To be brown is to be a civilization


Though I often disagree with him, I do enjoy Zach’s perspective on things because they are different from mine, though we exhibit similarities (e.g., both of us generally align with the center-Right in Anglophone societies). Zach may be one of the first cosmopolitan desis in his pedigree; he, himself of part-Persian heritage, marrying a South Indian Sindhi, probably to raise a family in England. In contrast, I may be the last brown person in my pedigree for a while, fading into legend and myth (or infamy!).

But one of the things I think is important to emphasize is South Asia is a civilizational entity straight-jacketed for historical reasons into a few nation-states. Though India and China are often compared together, they are totally incomparable insofar as the Han majority of China exhibit a racial and linguistic unity which South Asians do not (even though southeast Chinese dialects are unintelligible with Mandarin, the written language is the same).

By and large, I am predisposed to agree that someone like Zach is more prototypically South Asian than I am. Despite his religious heterodoxy his cultural rootedness in the Northwest quadrant of the subcontinent does put him at the “center of the action,” so to speak. In contrast, my own family’s recent origins are on the far eastern fringe of recognizably desi territory…. That is, my family is from the eastern portion of eastern Bengal (my grandmother was almost killed by the crazy elephant of the maharani of Tripura!). It’s interesting that 3,000 years after the emergence of Iron Age South Asian cultures the fulcrum of South Asian identity is where it began all those millennia ago (there was a period between the Mauryas and the Guptas when Bihar was the center).

Talking about what is more prototypically desi is like talking about what is more prototypically “European.” Being French or German is more prototypically European than being Albanian or Russian. We could argue why, but in your heart you know it’s true. There are definitions of Europeans which exclude Albanians and Russians (even though I’d disagree with those personally), but no plausible ones which exclude French and Germans.

Finally, I do think it indicates the limits and flexibility around race and brown identity. As Zach has said repeatedly he is very light-skinned (and part Iranian to boot). Myself, I don’t think anyone would describe me as either light-skinned or dark-skinned; I’m pretty much the average South Asian in complexion. Brown. Not light brown. Or dark brown. Literally just brown. But that doesn’t really weight much in terms of who is “more desi” or not. I have never watched a Bollywood film all the way through. That matters more.

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Why Brown Pundits?

This post is in response to Zach and Zimriel.

Why Brown Pundits? Why this blog? And why do I post here, as opposed to Gene Expression or Secular Right, or various other venues which I have access to?

To a great extent the origins of this blog for me go back to the early 2000s, when I began to have some discussions with a few South Asian friends/readers through carbon copy emails. Two of those individuals later went on to co-found the Sepia Munity weblog.

Growing up in an overwhelmingly white America my understanding of South Asians was parochial and superficial, or at least academic, until I entered adulthood. At that point I met various South Asian Americans, and formed some friendships of some durability, and began to see how they viewed the world. How their experiences differed from mine, and how they were similar.

There was, and is, a lot of diversity. But I didn’t see too much of my own perspective being represented. Books such as the Karma Of Brown Folk reflected what I think the most dominant and “hip” element of American South Asian subculture, which is culturally left-wing, and aspires toward what has become bracketed under the term “intersectional.”

I’m not saying that these people are the majority. Just that they vocal, and active, and the ones who are likely to agitate and organize around a South Asian American identity (as opposed to local particularistic identities, such as being a Tamil Brahmin, or a more general identity, such as being a liberal Democrat or conservative Republican).

This blog is a way to get some more heterodox and diverse views out there. For example, I am a libertarian leaning conservative who is an atheist, whose children are “white presenting” as they would say today. I am Bengali by birth and upbringing, but it is unlikely that my descendants will be Bengali in anything but distant lineage. That’s a statement of fact, and neither positive or negative. It probably influences my negative attitude toward fashionable anti-white poses struck by gentry left-wing American South Asians (poses struck in solidarity with other “PoC”), as anti-white prejudice impacts my family directly.

As for what I post here vs. what I post elsewhere: if I’m not aiming toward generality of inference or lesson I’ll post them here. A South Asian illustration of a general principle can be posted elsewhere, but sometimes issues and questions exhibit strong South Asian particularities, and they belong here.

 

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Turkish Turbulence – Shock Therapy for Turkish Armed Forces

 

From our regular contributor, Dr Hamid Hussain

“A tree won’t fall with a single blow”. Turkish proverb

A failed coup attempt by some members of Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) in July 2016 made international headlines for few days. The news quickly faded away and firm clamp down and a purge inside Turkey prevented any detailed information about the dramatic changes in Turkish Armed Forces in the last two decades.

Events of July 2016 were the final phase of the demise of the first republic established by the country’s founder Kamal Ataturk and emergence of second republic. Turkish Armed Forces assigned themselves the role of guardian of the republic and were a dominant force for almost a century. TAF directly intervened several times while at other times removed civilian governments by orchestrating events behind the scene if they perceived any deviation from the Kamalist secular vision. Turkish Armed Forces have finally met their tragic end and moved out of the power center. Continue reading “Turkish Turbulence – Shock Therapy for Turkish Armed Forces”

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What is Brown Pundits?

Even since I’ve relocated to the Shires and inspired by my wife’s intense focus on her PhD I’ve been trying to write a science fiction novel. It’s going well and it’s sort of something as a bucket list thing to do. One thing I’ve realised as a “writer” is that distractions are lethal.

Therefore virtually all of my activities have been trimmed down so that I can write more. However writing isn’t a linear activity; it’s not only related to time but inspiration.

At any rate how does this all relate to Brown Pundits? I was of course involved in the original Brown Pundits (in the winter 2010/spring 2011) but not so much in this reboot. It’s also difficult to actually pin down what Brown Pundits is about.

Do we talk cricket, no there’s cricinfo for that. Do we talk desi politics, there’s NDTV for that and we don’t really comment on films or popular culture (I watch Hindi films & Urdu drama but my commentaries on it never really get picked up). Also I don’t accept that Brown Pundit is a Sepia Mutiny successor.

The Devil wears Brown

I find the answer lies in the Devil Wears Prada. In one iconic scene an icy Meryl Streep lectures a dowdy Anne Hathaway about how MS’s Haute Couture decisions percolates through every pore and layer of fashion until it reaches to the bottom of Anne’s bargain basement collection.

BP in some ways is like that; we aren’t the High Culture of Brownitude (not by any stretch of the imagination) but the High Intellect of it. We won’t discuss Kashmir necessarily but rather the underlying pattern of conversion to Islam among Kashmiris and how that led to the situation that is today. We aren’t academic specialists by any means because we trade depth for breadth.

Of course each Punditeer has a different style; Razib is precise & knowledgeable, Omar has a ideo-political framework whereas I’m much more hazy and experiential. We also now have Slapstick with his interest in his Kashmiri Pandit history & politics.

I don’t know if I have given a clear definition but I would like to think the intellectual discourses we have here about South Asia and diaspora percolates, even in a tiny way to the rest of Desidom.

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The Obliquity of Oriental Culture

I love the Tipping Point genre. I was recently reading Matthew Syed’s “Bounce” & I also enjoyed the Rational Optimist, Black Swan (which is tbh slightly different to the rest). However most of all Obliquity deeply impacted me.

I tend to be oblique, or indirect, in my aims & agenda. It’s something that’s perplexing for my wife, who is extraordinarily direct. That suits her in her academic career and cultural heritage, where Sindhis seem to wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Growing up I was deeply impacted by the very restrained mores of Irani Yazdi Baha’i culture (it’s a thing trust me & disproportionately influential in the South Asian Baha’i world). I always found desi culture much more emotional whereas ours was reserved (almost) to the point of being British, to this day I find emotional outbursts to be troubling and a personal failure (also for someone so chatty I find it difficult to discuss deep emotions).

Further to that is the distinction between the public face and the private one, again a relic of Persian culture. Now by Persian culture I have no idea whether it’s prevalent in the mainstream Iranian culture but rather in the diasporan pockets of Baha’i communities in the Gulf & South Asia. However ta’arof (the art of politeness) is a pretty universal thing among Persian speakers I imagine. 

Ironically these Oriental cultural features, obliqueness, reservedness, class consciousness (that one I picked up from Pakistan which in the 90’s & naughties was positively Victorian in its class hierarchy), the private & public distinction were all cultural traits that hyper-accelerated my integration into Britain. Britain is a complex country and the class system is still very much a national feature; especially in the regions that I’m in (Oxbridge Formals sometimes feel straight out of Hogwarths).

For instance take the term “micro-aggression”; now I’m not exactly sure of what it means but I understand it to be a way of scoring racial points by white people in as subtle a way as possible. That’s basically Persian Baha’i culture because our Faith is so idealistic we can never be outright rude to one another so sometimes we manifest anger in very mundane, petty & hurtful ways.

My wife makes a good point that Pakistani & her Sindhi Bhaiband culture are very similar; there’s a love of socialising, glamour and opulence. It’s very very different to the sub-culture that I grew up in that preferred the under-stated and refined rather than scale or lavishness. 

Brown Pundits becomes interesting to me personally when I need to reflect on my culture, on my mindset and whether it hinders me or aids me. I imagine if I had moved to the US instead of the UK I would have probably emphasised the more Pakistani-desi aspects of my heritage; the extroversion, the ebullience & conviviality (again I’m talking about the Karachi KGS sub-culture in Pakistan). In Britain however the haunting & melancholic tones of a lost Persia (Yazdi culture is a culture of mourning & redemption in the Faith) chime very very well here and sort of facilitated an interest in the rarer circles of British life.

I do find posh Britain to be a bit common & vulgar at times, especially when they are always trying to get sloshed/drunk (alas the English & their drink), but once one swims among the older generations there is a sense of artistic and aesthetic inclination coupled with a love of good conversation. 

However nothing prepared me for my wife’s hugely superior approach she took to life in the West. Whereas I was always holding on to my idealised constructions of my heritage; she essentially junked that and showed me that even though I was a many-generationed Baha’i there was some ineffably Islamic bug about my mentality that hindered my full progression in the West.

Islamic cultures have this sort of puffed up pride because of their glory-days and Bahai’s too can sometimes have it because our Prophets were Persian. This unearned haughtiness makes us feel sometimes that the West is only technically and materially superior but nothing more. What my wife has shown me that Westerners have an extremely different, not so positive, impression of our cultures and that only through internalisation of this reality can one hope to truly compete in the West. 

For all this time even though I commingled in White Society, in a variety echelons, I somehow stayed apart & alien to it because my own conception of my heritage bubbled me from truly intimate interactions. It’s only when I popped the bubble, thanks to my wife, did I truly join White Society and began to realise there are things like white privilege, micro-aggression and that white people behaved pretty much like much like ethnic people just much more subtly.

I also realised that when I went from being an exoticised & fascinating alien to be an actual member in England among the English that why so many immigrants prefer the ethnic enclave. The English are not racists but neither are they entirely welcoming. Brexit reflected that silent strain of superiority brought upon by Memories of the Empire. 

If I wasn’t naturally very extroverted I would have retreated back to Londonistan a long time ago. My wife & I find ourselves in situations where we are the only dark-haired people in crowded room (it’s shocking how mono-ethnic social groups are in multi-cultural societies) and Society does see us as Sui generis

  • As an example we have the very un-Asian thing where we have a puppy (mA a beautiful one at that) as opposed to a child (Asians are more into kids, white people more into pets). 
  • My wife is more educated and accomplished than I am, which is rare in most couples but even more so in desi ones. We are in Oxbridge because of her.
  • We live in the shires and not in the multi-ethnic urban zones.
  • Even though I write on BP as Pakirani IRL I will usually call myself an Indian out of respect for my wife. The country that I cannot bear to see criticised/humiliated is India because I see it as an attack on my wife (irrational I know)
  • Mind you this is very different to the BP banter where Internet Hindus wants to see me as this crazed Paki & I like to provoke them.
  • For an Asian/Indian woman my wife has privileges and a voice that is rare even in emancipated Western cultures. As I said in my wedding speech I see my wife as an incarnation of Lakshmi (maybe a tad hyperbolic but YOLO).
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Hindustani Culture as a Link culture?

I was replying to Razib on this comment & thought that instead I would turn it into a post. I would also like to caveat my thoughts:

I have a habit of generalizing since I am now more used to social media posts than blogging. As always I’m very happy to be wrong and these are simply my thoughts and observations.

The fact that my wife is a Sindhi from Chennai (among other things) gives me an additional window into “other” parts of South Asia long inaccessible to the average Paki. As an aside my late eponymous paternal grandfather was actually Kakazai but my grandmother was an Urdu-speaker from Amroha so that culture was instead transmitted to the next generation. So I speak both as an insider and an outsider to this Hindustani cultural complex that I’m commenting on. Not fully in but neither out & just enough on the margins to make it interesting!

How do Desis from any part of the Subcontinent connect? Let’s say as a thought experiment we take the extremes of the South Asian desi region; a Tamil, Pashtun, Nepali and Bengali walk into a bar. Now none them may know Hindustani or they may speak it with a very heavy accent but that is their common link and bond, which would even inflect the English that they speak to one another (English usage of course depending on their socio-economic strata). If they didn’t want to watch a Hollywood film they could conceivably agree on a Bollywood film. UP, in that way, is the beating heart of all South Asia.

All of these cultures are radically different from “Hindustani” culture (for want of a better term) but there’s enough familiarity with it, which makes it a civilizational links of sorts (or a cultural lingua franca that underpins Desidom).

A culture that hasn’t been touched by Hindustani culture or is far removed from it (both Afghanistan and SE Asia were at times part of the Indic cultural sphere but it’s hard-pressed to consider Burmese, Dari-speakers or even the Hindu Balinese as Desis) doesn’t get absorbed into desiness. Whereas Nepal has sufficiently desi touches even though its people do look very different (most of the Nepalis I’ve met in my limited experience do seem more East than South Asian).

As a final point to a very great extent Hindustani culture has been deeply influenced by the colonial project as part of the divide & rule strategy (I don’t want to go into the Hindi-Urdu controversy hence why I’ve used the neutral term Hindustani). There is a reason why that, despite their very different geographies, both the successor states to the British Raj (India & Pakistan) depended on this culture as a nation-building project for their diametrical ideologies.

There were of course severe limits to the Hindustani language project with riots in South India in mid 60’s and the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 but even so the march of Hindustani as a core component of Desiness remains unabated especially with the rise & rise of Modern India & Hinglish.

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What does it mean to be “Brown?”

I have never liked the word Brown (too much of a New World term) but I much prefer Desi. 

I don’t actually know what desi means (I think it’s rustic & rural combined) because its haziness is what makes it so compelling. It’s a shorthand for the children of Mother India but doesn’t extend to South East Asia, the term attenuates somewhat in Sri Lanka (who have their own cultural peculiarities) and Nepal (because of their physical resemblance to the East).

Desiness fades off somewhere in KPK/Afghanistan; exactly where is a matter of choice because the historical boundary with Greater Iran begins somewhere in the Hindu Kush. The Indo-Gangetic plan is the beating heart of Desiness; the three rivers constitute the lifeblood of desiness.

Desiness connotes shared food, a Hindustani vernacular, Bollywood, an Urdu-Mughal High culture set off against Sanskrit religion, a local & earthy UP-Punjabi culture, PIR & Guru worship, a feeling of physical & geographic unity that extends to South Asia. It’s also a sentiment and a state of being rather than a fixed characteristic. Some desis are not so desi and sometimes you can turn up and turn down the Desiness, not so with Brown (unless you use some nasty bleach products).

Of course in the migration to the New World the stark complexities of what it means to be desi sort of strips away into “Brown.” For instance do Brown people like Urdu dramas & Hindi films? Desis usually like one or the other (and the smarts ones both 🙂

When we call ourselves Brown Pundits is there really much of a common ground in this matter? Is there anything that really unites Brown people beyond the colour of their skin; there are brown Cambodians and Turks.

Desiness of course is earthiness fused with a sumptuousness and lavishness that is almost unparalleled (look at a desi wedding as an example). Persia and her strong aesthetic influence have historically percolated through the Sub-continent via the medium of Muslim/Mughal High Culture (thanks to the Brits who ensured the two became synonymous). The interplay between the Sanskritic pushback and the Persian advance has contributed to so much of our cultural heritage (try as they might Urdu is not dead yet; in exile from its UP homeland to find refuge & succour in the Punjab and a bastardised existence as lyrics in Bollywood films).

But at the end of it all Desiness somehow captures the magic & mystery of India; a culture that has persevered despite all the odds. A millennia of foreign Pardeshi rule but India has somehow managed to preserve her traditions, her religion and her culture; no mean feat. 

Even Persia was reborn of an Arab rape in a way that India was not. There are several orders of magnitude more continuity between the Rig Veda and modern day India than there is with the Avesta & Iran-zamin (Zoroastrianism is memory fused with myth; Hinduism is a living reality ready to tame Islam at a moment’s notice, in fact Hinduism derives her strength by not being Islam).

Brown doesn’t really do justice to what is a highly complex and evolving civilisational space. Even if India & Pakistan make an ass of themselves on the world stage battling one another (and Pakistan always threatening defection to be a sweeper in th Minarets of the Middle East) it doesn’t mean it’s not a fascinating Sub-continent. When I compare India, Pakistan & Iran; India has retained that hue & joy of paganism that the stark monotheists have long abandoned (Islam has had such a problematic relationship with music for instance).

Of course Desipundits doesn’t have as good a ring to it as Brownpundits so I guess we’ll have to suffice with Brown.

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Why is white such a problematic term

The more I think about it the more I realise Ta-Nehsi Coates is into something. White is probably as loaded as the n-word. My reasoning below:

Before 1492 Europe had some but limited contact with other civilisations (Marco Polo, Greco-Roman antiquity, trade) therefore there wasn’t a sense of definition. Since the Old Word, for the most part, is racially continuous the ethnic distinctions are for the most part slight. Most Greeks are lighter-skinned than most Turks but it’s a stretch to call the former white and the latter not. Everyone blends into one another, not excacy but even so just enough to make for hazy lines.

After 1492 when Europeans encounter another civilisations entities and meets/imports them into the New World; new racial terms are required. Turk & Christian aren’t enough because slaves could be either faith.

So the term white arose in a milieu of European domination (Europe may have initially sought out the world to trade but eventually like all cultures it turned to domination). 

In this sense white turns out to be ethnic dominator labels like Turk or Arab (most Muslims in the Indian East trace their ancestry, whether real or fictitious, to either of these groups never to Persians as an example). However since one drop rule didn’t really exist anywhere else (Arabs have huge dollops of SSA ancestry making them descendants of both slaves & slave-holders) it makes white a very loaded term and a holdover of half a millennia of domination.

The ancient Greeks & Romans blended into their populations; do we have any unadulterated relics of their colonies to the existing day? Such stark racial terms (black, white etc) ellide the common truth that Humanity is One and that humans have always commingled & co-existed with one another, one-drop rule is the exception as opposed to the rule.

Again I could be wrong but most of human history is myth and if we have the right myths, maybe we could evolve in a better direction?

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Too light-skinned to be Pakistani?

We had a Pakistani Dinner late and it was quite a laugh (even though I’m quite Indianised these days & constantly rant about Muslims, I do love my Pakis). One of my friends brought along a white lady who joined us. As we left the dinner she asked me if I was fully Pakistani because I was lighter than the rest and they looked “more Indian.” She then mentioned that I could pass off as a Spaniard, which frankly was BS 🙄🙄🙄. 

I was much annoyed (not faux-annoyed because it seemed like she was giving me a compliment) because I’m instantly taken for an Indian (& happily so) whereever I am in the West (not Arab not Middle East not even Persian). I am usually seen as Indian or Muslim (especially when I wear a beard, which is what I am, the collision of the Ummah & Mother India) in an all-white context; it takes a very discerning white person to see me as anything other than those. 

A good rule of thumb is that the rounder my face the “desier” I look, the leaner the more Persian I get (an Iranian friend told me that and it makes sense).

What I found interesting is that in an all-desi context (which has been a while) my “otherness” admittedly did jump out (I felt it myself but then this was a predominantly salt of the earth Punjabi table, where the Urdu spoken has a nasal quality to it).  If I had been with Muhajirs (of the KGS strata) or Pathan-Punjabi mixes it wouldn’t have felt so stark; this was a case of regional rather than national differentiation. But Punjabis own Pakistan and good for them, some compensation for the horrid they had to undergo at partition. 

I find this bestowing of “light privilege” by white people to be ridiculous and micro-aggressive (microaggression is a thing!).
It’s not that we don’t have our colour fixations in South Asia (and the Middle East) but colour is a spectrum/gradation rather than a stark barrier. There are dark Brahmins after all (even though I once heard a quip in Kampala that never trust a dark Brahmin lol) the Aryans seemed much more partial to mixing & mingling than Southern Slaveholder Landlords. 

The divide & rule concept with which goras have categorised and classified coloured people borders on the ridiculous. One can be considered coloured if they have two or more of the following; dark hair, dark eyes and dark skin. The distinction between Meds & Middle Easterners (swarthy Sicilians are essentially like Levantines) does get more hazier but I do have to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that I find the concept of “white” to be more of a political than a racial construct. Human societies have always grappled with light & dark (with preference for the former usually but then with few exceptions invaders tend to stem from the icy north) but black & white is a distinction that seems to have arose in the slave-holding societies in the New World (don’t take my word for it I’m not a scholar!)
Adios (gotta practise my Spanish now)
Ps: while my wife has done a very good job in Indianising me; as soon as I am in a Pakistani crowd my Pak-narrative conditioning kicks in and I blend in like a chameleon (that’s what my best friend calls me since I like to constantly blend in). I’m such a Munafiq!

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Religion trumps race in Sri Lanka


Monk-led mob attacks Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka:

“These are Rohingya terrorists who killed Buddhist monks in Myanmar,” the monk said in his live commentary on Facebook, pointing to Rohingya mothers with small children in their arms.

Sri Lanka’s extremist Buddhist monks have close links with their ultra-nationalist counterparts in Myanmar. Both have been accused of orchestrating violence against minority Muslims in the two countries.

South Asians understand that the power of religion as opposed to race more than most people. The craven and obsequious respect granted to Arabs (and to a lesser extent Iranians and Turks) by South Asian Muslims is so natural and taken-for-granted that it only seems that way to outsiders. Despite the fact that Muslims and Hindus of any given region are clearly related by blood (in some cases, whole portions of castes convert in toto), they often speak as if they are racially distinct. Muslims somewhat sincerely, but affirming obviously false West Asian Asian, and Hindus more performatively, by asserting that India is for the Hindu race, from which Muslims are excluded.

The above story is a different dimension: the identification of Sri Lankan Buddhism monks with the Buddhist Burmese against the Rohingya. There is some historical background to this, as both the Sinhala and Burmese are predominantly Theravada Buddhist peoples. During periods of Buddhist decline in Sri Lanka lineages were reinforced form Burma, and vice versa.

The Rohingya, as I have stated, are racially really no different from the people of Bengal. And like Bengalis the Sinhala are a dark-skinned South Asian people (there are still debates as to whether the Indo-European language in Sri Lanka came from Gujarat or Bengal). The Sri Lankans I’ve met could easily pass as Bengali, and in general vice versa.

It’s an interesting observation from an American perspective, where race is the most salient factor in social-political identification. At least explicitly.

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