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I need to thank Armchair Guy, because if he hadn’t asked his question in the comments to the last post, I wouldn’t have got an opportunity for this one. So thank you, sir.

Armchair Guy’s query:

How is Stein’s article related to Sardarji jokes (which do not indicate any anti-Sikhism) or to Pakistani terrorism (which is a fact of life)?

The fact that the phrase “everyone-in-Pakistan-is-a-terrorist jokes” equals “Pakistani terrorism” to you suggests that I’m about to hit my head against the brick wall of your opinion but when has that ever got in the way of a blog post?

Pakistani terrorism is indeed a fact of life. It is, however, not a fact that everyone in Pakistan is a terrorist. Sardarji-jokes, similarly, put across the hypothesis that everyone in the community is a dimwit. If the stereotypes depicted in such jokes are to be considered without making allowances for humour, then they vilify the community. As you yourself say, Sardarji-jokes might not indicate any anti-Sikhism (I suspect many Sardarjis may disagree) but if they’re considered to be true along with being funny, then there isn’t much respect being shown to the Sardarji. In fact, generalisations tend to be offensive and we’re full of them here in India: the Chinese are cruel, the Marwaris are money-minded, the South Indians are sly, women from the North East are easy, Goans are lazy, Bengalis are intellectuals with their heads up their own derrieres, and so on.

Stein’s piece works on the same principle as a Sardarji joke. It relies upon certain stereotypes, generalisation and exaggerations in an effort to be funny. For those who have read the piece without frothing at the mouth might notice that he’s equally OTT in his depiction of the white population of Edison, New Jersey. You may argue you don’t find it funny, which would be fair enough but that is your personal opinion and Stein could dismiss you saying you didn’t get the joke. The general reaction to Stein’s article shows that not only did most Indians and Indian-origin people not get the obvious jokes, but they are also sanctimonious idiots with about as much maturity and sense of priority as the chaps who thought the fitting response to a cartoon is a death threat. We have the army entering Kashmir after 15 years and all I saw on the Indian news channels were fools thumping their desks saying TIME’s apology for Stein’s piece was a) not an apology, apparently, and b) not enough. Not that the foreign channels were any better. If I hear one more newscaster try to crack an octopus joke… but I digress.

The worst thing to do with humour is to dissect it as though it’s a frog in a biology experiment but here’s the bottom line: humour hinges upon a power imbalance. Almost every joke in the world relies on something or someone being taken advantage of. Sometimes the subject of the joke gives the upper hand to the the audience for a laugh — like the chap who slips on a banana peel. There’s nothing inherently funny about a man potentially hurting his lower back and it’s only humorous to someone who is standing securely and hasn’t slipped on anything. On other occasions, the teller takes on the role of superiority and someone else is made fun of. Whatever the joke, chances are it’s putting someone down. Whether you find it funny or not depends upon how close you are to the thing that is under attack in a joke. The sense of superiority is critical and, as many of us who have survived high school will appreciate, it isn’t fun being the butt of a joke. A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post had a ludicrous foreigner’s guide to dating Indian men. No furore about that one because the writer said Indian men are wonderful. Instead, there was general disbelief, giggles at how silly this white woman is and this response by Neel Shah. Did the American establishment and consortiums of white women react by saying, Shah is misogynist and that his article smacks of reverse racism and gross generalisations? No. Because, whether or not they found it funny, they got the fact that it’s a joke.

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13 thoughts on “Why so serious?

  1. On community generalisations: Isn’t it also true that as communities, we do have some characteristics which arise from our upbringing, social-class, family whatever… Obviously, they don’t apply to each and every individual of the community, but are sufficiently widespread to be noticeable. But who is allowed to point them out? People who belong to the community are not likely to notice them as something unusual – and people outside the community aren’t either, because it could be perceived as racist…

    It is rather easy to cry “racism”, I think.

    And Indians and Indian media have no concept of racism at all.

    Besides, it is surprising how racist Indians cane be in the most basest sense of the word. I recently met this retired Indian bureaucrat, who kept referring to the black flight attendent in his BA flight as a “Negro”. But then, he also quite unhesitatingly turned to Sid and asked “So what caste are you?”

    • Couldn’t agree with you more. Indians have a fantastic antenna for feeling offended but rarely are we sensitive to what would be offensive to others. As for Indian racism, I think the unshrinking market for Fair & Lovely and men’s fairness creams says it all.

      Re: community generalisations, I do agree that certain characteristics are shared but there are always so many exceptions and I think the last two generations have grown up with a completely different set of factors around them so past generalisations might seem inadequate now. But the point I was trying to make is that in India we cheerfully go about making unflattering generalisations about people and that’s cool. Yet someone else does the same with us, and we’re going blue in the face.

      Who’s good to point out our characteristic quirks? I’d like to say anyone but from the reaction to Joel Stein, that’s clearly not the case.

      • I agree that community characteristics are dying, but perhaps not as quickly as we imagine them to. Can’t say with authority, but I think our communities linger on through us for much longer than we think…

        Look at modern India and religion. Logic says that as societies get richer and modern, religion takes a backseat. Doesn’t apply to Indians at all. In fact, we have appropriated modern technology and consumerism and happily applied it to the promotion of religion… and it is true of Indian world over across different generations.

  2. Hey, I’m flattered that I got a whole article. You’ll find that my opinion is more like a padded wall.

    I actually haven’t heard any “everyone-in-Pakistan-is-a-terrorist jokes”, and you did leave out the word “jokes” from the previous article. I assumed you were talking about people who act as if/say that everyone is Pakistan is a terrorist. That’s a whole other discussion.

    As for Sardarji jokes, agreed they may occasionally be hurtful to Sikhs, and should stop. But I’ve noticed that Sikhs themselves crack them quite often. I hope it’s not perceived as anti-Sikhism by Sikhs, because I am yet to meet anyone who feels any sort of anti-Sikh sentiment. There’s very little malice directed against Sikhs. I don’t think anyone thinks less of the Sikhs’ intellect either.

    As for stereotypes, dunno about the others but “Marwaris are money-minded” and “Bengalis are intellectuals” (without the ass part) are actually true. I don’t think this is saying every Marwari is money-minded or every Bengali is an intellectual, but compared with the general population, there are more “money-minded” Marwaris (to me this means they excel at business) and intellectual Bengalis (as a single group they dominate the academic scene in India). I think stereotypes sometimes have a kernel of truth to them.

    Humour is all well and good, but the problem with Stein’s article is that, although it’s humorous, it voices negative sentiments and stereotypes that Indians living in the US (and their children in school) have to deal with in real life. Perhaps the article simply gave Indian-Americans a point of focus, an avenue to vent all the frustration that’s been building up. (Kal Penn’s response underscores this.) Indians are notoriously thin-skinned, but I think this is because of a couple centuries of culture-bashing by the British (especially) and the West. And I don’t think it’s stopped yet.

    • What I find interesting, also, with this kind of exchange is that nobody never makes the correlation between comments and stories by people like Joel Stein, and the change in attitude toward immigration by the… Stein-type people. This is the US of A. Which means that if you are not a Native American, you come from somewhere else. I am using you as a generic term (you, your family, your ancestors). An it was OK, most of the time, as long as you were of Caucasian origin or Caucasian looking, with the exception of people of Semitic origin who used their own ways (African Americans being a totally different topic of discussion, since their migration was not a choice). Problems really started when the migration points of origin changed. Thirty something years ago a switch happened. Indian sub-continent became a major source of immigration and the flux of immigrants from Central and South America increased dramatically. The color of immigration changed. I mean that literally. And so did the attitude of many groups/types who came before. So when a Stein laments how things have changed, what he and people like him are doing is lamenting how the immigration (read race and color) have changed. For me, it is obvious on a regular basis. I happen to be white, but from ‘somewhere else’. If I shut my mouth – the accent would give me away – I can be in any place any time without being specially noticed. But what I do notice is that it is not true of my fellow immigrants who happen to be of a different racial background. We would certainly not face the same attitude if we pushed the door of any establishment in New Jersey, to refer to Stein’s piece. So maybe it’s time to call things for what they are. The United States are still a country with a lot of very racially charged problems, that really need to be addressed for what they are. The main problem being that people with the power of putting things in motion toward the ‘right’ direction have no interest, material and so-called intellectual, in doing so.

  3. Armchair Guy, perhaps it is a case of expressing frustration for the diaspora. I don’t think the immigrant experience necessitates over-reaction but if the purpose was to be heard, then it has been served. As for Britain’s bashing of Indian culture, this is the part where you’ll probably feel like you’re hitting your head against a brick wall, if you come back to read this. Blame it on those damn modules of postcolonial theory, but I have very little patience for the colonial baggage argument when it comes to India. Our colonial experience is markedly kinder than that suffered by most other colonies. This is why the number of British troops on Indian soil never crossed the 20, 000 mark. We were happy to be complicit with our colonisers. Of course there were some bigots but there were also those who worked industriously for this country and its heritage. Historically speaking, Indian kingdoms were so riddled with infighting that the British could use our tendency to bash each other to their own imperial ends. Which brings me back to the not-so-flattering generalisations that tend to be made by Indians about other Indians. And I use the word other with all its theoretical, postcolonial baggage.

    Ze Kropotkin, I have no doubt that there are issues regarding race in America but being of a different race than the majority is a problem everywhere. Ask any person of African descent who lives in India. Ask an Indian in China. This is not the problem of a “Stein-type” person’s attitude. It’s a human thing, sadly. Stein is lamenting the loss of a landscape that he knew. He is entirely entitled to do that. Plus, he’s writing a humour column. Humour; not politics or even satire. I doubt it’s meant to reflect changes in government policy and other such ponderous subjects. Where I live, there are constant jokes being cracked about how our neighbourhood is being taken over by white people. While it is acknowledgement of how there are more white people here than there used to be, let’s be clear. There is no danger of any takeover and, to my experience, those who crack these jokes are thrilled that the white people have landed. Of course a reader is free to take it as seriously as they wish and interpret it as they like but it is their assumption of the writer’s motives.

    • Anonandon:

      I haven’t had any modules of postcolonial theory (by modules you mean courses?), but it seems to me the British took advantage of a lack of national consciousness and internecine strife to cunningly (and very successfully) pit one Indian against another. The purpose was to divert nearly the entire GDP of the Indian subcontinent for the enrichment of a puny island with a paltry population. That isn’t a good colonial experience. It was exploitation, as plain and simple as convincing a child to paint a fence as well as give up his apple. A good colonial experience would have been one where our standards of living kept pace with, or even trailed by 5 or 10 or dammit 50 years, that of the Brits in their homeland. Whether some individuals connived with the Brits willingly is beside the point (the “point” being whether our colonial experience was good). The “We” in your sentence “We were happy to be complicit with our colonisers” — I think it matters whether you mean we-the-Indian-nation or we-the-misguided-Indian-individuals.

      Anyway, I think all of this is a little tangential. What has us-the-nation riled up, today, is the knowledge of the opprobrium the Brits heaped on us-the-nation AND us-the-individuals for a couple centuries while we-the-individuals debased ourselves to serve them. We-the-individuals might not have realized it back then, but when we-the-nation look back upon it now, we-the-nation see it for what it is and rightfully get upset. Just as Ben Rogers the 14-year-old might have looked back and got upset at what Tom Sawyer did when he was – what, 8?

      I understand that the Brits actually did do a lot for India. Rescued languages and subcultures from extinction, a bit of modernization, a bit of secularization, etc. The most important thing they did was become a common enemy that we could all oppose to the point of forgetting our differences. They did a lot; they just didn’t do enough.

      Whew! I had no idea I was going to write so much.

  4. Armchair, you’re right. Colonialism is entirely tangential to this argument so let us cease and desist. But just one thing, to understand what I meant by a good colonial experience, just consider what colonisation meant and its lasting effects for the African continent, the Caribbean and much of South America.

  5. Every immigrant group in America has had to scratch and claw their way to tolerance and respectability: the Irish, the Jews, the Polish, the Catholics, the Blacks, etc. There’s never been a royal road to acceptance. With that said, Desis have by in large rapidly found a remarkably prosperous niche in American society. This is borne out by income, educational and job statistics. So why all the belly aching over a humorous article?

    As a former Desi Jersey boy, I found many of the wry observations of Stein spot-on. I too saw Edison develop from a single Desi grocery store to the soulless Desi strip mall haven. The lowest-common denominator elements of the Edison model have spread to Jersey City, Jamaica, Devon Ave, Artesia, El Camino Reale, Moody St, etc. More than once in Edison I saw car loads of “Guindians” fistfights broken up by police sirens. The seedy liquor stores of my Jersey hometown are now entirely staffed by Guindians sporting flashy jewelry and entirely too much cologne.

    To the average American, the external manifestations of Desis is rooted in the 7-11 clerk, cab driver, badly-decorated food joint, gas attendant, IT hack, physician, etc. Edison reinforces these images. It shouldn’t be a surprise these are fertile grounds for humor.

  6. “Stein is lamenting the loss of a landscape that he knew. He is entirely entitled to do that. Plus, he’s writing a humour column. Humour; not politics or even satire.”

    In the US, you’re also entirely entitled to hate speech. That doesn’t make it worth printing or likeable. And “humour” is the same as art in that no one person can universally qualify it as such. I’m sure you’re aware that racist humor exists, right?

    Unless you are indeed embodying the aforementioned Bengali stereotype, you should be aware that Stein is a tea partier and the Tea Party is openly associated with extremist, xenophobic and even white supremacist groups. How any author with such associations could write something like that and NOT expect to be taken as a racist beggars belief. [Also, the very unfortunately Indian tendency to squawk, “LOOK! They’re doing it too!” in defense of flagrantly bad behavior is flaccid at best and has no legitimacy in the discussion of racism in the US. In fact, it falls readily in line with common racist tactics.]

    So if you found Stein’s sloppy rant funny, good for you! You’re one step closer to a Sarah Palin endorsement.

    • No, I’m not aware of Stein’s political inclinations and nor did I say I found it funny or otherwise. The point wasn’t whether I found it funny but as Armchair Guy neatly put it, live and let live. Reading on the basis of an author’s politics would mean I’d have to read a lot of stuff garlanded with garlic (as Christopher Hitchens put it, while talking about reading his brother’s writing). I’d have to skip Naipaul, for one.

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