The burning question on everyone’s minds: Is JK Rowling an RSS agent? has finally been answered. Her latest novel, Casual Vacancy features a Sikh family, typical of RSS fiction, who are central to the plot of this novel, and are depicted as the source of morality in this otherwise very dark tale. To promote her anti-Sikh agenda, she integrates Sikh theology and history throughout the narrative, evoking figures like Bhai Kanhaia, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, and refuses to ingrejify or shorten any of the Sikh characters’ names. Sukhvinder does not become Sook; Jaswinder does not become Jazz. But before someone updates their FaceBook status to, JK Rowling is an RSS agent, a few minor details:
In case you don’t know what I’m on about, let me bring you up-to-date:
JK Rowling’s Casual Vacancy came out on Thursday and was initially being lauded by Indian and Sikh media outlets for having a Sikh family at the heart of the novel. But then speed-readers at the Akal Takht and the SGPC zipped through the 600 pager, and by Friday, the President of the SGPC, Avtar Singh Makkar had not only read it and been offended by exactly one line on page 120, but in the spirit of Sikhism, demanded that the one line he found offensive be removed and censored by India’s curiously named “Information and Broadcasting Ministry” run by Sonia Gandhi. Orwell anyone? This is the same censorship board that just banned distribution of Salman Rushdie’s film, Midnight’s Children, because it painted Indira Gandhi in a negative light and invoked India’s anti-defamation law when the Washington Post wrote an article calling Manmohan Singh hopelessly ineffectual. The World’s Largest Democracy is currently in the midst of trying to ban internet sites and FaceBook fan pages with blasphemous names like I hate Sonia Gandhi (I just liked all 8 fan pages, even the misspelled ones).
In JK Rowling’s case, not only should the one line be censored, but she has to come to the Akal Takht and apologize for slandering Sikhs. So just what is this line that has all of us Sikhs bristling?
According to avid reader, Avtar Singh Makkar of the SGPC, it is on page 120 when the character Fats describes his classmate Sukhvinder as “mustachioed, yet large-mammaried, scientists remain baffled by the contradictions of the hairy man-woman.” He claims that Rowling’s choice of words are “a slur on the Sikh community and provocative.” Then he said that the author must apologize or remove the text from her book in India or face action. Out of curiousity though, if she apologizes, does she still have to remove the line?
I was much slower at reading the novel, but found it interesting that Makkar didn’t find anything else in this novel offensive or condemnable. Not the fact that a Sikh girl is at a party where she drinks vodka. That there is a rape scene in the novel (not involving any of the Sikh characters), a tremendous amount of swearing, sex, and drug use.
With few notable exceptions, one of the things that I find tiresome in stories, featuring ethnic characters is that I don’t see them as human, compared to their white counterparts. They are often stereotypes or token characters whose ethnicity has to either be explained or ignored. When I teach creative writing, regardless of the cultural or ethnic background of my students, most of them initially create worlds in which only white or race-neutral characters like Steve, Janet, and Cynthia live. And the reason is one I completely understand: You don’t have to explain Steve, Janet, or Cyndi, but people feel the need to either explain Mohammad, Tyrone, or Pushpinder, or completely ignore their cultural/religious roots, so they can get on with the story.
When we think of quaint English towns, we don’t think of anyone “ethnic” living there because that’s not what we see depicted in the stories we watch or read. Even metropolitan cities like London and New York often have characters that are all white (Bridget Jones’ Diary is just one example). Just last year, in March, the creator of the English village drama Midsomer Murders admitted to his hand in maintaining the fantasy of the whites only English towns.
“We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved,” said Brian May. “Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work. We’re the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way.”
And Hollywood isn’t any better, even with Harold and Kumar (the former is a first name and the latter is a last name by the way. Just wanted to point that out).
I came late to the whole Harry Potter party, but one of the things I really liked about JK Rowling’s style of writing is that it is smart and racially informed. She has a very multicultural student body at Hogwarts in the novels, which are rendered into a quick pan-shot in the Hollywood film versions, and in the Half-Blood Prince, she makes clear racial parallels to racial purity, with terms like “half-muggle.”
Her latest novel, Casual Vacancy is a complete and utter departure from her Harry Potter series. There is zero magic and it is a bit silly to compare the two, yet most of the reviews have done just that. It is incredibly dark and gritty, with many adult themes. It is definitely not a Sikh themed story either, but I find it admirable that she decided to use a Sikh family, not just as tokens in this story, but as very human characters that I thought were very well developed.
In recent years, we’ve heard quite a bit about bullying of Sikh boys in schools, but nothing really about baptized Sikh women with facial hair, who I think get it much worse, not just from outside the Sikh community, but within their own community as well. At Sidak, I took an intense and highly recommended Gurmukhi 101 workshop, where I met a young Amritdhari couple. The wife had facial hair and I was very impressed at how comfortable she felt in her own skin, as well as how accepting she was of other beliefs. But she would not make a good protagonist to the bully character of Fats in JK Rowling’s story. Neither would Balpreet Kaur, who someone attempted to humiliate by posting an image of her with her facial hair online, which she responded to with humour and absolute grace, and amazingly, even behind the online cloak of anonymity she inspired an apology from the original poster. It’s a lovely ending, but for a fictional story to work, there has to be conflict, which can’t be resolved too easily, and a delicate unfolding of the emotional drama.
JK Rowling’s story is incredibly dark, and this character, who lives in an all white English town has understated power and slow, but steady self-confidence that develops. Sukhvinder, the daughter in an overachieving family, has dyslexia that her mother thinks is just laziness. At school, she is viciously bullied with constant taunts about her facial hair from other students, but mainly instigated from the character Fats, whose real name is Stuart. The one line Makkar found offensive is part of a much longer verbal assault that to me felt very real. But the point that is being missed here is that Fats is shown to be an incredibly mean spirited bully. If his language was watered down, he would probably be more likable, and that’s the opposite effect that Rowling is going for. It’s like setting a novel on a slave plantation and not having a white character use the word “nigger,” because it will offend someone today, or writing a novel with a Sikh male character, and not being able to have them speak or act as individuals, but as symbols of an entire community.
The line Makkar found offensive is by no means tame, but there are many other passages that are much more offensive, such as:
Andrew’s best friend Fats referred to her (Sukhvinder) as TNT, short for Tits ‘N Tash (mustache). (20)
Right after the line where Fats calls her a hairy man woman, the narrator describes the tension and uneasiness of Andrew’s loyalty, to make sure that the reader views Fats as the loudmouth, bully, and ringleader, who nobody else fully supports:
Andrew sniggered, yet he was not entirely at his ease. He would have enjoyed himself more if he knew that Sukhvinder could not hear what Fats was saying. It was sort of funny but it made Andrew uncomfortable. Andrew laughed, then felt guilty (121). At the end of the scene, Sukhvinder is crying and has nobody she can confide in, as she sinks back into obscurity.
And in a later chapter, the narrator allows us to see Sukhvinder’s reaction:
Sukhvinder lay on her back on top of her covers and wished with all of her being that she was dead. If she could have achieved suicide, simply by willing it, she would have done it without hesitation. Her self disgust was like a nettle suit; every part of her prickled and burned with it. (145)
Her mother, Parminder, deals with the grief and shock of her friend’s death:
Her hands were still pressed tightly over her mouth. She stared at the grave, sweet visage of Guru Nanak pinned to the corkboard.
And references to Gurbani are also used on page 144:
There was a terrible weight on Parminder’s chest, but did not the Guru Granth Sahib exhort friends and relatives of the dead not to show grief, but to celebrate their loved one’s reunion with God? Parminder silently intoned the nighttime prayer, the kirtan sohila.
And when she questions why she is fighting for an addiction center to be built in town, the narrator makes a casual reference to Bhai Kanhaiya,
Who could not see a difference between the souls of allies and enemies. (369)
I am not saying that this novel is the most brilliant novel in the history of novels, or even that this is a novel everyone will enjoy just because it has Sikh characters in it. It is a dramatized, grim reality, with very adult themes, and adult language. But a genuine effort has been made by Rowling to integrate Sikh values into several characters in this novel, so I don’t think we should start our morchas and book burnings just yet. Nor should we be supporting censorship just because we don’t like what a character Rowling created, has said. We don’t get to dictate what she can and cannot write.
A few years ago, she outed Dumbledore, one of her characters in the Harry Potter series, by saying that she had always thought of him as gay. And there was a huge fuss being kicked up and her response is one I hope she uses in India if this whole silly controversy doesn’t disappear on its own, “He is my character. He is what he is and I have the right to say what I want about him.”
Are there no other pressing issues the Akal Takht and the SGPC can take up relating to defamation and slander of Sikhism? The banning of turbans in France that involves more than passing out brochures? How about Punjabi musicians claiming to be Sikh, who use women in their videos as sexual props, and then come out with a religious cd in time for Vaisakhi? Or a self-procaimed young Guru, who takes money from old men and women, while he talks on his cell phone. How about we start with even one of those?