Posts Tagged satire

Oh, North is North, and South is South, and never the twain shall meet*.

There’s been a bit of comment warring over the tiresome north India-south India divide over at Krish Ashok’s blog. (A blog that I frequent because the author is witty, has a way with words and revels in delightfully irreverent humour that spares nothing and no one, not even himself.) 

The original hair-raising comment that set off the war is ridiculously juvenile and I’m not going to bother quoting it here. Suffice it to say it spawned off a debate on stereotypes about north Indians and south Indians — a debate that clearly refuses to die down, and not just on blogs.  

Yes, there are considerable cultural differences between the peoples of the north and the south in India. One of the most poignant expressions of this difference that I recall is from Amitav Ghosh’s Countdown (a journalistic piece written in response to the Indian and Pakistani parallel nuclear tests in 1998):

“Most of us here are from north India,” a bluntly spoken major [in the Indian army] said to me. “We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind my saying so, than we do with south Indians or Bengalis.”

Absolutely true; and one of the many ironies that make this a fascinating country. However, underlying the terms “north Indian” and “south Indian” are falsely homogenizing stereotypes.

Stereotypes do contain at least a grain of truth. They cannot arise swayambhu. Trouble begins when stereotypes become the norm, the default lens through which people are viewed and understood. Any differences from the stereotypes then become ‘deviations’ and marginalization sets in.

In somewhat of a coincidence I read another blog last week about the recent Air Tel ads featuring the Tamil actor Madhavan and the Bollywood actress Vidya Balan. The blogger very rightly points out that while the Hindi version of the ad shows the woman using the familiar form of address (tum) for the man, in the Telugu and Tamil versions she uses the “respectful” form (equivalent to aap in Hindi) suggesting stereotypes about the way women in the north and in the south address their husbands. 

It’s a valid observation, but I am concerned about a more insidious subtext that runs through the ads — that of the woman massaging the shoulders of the man back home from work; of the man as the one who pays all the bills; and of the man watching television while the woman cajoles him into doing housework. These are damning stereotypes that are unfair to women all over India — north, south, east or west. The north-south stereotypes about forms of address, though not unimportant, perhaps deflect attention from the ones common to women on both sides of the divide.

I’m not being merely clichéd when I say that while one cannot but be aware of difference, it’s rewarding and enriching to look for similarities. We sometimes risk missing the wood for the tree when we focus only on the differences. 

A relatively recent addition to this north-south divide is the parodying of stereotypes about how English is spoken in different states on either side of the divide. And I go ballistic when the claim of ‘satire’ is made for such humour.  So let me take this claim apart.

First, some fundas.

Humour, especially satire, is an oft-used weapon in dealing with stereotypes. Cathartic of course, but satire only works for us when we recognize, and disapprove of, the stereotypes it lampoons.  Although a clear line of demarcation is difficult to draw, satire differs from normal comedy in that while the latter attempts to elicit laughter by portraying our common human foibles, in satire there is an overt intent to correct some perceived “wrong” in people or institutions.

Satire invites us to scorn its target because it is believed to be unacceptable in some form.  Therefore it can only be funny if the audience also shares this scorn. Satire relies on commonly held notions of what is unacceptable.  I’m referring, of course, to the English tradition of satire as practised by its acknowledged masters—Dryden, Pope, Swift, Defoe, Johnson, and then later Dickens, Twain, Orwell, and Huxley.  Contemporary satire relies heavily on developing a belief or statement completely, to its logical conclusion, thus making obvious its ridiculousness. This form of satire sometimes invites negative reactions because developing the belief/statement completely might suggest support of it though quite the reverse is true. (The recent New Yorker cover featuring the Obamas is a case in point.) 

Given that satire is a weapon of scorn and thereby correction, I’d say that so-called satirical representations of Punjabi English, or Tamlish or Hinglish are highly questionable. I know I’m going out on a limb here, but let me give you the grounds for my questioning.

First: Who in India speaks English without an accent of some form or the other? Show of hands, please?  For that matter, who in the world speaks English without an accent? There is nothing linguistically superior about one or the other accent. Certain accents are preferred over others for social (spoken by certain privileged classes) and political (spoken by a politically powerful group or country) reasons.

Second: There are political and historical reasons we speak English the way we do. When Thomas Babington Macaulay declared in 1835 that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” he laid the foundation stone (erm … I work at a university and this is one of our stock phrases) for the process of teaching English in India—one that still flourishes in Indian schools, colleges, and universities—i.e., teaching it through the preserved, written word. Consequently, what we learn is literary, written English, not the spoken variety. And given the notoriously poor sound-symbol concord of English, we are not attuned to English as it is spoken — the sounds of English words. Only a privileged few have access to such attuning and it is largely they, I suspect, who pillory Indian English. 

Third: When we speak in English in India, we do so for communicative purposes in situations where other linguistic means of expression are unavailable. And so long as it serves that function, what is there to laugh about, pray? As for the argument that people also speak the language out of a false notion of ‘prestige’, well, those responsible for sustaining and nourishing this ‘privileged’ status of English are squarely to be blamed. 

Fourth: Common opinion holds that it is the pernicious influence of the mother-tongue that shapes the sound of Indian English. But this opinion is often laced with contempt. And I don’t see why. When one speaks a language for a considerable length of time, the human vocal apparatus—the tongue, the teeth, and the lips—gets accustomed to moving and coordinating in a certain manner. And this obviously has an involuntary bearing upon the articulation of the sounds of another language learned subsequently. Just basic physiology of the human mouth, hardly justifying any contempt for the intelligence of such speakers.

So now, all ye satirists of Indian English, what, really, are you attacking? Some soul-searching is warranted I should think. And no, I’m not angling toward muzzling of free speech or any such bunkum. What I do advocate is that the onus be placed on speakers, so that they are aware of and sensitive to the import of speech. 

But to return to what I started out with—the north-south divide—are there occasions, situations, anything at all, when neither north nor south,  Border, nor Breed, nor Birth* matter? Is there anything in our shared cultural life that could make such differences seem immaterial? Cricket? Corruption? Traffic jams? Films? Inflation? Ad infinitum?  

(*All postcolonial critics, save your breath and those e-mails. Despite Kipling’s current standing—jingoistic imperialist and the Empire’s most vocal mouthpiece—I enjoy the lyrical charm of his ballads and story-telling.)

 

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