Monday, 6 October 2014

Stupid Guy Goes to India. By Yukichi Yamamatsu. Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian

Stupid Guy Goes to India

Yukichi Yamamatsu. Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian

Blaft Publications Pvt. Ltd. First published 2008.

This is a graphic novel, what I would have called a ‘comic’ about 20 years ago. But this not just ultra-light entertainment like Mickey Mouse or even Spiderman. It is a serious attempt at narration, an example of a genre I am coming to regard increasingly well. This particular book is the story of the author, who ‘modestly’ calls himself a ‘stupid guy’ and his sojourn in Delhi a few years ago. He is a ‘manga’ artist in Japan. Manga are Japanese graphic novels. They narrate a variety of different stories – fiction, history, biography and even science. They may be considered equivalent to novels for those who, like Alice, want to see a lot of pictures in the books they read. But they can be serious stuff, and take, I suppose, as much effort and creative imagination as ‘regular’ novels.

Yukichi wants to sell his manga in India. He does not know anything about India, and knows neither English nor any Indian language. Yet he has this crazy, and, yes, stupid idea that he will find a large market for his stuff here, if only he can get it translated into Hindi. So he catches a flight to Delhi, and goes around trying to find first a room, then a translater, next a printer, and finally customers. He has some luck with the first three, but almost none with the last. In between he gets used to spicy Indian food, sort-of-learns to bargain, learns the meaning of the different types of Indian head shakes, experiences Indian toilets (describing his bowel movements in disgusting detail), and makes an unsatisfactory visit to a brothel. In the intervals of  work on his translation, he notices that the cello tape sold here are not easy to peel off from the reels, and to cut and stick. He invents a simple and cheap tin device to help in this, but cannot find customers for it, anymore than for his manga. Finally he catches a flight back to Japan, where I suppose he salvaged something, maybe a lot, from the trip by writing his experience up as Japanese manga, later translated into this volume. Perhaps that was his whole idea from the beginning.

His artwork, in black and white, is neat and nice, but rather static, with none of the dynamism one seems in, for example, Calvin and Hobbes. His dialogue is also just passable, no real jokes, at least not in the translation. The entire effort, I think is aimed at a Japanese audience, and though he strives very hard to be objective, an Indian cannot miss the prejudice. For example, almost the very first ‘fact’ about India he mentions is that the population is 1 billion, with 250 million unemployed. We are left with the idea this is a huge portion of the population as compared to the situation in Japan, perhaps, where the number, and percentage, may be much smaller. We are not told whether the number he quotes for India includes children and old people and other sections of the population who are usually not counted as ‘unemployed’ even if they are not formally in employment. There are other such prejudices sprinkled across the book. Especially irritating is his frustration at not being able to find people to translate Japanese cheaply for him and to help him carry out his crazy idea. Some of his observations, about toilets, and  the general uncleanliness of India, strikes true. These aspects, after all, have attracted the attention of no less a person than Prime Minister Modi.

The Laws of Manu. Translated by Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith

The Laws of Manu

Translated by Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith

Translation first published 1991

Manu smriti or Manav dharma sastra is a compilation of laws – personal laws, laws for a criminal justice system, and GSP (or ‘Good Social Practices’) norms – that were compiled about 2000 years ago. They are attrbuted to a single author, namely Manu, who, it is also claimed, is the founder of the human race – a Hindu Adam. The text begins with a group of sages approachng Manu and asking him to tell them the duties of all the four classes –  and in this introductory verse two impotant points are made rightaway. The first is about the existence of the four classes – the chatur varna – more commonly translated as the four castes. This horizontal quartering of society is taken for granted, never questioned. The only justification for it is given in one of the verses in the first section, which paraphrases the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda, and describes the creation of the four castes of humans from the mouth (brahmin), the arms (kshatriya), the thighs (vaisya) and the feet (sudra) of the Lord (Brahman, Narayana, Brahma…). This happened, the vedic sloka states, in order that the worlds and people would prosper and increase. There is no other attempt at reasoning why this should be so. The more than 2500 verses that follow, then, comprise a detailed statement of the duties and the laws of the four castes. And this brings us to the second point evident in the opening verse. The laws are laid down by Manu, and brook no questioning or reasoning. There is no attempt at jurisprudence, nor any argument to justify why the laws should be so, and not otherwise. No, that is not entirely true – the one constant justification that underlies all the laws is that action contrary to what is stated in the smriti would end up producing a ‘confusion of the classes’, which is presented, without any reasoning, as the supreme evil. (Note that, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna used exactly the same justification when he urged Arjuna to do his duty as a kshatriya and fight the Kaurava.) Thus, according to Manu, society can either organize itself on the basis of the four castes, or it cannot be organized at all – it would continue to exist in savagery. Much the same sort of justification, or lack of it, underlie many of the other statements of law that inspire some of the major religions of the world – the Bible, the Koran, the laws of Moses, and even the ‘secular’ laws of Hammurabi. One may be tempted to consider The Laws of Manu, therefore, as probably the closest that Hinduism has to a foundational revealed text, one on which the entire religion is based. Indian society, however has always been extremely complex and diverse, and if at all Manu smriti should be considered tantamount to God’s word, just as the Koran and the Bible are so considered, it is for a limited form of Hinduism, i.e. Brahminism, and not for all of it.

The first chapter in Manu smriti is the story of the genesis of the Universe, and of everything in it. Out of nothing, Brahman mediated and produced light and matter, and ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’. A lot of different life forms are mentioned, but obviously not all. The list, of course, includes the creation of the four castes of humans. The subsequent chapters list, in excruciating detail, all the duties that devolve upon these four groups of people, duties to each other, as well as to the state and society. The focus, though, is mainly on the brahmins, which Doniger coyly translates as ‘the priestly class’. (Kshatriyas are translated as the ‘rulers’, vaishyas as ‘commoners’ and sudras as ‘servants’.) This class is given specific, and sometimes contrary, instructions about what to do, and how to do it, during almost every second of their lives, from birth to death. The king, too, is prescribed his royal duties, especially how he should behave towards the brahmins and how he should punish those who transgress against them. The vaishyas and the sudras are not given any detailed prescriptions. Sudras, in fact, are only instructed that their karma is simply to serve the ‘twice-born’, without resentment!  Many laws are prescribed generally for the ‘twice-born’. Doniger implies that this term means all the three ‘upper’ castes, and only excepting the sudras. However, a ‘twice-born’ is born for the second time when he performs the thread ceremony. Since this is a particularly brahmin ritual – at least as far as I know – ‘twice born’ must mean ‘brahmin’. But, contrary to this understanding of mine, Manu says specifically in Chapter 10, that ‘the brahmin, the kshatriya and the vaishya are the three twice-born classes’. Of course he also says, immediately before this verse, that ‘the priest is the lord of the other castes because he is pre-eminent, because he maintains the restraints, and because of the pre-eminnece of his transformative rituals’. So I guess, though Manu may have meant the general prescriptions, except when specifically stated otherwise, for the three ‘upper’ castes, today the word ‘twice-born’ has come to mean ‘brahmins’, i.e. the priestly caste.

A large number of situations, mainly domestic, are envisaged, and rules prescribed for each of them, along with exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions, and so on. A kind of criminal justice system is also prescribed, mainly for the education of the king, for example on what are the laws of property, and how theft should be punished. In some of the prescriptions, cows are rated higher than sudras or women. There are several hundred verses given over to sexual transgressions, and how to prevent or punish them. The thrust of most of these are “cherchez la femme” – the woman is always at fault. ‘It is the very nature of women’, says Manu, ‘to corrupt men here on earth.’ This is simply one example of his rampant misogyny, handed down over the centuries, apparently to influence and inform attitudes to women in present-day India. Elsewhere he says, ‘A girl, a young woman, or even an old woman should not do anything independently, even in her own house.’ And again, ‘A virtous wife should constantly serve her husband like a god, even if he behave badly, freely indulges his lust, and is devoid of any good qualities’. I could quote many more verses to illustrate this point. But to be fair, there are also a few verses – very few, though – where Manu urges greater respect for women. ‘The deities delight’, he says, ‘where women are revered, but where women are not revered all rites are fruitless’. Also, more obscurely, ‘A woman’s mouth is always unpolluted, as is a bird that knocks a fruit’. Presumably this means it is OK to eat the left-over food of a women.

Food – what, how, when and by whom it is to be eaten – is a major preoccupation of the Manu smriti, and a couple of chapters are given over to it. Again all prescriptions and prohibitions are aimed at the ‘twice-born’. Given that ‘brahmin’ and ‘vegetarian’ are almost synonymous in most of present-day India, and in fact that the latter word is used as code for the former in housing ads, for example, it is surprising that there is so much description of what meat can and cannot be eaten and when and how, by priests (brahmins) as much as by other ‘twice-born’. (Sudras, of course, according to Manu, eat anything at all – that’s one of things that makes them sudras.) In one verse, along with mushrooms and onions and garlic, ‘meat that is not consecrated’ is prohibited – implying that consecrated meat is OK. Elsewhere, ‘Someone who eats meat, after honouring the gods and ancestors, when he has bought it, or killed it himself, or has been given it by someone, does nothing bad’. But though there are no prohibitions on eating meat, there are some strong exhortations not to do so. ‘A man who does not … eat meat becomes dear to people …’

There is chapter on the duties of a king – providing security and meting out justice. There are prescriptions on how to build forts, how to move the army from one place to another, and on the architecture of the administrative system. These are impractical from a modern view-point, but do give a lot of historical data to reconstruct the political and administrative science of those times. There is also a chapter of prescriptions for a criminal justice system and a penal code. This is very detailed and includes descriptions of the nature of acceptable evidence. ‘One single man, who is not greedy may be a witness, but not several women, even if they are unpolluted, because a women’s understanding is unreliable.’ The penal system is, of course, loaded heavily in favour of the brahmins, less so the kshatriya and the vaishya. It is heavily against the sudra, and women. Interestingly, there are no specifications on which takes priority – gender or caste. For example, there is no discussion on whether a brahmin woman is more privileged than a kshatriya man. I suppose the answer to this question is maybe yes, because the woman is the property of the man and as such may have the kind of privileges he himself has.

Most, if not all, of the laws and instructions are meaningless in today’s world, if not actually retrograde. Many of them find echoes in other regressive social systems such as that of the Taliban, for example. Apparently, a great deal of the Hindu Personal Law in India was based on Manu smriti until large scale reform in the last many decades. (Such reform, unfortunately, is even slower in visiting Muslim and Christian Personal laws). However not all of Manu is silly or downright bad. Chapter 6, in particular, seems to be written by a more philosophical sage – ‘…he should be controlled, friendly and mentally composed; he should always be a giver and a non-taker, compassionate to all living beings’. And, ‘If a twice-born man has not caused even an atom of danger to any living creatures, when he is freed from his body there will be no danger to him from anything at all’. And here’s something that resonates well with present-day management-ese, ‘…success is for the man who is alone, he neither deserts nor is deserted’. There are echoes in this chapter of Jainism and of Samkhya philosophy. There are also a slender fore-shadowing of Advaita.

But these are meagre counterweights to the overall negative thrust of the Manu smirti. I would summarize these as follows.
·        Men are born into one of the four varnas. The system is heirarchical, with brahmin being morally and spiritually superior to the kshatriya, who is likewise superior to the vaishya, all of these being far above the sudra.
·        Each varna has its own set of duties, obligations, practices and professions (karma and dharma)
·        These are listed out in extensive and absurd detail for brahmin and kshatriya, and also to some extent for vaishya. Sudra is imperiously ordered to serve the other three varna.
·        The brahmin is associated with knowledge (the veda, and other texts, the rituals, the mantras, everything spiritual, eternal and really ‘important’); the kshatriya with valour, administration, security and justice; the vashiya with business, agriculture, manufacture and trade. The sudra are servants, only slightly more privileged than slaves. Not-mentioned, I think, are people entirely outside this chatur varna, outcasts such as tribals – the chandala, perhaps?.
·        It is better to perform your ‘own’ dharma (i.e. that of the varna into which you are born) badly, than another’s dharma well.
·        Women are property and to be treated as such.

Doniger’s translation is easy to read and comprehensive. Even words like karma and dharma are translated into English, in many different, context-dependent ways. Of course, not knowing Sanskrit, I have to depend on her reputation to judge how true to the ‘original’ this version is. One indication of its integrity and her sincerity is that I do not see any gratuitous remarks against either the text or its authors, or those who still find everyday relevance in it. She in fact quotes A.K. Ramanujan negative statement [‘One has only to read Manu after a bit of Kant to be struck by the former’s extraordinary lack of universality’] only to try and redeem Manu by trying to analyse him, and find meaning and profundity in his work, purely in terms of his own context.

The translation, as I said was easy to read, probably because I just skimmed over large chunks of it. These were the mind-numbing lists of things to do and not to do in various situations. About these lists, Doniger remarks: ‘Beginning in the Veda, persisting through the technical literature of India (including Manu’s text), and still characteristic of much of modern Indian scholarship, is the attempt to reach universality through inclusion, listing, and ordering of all relevant particulars’. I think of my own attempts (lectures, articles, books) at explaining, for example, crystallography, and say; ‘Amen to that!’