Roasting Missionaries and Other Disruptions
This was originally published on Quibblers & Scribblers.
A PASSAGE TO DELHI
After MCing the first televised Miss India Pageant in Bombay in 1993, I returned to Delhi, packed up my farmhouse in Mehrauli, and decamped to Landour, a former military cantonment above the town of Mussoorie, a hill station in the foothills of the Garhwal Himalayas where functionaries of the British Raj moved during the wilting inferno of summer months. I had a memoir to attempt for Viking Penguin about my adventures as the lone American screenwriter in Bollywood, and my experiences filming on location in Kashmir in 1989-90, the Valley’s final year of relative peace and autonomy before thirty-plus years of civil unrest and iron-fisted military occupation by the Indian Army.
There was also a brewing scandal about the Pageant having been flagrantly rigged — it was. As the primary witness to what happened, I had no intention of validating it and pissing off the largest media conglomerate on the Subcontinent, probably once again ending up the subject of debate in the Lok Sabha, India’s House of Commons. My visa might be revoked; worse, I could be declared persona non grata for life, like Steven Spielberg following his offensive portrayal of monkey-brain-eating upper-caste Hindus in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a cautionary tale that I, as the lone American screenwriter in Bollywood, kept in mind at all times. The wisest move was to disappear for a good six months.
After days of glute-busting treks looking for a place to rent up and down the crestlines of hills that Mussoorie straddles, I rented Seaforth Lodge, a villetta with eccentrically proportioned rooms, overly aspirational ceilings, and the ultimate verandah in the country that gave us the word, with fat whitewashed columns overlooking the storied peaks of Bandar Punchh. “Mountainforth Lodge” would’ve been more accurate.
I enrolled in Landour’s famous language school in an attempt to finally learn Hindi, or at least get a sense of why, after so long in India, and already speaking three languages fluently, I wasn’t making progress. As I found out after the first bewildering tutorials, Hindi ranks with Chinese and Japanese as a “third tier language,” the most difficult kind for a native English speaker to learn, and vice versa.
My neighbors across the road and up the hill were Bengali actor Victor Banerjee (A Passage to India), his wife Maya, and their two daughters, who attended Woodstock, an American boarding school perched midway up the mountain between Mussoorie and Landour.
I kept a respectful distance from Victor at first, as I would any celebrity I wasn’t properly introduced to. Victor had the added social stature — in a small community comprised of a roughly equal mix of Indians and Westerners associated with Woodstock and the language school — of being one of a handful of Indian actors who had some recognition in the West.
It wasn’t a diversity or representation issue, more a question of taste: Hollywood movie stars were equally ignored by the vast majority of Indians, and for the most part still are. Indians prefer their cinema, their music; bland, American-infused Western pop culture bores itself to death by the time it gets around the world to spicy, joyously percussive India.
Victor and I first engaged after he shot our local tribe of langurs — the gray-furred, black-faced monkeys that are the species belonging to Lord Hanuman, the Hercules of the Hindu pantheon — out of his orchard with a non-lethal pellet rifle, to stop them dining on his fruit. Screaming with indignation, they’d bound across the road and settle on the corrugated-metal roof of Seaforth Lodge, right above my head as I was struggling to teach myself how to be a “real writer” of prose, as opposed to an unduly respected scribbler of what amounted to adult-comic-book text and dialogue bubbles.
The first time it happened, I leaped up in surprise and ran out onto my always-camera-ready, period-film verandah, thinking it was an earthquake. Victor apologized, breaking open the dialogue between two talkative, professionally extroverted men. From then on, whenever Victor’s pellet rifle went off, and the screams and thumps of outraged, beautiful simians hit my percussive roof, I strode onto my stately verandah bellowing “Damn you, Banerjee!” imitating Victor’s actorly voice and diamond-cut Indian English accent.
“Sorry, Killough!” he’d yell back.
Victor and Maya were the de facto leaders of Woodstock’s PTA. Over cocktails of local Old Monk rum and Campa Cola — at the time, Western goods like real Coca Cola and top-shelf imported liquor were either restricted, heavily taxed, or banned outright — I listened to alarming issues with the Western staff at the school.
There were credible allegations of ephebophilia — the correct terms for love of high-school-age teens; ‘pedophilia’ is prepubescent children — between the boys’ dorm master and students in his charge, as well as the widespread coerced conversions of Hindu students to Christianity, exorcisms of rock-and-roll T-shirts, and other abuses of authority by the mostly White American staff. The school’s Indian parents — mostly upper-caste Hindus, which even the British, and the Muslim Mughals before them, never attempted to convert — were too afraid to speak up, fearing retribution against their children; Woodstock and another school in Ooty, in the South, were surefire gateways to an American college education.
The missionaries who taught and ran the day-to-day of the school were Midwesterners belonging to Christian sects that I’d never heard of, namely Mennonites. As an Episcopalian New Yorker born on the Upper East Side and raised in Europe, these weren’t the sort of Americans I had any experience of; until I move to Los Angeles in my late thirties, my America was limited to the City, the Hudson Valley, and a smattering of New England.
What puzzled me most was the fact the head of the school’s board of trustees, Bob Alter, was a fellow Anglo-American Yankee, a Presbyterian like my father. A retired ordained minister, Alter was a Yale Divinity School graduate, a reference point I could grasp experientially because of Yale’s place in the bedrock of my socio-cultural group. I also went to Wesleyan University, which is so close to Yale that they share library privileges. Bob’s son, Stephen Alter, also went to Wesleyan, and lived in Mussoorie near the school at the time.
In other words, the Alters were “my people” in the truest sense. While there were plenty of incidents of adults preying on teens in boarding schools everywhere in the world, a full-on institutional culture of forced conversion to another faith wasn’t just anathema, it was a complete breach of the foundational principles of my natal world, where the protocols of respect toward freedom of religion and speech are rightfully taken more seriously than the Ten Commandments, with the exception of those three that are codified by most governments as criminal acts.
I was in a typically awkward position regarding missionaries in India. Earlier that year, a film I wrote for the late Pamela Rooks, an Indian director, won top honors at the Film Festival of India. The awkward part is it was based on the true story of an Anglican missionary who rescued orphaned girls from sacred prostitution in South Indian temples. Mira Nair, an Oscar-winning Indian director who went to school with Pamela, had yanked me aside at party following the film’s premiere, just after I stepped away from a spin around the dancefloor with Pamela’s boyfriend’s mother, Third Her Highness Gayatri Devi, Dowager Princess of Jaipur.
“I found the characters believable, and that’s a lot coming from me,” said Mira, with all the entitled directness of a Harvard alum. “But my question is, why make this film?”
“Because Pamela paid me to?”
It wasn’t until years later, during the rise and rise of Wokeness, which originated at schools like Harvard, that I understood what Nair’s gripe was: Our film portrayed a White Christian rescuing Brown girls from amoral Hindus. That it was a based on a true story, fictionalized by Rooks herself in a novel, about the real oppression of pubescent girls being trafficked and ritualistically raped for the rest of their lives, took a back seat to a new Puritanism seeping from America’s top-tier schools that was beginning to rewrite history and refashion Western culture in a Marxist oppressor-oppressed model, with Whites as the eternal oppressor and Nonwhites as the oppressed.
The Woodstock School narrative happening in that moment, however, had no redemptive moral value; it was a pure abuse of power in order to advance the most pernicious type of passive colonialism: religion. We Westerners were guests in India, a country with an all-embracing culture of openness and hospitality that I’ve loved with a devotee’s fervor from the moment I first stepped foot there.
Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not convert thy hosts’ children through fear and intimidation.
Much as I wanted to ride down to Woodstock astride my white high horse and set them straight, it wasn’t my place to take on an established American prep school, the equivalent of Exeter in India.
Then an unusual opportunity presented itself that would make my opinion heard “on no uncertain terms,” as my mother would say: The parents of that year’s graduating class asked me to come up with the entertainment for the traditional annual dinner that they hosted for the school’s staff on the eve of the commencement ceremony.
I suggested a good ol’ American comedy roast, which they’d never heard of, but how could it be bad? I’d MCed the Miss India Pageant; I’d been a popular guest speaker from time to time in English and Journalism classes at Woodstock; most importantly, I’d brought the house down as the fundraising auctioneer at the school’s annual fair, raising a record amount for various school initiatives.
Given that it was an event in recognition of the staff’s contribution to the lives of their students, I proposed the “Golden Lingam Awards,” a spoof on the Academy Awards. In place of Oscar statuettes, I would present gold-painted potatoes as lingams, phallic symbols representing Lord Shiva that sit in drop-shaped dishes symbolizing his wife Durga’s cosmic vagina, or yoni; in other words, the stuff of an evangelical rock-tee-shirt-exorcizing Christian’s nightmares.
I showed a draft of the script to Victor when I went up to ask if I could hitch a ride to Delhi after graduation, a six-hour drive across some of the gnarliest roads in the developing world, with no traffic regulations, none, a Mad Max-style joyride from start to finish; it was common among neighbors in Landour to carpool. But Victor wasn’t going down anytime soon.
After reading the script, he said, “You wouldn’t dare go through with this, Killough.”
“Of course I will, Banerjee!”
“Bet you won’t. If I lose, I’ll drive you down to Delhi, and not a single paisa for petrol from you.”
The roast hit its intended target, and then some. I eviscerated the missionaries, their beliefs, practices, and whatever else I deemed wrong about what they were doing. Worse, I mocked them, and tried to hand idol-phobic low-church Protestants a pantheistic fertility symbol. Most of the faculty and administrators stormed out midway through my routine; only one accepted his golden lingam. Many were in tears. I was told later that they held a group prayer for me.
The Indian parents were shocked to find out what a roast really meant, that it wasn’t a bunch of dad jokes — and what was wrong with a lingam? Sacredness in Hinduism is more flexible than it is in the West.
But the parents were so deeply appreciative. An Indian father I’d never met came up, clasped my hand, tears of a different kind than the missionaries’ welling in his eyes, “Thank you, sir, thank you.”
“You did it Killough! You fucking did it! I can’t believe you did it!” Victor howled victoriously, over and over, thumping the steering wheel, all the way to Delhi.
I wasn’t so sure. I kept seeing those perfectly sweet, eager-to-please people — so convinced of their virtuousness, of the moral correctness of their one true religion, of the certainty that they were helping misguided kids in a backward country come to the light of truth, and into the bosom of salvation — on their knees, sobbing and praying for me. It was my secular truth rejecting their spiritual fictions, and upsetting people in the process. I was a terrible person.
Victor said, “I saw Bob Alter on the road this morning, absolutely furious! I said, ‘Bob, the real reason you’re upset isn’t because it happened; it’s because one of your own did it.’” My message had reached my personal target in all this, my fellow Anglo-American Yankee, who up until then apparently had no idea what was really going on at his school.
In due course, Rev. Alter launched an investigation. The headmaster was removed, the worst abusers among the missionary staff were dismissed, and stricter oversight was implemented, along with protocols for parents’ concerns to be heard without fear of retribution toward their children.
The first was a couple of years after it happened, while I was being driven to my initiation into a traditional Persian Sufi order by a senior dervish, the name for practitioners of that atheistic mystical path who belong to a recognized order within the Islamic world. Within the practice itself, a Sufi is a saint, either living or dead, preferably of Rumi’s stature. A dervish is a disciple of various degrees of standing; his counterpart in Tibetan Buddhism would be a lama.
Before I underwent that purifying rite of passage, I felt the need to unburden myself to my sponsor of what I felt was the most harm I’d ever inflicted on anyone. After a pause to consider the story from a Sufi point of view, Dervish Sr. said, “Sounds like they deserved it.”
That wasn’t the reaction I expected from a decades-long adherent to what is known as “the path of love.” At the very least I expected penance and an admonishment never to do something like that again.
Dervish Sr.’s viewpoint was explained a few months later, when we attended a yearly gathering of the Order in Washington, D.C. We were packing up after breakfast, tiptoeing around another senior dervish still miraculously sleeping through his own snoring in a corner the communal sleeping area . When he couldn’t be roused with increasingly loud cajoling words, my sponsor kicked him in the back, jolting him awake.
Stunned, I said, “What sort of mohabbat is that?” referring to the Sufi concept of loving-kindness toward all of creation.
“There are many different forms of mohabbat,” Dervish Sr. replied.
SOCIALISM BY ANY OTHER NAME IS JUST AS STINKY
At the time the missionary roast took place, India was a failing socialist state. The closed economy, created in the name of self-sufficiency, wrecked the head start the country had after Independence, just as it destroyed the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. It wasn’t until India switched to an open-market economy and joined the rest of the liberal democratic world in the late 90s that it began to achieve the goals it had hoped to achieve under a Marxist model.
It’s unbelievable to me that we are still fighting an ideology that is an impractical pipe dream, addictively alluring, but ultimately an impractical hinderance to viable, sustained social progress. The world has largely embraced American-style open-market liberal democracy; in time, the last holdouts, like China and North Korea, will join the rest of us. Yet here we are, still chasing a Marxist weasel round and round a mulberry bush.
What sustains me as a professional storyteller — as I embark on a new journey with this newsletter, partly to unravel Woke fictions that my fellow well-meaning liberals take at face value — is the fact that while writing the missionary roast story for this introductory essay, I felt no less remorse than I did on that drive to Delhi with Victor immediately after I delivered it. However, given the positive changes that my actions and words kicked off, I don’t regret doing it.
I hope to reach Conservatives as well, but they’re already sitting on the sidelines watching Liberals immolate themselves on pyres stacked with false martyrdoms and racist rewritings of history, clapping sarcastically like the high-school jock-bullies they too often are. When Congress passed a resolution a few days ago condemning “socialism,” what they meant was Wokeism, not slashing “socialist entitlements.”
What strengthens my resolve is not the 100 Democrats who didn’t support the resolution, but the 112 who did. Those 112 know what Wokeism really is. But the reality is that Wokeism is to Democrats what Trump is to Republicans: A loud, boorish collection of lies and rage that have taken over the party.
More than OG pseudo-socialist Americans like Bernie Sanders, sensible Liberal politicians are forced to bend over backwards to humor the Squad, a raucous clutch of hypocritical radicals — a feminist in a hijab? — led by a highly articulate, voluble New Yorican woman who has taken to bopping up and down at the lectern, using repetition that builds to a crescendo, like a Southern Baptist pastor bringing the Spirit down among his congregation.
That’s because Wokeism, under the more respectable name of Progressivism, is a fundamentalist religion based on nothing but stories and beliefs. In that respect, AOC is just keeping it real with her appropriation of Black religious performativities.
As I’ll explain in the first of four ‘Establishing Shot’ posts that will be the pillars that support my side of the argument, Wokeism is nothing more than a highly sophisticated set of what I call “specious-truthy” conspiracy theories, connected to each other by rickety “intersectionalities.”
These pretzels of pure opinion — formally known as dialectic — are deliberately confusing, not just because of their specious-truthiness: Critical Theory, the basis of Wokeism, jumbles and obscures reality, science and history using a language constructed for the very purpose of creating an unending game of slippery snakes and ladders, intended for intellectuals who are fluent in a language that nobody else understands.
Final analogy: Wokeism is like that classic big-city street hustle, the three-cup trick, with reality as the elusive ball, and modern antiracism, MeToo feminism, and gender-queer activism as the three cups.
“ONE OF YOUR OWN DID IT”
Victor’s point to Bob Alter was obviously correct: Had Victor himself, as an Indian Hindu, compromised his daughters’ futures by doing something similar to my missionary roast — and he’s a far more convincing performer than I — nothing would’ve changed. The fact that it was done by me, one of Alter’s own both racially and ethnically, packed a far more meaningful punch, one that actually caused meaningful change.
There are the eight reasons I am “one of your own” enough to write about this, and hopefully reach the Woke themselves, just as I reached Bob Alter:
As the former spouse of a critical theory teacher at the University of London, whose career was destroyed by the misguided prejudices of his colleagues — the intrinsic evilness of our White maleness cancels our gayness — I will explain my take on this phony philosophy that is the basis of Wokeism as clearly as I can.Please be patient: It’s like trying to break down, abstract splash by abstract splash, how a painting pretending to be a genuine da Vinci is really the forgery of a Jackson Pollock pretending to be a genuine da Vinci. Or something like that.
As a survivor of systematic childhood abuse still being treated for real PTSD — in other words, not something I picked up from an interpretation of my ancestors’ struggles, or by watching video footage of police brutality— I will explain why victimhood is a mind-destroying trap camouflaged as a safe space and comfort zone. I understand in every fiber of my being how easy it is to believe they’re out to get you. You’re not unjustified, but clinging to victimhood is only making it worse. It’s also letting your abusers win.
As a gay man of a certain age, belonging to the LGBT equivalent of the “great generation” that fought for equal rights, acceptance, but most of all “survived the 80s,” against all odds, I am well within my rights to sound the alarm as loudly as I can about the physically harmful damage that gender-queer activists are inflicting on the young, as well as our misrepresentation by female impersonators hiding under the halo of the LGBT struggle, who pull down millions a year grotesquely parodying an entire sex, in what is nothing less than a form of blackface.
As a self-described “Orthodox Atheist” I will explain what that means, how I got there via the aforementioned Sufi path, which continues through ongoing psychotherapy. I will point subscribers toward thinkers and doers who I believe represent productive modern philosophies.Tangentially, I will explain the benefits of being a “Silver-Lining Optimist,” as opposed to Positivist-Optimist, which is nothing more than quick-fix fortune cookie quotes to quiet nervous minds.
As an establishment Anglo-American New York Yankee of the kind most often described by the acronym that spells the nastiest flying pest in the garden, I will break the “never complain, never explain” omertà of my socio-cultural group to explain who true White privilege, and the realities of our culture, which is the foundation of America itself. By knowing us, you know yourselves better.
As someone who grew up an “Other” in a foreign country, who has spent most of his life living and working abroad — to the extent that “abroad” isn’t a realistic way of describing my worldview — I will explain that no American is really that much of an Other at all. Diversity is about celebrating our differences, not imposing sameness.
As the ultra-liberal son of an establishment Republican honcho, I know the Conservative mindset so well that it’s reflexive. While I consider myself apartisan, a step beyond nonpartisan, the fact is that I’m so ultra-liberal that most Liberals are too conservative by comparison. If I take a position against Progressive doctrine at the moment, that doesn’t mean that I’ve been pushed to the Right. It means I’d like to see balance restored within liberalism.
As a man who has worked mostly with women, whose friends are almost equally divided between the sexes, I have enough experience to offer insight into MeToo/Time’s Up feminism from a supportive position that is also one of “many forms of mohabbat” — in other words, every girl can use a bit of tough love now and then, darling.
SO WHAT ABOUT SCRIBBLES?
The Kashmiri saying is, “If you give someone chilis, give them a glass of water, too.” Scribbles are meant to balance the jolt of my attempts to kick the Woke awake with something more lighthearted and entertaining.
Scribbles are an evolution of my group blog, which was primarily insiders’ critiques of filmed content, fashion and the arts. We’ll also be launching a podcast later in the spring, featuring interviews with an eclectic range of creative professionals.
It’s also well past time we talked honestly about the biggest cultural monster of them all: Hollywood.
Thanks for reading.