Browncast with J Sai Deepak

Another Browncast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

The podcast was a good experience – a free flowing discussion without much structure. Retrospectively I felt I could have intervened more on some points or countered some of the answers, but I am overall happy with the discussion.

I hope I have this opportunity again to discuss a few more things with Sai.


What is Islamophobia?

One of the problems with “traditional” familial and cultural systems is the level of depravity they can mask. This is not a “slam dunk” argument against them, but it is a real thing. The suppression of the evidence of clear sexual abuse in a certain community in the UK in the service of preventing negative stereotypes seems to be a case where the lives and misery of young girls in these communities are not accounted for in the same way as those from more mainstream subcultures. You can see exactly how Rotherham happened, though in that case, the girls targeted were explicit outgroups.

(this not even an explicitly communal point, as Hindu women have routinely complained about the “perverted uncle” problem in joint-families)

A confused post-Empire

Truss learns the hard way that Britain isn’t America:

If anti-Americanism was bad, look what its opposite has done. Britain is in trouble because its elite is so engrossed with the US as to confuse it for their own nation. The UK does not issue the world’s reserve currency. It does not have near-limitless demand for its sovereign debt. It can’t, as US Republicans sometimes do, cut taxes on the hunch that lawmakers of the future will trim public spending. Reaganism was a good idea. Reaganism without the dollar isn’t. If UK premier Liz Truss has a programme, though, that is its four-word expression.

So much of what Britain has done and thought in recent years makes sense if you assume it is a country of 330mn people with $20tn annual output. The idea that it could ever look the EU in the eye as an adversarial negotiator, for instance. Or the decision to grow picky about Chinese inward investment at the same time as forfeiting the European market. Or the bet that Washington was going to entertain a meaningful bilateral trade deal. Superpowers get to behave with such presumption.

(if you go to google news, look up the piece, and use incognito mode, you should be able to read it for free)

This is basically what Ed West told me in our podcast. Britain has been culturally swallowed by America and American affairs, and that’s not good for the UK’s social and economic development because the natives don’t pay enough attention to their real station and situation in the world.

For the Right: they need to get over Empire and Britain’s role in the world. Contra James bond they’re a medium-sized nation living off a history of geopolitical relevance. For the Left: get over colonialism. The ghosts of Ninevah haunt the old ruins.

Book Review: Shrayana Bhattacharya’s Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh-India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence.

India’s complexity is a perennial source of inspiration for commentary, columns and books.

Shrayana Bhattacharya, a World Bank economist, joins the list of authors who have tried to explain India with their books.

The book is about contemporary Indian women.

Ms. Bhattacharya, who trained in development economics at Delhi and Harvard university, uses her years of experience in primary research, to bring us her own, and stories of women from a cross-section of society.

The cornerstone of these stories is Shah Rukh Khan, one of India’s most famous movie stars.

In a career spanning over three decades, Mr. Khan has built, through his cinema and his off-screen presence, an image of an ‘industry outsider’ who dominates the Hindi film industry with the dint of his hard work and sincerity.

His choice of unconventional roles for a leading man, in the early part of his career, and his off-screen image of a loving husband and family man stand him apart.

This is in contrast with the usual tropes of a male Hindi movies star , the good guy who charms his way to audiences’ heart on screen and whose umpteen romantic dalliances they read in the press.

Khan’s popularity, in the Hindi heartland and amongst the diaspora, is the string Bhattacharya uses to stich tales of gender disparity and loneliness.

We get a ringside view, Bhattacharya takes us through her own and lives of five other women, as they struggle with lack of income opportunities, denial of agency and grapple with every day challenges of living in India, exaggerated by their gender.

What holds these women together is their love for Khan’s cinema and in turn Khan himself.

When they need joy, inspiration in their lives and an escape from every day struggles, the women seek Khan’s onscreen roles and his offscreen persona.

The pictures that Bhattacharya paints, are colored by facts.

The protagonists of her stories come alive, unlike in Khan’s movies, as she vividly explains their lives with a sharp eye for detail.

When giving context to their struggles, she backs her submissions with reams of hard data.

Annexures include a table that captures share of dialogues for women in some of Khan’s movies.

She gives the women who shared their stories and their unbound love for Khan with her, their own voice.

The writing is not rhetorical flourishes with clichés thrown in. That bane of most commentary on India. The book engages.

Even for those who live in India and see the every day reality, the book is thought provoking. The passage where she describes the transactional nature of relationships is worth a chapter of its own.

Where the book misses out is on exploring the other impact of Khan’s filmography.

Barring notable exceptions, Khan’s work since his seminal hit Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, has comprised of Yash Raj school of saccharin cinema.

Movies where characters are super rich, beautiful with ‘love’ as the only thing missing in their lives.

It’s the kind of cinema that’s as far from the everyday India as cinema can get.

Khan and his cinema have done their bit in building the hegemony of ‘How much money do I make? How do I look?’ lifestyle.

The characters in her book struggle with these questions too.

Khan’s role in shaping a consumerist, trying to ‘fit in’/ ‘cool’ individual persona is left unexplored.

I found Khan’s portrayal as an all-India star an over-played hand. Khan’s as much a pan India phenomenon as Dal Makhani, the ubiquitous North Indian delicacy, is a pan India delight. The cinema crazy south Indian states have temples of their movie stars and Khan is not in one of them.

As she writes on the state of affairs, Bhattacharya skips the raging phenomenon sweeping urban India. The Dating app. Where the society has failed markets have stepped in. Technology is helping even the scales for women. The progress is slow and it does not include the majority but it’s a start.

India is a large complex place with everyday challenges being met head on by a young and an energetic populace.

Bhattacharay’s book captures some of these challenges and the forces taking them on, impeccably.

Anybody trying to get a sense of the churn going through India and its society will be well served by this book.

One hopes her fellow commentators will be inspired by her lucid writing and her love for data.

The truth still matters

On Twitter I ran into a peculiar argument about vegetarianism and Brahmanism:

This is just factually wrong from what I know. The standard narrative I was taught is that the shift toward vegetarianism was driven by non-Brahmin-led religious movements, in particular the Sramanic sects like Jainism and Buddhism (that seem to have had a Kshatriya and Vaishya “class” base). Rather, post-Vedic Brahmanic ritualism was changed by the influence of these movements, with the Brahmin caste becoming followers and expositors. This probably aligns with the idea that much of late Indian Buddhism was actually incorporated into Advaita, so the idea that Buddhism is a “daughter” religion of Hinduism is actually not correct.

Now, it is totally true that today militant vegetarianism is often correlated with upper castes and is instrumentalized in an exclusionary manner.  But that is the endpoint and operationalization of vegetarianism, not its root. The original commenter was making a political and rhetorical point, so truth was pretty irrelevant. But those of us who value truth need to periodically bring up pedantic aspects because otherwise the lie becomes truth, and that is true perversion.

Happy Rama Navami!

A Hindu friend clued me into the fact that this was Lord Rama’s birthday. Since I’m not Hindu or from a Hindu background I had no clue (to be fair, Google calendar is how I know when Ramadan starts). I don’t know much about Rama as I have not read the Ramayana (after all these years I’m only 2/3rd of the way through an English translation of the Mahabharata), but, I’m pretty sure I know which Y haplogroup he was, so much respect!

Against blood quantum as a measure of indigeneity

The figure to the right is from a Substack post I wrote last year, Stark Truth About Aryans: a story of India. In it, I posted about the different streams of ancestry that led to the variation in the modern Indian subcontinent. In short, there are three primary threads:

1) Steppe Indo-Aryans who are identical to the Sintashta Culture of the upper Volga ~4,000 and gave rise to the Andronovo Horizon

2) “Ancient Ancestral South Indians,” who have more affinity to the peoples to the east of Eurasia, and are distantly related to a clade of humans that brackets the Negritos of Southeast Asia, the Andamanese, and the people of Australia (this clade diversified between 35 and 45 thousand years ago, so these are not close connections). Though the modern Andamanese are often used as a substitute for AASI, the reality is that they diverged more than 30,000 years earlier and these tribal populations probably derive from modern Burma, rather than India (the Andaman Islands are an extension of the Burmese geological formation).

3) Lastly, there is a component that has been termed by some as “eastern Iranian,” but really defines a little-understood population that represents the easternmost extension of the Zagrosian farmer stock. These eastern people that extended likely into the northwest of the subcontinent are distinctive in that they lack any admixture from Anatolian farmers, which is ubiquitous to the west of Dasht-e-Kavir. Not only do these people not have any Anatolian admixture, but they also have enrichment for Paleo-Siberian ancestry, likely mediated along the pastoralist fringe of Central Asia

The vast majority of subcontinental populations have some thread of ancestry from these three groups. The major difference is proportions. You can see this in an admixture graph I ran a few years ago (yes, I need to update it). In the graph AHG = AASI, while steppe is pretty straightforward. But, the Indus_Periphery group is a mix of “eastern Iranian” and “AASI.” Concretely, I simply picked the highest quality and least AASI samples to capture as much eastern Iranian ancestry as I could. But I would estimate that 10% AASI is still a rational lower-bound (probably not higher than 20%) estimate for my Indus_Periphery construct. This means even the Kalash of Pakistan, who are ~0% AHG in my model, do have AASI ancestry, it’s just mediated through their 70% Indus_Periphery.

In regards to the steppe ancestry, the reality is that it is present across the vast majority of groups. The exceptions are a very few South India tribal and most Munda populations. Groups like Reddys and Nadars will clock in at 5-10% steppe ancestry. This makes sense when you note that Y chromosome R1a1a-Z93 is found in even tribal groups with the exception of the Mundas. There are other details that are curious. Many groups in the Sindh/Gujurat region are very enriched for Indus_Periphery but have very low AHG proportions and less steppe. In contrast, some Gangetic populations have far more steppe than these, but far more AHG.

This brings me to the point of the post: when people say that Dalits or Adivasis are the indigenous people of the subcontinent, I think it does not necessarily have as strong of a human demographic basis as one might think. That is because to a great extent Dalits and almost all Adivasis are made from the same threads as other subcontinental populations, even if the proportions may differ.

Let’s walk it back and understand the ethnogenesis of the subcontinent.

First, it is quite possible that the AASI are not indigenous to the portion of the subcontinent to the north and west of the Thar desert. Their natural ecological locus was likely in the east and the south. Biogeographically the northwest of the subcontinent is somewhat different than the south, center, and east, which resemble Southeast Asia more (albeit at a remove). During the peak of the Last Glacial Maximum, the Thar Desert was drier and larger, serving as a boundary zone between southwest Eurasia and southeast Eurasia.

The ancient DNA from the Swat valley as well as the genetic character of modern Punjabi populations compared to the ancient samples from the IVC make a strong case that AASI ancestry is intrusive to the northwest. By this, I don’t mean that AASI tribes migrated in that direction, rather, as the IVC expanded it clearly mixed with AASI populations to its south and east, and as the IVC was an integrated cultural zone, mixed individuals moved north and west over time.

The Swat transect shows a decrease in IVC proportions between 1000 BC and 0 AD, and increased steppe and AASI ancestry. This is part of what I call the “integration phase” of Indian civilization, as gene flow occurred not just from the northwest with Indo-Aryan expansion, but Indo-Aryan reflux migration must have occurred into the west. These eastern Indo-Aryans mixed extensively with indigenous people in the Gangetic valley, explaining why Brahmin populations in this region have noticeable more steppe ancestry than groups like Sindhis, but also far more AASI ancestry. Indo-Aryan tribes all mixed with IVC people when they arrived in the subcontinent (while there are populations that are ~0 steppe, and others that are ~0 AHG, there are no populations in the subcontinent that are ~0 Indus), but a subset moved east and south fast so that they arrived with a higher steppe fraction when they settled down to mix with indigenous tribes.

Second, even outside of the northwest, it is not entirely clear that the AASI is not a recent early Holocene migration from Southeast Asia. Genetically they are part of the continuum with the indigenous Negrito people of Southeast Asia. I think it is less likely that there was massive Southeast Asia migration during the Holocene, but for most of the Pleistocene, Southeast Asia had many more humans than India because India was far drier.

Finally, outside of exceptional groups like the Munda, whose language and mythology seem derived from the 20-30% of their ancestry than is Austro-Asiatic Southeast Asian (and all-male), almost all subcontinental populations come out of the cultural matrix whereby Indo-Aryans synthesized with indigenous populations (much, but not all of whom, were Dravidian-speaking). The earliest Tamil has a clear Indo-Aryan influence, while the retroflex in Sanskrit is indicative of Indic influence very early on.

Where am I going with this? Genetically a Jat from Haryana is very different from a Dalit from Tamil Nadu. A Jat is 10-20% AASI (aggregating the AHG estimate with the AASH fraction in the Indus_Periphery), and 25-30% steppe. The Dalit is 75% or so AASI (again, aggregate), and only a few percent steppe. This is a massive genetic difference. But culturally it is clear that both come out of an Indian milieu that was shaped in the period between 1500 BC and 500 BC, as the Indus Valley Civilization collapsed, and its remnants were transmuted by Indo-Aryans. The tribes in the north that continued their Indo-Aryan language were clearly transformed, but the Dravidian-speaking polities of the south were also imprinted by the Indo-Aryans. It was reciprocal.

Both light-skinned northern Indians who like to claim “actually” they are “Iranian” and dark-skinned South Indians who claim to be “indigenous” emerge out of this process, this dynamic. And they share equally within it. India came out of the mixing of many disparate elements which then disaggregated in various ways, but all went through the same sieve.

So what’s wrong with being kaala?

In the comments below there’s a lot of discussion on colorism among brown subcontinentals as well as a fixation on particular facial features. Since I’m an American coconut I don’t really understand many of the nuances, though I’m curious from an anthropological perspective. Much of it obviously seems ludicrous for American browns. What’s the point in commenting on whether one sibling is lighter-skinned than another when you live in America and most of the population is far whiter than even “light-skinned” Indians could aspire to? (ironically, or not, the ‘black-fishing’ swarthy Kardashians look like a lot of light-skinned Indian celebrities to Americans)

But about half of the readership of this weblog now readers from India. Cultural values differ, and so does offense. For example, for Americans asking how much money you make is a very offensive question. For people in other societies, it is not. Why is it so offensive to Americans? Because money is really all we care about! The trigger tells you something deep about our values.

Recently I’ve been meeting many more Indians (from India) on Clubhouse, and I’ve been trying to interrogate differences in values. And one thing that I’ve encountered is a strong aversion to being called “kaala.” Even the most well-off and Westernized Indians seem to wince at the term, and will privately tell me to stop using it the way I am (addressed to people). I ask what the problem is, and they won’t want to get explicit, sometimes saying the connotation is negative. That’s obvious literally true, but how are you going to ever change the connotation unless you change practice?

This is obviously a form of cultural imperialism. Though blackness is not always positively connoted in the US, as a term it doesn’t have the same strongly negative valence as it does in Asia. During the summers I get very kaala in my exposed body parts because I don’t avoid the sun. When my mother asks how I’m doing I say I’m fine, but also I tell her next time she’ll see me I’m “kalo” (Bengali). She gets mad but is used to me talking in this way because being kalo is not really bad substantively (it isn’t). Americans care about whether you are fat or not. Though I don’t condome being mean to fat people, being fat is associated with lots of health ill-effects, and just the way you move is often unnatural (those of us who gain and lose weight can attest to the biomechanical variation). In contrast, being dark or light doesn’t matter too much now since most people don’t need to work outside.

Even in India (and Pakistan and Bangladesh) there will come to be a time when the generation of aunties who grew up in the 20th century will pass on. At that point, the generations who grew up when kaala was a term of opprobrium used by older generations should perhaps rethink their conditioning. I’m not judging, but it’s not really “natural,” it’s conditioning.

How Indians view themselves vs. how Westerners view Indians

As A South Asian Woman, Seeing Two Darker-Skinned Women On Bridgerton Means Everything.

The headline is obviously a bit much. The casting of dark-skinned actresses of Indian-origin really isn’t going to change the norms of the Indian subcontinent, or the whole of Asia. But it’s an interesting window on aesthetic standards and cultural creation. Indians who I bring up this issue with routinely suggest “well, you don’t have ugly people in American films.” The implication for many people of subcontinental origin is that dark skin is ipso facto ugly (and in Asia more generally). This seems the ground truth and the rest is just commentary.

Brown Pundits