October 3, 2012

Rowling and a religious controversy


A Sikh man at the Golden Temple

The most boring book in the world has sparked a religious controversy.

Sikh leaders in India have spoken out against passages in J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy in which a Sikh schoolgirl, Sukhvinder, is described by a classmate as “mustachioed, yet large-mammaried.”

The character, Fats, adds that “scientists remain baffled by the contradictions of the hairy man-woman.”

The Daily Mail reports Avtar Singh Makkar of India’s Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee as describing the words as “a slur on the Sikh community,” and adding:

Even if the author had chosen to describe the female Sikh character’s physical traits, there was no need for her to use provocative language, questioning her gender. This is condemnable.

The Guardian, however, has posted a bit of a retort to that notion with a story by Balpreet Kaur, a Sikh woman studying nueroscience at Ohio State, whose photograph was recently uploaded to Reddit and sparked a sometimes ridiculous, sometimes civil conversation about her facial hair. Kaur does not find Rowling’s passages offensive, stating:

Rowling’s character sheds light on to a reality that the Sikh nation is still struggling to fully understand, acknowledge and accept: a reality of bullying, and superficial impressions. Why can’t we, as a Sikh nation, write our own narratives and read them to the world through our actions, instead of protesting against the perceptions of the outside world?

This is why I have no problem with Rowling’s description of a female Sikh being labelled as “mustachioed, yet large-mammaried” on page 120.

The offending character in the book, Fats, is reportedly a teenage Nietzsche obsessive. Now, I admit — eagerly — that I haven’t read the book, but isn’t ‘teenage Nietzsche obsessive’ synonymous with ‘bit of a dickhead’? At the very least it indicates extreme lapses in judgement. Placing idiotic comments in the mouth of an idiot seems a fairly standard thing for a novelist to do, and is also historically an important way in which artists and comedians have challenged prejudice. Though given the collective yawn with which her novel’s been greeted elsewhere, perhaps Rowling is glad of the criticism.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.