers included Italian immigrants, who congregated within their own ethnic enclaves. Unfortunately, these Italian neighborhoods in Detroit were plagued by the unsavory players of the emerging organized criminal syndicates.

downloadWe typically associate the Mafia with the “Five Families” of New York City or Al Capone’s “Chicago Outfit”. However, while we may be familiar with the criminal antics of the Chambers Brothers and the Errol Flynns, most of us are only faintly aware of talian mafia activities in Detroit. However, as James Buccellato points out in his book, Early Organized Crime in Detroit: Vice, Corruption and the rise of the Mafia, since the early 1900’s, Detroit had been burdened with mafiosos, strutting through the streets like Benito Mussolini and his blackshirts. The stories unveiled in his book are nothing short of riveting.

I actually know James Buccellato fairly well. I had enrolled in his political science course during my first year of college. He was a charismatic, though somewhat eccentric professor who was unabashedly outspoken about his leftist views. Upon reading his book, I was bewildered that his archetypal liberal professor, who had once boasted about “making a pilgrimage to Karl Marx’s birthplace”, belongs to a family that once held the distinction of being one of the most powerful mafia clans in Sicily!

Buccellato makes it clear that familial curiosity had inspired him to write this book. His

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James Buccellato

great-grandfather was murdered in the streets of Detroit during the 1910’s. This ancestor had been the victim of a vendetta that traced back to Ca Continue reading

In Memory of Sherin “Saraswathi” Mathews

The world weeps when a pure, innocent soul is snatched away, like a baby bird from its mother.

A mother laments the loss of her child. But you had no mother to shed tears for you.

You were abandoned, tossed into the bushes like discarded trash.

When you first opened your eyes, you were all alone, with no one to hold your little fingers or kiss your cherubic cheeks.

The scorching rays of the Indian sun blazed against your vulnerable body.  And yet, you survived like the tiger spirit within you.

From those thorny shrubs, you were picked up and held by God Almighty himself, who came in the form of a angelic social worker.

Baby Sherin, you hadn’t completed your first birthday, but you were already a traveller!

From the outskirts of Gautama Buddha’s abode in Gaya, you were taken 89km to Nalanda, the historically-renowned center of Vedic scholarship.

Appropriately, you were christened with the name, Saraswathi.

You bore the name of the goddess of wisdom, knowledge and the arts.

You were destined to do great things, Baby Sherin. And yet, your life was cruelly taken before you could dazzle the world with your gifts

You received the utmost love and nurturing in that orphanage in Nalanda. Strangers showered you with streams of affection when your own mother couldn’t be bothered.

And then you embarked on another adventure. To the land of the free and brave. The land of prosperity. To America.

To a new family. A new house. A new neighborhood.

You had affluent parents and a big sister.

Life was perfect, wasn’t it, Baby Sherin.

Only that ray of hope transformed into a grim shadow of despair.

You were beaten and abused, showing up to church with casts holding your little, broken arms.

You were slapped across the face in the presence of your fellow church congregants, who did nothing!

But your inner tiger fostered your optimistic spirit. You never stopped smiling. You were always happy. Always excited. Always cheerful.

You sang. You danced. You posed for the cutest pictures

And then your body was found in a culvert. Discarded like yesterday’s trash. As you were under the blazing Indian sun.

Where was God? Why didn’t He save you like he did when you were lying in the suffocating heat?

Your adopted mother and father didn’t shed tears for you. Your 4-year-old sister is confused and distraught, as she is now among strangers with CPS.

But the world cries for you, Baby Sherin. We weep for your distressing life story. We weep for your horrific demise. We weep the loss of your enduring spirit. We weep for a precious soul who will never return to us.

You were abandoned by your biological mother. You were severely mistreated by your so-called adopted parents. But Sherin, you are not an orphan.

You are the Daughter of Texas. You are Bihar Ki Beti. You are a Child of the World.

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Sherin “Saraswathi” Mathews

July 14th, 2014–October 7th, 2017

 

 

Movie Review: The Big Sick

Over the course of this decade, South Asian Americans have risen to prominence in the entertainment industry. TV shows like Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None along with films like Meet the Patels are just a few examples of the South Asian American experience being retold through pop culture.

The Big Sick is the latest of this trend. Directed by Micheal Showalter, The film is based on the real-life “how-we-met” story of actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, producer and comedy writer Emily Gordan. The screenplay was written by the couple, giving them an opportunity to unveil their emotional vulnerabilities and intimate secrets.

Kumail Nanjiani played himself as the film’s lead character. In the film, Kumail is a Pakistani-American uber driver who moonlights as a stand-up comedian, performing at local clubs as he awaits his big break.  He has an unexpected encounter with a heckler with whom he later initiates a relationship. Meanwhile, Kumail’s parents, Azmet, played by Anupam Kher, and Sharmeen, played by Zenobia Shroff, tirelessly arrange prospective Pakistani Muslim brides for their son, to Kumail’s disdain. To avoid an unpleasant confrontation with his parents, Kumail entertains their wishes.

An unexpected infection forces Emily into a medical induced coma. During that tumultuous time, Kumail bonds with Emily’s North Carolinan parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. Throughout this series of events, Kumail learns more about himself, enabling him to  grow as a person who lives on his own terms.

The Big Sick is ultimately about a conflicted individual who reluctantly leads a double life to appease his parents while simultaneously attempting fulfilling his own ambitions. In his parents’ eyes, Kumail is a devout Muslim and, apparently, the most eligible bachelor of Chicago’s Pakistani community. However, Kumail, as an aspiring stand-up comic, is attracted towards a path not taken.

Kumail’s story is the story of countless second-generation Americans who are forced to tread the line between respecting old-world traditions and embracing new-world individualism. And similarly to most second-generation Americans, Kumail awkwardly stumbles as he tries desperately to balance both worlds.

In contrast to Kumail’s traditional Pakistan Muslim family, Emily’s folks are an all-American smorgasbord. Her father, Terry, is a mathematics professor originally from New York City (evident by Ray Romano’s distinctive Queens drawl!) while her mother, Beth, is a red-blooded southerner who comes from a family of hunters. Emily simultaneously represents tradition and modernity, north and south, urban and rural, intellectual and practical. She has the quirkiness of a manic pixie dream girl and yet she’s manages to remain grounded and sensible. Emily represents the ideal balance which Kumail is attempting to achieve. And perhaps, it could be the underlying reason why he is attracted to her.

Kumail mopes throughout the duration of the film with a self-pitying demeanor. However, everyone he encounters, whether it be Emily, Emily’s parents, and even his parents refuse to sympathise with his angst. Even Khadijah, one of his potential suitors, calls him out and implores him to “stop feeling sorry for (himself)”. Azmet later accuses his son of leading everyone on with no plans to make any commitment. Azmet points out that Kumail is “not being fair to (his) mother, fair to Khadijah or even fair to that girl (Emily)”. This portion of the film demonstrate that while the story is being retold through Kumail’s point of view, he is also capable of being self-critical, indicative of his personal growth throughout the ordeal.

The Big Sick has been accused by some critics of being formulaic. While one can easily grow weary of the unoriginal recipes with which romcoms are cooked, it is worth noting that commonly-used tropes can be utilized to appeal to our yearning for familiarity. 

The Big Sick follows the typical romcom formula: 1) Boy meets Girls 2) Boy bangs girl 3) Boy and girl gradually become romantically overwhelmed by each other 4) Boy and Girl break up 5)Boy and Girl reconcile. 

However, using that simple recipe as a framework, the filmmakers managed to sprinkle hints of various exotic ingredients to spice up the resulting dish. 

One feature I appreciate from this film is its willingness to explore the perspective of first-generation immigrants. Azmet and Sharmeem are not necessarily regressive bigots who only seek to isolate their son from modernity. Azmet is not some turban-wearing, chauvinistic Muslim sheikh who forces a burka-clad Sharmeen into submission and obedience. 

On the contrary, They’re a fun-loving couple who enjoy Urdu pop songs, sumptuous, homecooked meals and good conversation. However, as immigrants from Pakistan, they have had to sacrifice tremendously to ensure a stable life for themselves and their children. Azmet had to redo his graduate studies, taking classes with fellow students twenty years his junior, in order to secure a well-paying job for himself. While their American-born (or at least American-raised) children yearn for self-expression, immigrants prioritize security and self-preservation. 

In the chaotic, cosmopolitan melting pot of America, immigrants turn to their religion and their heritage to maintain a cohesive sense of identity. Sharmeen is willing to tolerate Kumail’s pursuit of stand-up comedy over law school. However, nothing is more important than having her son retain his Islamic faith and marry a Pakistani girl. Her world falls apart when Kumail reveals his desire to walk a different path. 

While Kumail appreciates his parents’ sacrifices, he remains baffled by his parents’ insistence on following old-world traditions, wondering “why did we move here (America) in the first place”. This is a perfectly nuanced depiction of the generational gap between immigrants and their children. 

The tension between Terry and Beth perfectly parallels the issues that led to Kumail ‘s and Emily’s breakup. Terry’s and Beth’s eventual reconciliation gives Kumail the motivation he needs to resolve his relationship with Emily. Terry and Beth represent how older generations can provide lessons to their younger counterpart just by example.

It isn’t often that romcoms emphasize the importance of maintaining relationships with one’s parents. Kumail’s bonding with Emily’s folks along with his own relationship with his parents was absolutely crucial to his self-growth. They enabled him to evolve from a two-timing manchild to a confident person who lives on his own terms. 

It was commendable of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon to unveil themselves through this beautiful movie. Nanjiani proved his acting chops as a leading character in a major film production. Hopefully, this will be his breakout role that will lead to more film deals. Zoe Kazan performed well in her role as Emily. In addition, I was delighted to see both Ray Romano and Anupam Kher in starring roles as well. 

Micheal Showalter’s direction was exceptional. The flow of the film was well-paced and he handled the themes of the story with precision and sensitivity. I’m not surprised the film earned a score of 98% on Rottom Tomatoes. 

Fifty Years Later….

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Riots. In an earlier blogpost, I had touched on this tragic event and its overall impact on the city. I talked about how those few days scarred Detroit, reducing the once-bustling metropolis into the “no tax-base, white-flight, murder-capital of the Coleman Young administration”.

For this blogspot, I think it would be apt to delve into race relations, pertaining to  the 1967 riots. Today, Detroit boasts a population of seven hundred thousand residents, 82.7% of whom are Black. One hundred years ago, the Black population in Detroit comprised of a mere 3% of the city’s demographics. The 20th century witnessed a great migration of Blacks relocating to the northern cities to escape the cruelty and injustice of Jim Crow in the American South, where their ancestors had been enslaved decades previous. Detroit was a particularly attractive destination, as it was home to the newly-emerging automobile industry.

The prospects of job opportunities iat Henry Ford’s factories had also appealed to newly-arrived immigrants, who were undergoing intense inspections by customs officials on Ellis Island. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire had prompted pogroms against ethnic minorities in the Middle-East. Armenians, Assyrians (Chaldeans), Syrian/Lebanese Christians, the Druze, and Asia Minor Greeks all suffered from persecutions at the hands of their Turkish Muslim neighbors. They looked to America as a oasis of hope and to Detroit as a vehicle of economic mobility. From the 1910’s, these newly-arrived immigrants made Detroit their home. Some were employed in the automobile factories. Others established their own businesses such as grocery stores and delis. They quickly learned the English language, adopted American habits and assimilated into the White population while retaining their respective cultures.

Compared to their Mediterranean counterparts, Black migrants in Detroit faced more dire challenges despite being native English speakers. They quickly learned that, like many northern cities, Detroit was not the promised land envisioned by their cherished spirituals. As dark-skinned newcomers to a White-dominated city, Black Americans faced redlining and housing discrimination. They were deprived of equal pay. And they had to put up with police harassment. In fact, before the carnage during the summer of 1967, tensions between the Black and White populations had escalated into riots. The Belle Isle riot in 1943 is one of several of such events.

Black residents were relegated to a district in Detroit’s near east side, which coincidentally was known as “Black Bottom”, named for its rich bottomland soil. Although the Black residents of this district painfully endured the economic stagnation of the Great Depression, by the 1940’s, Black Bottom became a hub for Black-owned businesses and night clubs. In fact, Black Bottom produced singers like Della Reese, and athletes like Joe Lewis and Smokey Robinson.

Unfortunately, by the late 1950’s, those Black-owned businesses were forced to close, thanks to the Federal Highway Act of 1956. By the early 1960’s, most of Black Bottom was demolished by the city’s urban renewal project. The district was gentrified as a upscale residential development known as Lafayette Park. Meanwhile, most of Black Bottom’s residents were relocated to dilapidated housing projects.

The Detroit Police Department was dominated by White officers. It’s fair to say that they did not harbor progressive attitudes pertaining to racial equality. Numerous elderly Black residents have recalled how it was common for police officers to grab Black male teenagers and beat them in broad daylight. Some were even killed and their families were deprived of justice. Black parties and social gatherings were unjustifiably raided by the police. These circumstances led to the exacerbation of the hostility which Black residents harbored towards their city’s police department.

Suspicion towards law enforcement is practically a staple of the American Black experience. Police officers are trained to enforce the law or, in other words, maintained the status quo. For the majority of this nation’s history, the status quo had always been unsympathetic towards Black Americans. In the antebellum South, the police brought runaway Black slaves back to their masters. During the Jim Crow era, the police enforced racial segregation and other discriminatory acts. The police were pawns for the White establishment, infringing on the rights and dignities of Black citizens. 

Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex, vividly covers the 1967 riots through the eyes of the young protagonist, Calliope. In the midst of the riots, Calliope’s father, Milton, is found in his bar, barricaded behind the cash register and holding a revolver as violence continues to brew through the window. The front door of the bar opens and his Black neighbor, Morrison, walks in.

Surprised that Milton has remained in the area in the midst of the carnage, Morrison exclaims “You crazy! Ain’t safe for no White people down here!”. Milton counters that he is protecting his property. Morrison figures that since Milton is present, he could buy some cigarettes from the bar owner.

Flabbergasted that Morrison was willing to dodge sniper fires for a pack of cigerettes, Milton nevertheless concedes to the business transaction. As Morrison leaves the bar, Milton, irritated and petrified by the ongoing violence, shouts through the door, “What’s the matter with you people!”

Morrison sharply replies, “The matter with us is you!”

“The matter with us is you”. That single sentence summarizes the pent-up frustration American Blacks hold against the White establishment, represented by law enforcement. 

“The matter with us is you”. When those group of Black men on 12th street were celebrating the return of two local soldiers from Vietnam, they probably weren’t keen on seeing a score of White police officers interrupting their revelry. 

“The matter with us is you”. The presence of those police officers was perceived as just another example of the White establishment flexing its muscles to strike fear in the Black community. 

“The matter with us is you”. Fiery young Black men couldn’t take it anymore. They came of age listening to the impassioned speeches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. They were emboldened by Black Power and Black Pride. They weren’t going to be passive and subservient in the shadows of the White man.

No, they were going to fight back. 

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the first brick was thrown by a 19-year-old. In fact, that teenager was the son of the party’s organizer. 

It took one brick to trigger an explosive war.

Since that fateful week, the city was never the same. The White residents no longer saw Detroit as their beloved home. The wealthy WASPs escaped to the Grosse Pointes, overlooking the Detroit River. The Greeks relocated to St. Clair Shores and Lincoln Park. Many Levantine Christians settled in Livonia. While a few Chaldeans remained in their beloved “Chaldeantown” on the northwest side of the city, most opted for Stealing Heights and Bloomfield Hills. The majority of the Irish, Italians, Poles and other former White residents poured themselves into the every town in the outskirts of the Motor City, depriving Detroit of its ethnic diversity. Southeast Michigan has since become appallingly segregated. 

In the last fifty years, tremendous strides have been made in the quest for racial equality. The Fair Housing Act has legally prevented Blacks from redlining and other forms of housing discrimination. Legislative measures have passed to ensure equal pay for all races. In additions, local governments have progressed in holding police officers accountable. Not to mention we managed to elect a Black president, despite all the racist propaganda!

However, in post-Obama America, suspicion of the police within the Black community remains as high as ever. Driving-while-Black is still an inconvenient reality. Stop-and-frisk is also a common occurrence that disproportionately affects Black Americans. In the courtroom, Black offenders are sentenced to harsh punishment compared to their White counterparts while offending police officer often get a mere slap-on-the-wrist. The American Black population  has come a long way since the brutality of transatlantic slave trade. However, implicit biases within law enforcement agencies and the judicial system continue to put them at a disadvantage in the eyes of the law. Therefore, the Black American’s fear and suspicion of the police isn’t going away anytime soon.
 

 

 

 

TV Episode Analysis: The Simpsons S7E16 “Lisa the Iconoclast”

It goes without saying that The Simpsons is a staple of American culture. The TV program has resonated with its American audience for over twenty-five years, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

The Simpsons was a major part of my childhood. Everyday, after school, I made it a ritual to indulge myself with a Simpsons episode before begrudgingly starting on my homework assignments. I still nostalgically look to those memories with fondness.

Of all the countless episodes that aired within the span of over a quarter of a century, there is one that captures my eyes, like a sapphire among diamonds (I prefer sapphires). If I had to choose a favorite episode, I’d undoubtedly pick “Lisa the Iconoclast”.

“Lisa the Iconoclast” is the sixteenth episode of The Simpson’s seventh season. The episode opened with the residents of Springfield preparing for its bicentennial celebration. The town was named after Jebediah Springfield, a brave pioneer who earned the admiration of every Springfield resident.

Simpsons_07_15_P2Being the history buff that she is, Lisa decided to write a research paper on the venerated founder. However, when she visited the local history museum, the precocious young researcher becomes blindsided by some disturbing revelations. Lisa discovered a parchment revealing that Jebediah Springfield’s real name was Hans Sprungfeld and he was a murderous pirate who shot a buffalo, rather than taking it as the local legends claim, and was involved in a fistfight.

With the aid of Homer, her imbecilic yet loyal father, Lisa had set out to debunk the myth that ingrained itself in Springfield history. However, she, expectedly, was dealt with harsh backlash. Her report detailing her new findings was graded with an “F”. She was banned from the local history museum. She was shunned by her fellow classmates. Even her mother, Marge, rebuked her for suggesting that Jebediah was anything less than a saint.

In addition, Homer’s luck had also taken a turn for the worst. His drinking buddies ostracized him, with Moe kicking him out of the bar. He and Lisa were barred from attending the bicentennial parade, tarnishing Homer’s aspiration to become the town crier in the parade.

Nevertheless, Homer was determined to stay by his daughter’s side. The father-daughter duo continued their quest to prove their case to the townspeople.

I’ll spare you the copious details. In the end, Hollis Holbert, a local history scholar and curator of the museum regretfully conceded to Lisa’s findings. He concluded, with the new revelations, that the bicentennial celebrations were nothing but a sham and that the truth about Jebediah Springfield must be exposed.

Holbert managed to halt the parade. However, after handing a microphone to Lisa, encouraging her to reveal the truth, Lisa looks to her fellow townspeople. Sensing their optimism and pride, Lisa retreats from her original mission and merely says that “Jebediah Springfield was just great”. When inquired by Holbert about her choice, Lisa affirms that the legend of Jebediah Springfield has “brought out the best in people”. In a way, the myth carried more value than the truth.

As children, we’ve been inundated with half-truths and exaggerated stories. These tall tales were meant to inspire us to become honorable and productive. We were taught to use the lives of respected historical figures like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King as examples to lead by.

I remember when I was in third grade, my class and I were taught the rhyme “Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492”. According to our teacher, Christopher Columbus courageously sailed through the tumultuous waves of the Atlantic ocean, undeterred in his quest before he became the first to stumble upon a new continent. According to our teacher, Columbus’ feat was so groundbreaking that he deserved to be credited for ‘discovering America’, complemented with his own holiday.

I later learned that the only reason we celebrated Columbus Day was due to the tireless lobbying of the Knight of Columbus, led by New York Italian businessman and community leader, Generoso Pope. I later learned that five hundred years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Vikings had landed off the coast of present-day Newfoundland. I later learned that Columbus was not the noble hero portrayed in our elementary school textbooks. In fact, he was a religious fanatic who had no qualms capturing the indigenous people of the ‘new continent’ and selling them off as slaves. In fact, one could rightfully accuse him of spearheading the transatlantic slave trade. What a saint!

But at least we get a day off 🙂

George Washington is hailed as the father of the United States. He was also a slave-owner and despite his promise, never got around to freeing his human livestock. Abraham Lincoln is credited for freeing the slaves. However, from suspending habeas corpus to approving of what could be rightfully called “the Gauntanamo Bay of the 1800’s”, he wasn’t the exemplary advocate of human rights we perceive him to be. Mohandas Gandhi was the fasting pacifist activist who relentlessly fought to break the shackles of colonialism. But in his own household, he was an abusive tyrant who beat his wife. Martin Luther King was inspired by the gospel to call for justice and equality. Yet, when it came to his own sexual urges and marital vows, he was more than willing to disregard the Good Book.

Our historical idols weren’t always very heroic. Despite their noteworthy accomplishments, some were downright terrible people.

For the people of Springfield, the unblemished image of Jebediah Springfield promoted a sense of citizenship and solidarity. Lisa came to this revelation in the last few minutes of the episode. She knew that the social cohesion of the town would disintegrate if she’d revealed the ugly truth. Therefore, she went against her own instincts.

The details of Martin Luther King’s extramarital affairs were kept concealed until Ralph Abernathy published his tell-all memoir in 1989. The alleged tapes of MLK’s affairs have been sealed until 2027 by a court order.

It would be distressing to even imagine how this country would have turned out had King’s infidelity come to light during the heyday of the activism. The progression of the Civil rights movement would have been suspended. We probably would not have elected a Black president in 2008.

I’m not necessarily supporting the promotion of falsehoods. There is,of course, value in truth. However the world is complicated and sometimes our heroes fall short of our expectations. I suppose we have to remember that a person’s moral failings does not negate his/her historical feats

How Sex Unleashed a Cultural Revolution

Kerala is renowned for being the most progressive state in the Republic of India. Despite its rather lackluster economic performance and chaotic political culture, Kerala has accomplished extraordinary feats which include achieving 100% literacy along with the highest HDI, life expectancy and sex ratio in the country. Thousands of unskilled laborers from the northern states of Bihar, Bengal and Assam flock to Kerala to take advantages of higher wages. And unlike most parts of India, communal violence is relatively rare in Kerala, where it’s not uncommon to see a Hindu temple host an Iftar! 

However, Kerala has not always been the liberal utopia we know today. In fact, before the eve of Indian independence, the region that now constitutes present-day Kerala comprised of two kingdoms in the south, Travancore and Cochin, while the northern region, known as the Malabar district, was directly governed by the British Raj through the Madras Presidency.

Within Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, a smorgasbord of ethnic and religious communities interacted, though not always peacefully. The caste system was in full effect and if you knew what was good for you, you’d remember to be mindful of your place.

In the small, coastal kingdom of Cochin, sandwiched between Travancore and the Malabar district and overlooking the Arabian Sea, there was a mesmerizingly beautiful young woman named Savitri.

Savitri, also known as Thathri, was from a village called Ezhumangadu. She was born into the Kalpakasseri Illam, a prominent Namboothiri Brahmin clan. In the Malayali caste system, the Namboothiris were considered the most pure and elite of all Brahmins. In the early 1900s, the Namboothiris commanded respect and reverence with an iron fist. The Kalpakasseri Illam was no exception.

When Savitri was born, her father was informed by an astrologer in the village that because Savitri was born in an inauspicious time, she would be destined to “bring calamity, destroying the family honor”.

Now, I don’t believe in astrology or any supernatural superstitions. However, in hindsight, the astrologer did foreshadow the dramatic events that would transpire in Savitri’s life, affecting not only her and her family, but her entire community.

Despite being barred from enrolling in school, as was the custom for Namboothiri girls during that period, Savitri was said to be incredibly intelligent, exhibiting a keen interest in literature, music and the performing arts. She was also said to be tactical and mischievous, as later events would demonstrate.

In colonial India, girls were married off at outrageously young ages. In those days, the age of consent was ten years of age (and Indians weren’t too pleased when the British authorities attempted to raise the age of consent to twelve years of age).

Savitri, in accordance with the prevailing custom, was married off, at the age of eleven, to Chemmanthatta Kuriyedathu Raman Namboothiri, a well-to-do Brahmin who was old enough to be her grandfather!

In a Namboothiri clan, only the oldest brother was afford the right to marry a Namboothiri girl. The younger brothers were supposed to invest their life in ritualistic worship and scriptural study, however, to no consequence, they often engaged in sexual relationships with Nair (warrior/royal caste) girls. Meanwhile, the oldest brother could have as many wives as he desires, to quench his sexual appetite. The wives were known as the Antharjanam, or women of the house. They were confined within the walls of their own homes, rarely going out unless accompanied.

Chemmanthatta Kuriyedathu Raman Namboothiri had a unusually unquenchable libido. Despite having multiple wives at the age of sixty, Raman unapologetically visited numerous prostitutes to get his dick wet!

One day, in the year 1905, Raman felt satisfied after one particular session with a young girl, whose face was concealed with a veil. Upon lifting the veil, Raman was shocked to find that the girl was none other than his teenage wife, Savithri!

This unforeseenable episode brewed a scandal in the entire locality. Raman accused his wife of adultery, ushering in a Smarthavichanam trial.

According to Namboothiri tradition, Smarthavichanam trial was called as a woman was accused of adultery. The trial would unofficially began with the interrogation of the accused woman’s maidservant. If the maidservant incriminates her mistress, the local community would inform the Maharajah (in this case, the Maharajah of Cochin). The Maharajah would dispatch a group of judges (or smarthans), officially beginning the trial.

The accused woman would be subjected to intense interrogation, which usually involved physical and mental torture. The woman would be isolated in a cell where she’d be forced to befriend snakes and rats. Sometimes, the smarthans would place the woman in a mat, roll it up, and throw it from a housetop!

If, after all the physical trauma, the woman maintained her innocence, the smarthans and the elders of the community would find her “not guilty” and, out of the goodness of their hearts, invite her to join them in a celebratory meal.

However, if the woman is found guilty, she would be disowned by her family and ostracized from her village. Furthermore, she would be stripped of her Brahmin privileges.

Savithri stood bravely as the defendant of the Smarthavichanam. However, she requested that if she is found guilty, her lovers should also bare the consequences that are destined for her. Savithri admitted her guilt. When she was requested to name each of her male lovers, Savithri named each of them, one by one, identifying them by certain physical “markers”.

After six months, the number of lovers had amounted to sixty-four men, including thirty Namboothiri Brahmins, ten Tamil Iyer Brahmins, eleven Ambalavasis (assistants to the Brahmin priests), and thirteen Nairs. Many of these men were prominent writers, artists, scholars and religious leaders. Even more surprisingly, two of Savithri’s lovers were brothers of the head Smarthan of the trial! These men were considered the pillars of the local community. However, thanks to this trial, their moral shortcomings and sexual deviance were exposed, and they lost all credibility with the community.

Savithri had implied that there was a sixty-fifth man. Before she named this elusive figure, Rama Varma XV, the Maharajah of Cochin, abruptly called off the trial. This unpredictable action triggered a widespread rumor that the maharajah himself was the sixty-fifth lover. One could only imagine that chaos that would have erupted following that revelation!

As expected, Savithri and her innumerable lovers were outcasted. Savithri’s father commited suicide following the conclusion of the trial. The other members of the Kalpakasseri Illam feld their village in effort to flee their family shame.

No one knows exactly what happened to Savithri after leaving her village. Some claimed she married an Eurasian railway worker and eventually settled within the interior of present-day Tamil Nadu. Others claim she assumed a totally new identity and married into a Nasrani Catholic family. Proponents of this rumor claim that the famed veteran Malayalam actress, Sheela, is the granddaughter of Savitri (which she denies). Some even claim she moved to Ponnani, converted to Islam, and assumed the name Sainu Beevi.

Although her identity and whereabouts remain elusive (although I think by now, it’s safe to assume she has passed away), Savitri’s action had a lasting impact not only on the Namboothiri community but Malayali society as a whole.

Savitri had single-handedly exposed the moral hypocrisy of her community. The men who were hailed as revered role models were revealed to be libidinous perverts masquerading the image of purity and chastity. It’s a classic “preacher-in-a-brothel” situation.

After the trial, more and more people started questioning the castist values that insisted on purity. In the 1920s, a group of young, western-educated men formed the Namboothiri Yuvajana Sangam, which aimed as promoting societal reform within the Namboothiri community. The Sangam was successful in eradicating the practice of Smarthavicharam. Eventually, other social reform movements formed, urging people to question the regressive values to which they were bound. By the 1950s, caste norms were relaxed and the feudal system was eradicated. Women in Namboothiri clans were free to venture out in the world and pursue a career of their own.

Today, women in Kerala are considered to be the most liberated in India. Intercaste relations in Kerala are seen as a model for the rest of the country, as even intercaste marriages are common. Religious superstitions are not taken seriously. Despite all its political grief, Kerala is a beacon of human progress.

It’s bizarre to believe that a teenage nymphomaniac from the 1900s could have had such a profound influence.

Then again, sex can be a potently effective weapon 🙂