Shine, Coconut Moon Shines Light on Post 9/11 Sikh Experience

Soon after 9/11, a friend of mine told me that her college roommate’s home had been visited by the local police in their town in upstate New York. The police wanted to search the home of this family because they’d heard they had a picture of Osama Bin Laden hanging in their living room. The cops were mistaken. This was the home of a pious Sikh family and the picture was of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion.

I’ve often thought about this story. There are so many more like it — incidents of mistaken identities, faulty detentions, stereotyping, and violent acts in the wake of September 11th. We’ve read about them in the press and slowly, literature is beginning to tackle this dark period of recent American history as well; a time that unfolded in what Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic artist, Art Spiegelman, described so aptly as “in the shadow of no towers.”shinecoconut.jpg

A few years ago, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos was one of the first young adult offerings to address the challenge of growing up South Asian and Muslim in an America altered by 9/11. First time novelist Nisha Meminger takes on a similar theme in her new YA novel Shine, Coconut Moon, just published by Simon & Schuster.

When her turbaned uncle appears at the doorstep of her suburban NJ home just four days after the 9/11 attacks, 16 year old Samar is caught off guard. Raised in a single-parent household by an Indian-American mother who cut off ties with her Sikh family many years before, Samar has no connection to her cultural roots and traditions. She is skeptical of this man, Uncle Sandeep, who claims to want to reconnect with his estranged sister because “we’re living in different times now … and I want to be close to the ones I love. The world is in turmoil–we’re at war. Anything could happen at any moment.”

As Samar gets to know her uncle, she begins to learn about Sikhism and gets to know her grandparents. She even visits a gurdwara for the first time in her life. This prompts her to start questioning her mother’s decision to raise her to think of herself “like everyone else.” She begins to question her identity; wondering whether she is a coconut — someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside–someone who may physically appear to be Indian but doesn’t know who she really is. At the same time, she is shocked and saddened by a series of troubling events in her community that affect her personally: her uncle is attacked by a bunch of teenage boys who goad him to “Go back home, Osama!” and the local gurdwara is set on fire.

In his compelling Guardian article “The End of Innocence” Pankaj Mishra writes, “‘Post-9/11′ fiction often seems to use the attacks and their aftermath too cheaply, as background for books that would have been written anyway.” Shine, Coconut Moon does not fall into this category. Most definitively shaped by the effect of 9/11 on minority immigrant communities, this is an ambitious coming of age novel for young adults that seeks to demonstrate the effects of fear mongering on the lives of ordinary minority teens who saw themselves as American before 9/11.

Below the fold is an excerpt from the novel, as well as a Q&A with, Neesha Meminger where she talks about her novel writing process and the real-life incidents that inspired it. And, for those in the NYC area, there is a book launch party and reading this Saturday, March 14th at 7 pm at Bluestockings Bookstore. EXCERPT

Shine, Coconut Moon tackles the complicated subject of minority groups defending and distinguishing themselves from the “terrorists” after 9/11. In this particularly poignant scene, Samar finds herself engaged in a conversation with a Sikh student and a Muslim student at her school:

Balvir’s words pour out, like a faucet suddenly turning on. “Sammy, I was just telling Shazia that the temple I go to with my family was set on fire yesterday.” … Her face is tight. “I wasn’t there, but my grandmother was. She said a window was smashed and a burning ball came flying through. It hit the drapes and they burned straight up to the ceiling.”

Shazia shakes her head. “I’m so sorry, Balvir. It’s amazing that whenever there’s social or political unrest, it’s the churches, synagogues, and temples that get targeted first.”

“But why?” I whisper. “Why those places?”

She sighs and shakes her head again. “I don’t know. …”

Balvir continues as if she hasn’t heard a word. “What’s wrong with people?” she demands, her eyes becoming teary. “Sikhs are not Muslims!” She turns quickly to Shazia and says, “No offense.”

Then she continues, spitting words like a machine gun. “Sikhism has only been around for the last five centuries, with over twenty million followers in the world! It has nothing to do with Islam.” She wraps her arms around her bent knees …

After a lengthy pause, Shazia clears her throat. “Balvir, you want to distinguish between Sikhs and Muslims because of .. what? Do you think that the violence will be less if you do?” … Shazia shifts uneasily but continues. “Please don’t be upset by my saying this, but if you think your family is targeted, imagine my brothers Khalel and Ahmed.”

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Q & A with Neesha Meminger

Q. How much of this story is semi-autobiographical (sans the 9/11 connection, of course)?

Some parts of SHINE are, indeed, semi-autobiographical. For the parts that are not, I drew upon personal experience to flesh them out and lend them authenticity. The experiences with racism are certainly based on my own clashes as a teen and child as well as those of friends and relatives.

I try to write everything based on Truth as I know it — to get as close to that tiny glowing ember of Truth that is at the center of everything, and use it to guide me through my scenes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. But I think readers can tell when that nugget isn’t there. So each of my characters has a bit of me in them; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t breathe on the page.

Q. This is a novel much prompted by the events following 9/11. Was it difficult to write? Did you purposely start out wanting to write a book with this theme, or did you find that a coming of age novel shifted its focus as events started unfolding?

This novel definitely did not start out with a 9/11 theme. It originally was an epic about the relationship between Punjabi, Sikh mothers and daughters weathering the rifts and chasms of migration — both geographical and emotional. But as I wrote and delved deeper into the story I really wanted to tell, the 9/11 theme kept simmering to the surface in the oddest of ways.

I kept having flashbacks to Canada, where I grew up in the early 1970s, when there was a huge backlash against the wave of South Asian immigrants. Then Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, had flung wide the doors of immigration to India and Pakistan and people poured into the the major Canadian cities looking for work. The backlash, of course, was because these new immigrants were taking jobs away from “real” Canadians, and not only that — they couldn’t even speak English.

I was very young then, but scenes from those days have obviously been seared into my memory. The burning gurdwara scene is one from real life. The gurdwara next door to us was set on fire with the words “Pakis Go Home” painted on the sides of the building. A Sikh man was hung from a lamp post with his own turban. Turbaned men were clear targets and beatings were regular occurrences. I remember at least two incidents where South Asians in the apartment building where we lived threw their children out of their balconies and leapt to their own deaths behind them. It was a time of despair, alienation, isolation, and fear. This is a part of history that doesn’t often get exposure in mainstream Canadian media, but it is alive and kicking in the memories of a whole generation of South Asians.

I drew upon those experiences and that time of backlash and hostility as I wrote about the 9/11 experience in the novel. During the 70s, we were all busy trying to make the distinction that we were from India and not Pakistan, or Sri Lanka and not Pakistan and we were, therefore, not Pakis. And those of us who were from Pakistan were busy inventing stories about where our families were really from. It was an immediate response not only to the ignorance around us, but to our fear as well.

During the 9/11 backlash, everyone was busy proclaiming “I am an American!” and American flags were draped around every single South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African shop window. Sikh websites went into “educate” mode, showing what the difference was between Sikhs and Muslims and that Sikhs were not Muslims — again making that distinction that I remember trying to make all those years ago as a child. As if any bat-wielding ignoramus full of rage and hostility would even care, or would pause for a moment to consider, “Oh, crap; I think I have the wrong brown person!” But it’s a natural reaction to living in a brutal or hostile environment. There’s the hope that disassociating yourself from the object of hatred is going to offer some sort of protection.

That same fear that I grew up with was palpable once again after 9/11, and I realized how very rooted SHINE was in that experience.

Q. I don’t know of any other YA books with Sikh protagonists. Do you? Was that part of your impetus in writing this book – to fill a gap?

I know Shauna Singh Baldwin has written beautifully about the Sikh experience during Partition in What The Body Remembers, but I’m not aware of any YA novels with Sikh protagonists. Would love it if there was. I wasn’t really thinking about filling gaps when I was writing, honestly. I wrote about the Sikh experience because it’s what I know; I wanted to tell this particular story and I couldn’t move on to any others until this one was out of me.

Q. Samar’s mother raises her without any knowledge of her religion – not ever taking her to a gurudwara or telling her about the ten gurus. Why did you choose to have your protagonist’s lack of knowledge about her cultural traditions imposed upon her rather than something she was averse to?

That was definitely a conscious choice. I think children rebel against the things that don’t make sense to them, if only to explore the “other side” — what has been kept from them, or hidden. If religion is thrust upon them and is a stifling experience, it would make sense for them to rebel. If anti-religion is thrust upon them, the same thing is true I would imagine. A lesbian friend of mine raised her daughter to be critical and wary of religion, taught her to redefine “family,” and created a very left wing, progressive environment for her children. Her daughter grew up to become a Jehovah’s Witness, had a child early, and began zealously converting “the Gays.”

In SHINE, Samar’s mother rebels against the religion she was raised in, only to have her own daughter rebel against the “anti-religion” she embraced instead. I loved that twist, and the idea that, as parents, we often think we have the answers — only to have those answers unravel into a million new questions.

Q. Uncle Sandeep and his sister (Samar’s mother) were both raised in the US. This, to me, represents a shift from other South Asian YA books which always depict culture clashes between generations of parents and children, where parents are immigrants. I’m curious about your thinking on this.

This was also a very conscious decision. I have cousins and nieces and nephews (not to mention my own children) who are growing up with parents like me — people who grew up here in the west. We have a very different experience than our parents. Some of us are in mixed marriages, some are single parents, some of us are redefining marriage entirely, and we are now raising our own children. I was born in India, but my experiences are deeply rooted in the adjustment. My parents were completely informed by their experiences in India. So I wanted to write a novel for the children of the children of immigrants — the next generation, so to speak.

At the same time, I also wanted to speak to the experience of these parents who are trying so hard to help their kids assimilate (so as to avoid the kind of racism OUTSIDE the home and strict controls INSIDE the home that they, themselves, might have experienced) — well intentioned folks who know the pain of not fitting in and getting wedgies and bullying (or worse), only to go home to expectations of straight As and a certain level of perfection. Though, clearly, the assimilation route has pitfalls of its own.

Q. What was the toughest part of this writing process? Tell us about your path to publication.

The toughest part of this process was getting the durn thing published! LOL. Seriously — I think I am too thin-skinned for this part of the process and have had to develop a far thicker skin in response to the feedback I received from agents and editors as I sent SHINE around.

But it was a great process and one that strengthened me as a writer and as a person, overall. The hardest part is finding an agent and editor who not only “get” your story, but are not afraid to champion it amongst their colleagues and peers.

63 thoughts on “Shine, Coconut Moon Shines Light on Post 9/11 Sikh Experience

  1. I give it twenty minutes before Sukhi Dhillon’s first sneering comment on this thread.

    ++++++

    I found this incredibly upsetting to read. I remember what the 1970′s were like in the UK too. It’s all very sad. But I’m glad it’s being written about. The storyline of this novel could have come from my own family and their life, relationship, and tangentially, their experiences.

  2. You know what’s weird? There’s all these stories of non-muslim south asians getting unjustly targeted after 9/11 but as a Canadian born brown person (from a Pakistani Muslim background I might add), who regularly traveled back and forth across the border, I never had a single incident with the authorities.

    I’m not doubting the authenticity of these stories, and I count my lucky stars that I haven’t had any problems, but this lack of attention has me a bit concerned.

    I’ll try to take solace in the hope that authorities are doing such a fine job that they’ve already done their homework, determined I’m not a risk, and for that reason won’t bother me but still it’s hard for me to not let this affect my already fractured sense of identity in this cold, frozen alien land….

    Oh well, definitely better than alternative. I don’t think they let you post from Guantanamo.

  3. I kept having flashbacks to Canada, where I grew up in the early 1970s, when there was a huge backlash against the wave of South Asian immigrants

    What is the use of migration ? Seems to me that there is such a huge emotional and social cost at the altar of a dream of better opportunities and success. But maybe its a journey worth taking something like the audacity of hope ?

  4. That was definitely a conscious choice. I think children rebel against the things that don’t make sense to them, if only to explore the “other side” — what has been kept from them, or hidden. If religion is thrust upon them and is a stifling experience, it would make sense for them to rebel. If anti-religion is thrust upon them, the same thing is true I would imagine. A lesbian friend of mine raised her daughter to be critical and wary of religion, taught her to redefine “family,” and created a very left wing, progressive environment for her children. Her daughter grew up to become a Jehovah’s Witness, had a child early, and began zealously converting “the Gays.” In SHINE, Samar’s mother rebels against the religion she was raised in, only to have her own daughter rebel against the “anti-religion” she embraced instead. I loved that twist, and the idea that, as parents, we often think we have the answers — only to have those answers unravel into a million new questions.

    This parenting challenge 101 especially in a multicultural environment. Sometimes like a teacher – make the children (especially when they are into their teens) ask questions and figure out what they want and not impose or project too much of ones own experiences/growing/values on ones children. But this requires liberalism in the thinking of both the parents and that is not necessarily true always.

  5. Can’t wait to read the book! There aren’t enough good and “true” (as in authentic to a person’s experience) out there about young people and the impact of 9/11. I’m thrilled as a South Asian – and a reader!

  6. So I wanted to write a novel for the children of the children of immigrants — the next generation, so to speak

    1st->2nd->3rd generation adjustment->fitting in-> ??

    On a philosophical note the third generation seems to be a very interesting set of people.

  7. I give it twenty minutes before Sukhi Dhillon’s first sneering comment on this thread.

    I was busy this morning, but I have more then a few things to say.

  8. “Samar’s mother raises her without any knowledge of her religion” … “If anti-religion is thrust upon them, the same thing is true I would imagine”

    This is interesting. At what point does raising a child without teaching her religious practices and heritage become “thrusting anti-religion”? How do you even thrust anti-religion upon someone – is analytical criticsm sufficient or does it have to involve mocking of religious people, practices and beliefs?

  9. wonderful interview, neesha! your book arrived from amazon today – can’t wait to dig into it. :)

  10. I found this incredibly upsetting to read. I remember what the 1970′s were like in the UK too. It’s all very sad.

    Worth noting is that the paki-bashing in 1970s UK and the sikh-bashing in post-9/11 US boils down to ethnic punjabi-bashing for the most part. Also worth noting is that of all desis sikhs have been the best servants of the anglo-saxons since they were defeated by the british in India. Sikhs need to remind the anglos of their service.

  11. Sikhs need to remind the anglos of their service.

    If you come across as asking or begging for respect you won’t get it. You get respect by winning. Winning, in this case, means succeeding in life in spite of the ignoramuses.

  12. Most definitively shaped by the effect of 9/11 on minority immigrant communities, this is an ambitious coming of age novel for young adults that seeks to demonstrate the effects of fear mongering on the lives of ordinary minority teens who saw themselves as American before 9/11

    Post 9/11 this is one of my pet sociological topic. Teens or maybe even youths who grow up in a benign environment inside and outside home sans knowledge of history and politics surrounding their identity (religion, nationality, community, race, class etc. etc.) and sometimes even work suddenly become exposed to these realities due to certain events (racism is one example). How do they respond and grow up having crossed the “ignorance of fact” threshold.

  13. I give it twenty minutes before Sukhi Dhillon’s first sneering comment on this thread.

    Could Suki be Pardesi Gori?

    Seems like SM is slacking in the PG alert. Don’t worry, I’m on it.

  14. I think it is bad how Muslims have been treated, but I do believe Sikhs have ahd to have the fallout due to ignorant Yanks

  15. 13 · Yoga Fire said

    If you come across as asking or begging for respect you won’t get it. You get respect by winning. Winning, in this case, means succeeding in life in spite of the ignoramuses.

    bingo! black power meets goldman sachs=barack obama. shine on you coconut moon.

  16. I need to check this book out. Looks good based on the review

    As a Hindu, I have so many pictures and paintings of Saraswati, Hanuman, Lakshmi, Ganesh & Shiva around the house. Some service people ask out of curiousity, who do I worship, and who are the Gods pictured, is it art (not the name Art/Arthur, but as art in aesthetically pleasing paintings etc), etc. One particularly dull person even mentioned to me, “I once thought I saw a picture of Bin Laden while working in some Indian’s house and I asked the residents do they worship bin laden?….” Ugh… I politely answered, uh, no Hindus don’t worship that villain. And then it occured to me, it might have been a Sikh family that kept a picture of Guru Nanak but I didn’t feel like explaining the finer points of Hinduism/Buddhism/Jainism/Sikhism etc But for the Bible crowd, it must be very disorienting to them to see this picture of a lady in a sari standing on a lotus with several arms and carrying a sitar. Or pictures of adorable elephants with crowns holding a plate of tennis balls or whatever they might be thinking. At least that is my impression.

    Whenever I read or have discussions like these, I am taken back to my high school days. I recall how Hinduism & Buddhism was ridiculed by a few kids right in front of my face. This was in the “liberal” Bay Area/Silicon Valley during the early 80′s when I was the only brown asian in my classes. (there was a sprinkling of Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, & Chinese Americans, a Mexican kid here and there. But none of them were heathens like me.)

  17. 1· Billy said

    I give it twenty minutes before Sukhi Dhillon’s first sneering comment on this thread.

    Why all the hate on Suki? He totally keeps it real.

    15· Brown said

    Could Suki be Pardesi Gori?

    Isn’t Pardesi Gori a female?

  18. Could Suki be Pardesi Gori?

    Yeah you get me and I was also the one who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby.

  19. Why all the hate on Suki? He totally keeps it real.

    I do keep it real. I guess I get alot of hate, cause I speak the truth.

  20. 7 · Brigette Bardot said

    1st->2nd->3rd generation adjustment->fitting in-> ?? On a philosophical note the third generation seems to be a very interesting set of people.

    I have met one 3rd gen, who held a grudge against his 2nd gen parents for not passing on enough of desi heritage. He made up for it my making numerous visits to India and being more involved with desi activities. So, 3rd gen probably comes a full circle ? But that’s just one sample point.

  21. Whenever I read or have discussions like these, I am taken back to my high school days. I recall how Hinduism & Buddhism was ridiculed by a few kids right in front of my face.

    And now, Buddhism and Hinduism are all the rage. Thankyou Dahi Lama and Sixpack Chopra.

    Could Suki be Pardesi Gori?
    Isn’t Pardesi Gori a female?

    Can’t know for sure. But isn’t Suki assumed to be female as well?

    Could Suki be Pardesi Gori?
    Yeah you get me and I was also the one who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby.

    Some of your points parrallel PG’s, Suki. PG made had a few good points, but we don’t like her/him/it because, because, ah well, there must’ve been a reason.

  22. Worth noting is that the paki-bashing in 1970s UK and the sikh-bashing in post-9/11 US boils down to ethnic punjabi-bashing for the most part. Also worth noting is that of all desis sikhs have been the best servants of the anglo-saxons since they were defeated by the british in India. Sikhs need to remind the anglos of their service.

    Americanos are not anglos so what will they care?

    BROWN

  23. And now, Buddhism and Hinduism are all the rage

    Not actual Buddhism or Hinduism, but reconstituted, selectively interpreted that aging hippies try to legitimize their mumbo-jumbo “spirituality” with.

    I guess some people actually try to learn about the real thing, but as far as most people know Hinduism either = Hare Krishnas and the Art of Living Institute or Hinduism = something resembling Martha Nussbaum’s deranged rantings.

  24. That was supposed to read “reconstituted and selectively interpreted versions that aging hippies. . .”

  25. There is an interesting program going on in the Dallas-Ft Worth area with the local Sikh community. They are giving out gift cards (Starbucks, Chipotle, Barnes and Noble, etc) to college students who will wear a turbin for three hours, promise not to smoke or drink alcohol for three hours, and wear a button that says “Ask me about my turbin.” It seems like a interesting way to educate people about Sikhism and dispel the misconceptions that most white people have about Sikhs. The article was in the Dallas Morning News.

  26. Brown, Suki has been here for years. He is not PG. He does not sound like PG. We appreciate the enthusiasm, but it doesn’t help if it’s misapplied or hijacks threads.

    Back on topic, please.

  27. Paradoxically (seemingly that is), Obama’s ascent is leading to an increase in white racial hostility towards non-whites including desis. Remember that the only racial group that voted against Obama in the election were whites. Asians, hispanics, others……all voted heavily (by a margin of 2 to 1 or more) for Obama. And if you exclude jews, homosexuals and ethnic whites (greeks, italians etc) from the white category, Obama lost by a landslide among white anglo voters. A white nativist opposition party, which is what the Republican Party is becoming, can be a very dangerous hitleresque beast. Besides dominating the military they also are by far the best armed civilians in America. And the most paranoid and the most prone to genocidal violence (going by the rhetoric in white supremacist sites).

  28. White Supremacist sites are emblematic of the opinions of all White people everywhere?

    Are the Black Panthers similarly emblematic of how all Black people feel or does that kind of racism only work in one direction?

    I’m brown and I’m clinging to my guns and my religion. They can take my Constitutional rights from me when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers.

    The great thing about America is that the government is designed to moderate the influence of fringe elements. We recognize that everyone is equal under the law regardless of their ethnic background so if you empower the government to intrude upon the rights of group X, then you can expect it to intrude upon your own rights eventually as well. It’s a brilliant system.

  29. Isn’t Pardesi Gori a female?

    I’m pretty sure Pardesi Gori is a robot…

  30. It’s a brilliant system.

    How quickly you have forgotten that this brilliant system considered your colored desi ass racially inferior and undeserving of citizenship as recently as half a century ago. Far from being fringe, white supremacism was the mainstream not that long ago. Which many whites of the right wing see as a lost golden age. America changed in the 1960s largely because of external pressures. It was losing the global battle for hearts and minds in the Cold War against communism.

  31. Far from being fringe, white supremacism was the mainstream not that long ago.

    Wow. So you really think groups like Stormfront speak for the majority of American Whites do you? Are you typing from a parallel universe where MLK Jr. was never born?

  32. Hinduism = something resembling Martha Nussbaum’s deranged rantings.

    Why the haterade poured on Nussbaum? I realize she was really pissed about Gujarat, but, well, so was I. Shouldn’t all decent people have been?

    Also, I am saddened that in my absence from this site, my moniker has been taken over. SAD.

  33. 36 · PG said

    Why the haterade poured on Nussbaum?

    for the same reason people hat daniel pipes…and suki dillon, not to be confused with bob.

  34. Daniel Pipes is known solely for his work on the Middle East and “radical Islam.” Hinduism doesn’t even show up in Nussbaum’s Wikipedia entry, and I’d read some of her writing (in the context of homosexual rights) long before the Gujarat riots even occurred. Pipes favors profiling; Nussbaum concluded her most recent writing about India with “Some Muslims are criminals. However, this does not justify demonizing Muslims, any more than the violent acts of the Hindu right justify stereotyping all Hindus as rapists and murderers. Let’s go after criminals with determination, good evidence and fair trials, and let’s stop targeting people based on their religious affiliation.”

    How are they comparable? I just don’t get the analogy here.

  35. 31 · Dhoni said

    Paradoxically (seemingly that is), Obama’s ascent is leading to an increase in white racial hostility towards non-whites including desis.

    the far right appears to be on the increase, i’ve heard. the ornicus blog covers this in debt. but its on the increase worldwide so one must take the recession into consideration. the far left, communists included, are starting to stir, so these are very dangerous times indeed.

    but more dangerous is if obama gives into the xenephobic protectionism him and his party stirred during the election. he’d pulled back a tad from the measures originally included in the stimulus bill, leading me to believe his rhetoric was just a southern strategy of sorts. but these are dangerous times. fascists and communists, doesn;t get any worse than those two.

    but i’m not really worrying.

  36. How are they comparable? I just don’t get the analogy here.

    they both go after what they call religious fascists, so the non-fascists religious of the such labelled religion get defensive and think its a ruse to spread a new colonialism and bigortry under the guise of anti-fascism. now, you appear to be arguing with pipes it actually is a ruse while with nussbaum it isn’t, and perhaps your right, i haven’t the slightest, but that doesn’t change the fact that source of the hatred for the two is similar.

  37. Paradoxically (seemingly that is), Obama’s ascent is leading to an increase in white racial hostility towards non-whites including desis. Remember that the only racial group that voted against Obama in the election were whites. Asians, hispanics, others……all voted heavily (by a margin of 2 to 1 or more) for Obama

    a litte knowledge is a dangerous thing. John Kerry lost the white vote by 17 points, Al Gore by 12 points. Clinton got 43 and 39 percent in 1996 and 1992, respectively.

    Obama outdid them all.

  38. Not actual Buddhism or Hinduism, but reconstituted, selectively interpreted that aging hippies try to legitimize their mumbo-jumbo “spirituality” with.

    Yeah but the younger generation of desis (under 45), including myself, find that type of Hinduism/Buddhism kinder and cooler than our parent’s and grandparent’s uptight, rigid versions. So a big JAI HO shout out to Dahi Lama, Sixpak Chopra and whoever else is softening the rough edges of what could have become an outdated, old-world, casteist and elitist mythology.

  39. 36 · PG said

    Hinduism = something resembling Martha Nussbaum’s deranged rantings. Why the haterade poured on Nussbaum? I realize she was really pissed about Gujarat, but, well, so was I. Shouldn’t all decent people have been? Also, I am saddened that in my absence from this site, my moniker has been taken over. SAD.

    The problem I have with Nussbaum and her ilk is the same problem I have with “international” organizations in general ranging from the IMF and World Bank. While the latter groups actually speak about real and tangible issues about which you can formulate a falsifiable hypothesis and disprove, however, Nussbaum’s rantings about Hindus being emasculated and insecure and so on are just unverifiable at best and demonstrably false more often than not. Yet she still traipses around the international press repeating half baked conclusions about cultural practices in India as well as societies throughout Africa about which she knows only enough to justify her preconceived conclusion.

    The most telling problem she has was illustrated in an exchange she had in the mid ’90s with Yael Tamir. Nussbaum decided to write a long piece for the UN about creating a “universal” framework for ethics and morals that we can all agree on and Nussbaum took special delight in ripping on a variety of tribal cultural practices throughout Africa, most notably including a specific (I think it was) Ugandan tribe which practiced clitoridectomy.

    I might be misremembering the exchange since it has been a while. But Tamir’s rejoinder was to say that while clitoridectomy is bad and we should support those who seek to end it, she questioned the use of the subject in today’s discourse. She points out that people like Nussbaum are inevitably trained in Western universities and immersed in a specific culture. They are brought up in a specific philosophical tradition and they pick up specific biases through their own unique historical, personal, and cultural experiences and then process all of these through the lens of whatever specific philosophical tradition they have been trained in. The discourse is overwhelmingly dominated by people from a (comparatively) narrow intellectual background and yet they run with this limited and biased committee to formulate what they claim to be universal ethical norms. How universal can your norms be, though, when the vast majority of the people formulating them have all read the same J.S. Mill, Kant, Aristotle, and Plato but few of them have bothered to touch the Upanishads or the Gita, the works of Avicenna or Ostanes, Watsuji Tetsuro, Xunzi or Mencius, and so on? If they know them at all it is only through intermediaries like Weber or Hesse and it is, once again, all processed through the lens of a Western ethical and philosophical tradition, of course, that fails to fairly contextualize the social issues of the cultural practices that come under their focus.

    Despite their claims to universality, however, they never focus their laser on cultural practices that are considered normal in the West. They call the clitoridectony an instance of “female genital mutilation” but they have nothing to say about circumcision. You find many of the defenders of clitoridectomy also defending a woman’s right to get a boob-job despite the fact that it too is often based on an unrealistic ideal of beauty that is imposed on them by a larger culture. If these things ever do get called out it is always done in its own cultural terms. So Naomi Wolf can write something like “The Beauty Myth” and it can actually engender a conversation about the issue. People might show up who will have a moderating influence on the perspective in a way that screeds against Ugandan tribesmen who typically don’t have a lot of PhDs under their belts will never get.

    Even if it’s not a tribesman they can just as easily dismiss any criticism as being based on religious, national, or ethnic chauvanism because how dare those darkies presume to examine our ideas on their own terms? Unless you’ve got a PhD of your own from a university they recognize as being “good” they can just ignore your opinion without any pangs of conscience.

    Nussbaum replies to this by basically saying “Well of course imposed perspectives on beauty are bad but clitoridectomy is blah blah blah” indicating that Tamir’s entire argument essentially went right over her head. She pays lip-service to the similar problems in her own society but not only refuses to acknowledge that because of power differentials her words have far more influence in cultures that don’t have the academic traditions to answer back than in her own, she also completely glosses over the fact that maybe her personal ideas and experiences might not necessarily map onto each and every culture and issue in the world. It takes a certain kind of narcissism to think that you alone have gleaned mystic insights through your cursory research (done with the purpose of grinding an axe against one group or another) while others who live and breathe a subject might not be so quick to throw stones.

    So, long story short. She has biases that lead her to look at a story, come up with a conclusion based on her gut reaction, and then go “research” for “facts” that will support her assertion without ever once thinking that maybe she’s wrong. She has all the obnoxious self-importance and certitude of a religious zealot. Often this will be accompanied with some inane meta-narrative about how anyone who disagrees with her must obviously be suffering from some sort of insecurity or mental disorder. I believe her favored canard towards Hindutvaadis is that they are insecure about being emasculated and if not for that of course they would agree with her since she is so self-evidently right. I am pretty sure she has similar diagnoses against detractors of other backgrounds as well. It’s all fallacious attempts to poison the well, of course, but nobody polite will call her on it.

    Nussbaum alone being a sanctimonious blowhard wouldn’t bug me though. What bugs me is when people who ought to know better elect to line up behind her. As children of two-cultures, which those of us who have been exposed the Indian philosophical tradition from a young age are, we have the blessing of being able to use our multicultural backgrounds as a lens to analyze both our mother-culture as well as our adopted one with an equally critical and multifaceted perspective. What people generally end up doing, though, is taking whatever frames they picked up in their intro. to sociology class or whatever and applying these ideas all willy-nilly without actually investigating to see how appropriate it is to frame, say, Indian history through the lens of European religious traditions, or Indian social cleavages through the lens of a European class system. Maybe these third gen. kids will finally get it, but I am not hopeful.

    aaaand that ended up being way way longer than I intended. TL;DR, sorry about that.

  40. 42 · BROWN said

    Not actual Buddhism or Hinduism, but reconstituted, selectively interpreted that aging hippies try to legitimize their mumbo-jumbo “spirituality” with.
    Yeah but the younger generation of desis (under 45), including myself, find that type of Hinduism/Buddhism kinder and cooler than our parent’s and grandparent’s uptight, rigid versions. So a big JAI HO shout out to Dahi Lama, Sixpak Chopra and whoever else is softening the rough edges of what could have become an outdated, old-world, casteist and elitist mythology.

    Wow. Way to perfectly demonstrate what I was talking about with my last paragraph! BRAVO!

  41. they both go after what they call religious fascists, so the non-fascists religious of the such labelled religion get defensive and think its a ruse to spread a new colonialism and bigortry under the guise of anti-fascism.

    Except that Pipes thinks it’s legitimate to assume that all of a particular religion (Islam) are fascists until they prove otherwise. He belongs to the group that says Muslim-Americans ought to be wearing T-shirts with “9/11 was an inexcusable tragedy” to prove their bona fides as non-terrorists. Nussbaum, on the other hand, doesn’t assume fascism of Hindus, nor, from what I have seen, does she attempt to cherry-pick through Hindu texts to “prove” that it’s a horrible wicked religion. So regardless of ruses, Pipes of them is trying to whip up suspicion of an entire group and call the legitimacy of their religion into question, whereas Nussbaum is critical of specific excesses committed by specific Hindus. This seems to me a rather significant distinction.

    As for Yoga Fire’s take on Nussbaum, it misses that Nussbaum, as I just noted, specifies a particular group of Hindus with whom she has a disagreement: the Hindu right. Nowhere in any of her writings that I’ve encountered does she generalize, as YF claims, that “Hindus [are] emasculated and insecure.” Rather, she quotes rhetoric of the BJP and its more radical allies to point out how much they think and talk about India’s history of having been invaded and conquered by Britain and India — which is not the most important narrative in the lives of Hindu centrists and leftists. Do you find it purely coincidental that the Hindu right is the segment of Indians who express the most hostility to women’s social freedoms? Where has Nussbaum made verifiably false claims about the actions of the Hindu right — including the praise of Hitler and near-omission of the Holocaust from textbooks?

    Nussbaum like many women’s rights activists often goes overboard on her concepts of universalism and on the extent to which certain practices are motivated by sex-based concerns, but I can’t say that by focusing on clitoridectomy YF has picked out a good example.

    They call the clitoridectony an instance of “female genital mutilation” but they have nothing to say about circumcision.

    I didn’t realize anyone still tried to trot out the “cutting off an adolescent girl’s clitoris is JUST LIKE cutting the foreskin off an infant boy” absurdity. And “having an adolescent girl held down by her mother and aunts while someone cuts off her clitoris as she screams and fights to run away is JUST LIKE a grown woman’s stupid choice to get a boob job” equivalence is a new one on me altogether. If grown women in Africa decide they’ll look prettier without a clit, I’ll still think it’s stupid but it’s their choice even if it’s coerced by beauty norms in their society. So long as it’s being done to adolescent girls — so long as women are fleeing those countries and seeking asylum based on clitoridectomies, the equivalence rings just a tad bit false. Is there an asylum case involving a woman trying to save her daughter from a boob job?

    If you look at fetal development, the clitoris is effectively the equivalent of the entire head of the penis. When you hear of a Western culture that lops off the entire head of the penis, you’ll have a valid comparison to clitoridectomy. Until then, it sounds ridiculously insensitive to the potentially lifelong pain suffered by girls who undergo clitoridectomy (not to mention the purpose behind it, which is to control women’s sexuality — could someone explain which matriarchal culture imposed circumcision?).

  42. a litte knowledge is a dangerous thing. John Kerry lost the white vote by 17 points, Al Gore by 12 points. Clinton got 43 and 39 percent in 1996 and 1992, respectively. Obama outdid them all.

    You are right, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. You are obviously ignorant of these facts:

    1. In 1992 and 1996 the presidential elections were three way races with Ross Perot taking a significant chunk of the white vote. To compare Clinton’s share of white votes in a three way race to Obama’s share in a two way rave is asinine.

    2. In 2000 Al Gore got less than 50% of the total vote vs 53% for Obama in 2008. Secondly Gore was trying for a third democratic win in a row which is a tall order historically.

    3. In 2004 Kerry got 48% of the popular vote running against a then-popular war-time President.

    4. By contrast Obama ran against the record of a by then deeply unpopular president, with the Republicans being widely blamed for an economic catastrophe and foreign misadventures. A democratic nominee should have won by a landslide. Obama did win by a landslide…….except among whites.

  43. http://www.slate.com/id/2204251/

    Although Obama beat John McCain in the popular vote by an impressive seven-point margin, McCain beat Obama among white voters by an even more impressive 12-point margin. Obama got 53 percent of the broad electorate to vote for him but only 43 percent of the white electorate. When I say “white electorate,” I don’t mean the white working class, or white Southerners, or any other subgroup whose capacity for racial tolerance has long been held suspect. I mean all white voters………. Jimmy Carter got elected president by narrowing to four percentage points the gap between whites voting Republican and whites voting Democratic. Bill Clinton did it by narrowing the gap to a remarkable 2 percent.

    So of the last three democrats to win the presidency Obama had by far the lowest share of the white vote compared to his Republican opponent, despite the fact that he ran against the Republicans when they were more unpopular than they have ever been since the Great Depression, having screwed up the economy big time yet again

  44. does she attempt to cherry-pick through Hindu texts to “prove” that it’s a horrible wicked religion.

    Well.

    first, Daniel Pipes is not lying. I checked.

    Second, Nussbaum implies in the article on Mumbai attacks that Hinduism is a horrible wicked religion.. See the implication here. Low castes are escaping horrible Hinduism by converting to Christianity. Even then Hindus are killing them. And this is for reporting an incident when the jihadis specifically targeted Jews and let a couple of Turkish Muslims live because of their religion.

    This year, in the eastern state of Orissa, members of the Bajrang Dal have murdered scores of Christians who refused to reconvert to Hinduism. (Most Indian Christians are descendants of converts, often from the lowest Hindu castes.)