Wednesday, June 30, 2004

I've enabled comments. Let's see if anyone actually reads this blog.

UPDATE: To post a comment you have to click on the little # sign and then click on "Post a comment."
"I'm from South Asia"

I'm quite bothered by this business of labelling things subcontinental as "South Asian." I first came into contact with this term during my freshman year at college, when I was asked to join the "South Asian" ethnic group (oh, sorry cultural group) on campus. I couldn't really tell what bothered me about it, until my dad put his finger on it - what is this South Asian stuff? I've never been to Pakistan, never been to Bangladesh, only once visited Nepal, and have never been to Sri Lanka. What is my connection to this vague "South Asian" identity?

Well, thankfully my college offered a course called "South Asian Identities." I took it, only to learn that it was a bunch of post-colonial, post-modern, sub-altern studies, multi-culti stuff. I wasn't as hostile to this type of thinking back then, but in my gut, something didn't seem to sit well. Here's my understanding of South Asian identity: it's a way to say Indian while being inclusive of all the subcontinental people who don't like being called Indian.

Here's the thing though - why not just call a spade a spade? I mean, if my college were to have an Indian cultural group, would that necessarily mean that we Indian students would become hostile towards Pakistani students? The South Asian business serves only one purpose - to blur lines and force a common identity where none (or a very weak one) exists. The whole thing reminds me of the European Union project, especially in its aspect of forced identity creation from above. Worse still, I think it puts Indians at a disadvantage, because it equates all "South Asian" identities, when it's clear that India is the largest component of that.

Take for example, the South Asian Students Association. If that group were split up into an Indian Students Association, Pakistani Students Association etc., one would probably see greater funding and attendance at the Indian group's events to the detriment of the others. More importantly, University faculty and curricula are now chosen based on this South Asian identity. If we were to split it up, it's doubtful that a university would allocate equal resources to Indian and Pakistani studies. So, by merging all these various identities, peddlers of the South Asian identity are basically trying to tie down India's numeric, geographic and cultural advantages in order to create a "more equal" playing field.

Now I'm all for tolerance and fraternity, but I also believe in the truth. It's better for everyone involved if we don't skirt around the issue and state the obvious: there's no such thing as a South Asian identity, and this manufactured identity is detrimental to the exploration of Indian identity (and Pakistani identity and all the others for that matter) because of its misleading nature. I'm glad that Salman Rushdie seemed to have the same take on this.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

I shook Salman Rushdie's hand!

Last Friday I met Salman Rushdie at an event hosted by the South Asian Journalist's Association. The event was at Columbia University, and speaking were Rushdie and his wife, actress Padma Lakshmi. The event was set up rather poorly (my opinion). It was basically organized as a press conference with all the excited journalist types pushing to the front to ask inane questions ("Salman, were you surprised by the reception of 'The Satanic Verses'?"). Both Mr. Rushdie and his wife were very intelligent and at several points, Rushdie looked like he was quite enjoying putting down these journos. At one point someone asked him (another inane question), "Salman, I'm a moderate Muslim who was offended by 'The Satanic Verses'. What do you have to say to me?" Of course, there really isn't much else to say, except what Rushdie said: "Well, if you close the book, it will stop offending you."

A couple of things that bothered me:

-the inaneness of the questions. Here's another exchange:

Questioner: "Salman, what are you working on now?"
Rushdie: "I usually don't like talking about my books until they're done and published. There'll be plenty of time to talk about them then."
Questioner: "So is it set in India?"
Rushdie: "Exactly."

At another point, Rushdie was talking about Indian writers writing in English, and some moron shouted from the audience "you mean South Asian authors". Rushdie just shrugged it off and went on about how he's so impressed by the bright new Indian writers!

-Everyone calling him 'Salman'. The man is 'Mr. Rushdie'. He's not your pal, don't talk to him like he is.

-the set-up. I've already mentioned this, but basically the press conference feel with lots of people making too much noise in the back ruined the event. Rushdie didn't even make a preliminary speech. The organizers just made him jump right into taking questions. Frankly, I'd rather hear what Rushdie has to say, not what you have to ask him (especially if your questions are going to be so dumb). I had to squeeze my way to the front to be able to ask him a question, and thanks to the generosity of the organizer, I got in the last one.

I asked him what his assessment is of progress made in the Islamic world towards liberalism etc. His response was very pessimistic. The one positive point in his answer was his appreciation of my question (yeah, so I'm bragging - you got a problem with that?!)

Oh, another gem from the evening - another moron said he (the moron) was writing an article about how modern-day American outsourcing to India is like the British conquest of India. Rushdie looked quite bewildered!

One more - someone asked him how he could write and say the things he does since he's a Muslim (not authentic, you see). Rushdie's response: "I'm as muslim as your fingernail!" (kill the apostate!!)

After the gig was over I went up and shook his hand. I'd left my copy of "Midnight's Children" at home (like an idiot), so I couldn't get that signed. Whatever. I got to meet a great man and it was fun!

**In other news, I took the LSAT recently and bought an iPod. Sorry for not blogging recently, but I don't think I have any readers so it probably doesn't matter!!