The Truth About the New J K Rowling New Book: T. SHER SINGH
The Casual Vacancy
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
J K Rowling's "The Casual Vacancy" has been selected sikhchic.com's BOOK OF THE MONTH for October, 2012
I recall when I was studying for my Master’s - eons ago! - and was working on my thesis on Shakespeare, that we often moaned over the shallowness of the technique used by a scholar who was widely touted by much of the North American academia.
Caroline Spurgeon had gone through every word Shakespeare was supposed to have written, and counted the number of times certain key-words and images had been used by him throughout his career.
Thus, not only did she list the times the word ‘dog’ had been used, but then went on to count how often each different canine specie had been mentioned.
Same with birds, flowers, etc., etc.
The purpose was to seek out the importance and import of each imagery based on the frequency of the usage.
I am afraid the preoccupation of the media in India in recent days over the references to Sikhs to be found in J K Rowling’s new novel, “The Casual Vacancy”, has reminded me of the shallowness that disturbed us even as students several decades ago.
It is no secret that the media in India is shallow and governed by narrow, parochial and vested interests. But this one hits a new low.
It is also no secret that India’s media will spare no energy or ink in its attempt to trivialize anything that appears on the world scene which is even remotely pro-Sikh. The envy and jealousy of the Sikh has indeed become visceral to the Indian character, to the point of it having turned pathological.
In view of the glee with which they have attempted to distort the truth and put words into the mouths of Sikhs, I have done two things:
- I drove 70 km each way to the nearest bookstore over the weekend and picked up a copy of “The Casual Vacancy” - I was not going to wait to read it in the normal course.
- I then sat down and did something that the hoarse, mischief-laden voices in India are not wont to do: I read the book.
But I’m not going to give you a full review of the book. Others have done a great job in analysing it and pointing out that it is indeed a marked departure from Rowling’s earlier writings, as it was intended to be; that it may or may not be her best work, but nevertheless reflects her genius.
My purpose today is to review the book with the sole purpose of looking at it, in Caroline Spurgeon and Indian-style, by examining how the Sikhs have been depicted in it.
Let me start with a summary of my findings, a sort of head-note.
J K Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy” is an excellent read. More importantly for me, it is the kind of book that I have dreamed about having the world’s prominent authors write about: with Sikh characters and references, but as a normal, ordinary part of the narrative, not in the form of lectures and essays.
I loved the book for this aspect of it in particular. I feel indebted to Rowling, on behalf of the worldwide Sikh community, for having done what I have wanted to see done all of my life, and now have finally have it in tangible form in my hands.
* * * * *
Being a minority desperate to have its stories told accurately and fully, we yearn for mainstream storytellers -- be they novelists, poets, news reporters, columnists, TV reporters, filmmakers, whatever -- to include references to us, our history, our values, our literature.
Not being trained in the art of advocacy and the science of marketing, what we want to see is long and detailed essays about ourselves, not realizing that they have no impact on the target audience. The latter, when confronted with a ’teaching moment’ merely switches off its brain, or skips the passage, or glosses over it, to hurriedly get to the meatier portions.
What works in such advocacy is casual references - education by ambush, that is - where tidbits of information are thrown in by-the-by, and the target merely laps it up along with everything else. If this happens often enough, it becomes part of his or her sub-consciousness.
Think about all that you and I know about, say, the Japanese ethos or the Chinese Panda or the Himalaya mountains. We have never studied these subjects, we can’t pin-point when and where and how we picked up information about such subjects, and yet we know enough about such topics to have a reasonable and intelligent conversation about any of them. When it becomes necessary, we know how and where to go seek further information … the groundwork has already been done.
THAT is the type of information ’bombing’ we desperately need done -- if I may borrow a term from the current media lingo.
That is what Jay Leno‘s reference did through his tangential reference to the Darbar Sahib last year.
That is exactly what J K Rowling’s book does today.
And, predictably, such attention alarms our small-minded detractors in India into a tizzy, and they go about doing the only thing they are good at: mischief through misinformation.
The only way we can counter it is through facts. Here they are:
* * * * *
A Sikh family - the Jawandas - is central to the Rowling’s novel.
It consists of the parents - both are highly educated professionals, both are doctors. Both are described as extremely attractive and intelligent. The father, Vikram, a cardiac surgeon, is the ”most gorgeous man in Pagford.”
The mother, Parminder, one of the primary protagonists, is not only a practicing doctor but a leading member of the town Council.
They have three children: Jaswant (Jazzy), the eldest - a daughter. Attractive, bright, successful. At one point she is referred to as the “cleverest girl in the sixth form.”
Next is a daughter, Sukhwinder (Jolly). She is a life-long sufferer from dyslexia. She is not as bright and successful as her siblings and is the “ugly duckling” of the family.
The youngest is the son Rajpal - attractive, bright, successful.
There is a bully in the children’s school, a character called “Fats” Wall, who - like all bullies - picks on easy targets. Sukhwinder provides him with one. For him, her unattractiveness emanates from her facial hair, and he builds on it to depict her as a hairy caricature and hounds her to distraction and great distress.
In addition to these six characters, there are, of course, a whole slew of dramatis personae, all of whom interact freely with the Jawandas, who are a well-respected and adjusted part of the community.
The novel gives us a slice of life in the community, starting with the death of a town councillor - hence, the “casual vacancy”.
Parminder is at the centre of it all - being a councillor herself.
There is drama, romance, racism, action, community dynamics, politics … and the inevitable climax.
All I can tell you without spoiling the story for you is that even though Sukhwinder suffers terribly from the taunts of the bully, the author’s sympathy for her is obvious, because she emerges at the end as a hero.
There are several references to Sikhs and Sikhism in the book.
Their strength is in that they appear to be minor, casual, scattered and included as after-thoughts, not as teaching moments.
There are references to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Darbar Sahib, to Guru Nanak, to Bhai Kanhaiya, the Kirtan Sohila, to Sikh practices … to name a few. There are also a few quotes from gurbani thrown in without any fanfare.
Everything is shown in a positive light. Even arranged marriages are labelled “unspeakably erotic” by a character.
I particularly like the casualness and lack of fanfare every time a Sikh tidbit is brought up. That is what makes them all so effective and powerful.
The net effect of the story is, unequivocally, that Sikh-Britons are full and normal members of British society, with no ifs, buts or qualifications to that fact.
It is probably the very first major novel that does that.
And THAT is what is the most significant aspect of the book for us Sikhs.
What makes that happen is Rowling’s depiction of the normalcy and ordinariness of the Jawandas. They are attractive and unattractive, just like other people. They do well and they fail, just like other people. They have fans and they have detractors, just like other people … even a bully that haunts one of them, like other people. And like any bully, he says and does hurtful things.
The Jawandas have the full gamut of trials and tribulations, like other people.
* * * * *
If by some miracle, I had the ear of J K Rowling, I would tell her that even if I could have my way, I would want NOTHING changed in the book.
I love the book as is, Sukhwinder and “Fats” Wall and the hairy upper-lip and all.
I think this is a landmark book for us. From a social engineering perspective, it changes things in the story-telling about Sikhs for ever … by moving it several notches higher.
Thank you, Ms Rowling.
* * * * *
To the good souls in India who have - pardon my French - got their shit in a knot:
If there are any of you who have the education and the intellect level to be able to read a book cover to cover, please read this one. If you enjoy it, good. If you don’t, move on to another book.
But, if you can’t read or comprehend a book of this nature, please go home or to your job or whatever you do better, and leave literary criticism to the lettered classes.
Conversation about this article
1: Manpreet Singh (Hyderabad, India), October 02, 2012, 10:42 AM.
Thank you for writing this piece. Trust me, no Sikh would object to what Ms. Rowling has written. I am so very happy that a Sikh family is at the core of such a celebrated author's novel. I was very disturbed when to read a headline in a leading Indian rag (Indian Express): "Now, JK Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy' enrages Sikhs". Don't know to what new levels the Indian media will fall to live out their perfidy.
2: H.S. Vachoa (USA), October 02, 2012, 11:18 AM.
Thank you, Mr. T. Sher Singh. Sikhs are a soft target of Hindu propaganda and it is of utmost importance for us to counter it every time.
3: Jespal Singh Brar (Lodi, California, U.S.A.), October 02, 2012, 11:50 AM.
There is no question that the Indian media is anti-Sikh. They will misrepresent Sikhs as aggressive, unlettered, uneducated and people who get angry over the most trivial of things. At least you read the book. Others just parrot or jump on the bandwagon, without the benefit of reading and critically examining the book. Good write-up!
4: Pashaura Singh (Riverside, California, USA), October 02, 2012, 8:42 PM.
First of all, my compliments to you, Sher Singh ji, for making so much effort to get the book and go through it thoroughly before making your comments. Well done! This is a timely response and sets the record straight. The celebrated author is a responsible and seasoned writer, and it is to her credit that she has brought the Sikh tradition to the world audience. We should be grateful to her. I am sure, the majority of the Sikhs in the diaspora will appreciate your stand on this issue. May Akal Purakh give you more power to stand for what is right through the columns of sikhchic.com in this age of communication revolution. I will certainly get the book and read it with much interest.
5: G C Singh (USA), October 02, 2012, 11:19 PM.
"Casual Vacancy" has become the fastest selling hard cover book ever. Miss Rowling has empathy and respect for Sikhs and highly appreciates the egalitarian principles of Sikhism. She has written the book after extensive research. I urge every Sikh to buy this book and show full support to her and thank her profusely for making a Sikh family as the central characters in her novel.
6: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, USA), October 03, 2012, 12:27 PM.
I posted this Daily Fix piece on my facebook wall yesterday to get the word out on the reality of the book as I notice there are many of "Sikh detractors" on facebook from India. How do we inform Ms.Rowling about this above piece and of how we, the majority of the Sikhs, feel about this book so that she knows that the detractors do not represent the entire community? Is there a Sikh organization in U.K. that can issue a statement on this matter? Can sikhchic.com contact her? I believe it's very important to share the above piece with her and show her how truly appreciative the Sikh community is of her.
7: Pritam Singh Grewal (Canada), October 03, 2012, 3:35 PM.
I immensely enjoyed reading the literary criticism of, as well as the thoughtful comments, on "The Casual Vacancy". Well done, sikhchic.com! Hope more books like this will follow.
8: Rano Singh (Scottsdale, Arizona, USA), October 03, 2012, 3:49 PM.
As a Sikh-American woman of Sikh-Indian heritage, I really appreciate Ms Rowling using a normal Sikh-British family/characters in her new book. Magical! Thank you, Ms Rowling!
9: Paramjit Singh Kohli (London, England), October 04, 2012, 5:51 AM.
I haven't read the book yet but I must congratulate the Sikh community world wide for having such scholars and people of letters (Sardar T.Sher Singh) who read and evaluated the book so thoroughly and appreciated the writer's aims and objectives. I will try and contact J.K.R. too to inform her of our gratitude to bring Sikhism to be talked and discussed about world-wide. I am buying the book and reading it first.
10: G C Singh (USA), October 04, 2012, 8:33 AM.
I just came across this news item that the Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, Indian Ambassador to the United States, Nirupama Rao and Consul General of India in Chicago, Dutta Tomar, will visit the gurdwara in suburban Oak Creek on Thursday to meet the families who had lost their loved ones in the recent tragedy. It is quite odd to see these Indian government minions trying to show that they are expressing sympathy and offering help to Sikh families in a far away land when none of them has ever cared or visited tens of thousands of innocent Sikh families closer to home in India, whose loved ones were murdered by the Congress party goons on the orders of their own Rajiv Gandhi and his cousin Arun Nehru and the leaders of these murderous mobs were rewarded with berths in his cabinet. Similarly last month, Indian Government agents/consulate officials tried to hog the limelight when Governor Brown signed two landmark legislations in favor of Sikhs although most of the lobbying and work had been done by Sikh civil rights organizations. These moves clearly show that the Indian government and its well funded agents will do any thing and every thing in interfering and controlling Sikh affairs in the diaspora. In fact, Indian propaganda networks have gone in overdrive in defaming Sikhs since the highly suspicious so called assassination attempt on Gen K S Brar - the loyal slave of his New Delhi masters who already has a long record of telling bold faced lies.
11: Jasleen Kaur (New York, USA), October 04, 2012, 9:58 AM.
I completely agree with Chintan Singh's comment. Is there any way that we can get this review published in a main stream newspaper?
12: Roop Dhillon (Reigate, United Kingdom), October 06, 2012, 5:13 PM.
Very good for Rowling to do this.
13: Roop Dhillon (Reigate, United Kingdom), October 10, 2012, 11:34 AM.
I have just purchased her book ...