Daytheists in the closet

I have a number of brown friends who are staunch, one might even say devout, atheists but you’d never know it because they are very private about their beliefs. I find this a bit perplexing because they are quite outspoken on most other personal and political matters, but when it comes to matters of religion and God, these desi atheists (==> daytheists) are still in the closet because of the social costs involved in exposing themselves.

Stamp celebrating the founder of India’s Atheist Center

On the one hand, it’s not surprising that they have some hesitation about outing themselves. Religion plays less of a role in the US than it does in India, but even so most Americans have a negative view of atheists, as shown in a 2003 Gallup poll:

Very Favorable: 7%
Mostly Favorable: 27%
Mostly Unfavorable: 19%
Very Unfavorable: 33% [Link]

That’s even more negative than American opinions about Muslims, both amongst born-again Christians and amongst non-Chiristians! In fact, more Americans would be willing to vote for a gay candidate than an atheist:

Atheists “are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public,” … In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6 … and only 37 percent said they’d be willing to vote for an atheist for president. (That’s down from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll–which also found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual than an atheist.)… [Link]

Surprisingly, tolerance for atheism might be higher on the desi side. While I don’t have comparable poll numbers, atheism has a long history within India as a philosophical movement, going back to 600 BC:

Carvaka, an atheistic school of Indian philosophy, traces its origins to 600 BCE. It was a hedonistic school of thought, advocating that there is no afterlife. Carvaka philosophy appears to have died out some time after 1400 CE. [Link]

[Amartya Sen says:] “Sanskrit had a larger atheistic literature than exists in any other classical language. Even within the Hindu tradition, there are many people who were atheist.” [Link]

In fact, some prominent Hindutva figures are actually atheists:

Well-known personality, Veer Savarkar, who was president of Hindu Mahasabha, was an atheist. He is credited for developing a Hindu nationalist political ideology he termed as Hindutva (Hinduness).

Bal Thackeray, the founder and president of the Shiv Sena, has publicly proclaimed himself an atheist after the death of his wife.[Link]

Continue reading

Like Skin

Sonny Suchdev, of the band Outernational, has a nice personal essay up at RaceWire, the blog for the magazine Colorlines (thanks, Dave).

It’s a story describing an experience that many Sikh guys have had — having the dastaar (or pagri, or turban) pulled off as someone’s idea of a joke:

I’m riding the F train like usual in Brooklyn when dozens of kids – perhaps in junior high – get in my subway car on their way home from school. The train is bustling with adolescent energy.

As the train stops at 4th Avenue, I hear a boy yell “Give me that!” as he and his friends run out the train door. The next thing I realize, my dastar has been yanked completely off my head. My uncovered joora dangles, and I am in complete and utter shock. Everyone on the train is staring at me. Other kids from the school are both laughing and shaking their heads in disbelief. Not knowing how to react, I stand up quickly, look out the doors of the train car and see a group of young boys of color running down the stairs. Startled and confused, I pick it up my dastar from the grimy platform and get back in the train. (link)

The part that I found most thought-provoking was the following:

I get off at Smith and 9th Street with my dirty dastar in my hands, not knowing what to do. My eyes fill with tears immediately. I feel naked and exposed, so small, so humiliated, and so so alone. . . . I get to a corner of the platform and break down in despair, remembering fifth grade vividly, feeling so angry and exhausted from living in this country. The twenty something years of this shit is going through me at once – the slurs, the obnoxious stares, the go back to your countries, the threats, the towel/rag/tomato/condom/tumor heads, all of it. But somehow pulling off my turban hurts more than anything. Maybe it’s the symbolism of my identity wrapped up in this one piece of cloth that, like my brown skin, I wear everyday.(link)

Skin is a good metaphor in one sense, though the sense of shame entailed in this type of experience is actually more like having a private part of your body exposed — in other words, it’s like being forcibly disrobed. Part of what makes it complicated is the fact that the perpetrators generally don’t know the symbolism of the turban, though they definitely know that what they are doing is going to result in humiliation. But maybe the sense of hurt Sonny is talking about is not about symbolism or Sikh theology, but about the more contemporary concept of “identity”: this turban, irrespective of why I wear it, is who I am. It’s what I wear every day; it’s what makes me, me. It’s about having that sense of self dismantled and disrespected for no apparent reason — for someone’s idea of a joke.

I think this story, while definitely unique in some ways to the Sikh experience, is an experience that other people who are visibly marked as different (either for ethno/religious reasons or for any other reason) can also identify with. Also, I wonder if being vulnerable in this way is at least partially analogous to the way the threat of sexual harassment can affect women. (Note the phrase “partially analogous” — as opposed to “exactly similar”) Continue reading

The Science of TWA

Absolutely zero Desi Angle (TM) here per se, but a whole heap o’ relevance for anyone who frequents the comment threads here (and if you are one of those happy souls who only reads Sepia Mutiny for the blog entries, feel free to skip this one, as I’m about to get a little parochial). But I noticed that today one of the most-emailed articles from the New York Times is an essay by Daniel Goleman on the scientific explanation for why people say, uh, intemperate things online that they would rarely say — or at least say the same way — in person. So if you’ve ever wondered what it is that causes folks on discussion boards to insult each other, call each other idiots or worse, flagrantly mis-characterize each other’s points in order to drive home some strident and ill-conceived argument of their own, and generally stink up the joint — and if you’ve perhaps caught yourself doing so, whether here on in any other online exchange — you need look no further for your answer than your orbitofrontal cortex. (I trust that one of y’all medical/scientific macacas can explain the details to the rest of us, or indeed, critique the article — politely, natch.)

The emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of what goes on in the brains and bodies of two interacting people, offers clues into the neural mechanics behind flaming.

This work points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track. (…)

Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.

But wait, what about 🙂 and 😛 and 😉 ???

True, there are those cute, if somewhat lame, emoticons that cleverly arrange punctuation marks to signify an emotion. The e-mail equivalent of a mood ring, they surely lack the neural impact of an actual smile or frown. Without the raised eyebrow that signals irony, say, or the tone of voice that signals delight, the orbitofrontal cortex has little to go on. Lacking real-time cues, we can easily misread the printed words in an e-mail message, taking them the wrong way.

And if we are typing while agitated, the absence of information on how the other person is responding makes the prefrontal circuitry for discretion more likely to fail.

TWA – Typing While Agitated. Never happens to me. No, sir. I keeps cool calm and collected. But just in case… Continue reading

Give me a ring sometime

[Cue crabby uncle voice] The crazy things that kids do these days! They’re glued to their mobile handsets. They eat, sleep, and even go to the bathroom while jabbering away. Why, just the other day, a Pakistani man in Italy even got married over the phone:

In Milan, the man told a court that he feared losing his job in Italy if he had flown to Pakistan to get married. Instead, he got married over the phone and had an official Pakistani marriage certificate to prove it. He even showed the court a video of relatives celebrating the wedding – without the happy couple.

The groom is legally resident in Italy and had won the approval of the local police chief for his plans to marry over the phone and then bring his bride to his new hometown in northern Italy… All that mattered, the judge said, was that a telephone wedding was recognised by law in the two spouses’ home country. [Link]

Of course, Italian immigration wasn’t too happy about it, but the judge had no problem with the idea. And who would expect less from a judge in the city of … Milan.

Is this idea so strange? If you can get divorced via text message [Exhibit A, Exhibit B*] , and if you can (ahem) perform “marital activities” over the phone [topic NSFW, but link OK], then why not get married over the phone too? I have friends whose entire LDRs seem to be over the phone these days anyway, so why not include the wedding as well?

Before you think that this is just modern technology run amuck, there was actually a similar event close to 160 years ago, on the “Victorian Internet” i.e. the telegraph:

with the bride in Boston and the groom in New York… the bride’s father had sent the young groom away for being unworthy to marry his daughter, but on a stop-over on his way to England, he managed to get a magistrate and telegraph operator to arrange the wedding. The marriage was deemed to be legally binding. [Link]

There truly is nothing new under the sun.

*Yes, I know in K-Fed’s case he was just being informed not talaqed, but I couldn’t resist

Continue reading

“Samjhauta” Thwarted: Another Senseless, Horrible Bombing

It’s difficult to know what to say sometimes after terrorist attacks like the recent bombing of the Samjhauta Express. 68 innocent people lost their lives — and for what? If it turns out to be an attack planned by Kashmiri militants or other Islamists, this kind of attack seems particularly bizarre, as it appears that the majority of the people who died were in fact Pakistanis. (If another motive or ideological agenda was behind the attack, it’s not as if it would be any better.) And needless to say, if this follows the pattern of some other recent terrorist attacks in India, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that weeks will go by without any satisfactory answers appearing. (I’m perfectly happy to be proven wrong if this turns out not to be true.)

Here are some of the issues I’ve seen people discussing with regards to this attack:

  • At Outlook, there is an interesting article that describes in depth the general lack of security on the Samjhauta Express train. Hopefully, both governments are going to seriously revamp this.
  • A big question that people are asking is, were the doors locked from the inside, preventing people who survived the original explosions from escaping the two burning cars? Some witnesses have claimed they were, but India has denied it. At Bharat-Rakshak, however, I came across a commenter who has a good explanation for why this might have been done:
    In north India, when travelling overight, train compartments are usually locked from inside to prevent entry of people who do not have reservations in that compartment. The TT opens them at stations to allow entry only the passengers that belong to that compartment.

    With intense heat, the locked door latches must have jammed. It is difficult to open these latches even otherwise. Women and kids have to ask other passengers to help then open the door.

    The windows in trains are barred to prevent ‘chain snatching’ and other types of burglaries. (link)
    Those sound like good reasons, but I hope after this tragedy officials are thinking about possible failsafe mechanisms, so nothing like this happens again.
  • Sketches have been released of the suspects. They were apparently speaking the “local Hindi language.” That doesn’t tell us much, however.
  • What was the explosive used? The bombs are being described as IEDs with kerosene and other “low intensity” fuels — in other words, not RDX or other material obtained through transnational networks. These sound like materials that are very easily available, but still incredibly deadly for people in a confined space. A witness at the BBC mentions that the explosions did not force the conductor to stop the train right away — indeed, he may not have known about them until several minutes after the fires started.

Continue reading

Zen and the Art of Painful Clichés


Two Sundays ago, the PBS program, Religion and Ethics, decided to ask the question: “Why are Hinduism and Buddhism capturing the attention of business and management circles?”

The show profiled Professor Srikumar S. Rao, of the enormously popular Columbia University class Creativity and Personal Mastery, and Gautam Jain, of the Vedanta Cultural Foundation.

So the answer to the PBS question? The usual hodgepodge: happiness is elusive, the material world is illusory, one must not be possessed by one’s possessions… Since the 80s proved to business people that greed is not necessarily good, satisfying, or even lucrative in the long run, people are searching for another peg to hang a slogan upon.

I have a reflexive gag reaction to anything that smells of Deepak Chopra and the “pot of gold at the end of the spiritual rainbow” school of thought. While Prof. Rao and Gautamji came across as sincere, thoughtful and genuine (at least in the 5 mins alloted to each), I wonder if, despite their best efforts to explode the If/Then model of happiness, their students listen selectively. After all, these are people willing to pay $1,000 over the cost of the class to listen to Prof. Rao. His website, Are You Ready to Succeed? opens with this passage:

Life is short. And uncertain. It is like a drop of water skittering around on a lotus leaf. You never know when it will drop off the edge and disappear. So each day is far too precious to waste. And each day that you are not radiantly alive and brimming with cheer is a day wasted.

Which, frankly, leaves me lost (lotus, skittering, radiant cheer -what?) and slightly thirsty. Continue reading

The hand that rocks the cradle

Our site administrator Paul tips us off to an article over at the BBC today that highlights a unique new program launched by the government of India:

The Indian government is planning to set up a network of cradles around the country where parents can leave unwanted baby girls.

The minister for women and child development, Renuka Chowdhury, told BBC News the cradles would be “everywhere”.

It is the latest initiative to try to wipe out the practice of female foeticide and female infanticide. [Link]

In my opinion anything that will help mitigate the foeticide and infanticide scourge is a good thing, but the imagery of little cradles set up around the country is kind of bittersweet.

“We will have cradles strategically placed all over the place so that people who don’t want their babies can leave them there,” Ms Chowdhury told the BBC News website.

The cradles could be in places as diverse as the local tax collector’s office, or where local councils meet.

Ms Chowdhury said parents would be able to leave their babies secretly. The important thing was to save their lives…

“They will be collected and put into homes,” she said. “There are plenty of existing homes and we will be adding some more also…” [Link]

Apparently there is actually a precedent for this type of program (in Japan):

The drop-off at Jikei Hospital in southern Japan will consist of a small window in an outside wall, which opens on to an incubator bed, officials say.

Once a baby has been placed inside, an alarm bell will alert staff. [Link]

Continue reading

Gimme some o’ that Hot Stuff

I bring to your attention two pictures taken yesterday near Ahmedabad, Gujarat. It’s a striking reminder as to the source of the deliciousness of Indian cuisine:

“Must remember to not touch my eyes…must remember to not touch my eyes…

And in related news:

India’s Bhut Jolokia chilli has been confirmed as the world’s hottest pepper by The Guinness Book of Records, a US researcher said.

Bhut Jolokia comes in at 1,001,304 Scoville heat units, a measure of hotness for a chilli. It is nearly twice as hot as Red Savina, the variety it replaces as the hottest. By comparison, an average jalapeno measures at about 10,000.

Paul Bosland, a regents professor at New Mexico State University, recalls taking a bite of the chilli pepper and feeling like he was breathing fire. He gulped down a soda, thinking, ”That chilli has got to be some kind of record.” [Link]

Continue reading

The Gays are on to something good…

The current Atlantic Monthly has what I find to be a brilliant and informative article titled, “They Won’t Know What Hit Them.” Anyone who digs the intricacies of politics should read it for some of the insights it provides into how politics works in this age of campaign finance reform. The article focuses on how a small group of wealthy gay donors are working “stealthily” behind the scenes to make our country more “Gay-friendly.” On its surface this doesn’t have anything to do with South Asian Americans (unless they are gay), but by the time I get to the end you’ll see that it could have everything to do with us.

A tough loss can be hard to swallow, and plenty of defeated politicians have been known to grumble about sinister conspiracies. When they are rising stars like Danny Carroll, the Republican speaker pro tempore of Iowa’s House of Representatives, and the loss is unexpected, the urge to blame unseen forces can be even stronger–and in Carroll’s case, it would have the additional distinction of being justified. Carroll was among the dozens of targets of a group of rich gay philanthropists who quietly joined forces last year, under the leadership of a reclusive Colorado technology mogul, to counter the tide of antigay politics in America that has generated, among other things, a succession of state ballot initiatives banning gay marriage. Carroll had sponsored such a bill in Iowa and guided it to passage in the state House of Representatives, the first step toward getting it on the ballot…

Over the summer, Carroll’s opponent started receiving checks from across the country–significant sums for a statehouse race, though none so large as to arouse suspicion (the gifts topped out at $1,000). Because they came from individuals and not from organizations, nothing identified the money as being “gay,” or even coordinated. Only a very astute political operative would have spotted the unusual number of out-of-state donors and pondered their interest in an obscure midwestern race. And only someone truly versed in the world of gay causes would have noticed a $1,000 contribution from Denver, Colorado, and been aware that its source, Tim Gill, is the country’s biggest gay donor, and the nexus of an aggressive new force in national politics.

Carroll certainly didn’t catch on until I called him after the election, in which Democrats took control of both legislative chambers, as well as Carroll’s seat and four of the five others targeted by Gill and his allies. [Link]

As I read this article it got me thinking about some of the races and candidates that we’ve highlighted on SM in the past. Remember Durbin, Abraham, and Webb? I think in the case of Macaca-Gate, South Asian money did have some impact on the race. That effort had no real organization behind it, however. I also realize that unlike the gay community (to an extent), South Asian Americans aren’t necessarily a voting block, but are rather voting “icebergs” (a term I like to forward). Still, some of the ideas that Gill has put into practice could work very well for other groups.

Continue reading

Rage, Rage Against the Dying Satellite

mtvdesi_small.jpg Bloggers can’t presume objectivity, so despite the fact that I don’t subscribe (only get old-school network TV), I’m frankly quite dismayed by the news that MTVWorld has closed shop. I know some people who work(ed) at MTV Desi, and appeared on a show that might never air, so perhaps my sentiments are self-serving. But an MTV desi producer emailed this rather heartbreaking note to me today:

This is just really tough for all of us who work to the bone on making something progressive and representative of our communities. I’ve been pretty broken up.

I feel truly truly sad…[and would like] people to understand the challenges of creating a 24 hour channel. The reason we repeat so much is because there are fucking four of us working our asses to the bone to get content up. We are growing. We are a start up– give us a chance!!!

It takes time– and we barely cleared a year and we have supported so many many artists and every single one of them has walked out of our studio feeling proud, happy, accomplished, important…[there is] a need for us to get out there… [to represent] what we stand for and how much WE CARE!!

SepiaMutiny blogged about MTVdesi from its inception, as the first video dropped, anchors were selected, desi artists aired their first videos. We even blogged about how MTV desi covered the Pakistan earthquake (internet writing about liquid television…does that count as meta commentary or wankery?) Continue reading