Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Keep calm and let karma find Zapiro

I’ve 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 2008-2012, he allegedly had strained relations with Indian cricket, and they were unhappy with having to deal with him during the planning of this December tour in South Africa, threatening to pull out. We would’ve lost about R500 million in revenue from the tour. Lorgat’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 unto 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. Their ability to generate such huge revenue means that countries like South Africa have good reason to hang onto its coattails.

Back 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 did 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 really necessary here to ensure we all keep our cool 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 was so morally reprehensible to the point of it needing to be censored – which it what Ram Maharaj and other Hindu officials are claiming.

If social commentators — cartoonists, columnist, poets, filmmakers, novelists, artists, academics etc — all started self-censoring what they felt will offend others, we will 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 practice 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 a Muslim property in a Muslim country so I feel they had every right to ask to not 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 re-appropriated for confusing and uncomfortable purposes, we awkwardly have to allow such trespasses for the sake of the greater good. Like in politics, there can be no holy cows in religion, not even Hinduism. And if Ganesha really is irked, karma knows where Zapiro stays.

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