Sunday, December 14, 2008

Barak Obama and the Skyscrapers of Expectations

My friend and former colleague in Indian Express K Govindan Kutty has been living in the United States for some time and he had sent me a few notes on his observations on American life especially in the days when Barak Obama was being elected to the presidency.

I think his notes are very perceptive and hence one of them is being pasted below to make it available to my readers here. (Please note that he eschews using capital letters.)

in what you presented as "american notes", we discussed last obama, lincoln and racism. they are now discovering new glories in obama, building up skyscrapers of expectations. and, i have been thinking of that, racism, colour, sense or lack of it of colour in all its conceivable manifestations. i have been doing so before i came here. i am sure it will nag my mind when i go away from here.

the thought came to me again when we had been to a photo studio in a sprawling mall
in virginia center commons the other day. this is the season everybody goes for a photo session. everybody means everybody, young and old, dead and unborn.when we were waiting for our turn to be called in by the young, buxom camerawoman, who enjoyed her work and kept animating the cramped room with her eternal giggling,
i saw an african-american family sitting by my side waiting for their turn.
the man had a weird hairdo, long yarns of matted hair flowing down his head,
much like long bunches of coconut flowers with their stem buried in a nirapara.
the woman had her hair intricately braided, some colourful net covering the pate.
the two kids also had their short hair meticulously done, reminding me the paddy seedlings tied with a band around them and thrown all around the field, ready for planting.

it stood out so starkly, their was, shall i confess, revolting to me aesthetic sense.consider the prospect of someone with that kind of remote and ribald hair style sitting in the oval office, chatting with heads of state of mighty and meek members of the wide comity of nations! i am sure you will not consider such a prospect because it is entirely unlikely. why do they do it? why do they wear such weird hair? mind you, it is quite expensive to put up your hair like that. it is quite time consuming.

i did not feel free to ask this question anywhere. such things, i am told, are not asked. it is a free country. anyone is free to wear his hair or whatever the way they like.i made a fool of myself one day by asking about the possible age of a rather decrepit woman in an assisted living home. that is their term for old age home. the woman was stretching herself to do with minimum help from others and it evoked my curiosity about her age. the officer of the home was aghast when i asked the question. my daughter-in-law was embarrassed. i should not have asked such questions. it is all a private affair. asking about the age range of someone who looked like in her eighties and still enjoying(?) being on her own and learning to
live with minimum assistance is an intrusion into her privacy. amen, i said.

so i never ask anyone about the african-america hairdo. i avoided looking at them for more than a second. my son has warned me that it is not safe to have eye contact with any group of african-americans going about boisterously. they could turn violent, he says. he should know better.our neighbour john, a policeman, whenever he stops by to have a word of pleasantry talks about his trepidation as he goes for patrolling in an african-american neighbourhood on dark nights. so i chose not to ask anyone about the hairdo. i am not sure if any african-american leader,
john brown or frantz fanon or frederick douglas or jessie or king, had said it would be useful to dispense with that kind of hair style that segregated them, visually, up to a point culturally.

gandhi would have done that in his time. making people clean was his way to introduce a kind of social equality. there is no need for homogenization. but there is a need for sophistication. i suppose it would be part of a modernizing exercise to declare such hairdo out of fashion. african-americans do not retain their old african tongues, swahili or whatever, as hallmarks of their identity. but they, many of them, enjoy sporting a primitive hairdo that costs so much money
and so much time, and makes them look rather aboriginal. i know it is a difficult thing to change such styles, without an ataturk. i recall stories of my father being practically disowned by his father when he had his tuft cut off and the style of the times reflected on his pate. my grandfather declared that he would not see
his son with such hair style. it took so long for us to agree that kuduma, whether tied behind or before, is not a sign of modernity.

my thoughts on segregating hairdo and slithering colour sense in america took me back home, took me back both in space and time. lines from an earliest verse i had learnt came back to me, rather raucously. i have no idea how it was taught. perhaps its meaning was lost on those who taught it and those who were supposed to recite it. it had built in its heart a strong sense of colour prejudice,a base view of contempt, which should not have informed any kid song. don't you remember that song?

varanda thondayode nhaan
varunnu kochumallike.
vallathum tharumo daaham
valarunnorenikku nee?
karivande varollente
aritkil then tharilla nhaan.
nalla poompaattakalkke nhaan
nalkoo madhuramen madhu.

look at it, you are a little black bee, and i have no love or honey for you.
my nectar is reserved for beautiful butterflies.

what shows through this kid song, recited by millions of kids with gusto,
is the seething contempt of the little jasmine for the colour of the thirsty lover,
more than even his pathos. what morale does it have? what do kids learn from that?

it bespeaks a mindset. and it was written by g. i would have never associated with him such prejudice but that is what shows through his popular kid song. i hold g in high esteem even though i am boggled by his monstrosities like ANATHANUKSHANAVIKASWARASUNDARAPRAPANCHADIKANDAM.
mind you, it is malayalalm. i am ready to live with it but that little poem about the insolent flower and the jilted black bee is pernicious.

that is our contribution to colour sense. do we still have it in our primary syllabus?


Unknown said...

K Satchidanandan writes in an email:

KGK's take on G's poem for children was really brilliant, though one can have a different view about his perceptions on the Am-Afr hair-do.I tend to see it as beautiful, esp. on Jazz drummers, when the swinging hair contributes something to the thrilling rhythms. I had made a mild reference to Asan's phrase'dushtamuhammadar' (Duravasta) in my recent poem 'Muslim'; I would not have been surprised if Vellappilly who thinks Asan belongs to his community - and not of poets'-had joined issues.

What I liked most was the style of KGK's writing.He could easily have been a creative writer in English. Thanks, NPC for forwarding it.

Unknown said...

Dr V Santhakumar writes:

I fear I do not understand the concerns expressed by KGK. No wonder, since I am not so good at reading poetic prose.

If his concern is about spending money on not so important `things' when someone's income is not so high, I see a point there. There are a number of studies that analyse the consumption pattern of blacks which do not facilitate them to acquire capital including human capital adequately. I have seen the preachers who specialize for black audiences in US trying to highlight such problems and advocate changes.

If his concern is about the `visual backwardness' or some `lack of style', I am not so sure whether these are appropriate. He must have noticed that the hair and the way it grows is distinctly different among blacks from other ethnic types. At my home, I have to mediate between by wife and daughter regarding what each one thinks about the correct hair style. Even the white Americans (highly educated) have sometime very different `hair' and other styles. Though kuduma is gone, long hair with a kettu is becoming fashionable among many intellectuals in India, and I know at least one women who says that men with very long hair are very attractive. (I have no plans to grow my hair.)

Unknown said...

N P Chekkutty said:

What I like about this dispute is the way hair, simple hair (of which once a Mathai made a great comment: It is hair for Mathai, you know...) becoming such a major political, economic and cultural statement.

I do not know whether the whites feel an alienation with blacks because of their particular hair-do. But I know that once upon a time, during Emergency of which I wrote in the other article where I mention my first encounter with KGK, there used to be cultural cops in uniforms who took youngsters to the police stations and made them have a hair cut because they used to don the rebellious hippie style of hair-do.

Well, hair can be a political statement. Not a comic political statement like that of our Pannian Ravindran today.

Unknown said...

Bobby Kunhu writes:

Wangari Maathai, in her autobiography Unbowed, talks about the influence of European colonialism and missionary activity on the hairstyles of the Kikuyu tribe she comes from!

Unknown said...

K Satchidanandan writes:

In a study of a Sara Joseph story -Muditheyyam-I have spoken about her hair -symbolism; in the story the hair becomes more a symbol of challenge and resistance than mere seductive beauty.The first thing her jealous husband does to tame her is shearing off her hair.Hair has been a symbol throughout human history, the Sanyasin who grows hair and beard, the catholic priest who shaves of the middle portion of the hair, the the nuns who shave off their hair to de-sex themselves,( I think these two are no more practised), the Brahmin keeping the tuft, the widow whose head used to be shaven, the sex-worker who when arrested is often shorn off her hair by the unkind police,the hippie growing his hair, the gay doing a special hairdo with the ear ring, men and women making fashion statements and political statements( like some feminists shaving off their hair, or young men growing hair to challenge patriarchs).. there is a whole history of hair-hair on the head or beard or moustache, (to forget hair in certain other parts of the body) and it is worthy of serious research like cloth symbolism.

Unknown said...

K Govindan Kutty writes:

baldness, hair loss, represents the fall of man, shall we say, woman too. one thing that distinguishes god from man is that god is always bushy, everywhere. greek or indian, god is characteristically hairy. they waged a war to get a potion to keep their hair strong and shining.

when i had to write a few lines about someone who made news by claiming to cure baldness, i could not but describe him as someone who has elevated man to divinity, liberating him from baldness. he suspected i was teasing him. he suspected i was taking too long to write about his invention after visiting his laboratory. thomas varghese of agricultural university, p rajan of mathrubhoomi and i had been kindly taken around his laboratory and factory. both consisted of a few makeshift ovens, bricks laid out, and vessels placed on them for boiling. some twigs and roots and oil pots lay around. from such a modest place, it was a miracle that a potion was produced to relieve mankind's--which involves womankind--sorrow.

since rajan and i shirked, our inventor-scientist approached a mildly bald but enormously eloquent reporter of another newspaper. next day out of his bald head came a report: baldness cure found. i said, under a whisper, the next in line is possibly jealousy which has long defied cure. anyway there was an explosion in the baldness market. the scientist found an embarrassing amount of money pouring into his account which was till then meagre or negative. i am still not sure if new hair sprouted on bald pates in the same proportion. perhaps nothing new ever grew. but the truth is, which is all you need to know, hair, its lack as well, has a great economic dimension.

Unknown said...

N P Chekkutty said:

On the question of culture of hair once again:

Something that intrigued me in Marquez's Of Love and Other Demons is his repeated reference to the long, beautiful and growing hair of the girl who died long ago. No doubt beautiful girls would have long hair. But here this girl who lost her life and interned in a cemetery deep in a monastery seems to defy death through her growing hair. Or is it something else the writer trying to communicate?

I read the novel long ago, when it was translated into English and made available in India. It was a beautiful novel but what haunts me even today is this mysterious growing hair of the dead girl who was in love.

Unknown said...

K Govindan Kutty writes:

in his reference to g's kid poem, extolling the racist flower and teasing the jilted bee,
sachidanandan had talked about asan's use of the deprecable term "dushtamuhammadar..."
he was anticipating criticism from vellappally. save asan from vellappally. asan had also talked about the supercilious namboodiris who reigned supreme under the canopy of decadent rituals.
that part of asan has not been cited with as much resentment as "dushtmuhammadar.." has been cited.

not only asan, vallathol also had his prejudices, if we may so call them, while introducing muslim characters. what comes straight to one's mind is bharathastreekal than bhavasuddhi. is it that asan and vallathol were sharing a sort of pan-hindu view of life?

"dushtamuhammadar.." was conceived in 1922 or 23. vallathol's bharathasthreekal came possibly much later. when asan worte what he did at that time, against the backdrop of what he would have called mappila riots and what is antiseptically described as malabar rebellion, was he partaking of the view of that sanguinary event generally prevalent among non-muslims in southern kerala?

it was a traumatic event in our history. but it has not become a major subject for our literature and the arts. are we afraid or unable to grapple with such sensitive issues? there are works like sundarikalum sundaranmarum
which rises above literary row. there are films like 1921 which portray the heroism and humanness of certain leaders of that khilafat exercise. and then instant references like asan's. for asan it was only a setting for the thesis he wanted to propound.

the killing, the forced abnegation of identity, the heroism, the cruelty, the colonial calculation, the religious bigotry--all this must have produced a big crop of factual fiction. what has happened to the next generations
of those who found their creed replaced forcibly by others for them, like irimban govindan nair.
do we have social studies on this aspect?

Unknown said...

Damodar Prasad writes:

1. In Takazhi's epic work "Kayar", there is a reference to migration of Nampoothiri family who were converted to Islam during the Malabar rebellion. Its not mere reference. It is much more than that. This may be one work in Malayalam which narrates about how Malabar rebellion had an effect on southern part of Kerala.

Vaguely recollecting, I remember that in this novel, Thatri kutty Antarjanam explains, how nice it was to eat "gomamsam" and Bhavthrathan supports her by saying that, Beef eating is endorsed in vedas..
Of course,"Kayar" is a later work.

2. Let me also mention about a recent and illuminating work on history of Malabar with emphasis on Malabar rebellion to be published in Malayalam by MT Ansari.

Unknown said...

N P Chekkutty said:

It is true that Malabar rebellion has not received much attention in our creative writing.

In addition to the works mentioned above, another book I remember is O V Vijayan's Thalamurakal. It appears Vijayan's father was working in the MSP, a special force brought together to tackle the Mappila rebels, at that time and there are very stark images of the days of rebellion in the work.

Unknown said...

N P Chekkutty said:

Somebody told me that an English novel which is set in the background of Ernad developments in 20s was translated by M Gangadharan a few years ago and published in Mathrubhumi or some other Malayalam journals. I have not seen it. Anyone remember such a work?

Unknown said...

Damodar Prasad writes:

Is this Donald Sinderby's- The Jewel of the Malabar: A Story of Mopplah Rebellion. In Ansari's work I mentioned, there is a study on Sinderby's works and the peculiar construction of Muslim identity.
I have not seen the original nor the translation.

Unknown said...

N P Chekkutty said:

Many thanks Damodar, for this input.

Though i have written the first three chapters of my biography of Muhammed Abdurahman in the background of the rebellion, I had not made much inquiry about this literary sources.

The book I have talked about is by Menon Marath, The Wounds of Spring, translated by M Gangadharan and published by Mathrubhumi. It has some good descriptions on the rebellion and its aftermath.

The book you refer to, Donald Sinderby's Jewell of Malabar, has not been translated into Malayalam. I talked to Dr Gangadharan and he tells me that Sinderby was a middle level military officer who came to quell the rebellion in 1921 and his story is about the love between an English military officer and a Nair girl, who finally turns him down and goes to a nunnery. This book, which seems to be the only literary work by an Englishman who has been to the scene of action, describes an encounter between the English forces and the rebels in an incident that reminds us of the Pookkottur war that took place in August or September 1921.

Gangadharan told me S K Pottekkad's Oru Desathinte Katha has a long description of the Malabar developments which were more or less an account of the personal experiences of Pottekkad. I do not remember these parts since I read it a very long time ago. Anyone remembers what he has written in this autobiographical work?


Unknown said...

Damodar Prasad writes:


I hope you have seen an critical reading of Menon Marath's novel by J.Devika. It appeared in a Mathrubhumi Onam Pathippu, a few years ago. (exact year, am not sure). (It was late RV who had read this novel to the students of English Dept. as it was included in the Indian writing paper)

Unknown said...

K Satchidanandan writes:

KGK, At times I too do have problems with the 'politically correct' readings of literary texts.( I recall Sartre being criticised for one of his plays for his portrayal of a Black character: was it 'In Camera?) When MT Ansari, a scholar I respect read communalism into N S Madhavan's story, Higuita, as the bad character had a Muslim name, forgetting Madhavan's powerful stories like 'Mumbai' and 'Thiruthu'(translated as 'Blue Pencil')where he comes out heavily against Hindu fundamentalists and movingly empathises with the victims) or when the goldsmiths of Kerala resented the innocuous title of a popular film as it had 'Thattaan' in it, I really felt it too much. This has been happening to a lot of writing by men too on the feminist dissection tables.

There are cases where criticism is due , but one has to really discriminate.I know Asan's reference was done in the context of what used to be called 'Mappila lahala' which according to historians was essentially a peasants' revolt, and he was only taking part in a popular Hindu upper caste perception of the Muslim in that context.( The use is really 'Kroora muhammadar', if I recall right; it was my mistake.As you have said he had also a lot to say about the Namboodiris too). I used the reference in the poem in a peculiar context , of the representation of the Muslim with a knife in his belt in the Malabar plays of the 40s and 50s- attributing that to the perception Asan had shared in that expression in Duravasta).

Politically correct readings of literature can also be extremely one-sided, the same charge that those critics level against the victims of their reading.The fundamental truth of good and evil that can exist in any community /gender/caste gets ignored here.I have noticed Vallathol's case too. I think those stands have to be distinguished from the neo-Hindutva stand: they were cases of a popular prejudice reflected in literature at a time when political consciousness was underdeveloped.

I completely agree with you on the surprising lack of representation of the Malabar Rebellion in our literature except as asides.I have wondered also about the Christian 'Kudiyettam'- from Travancore to Wayanad-the settlers' suffering, the hard labour, and on the other hand the consequent enslavement of the tribal- which could also have been a great theme for a wonderfully complex narrative- here again it appears only as asides in Pottekkat or P Vatsala. There had to be a Kannada writer(Niranjana) to record the Kayyur rebellion and can you think of a good narrative on Punnapra -Vayalar? With all our political awareness we seem to have failed to fictionalise some of the crucial moments of our social history....

Unknown said...

N P Chekkutty said:

satchi daa: when the goldsmiths of Kerala resented the innocuous title of a popular film as it had 'Thattaan' in it, I really felt it too much.

This reminds me of a very interesting incident last week in my office.

We had a cover story for Azhcavattom, our Sunday edition, titled Ossanum Ossathiyum Kissa Parayumpol. It was a feature about the social life of ossans who were barbers in Muslim community ( at least in Malabar, I suppose) who like the peruvannans among the Hindus had some social roles to play in an earlier age; especially on occasions like markka kalyanam or sunnath kalaynam (circumcision of the boy), etc.

When on Saturday this feature was announced in an ad, all hell broke loose. My office was flooded with telephone calls and fax messages from various barbers associations, who took objection to the use of the term ossan to a community. Since our editor was away, I had to face the music and was at my wits end as I had to respond to dozens of calls from highly strung people from various parts of the state.

But I held my ground and argued with them that we cannot rewrite history. History is the past and we can't change it; let us face it and let us discuss it...I offered to publish all the protest letters in this context while the demand was an immediate withdrawal of the supplement which was out of the question.

I think this over- reaction was a conditional one based on a preconceived notion that any mention of the unvarnished past is with an intention to tarnish. This mindset is quite rampant now in Kerala as we see in most cases; making a meaningful debate simply impossible.

But if you refuse to budge, I think it will die down. Our Sunday edition came and next day we published a few critical letters and welcomed a discussion on it. But no one seemed to be much interested in debates.

Unknown said...

Damodar Prasad writes:

Satchi mash,

I don't think your arguments is fair while taking account of Ansari's reading. It cannot be sidelined as mere "political correct" reading. Politically correct means something like this: You call a disabled person, differently abled. In that sense you are slighting Ansari's theoretical engagement.

Unlike the older version of Marxist criticism which brought society outside the text into the reading, the new readings are only bringing to the fore the society within the text.
You can also take it as a new "avathalika" kind of approach as in the first phase of modernism.

Unknown said...

K Satchidanandan writes:

Dear DP,

It was not a general statement about re-readings, (I had a talk on the Politics of rereading at Kerala Varama College, Trichur last year during the Jubilee)I have admired Ansari's reading of Chandu Menon, for example where he had a case -about the Pathan image.I hope you have read Higuita and also NSM's other stories.I really wonder whether we can criticise an author as prejudiced just because he has a bad character from a particular community, whatever the community- is it not necessary to take into account his/her whole oeuvre and the world view he/she seems to uphold? I do appreciate a lot of re-readings, including the feminist ones, but thee have been cases where I have felt the critic was missing the main point, unlike the Derridean reading of say Rousseau or Levi Strauss or Althusser's reading of Marx or Hegel. Rajeevan and Udayakumar have read Sree Narayana in significantly new ways, Uday has also written on CV, Basheer and P Kunhiraman Nair in fresh ways. The problems I have with some re-readings are, 1, they fail to historicize, projecting their time to another rather than looking at the time-the milieu, the context, the nature of public perceptions and prejudices- when the text was produced 2, they fail to look at the whole oeuvre and its general ideological orientations 3, instead of being objective analyses they seem to squarely blame the writer-often a victim- without caring to explore where the blindness comes from.
As I said this applies only to a few occasions of rereading.

Warmly, Satchida

Unknown said...

K Satchidanandan writes:

Yes, NPC, the problem lies in lack /inadequacy of historicization. Once a friend translated a Hebrew novel, she was a feminist and told me she had changed some parts as they went against her feminist convictions- can you imagine that? I was really upset and wrote back to her, please desist from that.You can air your criticisms separately in the introduction, but you have no right to rewrite the text according to your whims, or even convictions. I hope she heeded to my suggestion!

Unknown said...

Dr V Sasikumar writes:

If every community decides to object to bad characters, I guess we won't
be able to have any fiction with bad characters! So sad!

(Note from NPC: The foregoing debate is courtesy fourth-estate critique, a Google group.)

Unknown said...

Shobha Menon writes from Philadelphia:


It still bothers me a lot… How can you publish such a racially biased article in your blog?

From where on earth he got the idea that you cannot look at a black man? And what matters him to criticize their hairdo’s.

Are they coming to criticize us for wearing mundu? It is their culture. One has to respect other cultures. Actually braiding is the only way to keep their hair neat… as they have voluminous thick hair. It is a cultural, physical necessity.

From all the people I know, it is so shame on you to publish such a vicious, loathing voice in your blog. Whether his lines are poetic or not, the content is so spiteful.


Bamboo Dreams said...

Please see my comments at

Unknown said...

Here is a response from K Govindan Kutty to the sharp critique raised by a blogger at

i should make two simple points. and, i make them with no snobbery,
no regret, no impatience.

one, as human hue, white is superior to black.
forced to make a choice, we would like to be white, not black.
which is not to say that to like to be white is necessarily to hate
those who have not been lucky to be white.

fondness for white as a human complexion is a, shall we say,
psycho-social reality. if it is a curse for humankind, let us kick the god who made it so. lala har dayal once proposed that a chemical substance be made that can be injected into the skin to turn it white. that would have enlarged the scope of human choice,
and solved colour problem in the flick of a finger, but that was not to be.

two, diversity is all very good, we may even delight in diversity,
as desmond tutu put it, but it is not good to make everything equal to everything else.

everything is, simply, not equal to everything else. shakespeare and i use the same language
but i am still modest enough to concede that i am not quite equal to shakespeare. let us say i am to vallachira madhavan what uroob is to shakespeare.

my point is this: no mechanistic approach to questions of equality
and liberalism will hold good eventually. pseudo-romantic notions of equality will ever remain that, pseudo-romantic notions.

aborigines of nilambur forests, cholanaickens, live in caves
and on wild berries and locusts, much like the early john, clad in an apology for garments. do we say it is their style, it is their choice, and that their style, their choice, is as good as ours? no. i do not rate those environmentalists who clamour
for the upkeep of cholanaickens in their aboriginal condition, in the broader interests of human choice and heritage,as significantly sane. we need to allow ourselves the human right to exercise
comparative cultural judgement. we can't escape that responsibility
in the name of our respect for diversity.

i will close after making one observation. as a first principle, our ideal is what we want to become. do we want to become black and dress our hair like some blacks? like cholanaickens? we mouth a lot of praise for theyyyam
but do we like to train our children as theyyam artists? our liberal fantasy sometimes makes us less than honest to our emotions and thoughts.

i have ridiculously digressed from african-american issues and hair styles but i was trying to outline my perspective. i follow schaupenhauer who felt modesty had been made a virtue so that thieves and honest people, fools and men of genius, would all be required to paint themselves with the
same brush.

two, diversity is all very good, we should delight in diversity,
as desmond tutu put it, but it is not good, it is not possible,
to make everything equal to everything else.