Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sameness, what Sameness?

Mukul Kesavan has a column in the Calcutta Telegraph. It is, I think, the first full-frontal attack on the desi blogosphere that I've seen published in an Indian newspaper.

And it's so, so wrong. Let's start at the beginning:

Every English-speaking Indian man between 25 and 60 has written about the Hindi movies he has seen, the English books he has read, the foreign places he has travelled to and the curse of communalism. You mightn’t have read them all (there are a lot of them and some don’t make it to print) but their manuscripts exist and in this age of the internet, these masters of blah have migrated to the Republic of Blog. A cultural historian from the remote future (investigating, perhaps, the death of English in India) might use up a sub-section of a chapter to explore the sameness of their concerns. Why did a bunch of grown men, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, write about the same movies, novels, journeys and riots? Why Naipaul? Why not nature? Or Napier? Or the nadeswaram? Why Bachchan? And not Burma? Or Bhojpuri? And, most weirdly, why pogroms and chauvinism? Why not programmes on television? (link)

First, my biggest complaint with Kesavan's piece is his refusal to name names. The "Republic of Blog" is for him guilty of a mind-numbing sameness, but if he doesn't tell us what blogs he's reading, it's impossible to verify what he says.

Second, why only men? Aren't there lots of Indian women bloggers? Indeed, there are too many to list, so let's just name one good one: Rashmi Bansal's Youth Curry.

Third, why not acknowledge that people are blogging in various Indian languages? In addition to its English "main page," Desipundit links to blogs in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bangla, and Marathi. (Sadly, no Punjabi...)

Then the substantive question -- amongst Indian male bloggers writing in English, is there in fact a deadening sameness? Do people really only talk about, as Kesavan suggests 1) Hindi films, 2) English novels, 3) various and sundry travels, and 4) Communalism? And do the comments on communalism all take a left-center approach (commonly derided as "pseudo-secular")?

Two of the four topics named by Kesavan, English-language novels and communalism, are a little strange coming from him; Kesavan is himself the author of an English-language novel (quite a good one, actually), as well as a book called Secular Common-Sense. (More recently, he published a book about Cricket, Men in White, which I haven't seen.)

I think a quick look at some of the links at the (now dated) Top 100 Indian blogs at suggests a great deal more diversity than Kesavan allows. He doesn't mention all the tech blogs (there are LOTS of those, and they get many more readers than even popular general interest blogs like India Uncut), cooking blogs, defense policy blogs, or, for that matter, cricket blogs.

It's true that a lot of what people post on their blogs often isn't that exciting; it's intellectual chit-chat, quick links, and regurgitated news. But I think that chit-chat is, in an indirect way, actually a really important sign of a society's well being. And when the discussions turn to politics, the to-and-fro of conversations (and yes, arguments) that take place on blogs as well as in the mainstream media can be a really important way by which democracy sustains itself. Blogging can be one measure of the health of civil society.

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musical said...

I guess Mr. Kesavan doesn't know how to distinguish between a personal journal and a theme blog! and i know many "men" between 30-60 who know English and DON'T write about Hindi movies :). As you rightly pointed out, his outburst also reeks of gender bias. Besides "Youth Curry" by Rashmi, i regularly read several blogs written by women based in India: here are a few that are really popular:

To Each Its Own by Sakshi Juneja
Lulu loves Bombay by Lulu
Sailu's Food by Sailaja Gudivada
A Mad Tea Party by Anita
Saffron Trail by Nandita Iyer

I must confess that being a foodie and a food blogger, I concentrate on food blogs :-D. And yes, I write a personal blog too, mostly written for friends and a few blog buddies. And there are so many people like me out there.....aiming to share their thoughts with a select few friends and NOT to enlighten a broad audience.Why should anyone tell them otherwise!

Oh, btw, i have toyed with the idea of writing a Punjabi blog.....just haven't spent enough time on "how to". May be i should, at some point!

1:07 PM  
Falstaff said...

Agree completely, especially with your first point. I'm so sick of people taking potshots at a convenient strawman called the blogosphere without clearly citing what blogs they're talking about. It's not just lazy, it's intellectually dishonest.

I also find Kesavan's repeated talk about "English-writing" and "Anglophone" bewildering and annoying. As though writing in English were so rare in India that it implied an attitude / a state of mind. As though all Indians (or at any rate, all Indian men) who write or read in English can be slotted into a single category since they all think alike. What rot. Kesavan repeatedly invokes the figure of an anthropologist, but any first year anthropology student could tell him that 'English-Writing Indian Male' is not a uniform enough category to permit of any meaningful research.

And what's with all the psycho-babble about the obsession with Hindi movies representing a yearning for lost innocence? Kesavan should stop projecting his own idiosyncrasies on other people. "None of this rules out the possibility that he actually enjoys Hindi films: it just explains why he writes about them", he writes. Is it really so difficult for him to understand that people might want to write about things that they enjoy, to express an opinion about things that they care for, that he feels the need to come up with some half-baked pseudo-Freudian theory to explain it?

If bloggers write about 'English books' because they are fundamentally insecure and need to demonstrate their sophistication, as Kesavan claims, one wonders what higher purpose drives mass-media columnists to produce childishly defensive and stupidly self-important pieces like this one.

10:51 PM  
apu said...

oof. thank you bringing this to notice, amardeep. one doesn't even know where to start criticising this one. the first sentence itself reeks of condescension as well as ignorance. not just men blog. then, the topics he has chosen to assign these bloggers. in his haste to condemn, he has forgotten food blogs, feminist blogs, music blogs, fiction blogs, (where writers post their own work), science blogs, political blogs, mommy blogs, photography blogs! infact, even the travel blogs that he is so condescending towards, do not just talk about the foreign places they've been too. many of them cover indian places insightfully. terrible piece and to think that the telegraph saw it fit to be published.

2:50 AM  
Nitin said...


First of all, thanks for the kind words.

Second, I think you have a doppelganger; saw this on my trackback

Third, as Falstaff mentions, I'm amazed how journalists are waking up to the blogosphere, reading a random sample, and arriving at grand conclusions. I'd expect better from Mukul Kesavan.

As for topics that Kesavan pulls out in his random draw: you'll probably get the same results if you tune into TV channels, read newspapers, or eavesdrop into watercooler conversations

12:11 PM  
shruti said...

It's holy crap. Kesavan is trying to tie up Indian bloggers in categories, which is a very convenient thing to do.

Indian writers in English have always been criticized of ignoring their mother tongue, as if writing in English and becoming famous is a crime. Kesavan has gone one step ahead. He is also talking about pseudo sophistication and guilt. I think his thoughts have taken a wrong direction and have led him to a crooked place.

12:53 AM  
Ruchira Paul said...

Kesavan is hardly alone, is he? (See my co-blogger Dean's post on a related story) Ever since the Average Joe (and the Smart Suneeta) found his/her voice and the patient ear of an audience via the unfiltered "blogosphere," the big boys and girls of "legitimate" journalism have been in a snit. I will second Falstaff's deliciously British put down of "what rot."

Amardeep, please forgive me for plugging two blogs of a personal nature in one comment. But since musical has brought up foodie blogs here, let me alert your readers to an interesting blog, EOID (Eating Out In Delhi) written by my nephew Hemanshu and his friends. I plan to check out some of the recommended joints next time I am in Delhi - with a liberal supply of Pepto Bismol on hand.

3:13 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

I just remebered that Mukul Kesavan is an alumnus of St. Stephen's College. Hmm... Funny that he should be decrying Anglophones. (Other famous SSC alumni in the literary/ journalistic fields are Amitav Ghosh, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Nirmal Verma, Shashi Tharoor, Alan Sealy, Anurag Mathur and Khushwant Singh, among others.) I know several graduates of SSC. They, like their British OxBridge counterparts are remarkable (dare I say snobs?) for their ability to state the obvious in an impressively "novel" way. Larry McMurtry described this quality beautifully in his autobiography, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen while referring to Christopher Hitchens' loquacious and combative articulating powers.

So, one has to be supercilious to be a successful travel writer? Now, that is a "novel" way of putting it that would make any full blooded SSCian proud. Kesavan forgot Pico Iyer among Indian born travel writers whose no-nonsense and informative style is effective without being supercilious, lurid or hamstrung by his "non-whiteness." But then, he was talking about bloggers, I thought. Why mix up issues?

I agree that secularism and liberalism is quite often the product of chivalry of the powerful majority. But not always. Some folks are genuinely concerned about the plight of minorities and the discrimination against them - so much so that they wish to see historical wrongs righted through the political process. Even if that means being "self hating" (what a loaded word, that one!). And in any case, despite Kesavan's peculiar defense of Advani's derogatory term "pseudo-secularism," what does secularism in the Indian context have anything to do with being Anglophone, given the toxic "divide and rule" policy of the British in India?

4:15 PM  
Professor Bakwas said...

Er, silly question perhaps, but doesn't Mukul Kesavan blog himself? On cricinfo if i'm not mistaken. Pot calling kettle black eh?

But that didn't seem to be the purpose of his piece though, it was targetted towards this strange 'he/him' that the guy seems to wanna convey that he (mukul he not 'he/him' he) knows intimately. A sweeping generalisation, way off target and one of those cases where the article speaks more of the author than the subject.

11:16 AM  

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