Hafta letters: The prism of casteism, rebuttal on pop culture piece, unreasonable expectations from scientists

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ByNL Team
Hafta letters: The prism of casteism, rebuttal on pop culture piece, unreasonable expectations from scientists
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Dear Hafta panel,

My name is Nithila and I share my mother's subscription as I am a student and can't afford my own right now. But as I have said before, rest assured that when I start earning, one subscription from me is guaranteed!

I read this article about the Kattar Hindu WhatsApp group that was a recommendation on Hafta 284. The article has no screenshots of conversations on that WhatsApp group, not does it have pictures of the chargesheet that was filed. I was just wondering, is there a reason for not publishing this information since it could lend additional legitimacy to the article? Is there some general protocol about publishing chats/chargesheets? Right now I feel like I would trust this article because it is NL, and what you guys stand for, and your transparency. But this article may not be proof enough for someone else who is not familiar with your platform.

I don't mean this to be targeting this particular article. I have often wondered what constitutes "proof" for something that a news platform publishes. A large part of it is trust, and you choose to trust a news platform based on many factors, but doesn't this make the whole exercise of news very subjective? One way around this is for many platforms to publish stories saying the same thing, but as we are seeing now, there is nothing stopping numerous platforms from projecting blatant falsehoods as "news!"

Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Sorry if my mail is too long :)

Just a closing note to say that I love the work you guys do, and I look forward to the Hafta podcast every week...and lately I have even begun to look forward to listening to Anand Vardhan, whose views irked me immensely until recently (perhaps the lockdown has gotten to me). But now I find that I enjoy being challenged, as long as I can be reasonably sure that the other person is making an argument in good faith.

Best,

Nithila

***

Hi NL Team,

I want your views on the two recent incidents so I'm just going to dive right in without wasting your time:

The first one would be the article Retd Col Ajai Shukla came out with where he has completely disagreed with the recent news reports carried out by almost all the news channels and papers that there has been disengagement in the key areas in Ladakh with the PLA. He is suggesting that such news is being peddled by government sources and the army is being forced to toe the line as well. He goes on to say that not only is there no disengagement but we have lost a substantial portion of our land to China — something similar to the scale as that of the 1962 war.

The next one would be Shekhar Gupta's theory that in order to truly bring prosperity and the rule of law to the state of Uttar Pradesh, one needs to divide it into four or five other states (sounds way too ambitious to execute).

Please let me know what you think about these two topics and keep up the good work.

Regards,

Kingshuk Dasgupta

***

Hi Newslaundry team,

Writing after some time now, partly because I was busy and partly because I am missing the "other voice" in your panel these days. With Anand and Madhu missing most of the time, I feel you guys sound more and more like me, which is quite disgusting to hear. I am partly kidding, I appreciate your efforts and that's why I pay.

So, this time I am writing in response to a comment by Manisha. She said if pregnancy can be tested at home, why can't Covid be tested at home? This is exactly the kind of unreasonable expectation from scientists that makes me mad.

I am a career researcher (a faculty at the IISc), and I often find that, perhaps because of seeing too many sci-fi movies, people have unreasonable expectations from science. Covid tests such as RT-PCR use RNA sequencing. Take-home pregnancy tests detect a hormone from a urine sample. There are many years of algorithmic and biological innovations underlying the former. Even if take-home tests for it are developed, you should be in awe of it, not expect it as a norm.

I have another, unrelated rant. I consult with BBMP for their Covid modelling and testing strategies, and recently some newspapers discussed these topics with me. I found that the reporters came with a preconceived notion, at least with a fixed plot in mind, and were not so willing to deviate from it. For a scientist, typically, there are no absolute statements, and everything is as good as the set of assumptions under which it holds. Such nuances were impossible to get across. I thought you would be interested in this complaint.

Also, please try to include Anand in every Hafta for balance.

Regards,

Himanshu Tyagi

***

Hi Abhinandan,

I am not a subscriber of Newslaundry but I regularly follow your weekly Hafta podcasts and Newsance shows. They very nicely wrap up and give context to the important news pieces which I follow on a couple of independent media houses/journalists online and I don’t think I have an appetite for any more news consumption than that at the moment.

This is the first time I am writing to you and that is because a lot of things that you discussed on Hafta 284 caught my fancy and I wanted to share my two cents on that:

1) On the question of patriotism being desired in our news landscape or even general discourse; what I feel is that every person to some degree has an inherent attachment to the place they belong to (which can be just the village, city or town), even with all its flaws BECAUSE of the ideas and memories they attach to it, and a complete lack of that would be weird. It is only when this human instinct gets manipulated for political gains and turned over its head into this toxic form of nationalism that we have a problem.

Like for me, I would have no qualms about calling myself a patriot because my love for my country stems from my love for my city, (which I am painfully aware is as flawed as they come) Delhi. This brings me to my second point

2) I know how much disdain the team has for Delhi or at least the unnecessary chunk of primetime it occupies. And agreeing with that point, I present to you my broad categorisation of the “left-liberals”, even though it infuriates me how skewed the definitions of Right and Left are here where everyone is just slapped with a tag from the binary by people who can’t define either of the terms.

Regardless, the branches are:

(a) people like you who just ask rational questions and demand accountability from the supreme leader for issues that matter at the ground level; and

(b) the REAL, albeit declining, Lutyens' gang that can never seem to be able to take their heads out of their rears and talk about issues that matter to anyone outside the NDMC area. This is the plague of the Congress party and these are the same people who patronise the post-millennials of the cancel culture that you also talked about. Which is my third point.

3) I just turned 20 so I fall smack in the middle of this generation and let me tell you, and everyone I hear saying how aware the students are and how this generation has promise: Forget about it. We aren’t going anywhere but back from here.

Why I say that is because the people you see on social media, or even occasionally on roads asking questions, being democratic are astonishingly small in number when compared to the population that falls in this bracket. Everyone else is either at least as bigoted, if not more, and as averse to logic as your uncle on WhatsApp; or is completely oblivious; or is a head-up-their-butt touch-me-not liberal that cancels everything outside their bubble with ideas that grow exceedingly absurd until all that’s left is them and their loneliness.

I apologise for how long that turned out but I really appreciate the work you do and I might soon stop being a mufatkhor.

Also a quick shoutout to Mehraj, whose views on most topics exactly line up with mine, and Anand sir, who then makes me rethink these views from a different perspective in the most rational way possible.

Thanks a lot!

Safdar Ahmed

***

Hi NL team,

Long-time subscriber.

I liked 284 a lot, especially the discussion around Scindia and cancel culture. One part about Hafta that I do find grating is looking at almost everything through the prism of casteism. And I think this episode showed a better glimpse of that flawed outlook.

The panel pretty much agreed that the names of villains had to do with casteism and this is especially glaring, considering Abhinandan has a pop culture podcast. The weird names like "Shakaal" were a temporary phase around the late 1970s and '80s when villains were like comic book characters (which caste is Mogambo?). If you look into popular movies before Sholay or from the 1990s, like Shiva/Satya, then you wont see that pattern. One of the most popular older films, Mother India, had a clearly named Sukhi Lala, no doubt about which caste category that belongs to. And today we do have a Trivedi (Sacred Games), Tyagi (Omkara) or Tripathi (Mirzapur) as villains.

And there was even a time around the late '80s and later, that's when I grew up:

Ghayal - Balwant Rai

Damini - Indrajit Chaddha (kabhi shikast nahi khaata)

Baazigar - Madan Chopra (naam hai mera)

All fairly popular villains and I can list more, but stopping purely due to word count. But if you want to look at it purely through casteism, sure, keep raking.

My take is they just chose certain names in the Seventies and Eighties which rolled off the tongue with a nice punch. And no, a "Vikas Dubey" doesn't have that aesthetic sound for the comic book style depiction, but an Anurag Kashyap will do it well with a Dubey. Waiting for Mehraj to add, "what is good/bad aesthetic is defined by casteism'" at 3.2.1…

I wrote that criticism regarding casteism by the panel, and later today I read this. Felt a bit like egg on my face, as I am an NRI and an Iyer, though I do think there is some merit, pun unintended, in what I had to say.

Prakash Iyer

***

After seeing the recent situations of the Congress in Rajasthan, it seems like the Congress is asking for a Congress Mukht Bharat. Congress is splitting apart, just like how the communist movement split in 1964. Will India continue to be a hybrid regime forever?

Congress: 50-60 years

BJP next?

Sagar Vijayendra

***

Dear editor,

First, let me express my best wishes to the team at Newslaundry for supplying us with excellent content and analysis in writing. Recently, knowing my fondness for the platform, my friend shared with me an article by Anand Vardhan on the depiction of the salaried class in pop culture. Though I admire the writings of Mr Vardhan a lot, I cannot bring myself to agree with either the precedent or the arguments made in this particular article.

Owing to the long discussion I had with my friends on the matter, I thought it would perhaps be interesting to share the same with Mr Vardhan to know his perspective on my understanding of the content. In this regard, I am attaching a brief write-up, of about one and a half-pages, highlighting why I objectively disagree with the analysis. Since it is an op-ed, I initially wanted to write to Mr Vardhan himself but his e-mail was not mentioned on the article, so I am sharing my views with your team as a rejoinder.

Please do let me know if you found this rejoinder relevant, and what Mr Vardhan may think of the same. I would like to extend my sincerest apologies if any part of the rejoinder appears to be offending or confrontational. It was not my intention. Though I have passionately argued in the piece as it was the organic flow of my narrative. Also, perhaps because this is an outcome of a heated argument with an engineer friend.

Look forward to hearing the views of your team and Mr Vardhan on the same.

Souma Shekhar

Souma's rejoinder:

In defence of Ved: Explaining the disdain of pop culture for 'technocrats' and capitalism

While sipping tea on a lazy Sunday over a prolonged video-call interaction with friends (welcome to the new normal of a Sunday adda in Kolkata), an article on Newslaundry got shared in the group. It was written by Anand Vardhan, highlighting the perceived disdain of the "conformist" salaried class in pop culture. From a wide variety of examples ranging from Hindi films to my personal favourite English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee, Mr Vardhan highlights the contribution of the pop culture in robbing “the dignity of the ordinary and regular ways in which people earn their livings”.

The adjective “negative” qualifying the portrayal of engineers in India’s popular culture was the fifth word in the article. It was indicative of the "victimisation" of the technocratic salaried class by the Indian literati. It was interesting to note that the author carefully chose to ignore epistemological experiences in pop culture that portray engineers negatively, in simple terms, examples where engineers negatively represent engineers and the technocratic culture based on their lived experiences — such as Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat.

In his attempted Mark Antonian defence of the technocratic conformists in India, the author has probably overshot his mark in more ways than one. It has created several problematic perspectives within the article in explicit and implicit terms.

First, it must be noted here that both Surinder Suri and Marco were deeply problematic characters with a saviour complex who did nothing but enforce gender stereotypes. While Marco “saved” Rosie from her past which had links to the custom of devadasis. Surinder Suri reluctantly agreed to marry a much younger and much more beautiful woman to care for her when her baraat met with an unfortunate accident. Of course, in both cases, the women were confined to the house while the men continued driving “sectors of the economy” coming home to eat warm food and wear clean clothes.

Raju and Raj offered an escape for these women, whose subjugation and containment within conventional gender roles made their lives claustrophobic. There is nothing pop culture about this trope. One can go as far back as Rabindranath Tagore’s Raktakarabi or Ghare Baire published in the early 20th century, and find the same context for similar insensitive men.

Furthermore, it is almost hypocritical to bring in an example of Basu Chatterjee and question the portrayal of Raj in RNBJ when Arun (Amol Palekar in Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat) had to undergo a very similar transition to win over Prabha, who was not impressed by his clumsy and timid nature. Again, it appears that the pop culture critique holds very little water in this context.

Secondly, and most importantly, pop culture does not criticise either the conformist or the salaried class. It is critical of the post-liberalisation aspiration, which defines success in terms of material achievements and a possible job in the US, often ignoring the civic and social obligations of an individual. In Tamasha or Wake Up Sid!, the characters are not robbing the conformists of dignity. They are instead establishing a rebellion against the “workaholic” kind, who are working tirelessly to help their employers indulge in materialistic extravagance. It comes at the cost of equality, the environment, and their entitlements. It is essential to ensure that the “sectors of the economy” are running. Still, it is also crucial to break-out of any institutional set-up that de-commodifies labour and robs individuals of their actual dignity by reducing them to the famous caricature of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

Thirdly, the crux of the article argues that embarking on a “free spirit” course is a function of privilege. Often people become conformists because they lack opportunities or, in the case of Agastya, a perceived lack of drive for anything specific. In this regard, let us be fair to pop culture and also highlight movies such as Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year by the same actor which celebrates the working class-protagonist, however, he is not “conformist”. A “conformist” accepts the system as it is, a rebel challenges the institutional structures of the system even within the restrictions of working class existence. In the movie, the protagonist rebels by standing up to unethical and undignified practices of a capitalist corporation and establishes his endeavour that upholds both civic and social values.

Therefore, pop culture does portray that one can be a “free spirit” even within the rubric of salaried employment. One need not “conform” to the existing values, beliefs, and social structures that defined success in India’s liberalisation decade.

In conclusion, pop culture does not portray the salaried class in a perceived negative life. Pop culture is merely reflexive of the social, political and economic changes that happen in the world. The celebration of “free spirits” does not necessarily mean that pop culture portrays engineers in a negative light. Pop culture inspires and galvanises people to break the mould, which is fundamental in driving innovation and the pursuit of any knowledge — including engineering.

The contention of pop culture is with the pre-defined values of “technocracy” (such as the belief that all problems in the world can be solved by building the right app) and “capitalism” (such as the virtues of being a workaholic or dedicated labour with no civic or social obligations). The pursuit of passion is undoubtedly a function of one’s socioeconomic privilege but even within the rubric of salaried employment, an individual need not be a “conformist”. An individual should have the ability to firmly oppose the wrongs within a system — be it aspects of gender equality or unequal pay for equal labour, as depicted by pop culture. Engineers, or any other technocrats such as bankers, should not take this personally. It was pop culture that inspired non-conformists to usher in the era of democratic capitalism in the world by breaking down the Berlin Wall. It will be pop culture-inspired non-conformists who would fix the broken aspects of capitalism through the characters of Ved, Sid, and Harpreet.

In this new age, conformists should heed to the advice of Bob Dylan and not “stand in the doorway” or “block up the hall” — for the times they are a-changin’.

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