The Truth About J.K. Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy'

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 for her book, "Shakespeare's Imagery."

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.

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 approach 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 their recent attack on Rowling's new novel hits a new low.

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:

Since I live virtually in the middle of "nowhere," 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 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 the reader's 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 Amritsar's "Golden Temple" last year.

That is exactly what J.K. Rowling's book does today.

And predictably, such attention -- any positive attention -- alarms our detractors, who then spiral into a tizzy of 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. Though described as having been a rowing champion once, 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, an obnoxious 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 well-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 thrown in 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 one 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. With warts and all.

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 you are able to read a book cover to cover, please read this one. Sure, there is a risk it will enlighten you, even entertain you. Certainly, it'll dispel some of your pre-conceived notions.

If you enjoy it, good. If you don't, just move on to another book.

But you won't know, will you, unless to read it?