No holy cows in satire

2013-10-31 00:00

I HAVE tried, really, really, tried, to get offended by Zapiro’s cartoon, but I just cannot. I really don’t get what all the fuss is about.

Even as I stare at a picture of our beloved Hindu god Ganesha, who is mythologised as the son of Shiva and Parvathi, and brother of Muruga, and as I stare once again at the caricature in the Sunday Times, I’m simply unfazed. Maybe my sensibilities are a bit warped, but as a Hindu, my beliefs don’t hinge on what others think of them.

The story so far is that Cricket SA (CSA) is sacrificing its CEO, Haroon Lorgat, to please the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). When Lorgat headed the International Cricket Council (ICC) from 2008 to 2012, he allegedly had strained relations with Indian cricket, so they were unhappy with having to deal with him during the planning of the December tour in South Africa and threatened to pull out. We would’ve lost about R500 million in revenue from the tour. Logart’s sudden suspension comes under the guise of an ICC probe into alleged misconduct, but critics say he’s the scapegoat.

The cartoon is rather clever.

Ganesha represents Indian cricket and this works on many levels. He is an instantly recognisable deity of India’s biggest religion, Hinduism. He is worshipped first before the start of any prayer and plays a gatekeeper role, allowing us access to the other gods. Our invocation of Ganesha is essential to progress further in any ritual or process. Cricket in India is like a religion itself, uniting Indians in a mystical frenzy that few could understand. The adulation given to their men in blue, the Tendulkars of the game, is not unlike the unwavering devotion reserved for deities. Yet, the economic fruits of cricket make it a multibillion rupee industry, generating 80% of global cricket wealth. To access this Indian powerhouse, you’ve got to curry favour with the BCCI. Its ability to generate such huge revenue means that countries such as South Africa have good reason to hang on its coat-tails.

In February, Australian commentator Dean Jones wrote that “money speaks all languages, and India’s power has made all cricket nations bow to the needs of the BCCI”.

The trance-like obedience of CSA, willing to sacrifice whomever at the altar of sport capitalism, is well-depicted by Zapiro. The SA Hindu Dharma Sabha, however, has understandably taken the knee-jerk, emotional reaction, and made the usual hullaballoo about being outraged and mocked. That’s their role, I suppose, and we need cultural watchdogs to protect minority rights.

But I disagree. I’m with Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt, whose diplomatic response was that the cartoon isn’t about Hinduism, it’s about corruption in cricket. Merely using Hindu iconography isn’t disrespectful, and “to read the cartoon as an expression of disrespect to Hinduism is to misconstrue the point”.

It’s with some irony that this debate broke out as matriculants geared up for their English examinations. Knowing the difference between literal and metaphorical levels of meaning is necessary here to ensure we all keep our cools when satire stings.

Zapiro — who owes us no apology because he has done nothing wrong —

concedes that “my criteria as to what is an appropriate metaphor may be different from the criteria of some devotees”. He’s politely telling us to take a hike, because if you feel insulted, that’s your business. His job is social commentary.

Given the metaphorical intent behind the image, I’d be surprised if anyone could make a decent philosophical argument that the cartoon is so morally reprehensible that it needs to be censored —which is what Ram Maharaj and other Hindu officials are claiming. If social commentators — cartoonists, columnist, poets, film-makers, novelists and academics — all started self-censoring what they felt could offend others, we would lose all stimuli for a robust public sphere. You need a thick skin to enjoy a secular democracy.

As one cyberspace reader commented: “Beliefs are open to mockery and criticism — you can practise it freely of course, but you cannot dictate to those outside your religion to adhere to your religious prescripts.”

But of course, bigotry cannot masquerade as free speech, and when there’s a real violation of others’ dignity, even satirists must be called out.

But those blurred lines that traverse into hate speech or blatantly disrespectful intentions were not crossed here. As another blogger pointed out: “When Rihanna behaved inappropriately at the mosque, she did it on Muslim property in a Muslim country, so I feel they had every right to ask her not to do so. In this instance, Zapiro did not desecrate anything and he certainly did not accuse Hinduism of anything.”

When we untangle ourselves from the emotions roused by seeing our homely icons being reappropriated for confusing and uncomfortable purposes, we awkwardly have to allow such trespasses for the sake of the greater good.

As in politics, there can be no holy cows in religion, not even Hinduism. And if Ganesha really is irked, karma knows where Zapiro stays.

• Suntosh R. Pillay is a clinical psychologist who works in a public hospital in Durban. He writes independent social commentary for print and online media.

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