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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
The shooting of this family in Ukraine is all over the front pages. Many Americans bemoan the humanitarian disaster. Russian restaurants are being boycotted in the US (many of the staff and owners are Ukrainian!).
Below is a photo of a starving Yemeni child:
A bit under 100,000 children have starved in Yemen in the last 4 years due to a civil war, fueled in part by tacit American backing of the Saudi regime, which has been exacerbating and intervening in the conflict.
Why do we pay attention in one case and not the other?
Nuclear war risks
The Russian invasion of Ukraine violates longheld post-World War 2 norms
Ukraine is in Europe, and the West cares about the West (or the aspirant West)
This is all fine. I’m very scared of #1 and horrified by the existential risks and economic havoc that Putin’s choice to actually invade has wrought on the world. But I find the arguments of a sui generis or exceptional humanitarian situation in Ukraine implausible. People don’t want to admit that their feelings are shaped by cultural or racial affinity, or that it is pure self-interest in relation to nuclear war or maintenance of world order. So they make this the “next Holocaust.”
A lot of non-Europeans are skeptical of this posturing. At my other blog, I put up a post about why Bangladeshis have a soft spot for Russia, which might explain their reluctance to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. The same obviously applies to India to a great extent.
What makes an Indian? Is it the passport? The genetics? The culture? The religion? The food? The fashion? All of the above? It’s a question that’s been hotly debated amongst the citizens of the Indian Republic since the bloody partition and independence of 1947. Praise of India’s diversity finds purchasing power both inside and outside its borders, but this diversity does come at a cost. Between religion, caste, ethnicity, language, and so many other identities, India at times seems to tear from its seams. Harbingers of hatred need no excuse to dig into the annals of history finding division and discord that can be applied today. One proposed division takes us to the time of India’s infancy. From the southern tip of the grand Indian peninsula came an ideology that posited that Dravidians, a speculative group of people who speak Dravidian languages, as the original inhabitants of the subcontinent. The patriarch of this ideology, EV Ramaswamy, known as Periyar amongst his faithful, spewed venom and violence against the “invader” north Indians and their Brahmin patriarchs and progeny.
But how accurate is this notion? Was there an idyllic, secular, and rational society prior to when the first horse hooves of the steppe stampeded into India? Did these “Aryans” bring a foreign religion called Hinduism into India as well and impose it on the Dravidians who followed a now lost faith? Half truths at least; full falsehoods at most.
Societies are stories. They are the fallout of generations of narrations about our past and who we are. Jawaharlal Nehru, freedom fighter and India’s first Prime Minister, sought to weave an “Idea of India” that was a composite tapestry of Hindu and Muslim fabrics. That tapestry has been torn to shreds for several decades now. Instead, it has been Hindutva that has supplanted the Nehruvian sacrament as the sacred fire of the yajna of yore engulfs Indians politics and a common Indian identity built on Dharma gains popularity.
But not all bow to the ritual of these ancients.
Politics Is War
There are few places where historical invasions animate the populace more than India. While much of this headspace is focused on more recent Islamic invasions of the medieval era as well as British imperialism of the colonial era, in some pockets of India, headaches originate from invasions in a time where history wasn’t even recorded in India. A missing memory of the subcontinent.
These battles are highlighted in the deep south of India, Tamil Nadu and lately have entered elite academic debates on caste. The conflict in Tamil Nadu is over the ancient peopling of India with an onus on the enigmatic Aryans. But this piece is not going to exclusively focus on the migration of the Aryans into India; there are many that do. What we will examine are the many migrations into and within India as well as the present political consequences. But first, let’s establish some quick background.
The aboriginal Indian, whose genes run through the blood of nearly everyone from the Indian subcontinent, descended into the subcontinent around 50,000-70,000 years ago. This population would become known as AASI – Ancient Ancestral South Indian.
The Iranian hunter-gatherer would enter India around 10,000 years ago and mix with aboriginals to form the Indians who gave rise to the Indus Saraswati Civilization.
The steppe component entered India most probably in waves after 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE. They are usually the big hubbub as they are posited to be the legendary Aryans, but more on this later.
The Austronesian component would enter from southeast Asia at a similar time of 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE.
There are other migrations into and outflows from the subcontinent as well, but for now let’s call the aforementioned out as the prominent ones we know of today. Feel free to dive into the 2 pieces I mentioned prior. I highly recommend them as they are treasure troves of information.
One of the most potent lines of rhetoric that stems from Hindutva discourse is that it is fundamentally an indigenous rights movement. “Indigenous rights” – that phrase is a sacred cow today. Conjuring the bloody European campaign of terror that walked in lock step with colonialism, those who were crushed under the European heel are today demanding their reparations and retribution. In Western discourse, you cannot dare to cross these lines of persuasion. Indigeneity evokes powerful emotions and a primordial attachment to the land, where the spirits of ancestors connect to the soil itself.
But where Hindutva’s call of indigeneity faces hurtles is the proposed ancient migrations into India. Keep in mind that migrations have occurred across the world, yet this notion of indigeneity is only challenged in India. The nomadic Mexica people would clear out the valley of Mexico before they established Tenochtitlan and became the Aztecs. A substantial genetic portion and culture of the ancestors of the emblematic Greeks, Romans, hell, so many Europeans come from the steppe in the model we are discussing. The ancient Egyptians did not speak Arabic nor had a 1 to 1 genetic makeup to modern Egyptians. The massive Bantu expansion across Sub-Saharan Africa was not a Mandelan march of peace. Yet it is only in India that this standard of indigeneity is upheld. Indra, who rides an Indian elephant and blesses the agricultural Indian with rain for their crops, is a steppe central Asian god; but Zeus and Thor are decidedly Greek and Nordic. I think you see the double standard here.
While much attention and ire surrounds the entry of the Aryans into India, little is sounded around the Dravidians. And therein lies the hypocrisy. Politics flows from emotion first, then logic.
As we established prior, the Indian population is a mixture of 3 large waves or migrations. This 2nd migration consists of a group that was related to, but distinct from, Iranian agriculturalists in the Zagros mountains. In the shadow of the Zagros is where the people of Elam flourished. From around 3200-540 BCE, the Elamites formed the eastern frontier of the Fertile Crescent. The Elamites worshipped a menagerie of gods, many of whom they shared with Akkadian Mesopotamians, and spoke a purported language isolate; but some believe it had a cognate. The proposed cousin is to the east, in the Indus Saraswati Civilization; a civilization that the Elamites traded with frequently. The proposition is that the ancestors of the Zagros farmers of Elam kept moving east and mingled with the AASI Indians eventually forming the base population for the Indus Saraswati peoples (and much of the genetic makeup of modern Indians themselves). Ironically, this means there was an earlier set of Indo-Iranians prior to the Indo-European speaking Indo-Iranians. History indeed loves to rhyme and repeat!
The common characterization of these Vedic peoples is that they came into India and wiped out the natives, completely destroying their culture and bringing their traditions as the new centerpiece of Indian civilization. But this is not true either. With climate and geological changes, the Indus Saraswati civilization waned eventually collapsing prior to the entry of the steppe people. These steppe people would come into India and indeed would conquer, but they would then be integrated completely. They came, they saw, they conquered, and then they were swallowed.
The people who wrote the Vedas were in love and reverent to the land of India. The rivers, mountains, plains, forests, even the literal dirt itself was holy to them. Their gods were flanked with Indian flora and fauna. They delved into philosophies and rituals alien to the wider world. They were a profoundly unique people who would not be who they were if they did not live and die in India.
Over time, many of the gods who found the most praise in the Vedas, the lords of the elements such as Indra, Varuna, Agni, etc…, would give way to other divinities who would eclipse them in prominence. Vishnu’s greatness could be gleaned throughout the early Vedic verses as he was frequently paired with Indra, Surya, Agni, and light itself. He was referenced as the guardian of the highest home, where a soul that has broken the cycle of reincarnation resides. The dawn of Vishnu and Shiva would arrive with the transition to the Puranas and Itihasa epics. In the Yajurveda, Narayana, a popular epithet for Vishnu, is mentioned as the supreme being. The icon of the Pashupati seal of the Indus, Shiva, known as Rudra in the Vedas also makes frequent appearances as a lord of storms and destruction. Adorned with a cobra for a necklace, his home in the Himalayas, the sacred Ganga river springing from his matted locks, and donning leopard skin, Shiva’s iconic Indian brand radiates his local roots.
Krishna, Vishnu’s incarnation, watched as his adoptive father, Nand, prepared to pray to Indra to bless them with rain. The young Krishna would chide his father for fearfully worshipping a god who had grown jealous and arrogant with power. He instead told his father and the villagers to pray to the mountain Govardhan and revere their cattle for those were the true guaranteers of their agricultural success. An incensed Indra would send a terrible torrent on Krishna’s home, Braj, flooding the land. The legend climaxes with Krishna lifting Govardhan with his finger, protecting Braj from the storm, and humbling Indra into obeisance. Perhaps this represents the transition of which god(s) curried the most favor with the ancient Indians. Perhaps not, but it is a convenient tale.
So ironic this is, as much of India owes itself to Tamil Nadu. From the wise Vedanta philosopher, Ramanuja, whose ideas catapulted the Bhakti movement across all of India to the great Chola emperors (who funny enough referred to themselves as Aryans) who carried the Tamil crown across the subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Tamil Nadu functioned as the incubator and refuge of a Hinduism ravaged in the north during medieval invasions. Scores of Tamil scientists, especially the former Indian President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, would push Indian technology and capability forward making the lives of all Indians better. Yet today, it is Periyar’s ideology that dominates the Tamil political sphere.
One of the more disturbing parts about the effect of such simplistic takes on ancient Indian migrations is a niche form of genetic supremacy that is developing. While some embellish the stature of their steppe DNA, others claim themselves as the true aboriginal of the land due to their large proportion of AASI lineage. They go so far as even asking for reparations based on this poppycock of logic. While there is some correlation between mixes of steppe, IVC, and AASI lineages around caste, it is an imperfect and a diverse amount that is in the end, a mixture. All Indians are an amalgamation of these people to various degrees. There is almost no pure steppe, IVC, or AASI person in the subcontinent (the Andaman Nicobar people may be sole exception on the AASI front). The movement towards heightened caste consciousness combined with the advocation of an almost racial element to caste could be potentially disastrous for India.
India’s history is one of syncretism and synchronization. Multiple identities, ideas, and itihasas were welded together by the Vedic verses millennia ago. Both the Brahmins and Śramanas or priests and ascetics traversed the Indian expanse and spread the message of Dharma. Still, they all agreed on the inherent divinity and sacredness of the subcontinent, of Bhārata. That is what distinguishes these people, these ideas, and these philosophies from the rest of the world. Indeed, as one delves into the story of India, a story that encapsulates much of human history and audacity of both thought and action, one attains the truth in the Mahabharata’s triumphant epilogue: