In response to my last posting, a reader mentioned an English author who wrote about India without ever having been there.
I was reminded of a letter I wrote years ago in response a New York Times book review. Here it is for your amusement.
February 3, 2001
Peggy Payne’s novel “Sister India” evidently has captured the fascination of your critics. I notice it has been reviewed twice by this newspaper.
Whatever be the merits of the novel, reviewers Mason and Bernstein missed one laughable flaw that would be obvious to any Indian.
Payne names her central character, a woman, “Nataraja.” This, in the West, is like naming a female character “Andrew” or “Thomas.” Payne could not have picked a more unambiguously masculine name. Perhaps she was confident enough of capturing readers with her word-images of all the filth and the pollution of the city of Varanasi and the river Ganges – in the novel your critics call “powerful” -- to bother about such trivialities as research.
By now you are probably wondering how Dr. Kealey responded to my email. Take a look!
October 18, 2006
Dear Chitra Raman,
Thank you for your e mail. You haven't offended me. My article has attracted about 60 responses from Hindus, either directly to the Times or to me, and with only one or two exceptions each took your ad hominem line.
There's an article in that, actually, namely why do Hindus not discuss issues but simply attack ad hominen?
So let me ask you a question. You state that attitudes to sex were different in the past, as proved by the fact that the external - but not internal - parts of temples were carved with sexual figures.
So how does that differ from Soho today, where phone booths etc are covered in erotic imagery but where the actual act of sex takes place privately?
If you are going to answer this question, please avoid any ad hominem insults. Please answer the question in a dispassionate way, or I shall not reply.
I responded to him the same day, as follows.
Dear Dr. Kealey,
Thank you for your response. I have to tell you that it's extremely rare that I lob ad hominems to score points in a discussion, and certainly my tone would have been much different if this had been a direct conversation with you. As I mentioned in my email, I sent you my commentary directly because I thought it only fair to do so before it came to you via some other channel. I prefer face-to-face disagreement.
Having said that, here is my response to your note :
“There's an article in that, actually, namely why do Hindus not discuss issues but simply attack ad hominen?”
But you are the issue, sir. You and others of your ilk willing to make a public display of your abysmal ignorance just for the adolescent pleasure of riling people up. Sorry if you think this is ad hominem, but there's no other way to state how I see your motives -- except to state them.
I do not think, for instance, that the Times would publish an article in which you called a Church a "House of B****ry" even if it had been proven beyond doubt that their staff had covered up pedophilia for years. I don't think it would even remotely cross your mind to write an equally shallow and insulting piece having to do with either Judaism or Islam, for obvious reasons.
“ So let me ask you a question. You state that attitudes to sex were different in the past, as proved by the fact that the external - but not internal - parts of temples were carved with sexual figures. So how does that differ from Soho today, where phone booths etc are covered in erotic imagery but where the actual act of sex takes place privately?”
I will defer to your evident intimate knowledge of Soho phone booths.
In my commentary, I had specifically addressed two perceptions of yours -- that the Hindu religion itself was "pornographic" -- and that the answer to why it was so could be mined from the works of a completely arbitrary selection of anthropologists.
One can engage only with "controversial" ideas that have at least an angstrom of substance. If there is none, if it is evident that the writer is out of his depth, I consider it an act of kindness to tap him on the shoulder and point out that he is committing what Indians delicately refer to as "public nuisance."
If your intention was to write about temple Devadasis, you should have taken the trouble to get your facts straight first before referring to temples as brothels and erotic carvings as advertisements for them.
“ If you are going to answer this question, please avoid any ad hominem insults. Please answer the question in a dispassionate way, or I shall not reply. “
Dr. Kealey, from your website you appear to be someone with a solid career record and publishing history. I have no idea why you would want to put a blot on that by publishing an offensively silly, outrageously ignorant concatenation of your subjective biases -- and then not even have the grace to apologize for it.
I have no interest at all in insulting you any more than you have insulted yourself. But in the remote chance that you are genuinely interested in answers, I suggest you consult genuine scholars -- with open-mindedness and respect. As I wrote earlier, I will send your article to one such scholar in the School of Oriental and African Studies. If he responds to me rather than directly to you, I will certainly let you know what he said.
As a follow-up to that email, I sent Dr. Kealey the following links.
Devadasis of India
WIKIPEDIA on Devadasis
from which I highlighted these excepts:
Originally, devadasis were celibate all their life… Some scholars are of the opinion that probably the custom of dedicating girls to temples became quite common in the 6th century CE, as most of the Puranas containing reference to it have been written during this period…
By the end of 10th century, the total number of devadasis in many temples was in direct proportion to the wealth and prestige of the temple. During the medieval period, they were regarded as a part of the normal establishment of temples; they occupied a rank next only to priests and their number often reached high proportions. For example, there were 400 devadasis attached to the temples at Tanjore and Travancore.
Local kings often invited temple dancers to dance in their courts, the occurrence of which created a new category of dancers, rajadasis, and modified the technique and themes of the recitals. A devadasi had to satisfy her own soul while she danced unwatched and offered herself to the god, but the rajadasi's dance was meant to be an entertainment.
The rise and fall in the status of devadasis can be seen to be running parallel to the rise and fall of Hindu temples… The destruction of temples by invaders started from the northwestern borders of the country and spread through the whole of the country… As the temples became poorer and lost their patron kings, and in some cases were destroyed, the devadasis were forced into a life of poverty, misery, and, in some cases, prostitution.
Reformists and Abolitionists, under the pressure of the European Christian priests and missionaries, conceived of the devadasi practice as a social evil and considered every Devadasi to be a prostitute…
…The portrayal of the devadasi system as "prostitution" sought to advertise the grotesqueness of the subject population for political ends, while the British colonial authorities officially maintained most brothels in India…
Traditionally, no stigma was attached to the devadasi or to her children, and other members of their caste received them on terms of equality. The children of a devadasi enjoyed legitimacy and devadasis themselves were outwardly indistinguishable from married women of their own community.
The following day, I heard back from Vice-Chancellor Kealey:
October 19, 2006
Thanks for this. If the devadasis were initially celibate, and then there was no stigma for their children ....
And if their flourishing at the millennium coincided with the elaboration of the erotic statues ....
But let me make another point. In the west, an argument is lost the moment a protagonist resorts to ad hominem. I have felt free to ignore almost every Hindu complaint over my article because they've almost all been ad hominem. But someone who writes and says "actually, Terence, you're wrong because in fact the statues mean X or Y and we know this because of Z" - then that's frightening argument. Fortunately, I haven't received an e mail like that.
You are welcome. Wikipedia is by no means the ultimate reference -- merely a signpost -- that there just might be something significant that you are missing.
It was sent to show you how easy it is for even someone like myself, an ordinary stay-at-home parent, to add depth and perspective to a given research topic -- if I care about accuracy, that is.
If memory serves me right, back when I researched articles I would go to a place called a Library, where I remember finding a great deal of reference material stored on more than one kind of medium. There are helpful people there willing to show you where to look. You should try it some time.
“In the west, an argument is lost the moment a protagonist resorts to ad hominem. I have felt free to ignore almost every Hindu complaint over my article because they've almost all been ad hominem. “
Ah yes, the Eternal Sunshine of Fortress Smug. A favorite destination for some western academicians, and for some a permanent vacation spot.
“But someone who writes and says "actually, Terence, you're wrong because in fact the statues mean X or Y and we know this because of Z" - then that's frightening argument. “
Actually what's rather more frightening, considering your job title, is that you expect others to put in the time and diligence to pursue your education.
“Fortunately, I haven't received an e mail like that.”
And fortunately for me, I do have a life to return to. So if you'll excuse me, I'd like to end this exchange.
I appreciate your courtesy. What I would appreciate even more is if this experience brought some awareness, whether or not you choose to acknowledge it, of the crass reductionism of your approach.