Why Vir Das' standup special I Come From Two Indias deserves to be criticised — not for being offensive, but for being obvious

The fact is all countries are ironically divided in some way or the other. To constitute them as merely the sum of these opposites is neither insightful nor revelatory.

Manik Sharma November 17, 2021 13:01:29 IST
Why Vir Das' standup special I Come From Two Indias deserves to be criticised — not for being offensive, but for being obvious

Devil’s Advocate is a rolling column that sees the world differently and argues for unpopular opinions of the day. This column, the writer acknowledges, can also be viewed as a race to get yourself cancelled. But like pineapple on pizza, he is willing to see the lighter side of it.

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Vir Das, the occasionally funny man, who is perhaps India’s biggest English-speaking import in the international comedy circuit, says in the middle of his latest act I Come From Two Indias – "I come from an India where the AQI is 9,000 but we still sleep on roofs and look at the stars." Such ironies make up the rest of his six-minute clip that has caused outrage on social media.

Das says, and perhaps rightly so, in principle "that we worship women during the day, and gangrape them at night." This part especially has invited vile outrage after which Das also had to apologise, and claim that he was indeed proud of the country he calls home.

Instead of criticising Das’ act for being selectively offensive – even if largely unfaultable – we should be critiquing it for just how obvious and un-enlightening it is. No country exists without irony, and putting a couple of them together into a sock ball to splatter your senses with is no performance either – at least not an impressive one.

Das is one of the pioneers of stand-up comedy in this country and has evidently contributed to its popularity over the last decade or so. He has, to his credit, remained politically vocal unlike a lot of comedians – you know who they are – who believe in punching down, or at the most, sideways. In the clip, Das points to the fact that the British may have left the country years ago but we still use the oriental coinage ‘the ruling party’ to denote the party in power. To be honest, I do not see a huge problem with that, but what is also clear, and painfully so, is that Das is not aware of his own oriental lens. The fact that he sees India through the brands of inequality and irony, as if they are solely an Indian possession. The fact is, no country, neither where Das comes from or where he performs during his tours, is without its inner frictions or bitter ironies. No country exists as if uniformly aligned to a principle, or principally aligned to a certain form – be it of thought or tangible existence.

Das’ brand of comedy works better offshore because it helps casually generalise entire nations to a few notions that typify them to an audience of certain cultural heritage. To NRIs or even people from other countries, a country as vast as India can only be accessible through its many clichéd characteristics. If 100 years ago it was the snake charmer, today, it is the pollution, inequality, the inability to do things right, and so on. To this day, fiction about India continues to be written in chawls and bastis because to the foreign, English-reading audience, it is what energises their conscience, their inclination to play saviour or sympathiser. None of this is to say that these horrible realities do not exist and do not make up the many Indias that Das talks about. But surely a country as much as it is handicapped by circumstance is also prodigious in the steps that it has taken despite them.

The US is besotted by race issues, France divided on how it should deal with religious freedoms, and England over its participation in the European Union. Even robotic China has its fair share of pro-democratic flare-ups every now and then.

The fact is all countries are ironically divided in some way or the other. To constitute them as merely the sum of these opposites is neither insightful nor revelatory.

Further, to continue or feed into the oriental perception that India can, as a narrative, only be reconciled to the human mind as a binary of different forms of suffering, is imprudent. It is opportunism at best, and a failure to introduce native nuance at worst. There is no denying the treatment of women in this country, the economic numbers, or other markers that show us in poor light. But like the marks in an examination you jave just failed in, they do not define the entirety of the country, its calibre, its accomplishments or its eventual ability to shake itself free of whatever Das thinks ails us, and makes for good material.

This is not an argument to get Das to parrot the India brand, or sell it as a godly destination to heaven seekers, but an argument to urge people to shift their lens, and also see the country for what it is not, what it has moved beyond, what it has overcome, and what it has helped others do. Perhaps it would have served better had we not outraged over Das’ comments for their veracity is undeniable. But maybe just critiqued his approach to comedy, and framing his country as an imperial object that again, for the lack of a better word, needs cultural, if not political, rescue. Perfection, in a national sense, can never be achievable because it is, at least in terms of democratic values, undefinable. For that matter, there are not two Indias, but infinite Indias — some of them anger us, some of them confound us, but some remain worthwhile for living within.

Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.

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