Wasting Your Word Limit

February 7, 2009

Shiv Viswanathan and Sadanand Menon annoy me. They both have columns/ op-eds up about the Mangalore pub incident which hint at some interesting ideas. But these guys can’t seem to realise that writing for newspapers is not the same as academic writing. There’s so academic or generally postmodern jargon in their pieces, that only the most dedicated general reader won’t flee in terror. And even when you have a reader like me who struggles through the piece anyway, there’s a sense of annoyance at the end of it – if there hadn’t been so much jargon, these guys could have spent more of their word limit exploring their genuinely interesting fundaes.

Let’s take a look at Shiv Viswanathan first:

In India, the word ‘culture’ is used in a variety of ways. Culture refers to an identity, an umbilical chord, an epidermis, a pretext for rationalising behaviour, and an everyday habit. It is a second skin. But politicised, it has a different meaning. The historical dictum that nationalism is the last refuge of scoundrels can be extended to culture, which has become the last refuge of every goon wishing to join politics.

This paragraph is just a series of buzzwords. Sure, culture could be an epidermis and an umbilical cord, but how is that relevant to the rest of the article? If I was being charitable to Shiv Viswanathan, I’d think he was writing this in a stream of consciousness style. If I wasn’t, I’d accuse him of faffing.

The park and pub are probably the two public spaces easily available for younger people. Both get disciplined in the name of an imaginary “public” and an imagined “culture”. Let us not dub this as moral policing, a variant of the thought police made legendary by Orwell in 1984. Policing in India is a strange function. Parents, neighbours, peer groups, the crowd, all police you. In fact, policing is performed in India by everyone except police. So moral policing is misleading because it is not an act of censorship. What one witnessed is plain brutality justified in terms of half-baked politics. Beyond exclusion and negation these parties have no programme.


This bit is the genuinely interesting one – it has an idea about public spaces, and who actually owns or shares these. But it isn’t built upon. Again, to be fair, it may not have been his main point – he concentrates more on violence and dialogue towards the end – but if he didn’t spend so much time faffing and using jargon he would have more space with which to explore the good ideas.

We face a clash of two limited ideas of culture both claiming a set of virtues. If one claims “freedom” the other claims “duty” and “tradition”. Both are ersatz ideas of culture. Both need a hearing as long as they avoid violence. In fact it is violence that enfeebles the sena idea of culture. The sena idea of politics is what needs to be challenged. Whether as Ram Sene or Shiv Sena, its politics is illiterate and it sees violence as the answer to any dissenting, ethnic, marginal group asserting itself. The police, who probably share these values, watch in complicity. Only the media’s sense of outrage creates it as an event. To legislate on morals and aesthetics through such violence is futile.

(New Indian Express)

Ersatz? Does anybody outside the JNU campus even know what that means? Couldn’t he just have said substitute or phony or proxy? And again, there are far too many repeated statements – he’s saying the same thing over and over again. If there had been an exploration of how the hearing of the two ideas in a non-violent environment was to be conducted, that would actually have been valuable. But no. Shyeah!

Then there’s Sadanand Menon. This is actually one of his less jargon filled pieces. I read his monthly column in Better Photography and my head spins at the language he uses there (and this is a magazine where the majority of the readership probably doesn’t even have English as a first language). But anyway – here are the interesting and the bad bits from his piece:

In Chennai, going to buy liquor from the government controlled TASMAC shops is an utterly anti-civilisational, self-demeaning act. The atmosphere around these shops is filthy beyond description. You have to gingerly manoeuvre your steps between dollops of spit and phlegm, remains of old and fresh vomit, broken bottles, remains of the plastic pouches in which vendors sell kadalai (boiled gram) and pickles, puddles of piss in the corners, drunks lying sprawled in the muck and a general air of depravity and squalor which beggars imagination.

From such a scene of apostasy, which even a Victor Hugo would have been hard put to capture in Les Miserables, to reach say Kathmandu, is a culture shock. Here you can walk into a vegetable or provision store and buy Khukhri Rum at a price that can wean you off water for ever. Or in Panjim, where everything is bright, clean, transparent, open and civilised. Mahe has some of the most stylish and well-designed wine shops.

The regime of controls, bans, prohibitions and state monopolies, besides being anti-democratic, never achieves its purpose. It only produces a sort of moral cramping, an aesthetic stunting. Alcohol consumption must be re-invested with the dignity and decency of democratic choice where the State, instead of treating alcohol merely as a source for revenue generation, also acknowledges its potential for mature socialising, conviviality and celebration.

There must also be a parallel movement to offer a peg and a toast to the moral police, which needs to recover the best of Indian civilisation. The dehumanising effects of alcohol (as well as its grotesque retailing) can be offset by the humanising power of freedom and choice and creativity. After all, as Omar Khayyam said, ‘What can a vintner buy, half as precious as what he sells’?

(Business Standard)

So yeah. The idea that the sort of way alcohol consumption is treated in TASMAC makes it even more degrading than regular alcoholism is very interesting. So is the idea that freedom and choice are humanising. That idea is also in complete opposition to the Shiv Viswanathan piece, which pretty much relegates freedom to a secondary status. But despite the interesting idea in there, the language is painful. Why say ‘choice’ when you’ve already said ‘freedom’? Why say ‘moral cramping, an aesthetic stunting’ when you can just say ‘moral and aesthetic cramping’? It’s wasting words on repetition that could be used for exploration instead.

Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice

February 16, 2008

Amit has blogged about the Saudi Arabian ban on red roses here:

The decision has been taken by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which sounds like something right out of Kafka.

There’s also a CNN story on this, which contains these priceless quotes:

Ahmed Al-Omran, a university student in Riyadh, told CNN that the government decision will give the international media another reason to make fun of the Saudis “but I think that we got used to that by now.”

Because of the ban on red roses, a black market has flowered ahead of Valentine’s Day. Roses that normally go for five Saudi riyal ($1.30) fetch up to 30 riyal ($8) on February 14, the Saudi Gazette said.

“Sometimes we deliver the bouquets in the middle of the night or early morning, to avoid suspicion,” one florist told the paper.

Anyway. As evil organisations which nevertheless have really cool names go, the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (according to Wikipedia, a more accurate translation is Committee for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) is right up there on both counts, scoring high on both evil activities and cool names.

Kodhi and me have concluded that the reason the name is so cool is that it contains not only the base objective (i.e., Promotion of Virtue) but also the negation of the opposite (i.e., Prevention of Vice). You could similarly make a fixed deposit sound cool by calling it an Instrument for the Encouragement of Savings and Discouragement of Consumption; or mobile phone silent mode sound cool by calling it the Mode for Preservation of Sanity and Reduction of Stress. We have also decided that our sitcom must contain either an organisation named on this principle, or constant Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice references.

The MPVPV also scores high on the being evil front. In addition to banning all things red, it has also banned cats and dogs, as pets are a Western influence and thus nothing to do with Islam:

“One bad habit spreading among our youths is the acquisition of dogs and showing them off in the streets and malls,” wrote Aleetha al-Jihani in a letter to Al-Madina newspaper. “There’s no doubt that such a matter makes one shudder.”

“Then what’s the point of dragging a dog behind you?” he added. “This is blind emulation of the infidels.”

It also beats up Catholic priests, junta who put daaru, and women found talking to men.

However, it’s greatest hit ever was in 2004, when it stopped firefighters from pulling girls out of a burning school building because – wait for this – they were not in burkhas and pulling them out would have incited lust in the firefighters. 14 girls died. The ‘BBC’ says:

According to the al-Eqtisadiah daily, firemen confronted police after they tried to keep the girls inside because they were not wearing the headscarves and abayas (black robes) required by the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam.

One witness said he saw three policemen “beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya”.

The Saudi Gazette quoted witnesses as saying that the police – known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – had stopped men who tried to help the girls and warned “it is a sinful to approach them”.

Depressing as it is that in India we have to deal with nutjobs like the Hindu Makkal Katchi and Syed Imam Bukahri, we can at least take solace in the fact that we don’t have a Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Holding Saudi Arabia as a benchmark is slightly unambitious, but it’s a start.