Indian standup comedian Vir Das recently read a monologue at The Kennedy Center theatre in Washington D.C., which at first appears to be a WhatsApp forward of Defence Colony groups, where he talked about binaries of good India and evil India. This short video has expectedly offended the chronically offended Right-wingers, who get a kick out of the very idea of being in the list of offended people.
I don’t have any problem with the video, but there are certain questions that came to my mind when I watched it. While discussing the ’evils of Indian society’, why did Vir Das not mention the word ‘caste’ even once? I am not expecting much if I say I was at least hoping that he would say “I come from an India which is brutally divided on the lines of caste and Dalits are even killed for sporting a moustache or sitting cross-legged or riding a horse.”
Caste should be the obvious issue to come to your mind when you discuss Indian society. Can you expect an American standup comedian or commentator deliver a long monologue about the problems with American culture and not mention racism, even once?
Indian Savarna liberals and our current intellectual discourse are plagued by a problem, which emanates from a deliberately devious decision – the decision to not mention caste altogether. It explains everything that is wrong with the Indian society and Vir Das is the perfect archetype to study this.
Beauty of India before 2014
Every conversation in the Savarna liberal discourse mourns the ‘end of epoch’. Needless to say, it is clearly an end for only them. This forced funeral procession is turned into a mandatory event for all those who deemed themselves as liberals. Vir’s monologue is based on the same imagination.
Since 2014 Indian liberals have developed a hobby. It involves brooding over and imagining themselves as Guru Dutts who internally voice ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain‘.
The more befitting question to ask here is: “Jis Hind pe naaz hai woh kahan hai.”
Their demand seems to be “this is not the India we knew and now want our pre-2014 India back”. Sadly, their versions of an ideal India do not include the marginalised sections partaking in the glory of their assumed utopia. Never in history was there a time when marginalised sections saw a ‘livable’ or normal time and any nostalgia for any glorious past.
A trip to Savarna utopia of pre-2014 India
Once upon a time, most of the Savarna liberals believed that the main villains in their story were corruption and reservation – the two usual suspects that held their nation back from becoming a superpower. (They still do – it’s just that they are vocal only about the latter now.)
Films like Rang De Basanti emerged, which led to the whole movement of ‘India against corruption’. In a nation obsessed with films based on the reincarnation theme, the biggest appeal of the movement was Anna Hazare, who often appeared to many as a reincarnation of M.K. Gandhi or the ageing version of Aamir Khan’s DJ from Rang De Basanti.
The whole premise was a purification ritual, which would make the utopia even more utopic. The corrupt, dirty politician would take a holy dip in the Lokpal and emerge ‘pure’ and free from the evils of corruption.
Revisiting this memory only adds coherence to an observation of our current reality. Many have their heart in the right place, but their head clearly isn’t there. Activism then becomes an activity, standup-films-poetry seek revolution but only end up revolting the sensibilities (or the lack thereof) of the perpetually offended Right-winger.
Towards the end of his seven-minute monologue, Vir Das sort of shifts the responsibility off himself onto the audience when he says he is ‘turning the camera towards them’. Reminiscent of MAGA campaigns that pit nostalgia as a place of utopia on which the future is based, he ‘demands’ of the audience to believe in his ‘India’ and to not let its memory die.
This is where the classic Savarna liberal trait to withdraw oneself from the problem surfaces. This is exactly how the Shashi Tharoors of India demand reparation from England (he also knows he is getting none) and then return home to do what the Internet terms as ‘soft Sanghi behaviour’. He flirts with those he deems as fascist only to edge them and leave them wanting more while simultaneously showing how he is above them and has a ‘purer’ idea of India which ultimately birthed the book, Why I Am A Hindu. Later on, the same debate in the liberal circle has shifted to the useless binaries of ‘Hinduism vs Hindutva.’
Vir Das’ standup makes the viewer sit down, which is exactly what the act intends to do. The Savarna ecosystem hails the act as revolutionary. This helps the audience to not directly confront the issues that could challenge their privilege. Ultimately, this makes the audience nostalgic for the memories of an abstract India, which only existed in their fantasy. Gandhi’s India. Nehru’s India. An India which was as calm as the flowing water of Ganges near Rishikesh’s luxury spa resort, but not as turbulent as the one that floods the country’s villages every year.
If satire is the means to mock the power and establishment, then Vir Das should fire shots at his own network and power of belonging to the highly privileged dominant caste in a caste-ridden society. It is relatively easier to build the image of resistance when stakes are low and you have no skin in the game. In fact, this whole projected image of a dissenting satirist who is challenging the status quo has additional power in the global arena in the anti-establishment satire market. The question should be asked if Vir is at all making fun of ‘establishment’. What is ‘establishment’ and ’status quo’ in the Indian context?
In India all major institutions of power are the castles of oppressor caste hegemony and they form multiple arenas of establishment and power.
In his own monologue, Vir Das mentions that he comes from an India which is proud of vegetarianism. In India, 30 per cent of the country’s population can afford or claim to be “pure vegetarian” and majority of it would belong to dominant caste groups. This itself shows which India Vir represents.
The whole idea about vegetarianism is, in fact, deeply associated with the purity of caste, which ultimately is a Brahminical idea in Indian context. The recent order passed by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation against banning non-vegetarian stalls on the streets of the city isn’t because Narendra Modi felt adventurous in his dislike for chicken tandoori but because a Brahminical idea of morality runs deeper in the veins of this society. This Brahminical establishment and dominant caste hegemony will continue to rule India with or without the BJP in power.
Unless one challenges this particular idea of India, one cannot be termed as anti-establishment, radical or even hard-hitting comic. In fact, most of the hard-hitting satire in India should be renamed as ‘hardly hitting anywhere’.
Anurag is a multimedia artist and host of Anurag Minus Verma Podcast. He tweets @confusedvichar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)