Apr 13, 2016

Intolerance, Liberalism, Dissent, and the Arrogance of Power

One cannot be an Indian & stay insulated from the happenings that are tearing my country apart currently. To say that this deep divisiveness is unprecedented in India’s history or wholly unexpected, is to be na├»ve or deliberately ignorant. Starting from the Partition, to the Khalistan Movement, the Mandal Commission agitation, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, to the Godhra massacre, our checkered history has more stains than stars. Nor are these incidents such that they can be easily pushed under the rug of a distant past – party workers hacking members of rival parties to death, point blank shootings of critiques of Hinduism, calls for purging Mumbai of non-marathis, destruction of entire belts of Dalit villages in Haryana, rape & abduction of Hindu girls in Assam & WB – these incidents have continued to dot the pages of our national & regional dailies. It would be a matter of individual ideology & also depend on which data one would be likely to refer to in order to argue for or against the allegation that we are becoming more intolerant under the current government.

It is no secret that Liberals & intellectuals across the country openly mourned that “the fascists have won” when the BJP won a landslide victory in 2014. Nor can one blame them entirely -- that Mr Modi is cut from a very different cloth than the previous BJP PM Mr AB Vajpayee was quite apparent to all. Modi’s pedigree as a RSS stalwart who has made his way up the ranks of the party was proudly touted in his tenure as Gujarat CM & his pre-election campaign. His past record during the Godhra riots, completely unapologetic stance in its aftermath, and aura of arrogance, didn’t win him many friends. While his promised mandate to the electorate was reforms, minimum governance, and boost to manufacturing, little or no profress has been made on either of these areas. Economists like Swaminathan Ankleshwar Aiyer today lament that Modi has shown none of the Capitalist-minded reforms that many Liberals feared. Instead, turning on the TV these days means witnessing yet another public spat between the BJP & Kejriwal/Rahul Gandhi, or listening to obnoxious & utterly shameful pronouncements from minor BJP leaders & supporters. One’s heart goes out to BJP spokespersons like Nalin Kohli or Sambit Patra who are called upon every evening on primetime TV debate to defend the callous and insensitive remarks of their party colleagues. One thing is amply clear – the quality of public discourse in India is abysmal & belongs to the gutter. One needs only to follow/participate in such debates on Twitter (I’ve recently become quite active) to discover new & colourful abuse at the hands of the trolls – largely from Right Wing supporters.

Having said all this, I think the BJP’s political ascendency under the leadership of Mr Modi was welcome and much required for our country to gain political maturity, for many of us to actually grasp a genuine understanding of such noble text-book concepts as ‘secular’ & ‘nationalism’; for India’s intellectuals to acknowledge (if they have the courage to) that their ideologies and choices are barely a representative of the country’s electorate; for the ‘other’, who we easily label as ‘bhakt’ or ‘anti-national’ or ‘presstitude’, to lend their voice to the larger question of what should India be in the 21st century, or, to determine which kind of economic theory & history (both Left & Right or only one) should be taught in the country’s leading universities. So far, our public discourse has largely been dominated by the Left & that is also not without reason – the Right has always decried any kind of intellectual engagement depending instead on a version of muscular Hindu nationalism. Today, I am glad that I have access to mainstream RW news & opinion sites such as Swarajya & DailyO. While I may not agree with some of their columnists, I am at least exposed to a factually whetted & well-articulated point of counter-view to what is the prevailing thought in my country. And to be absolutely frank, I find RW commentators such as Ashok Mallick, Swapan Dasgupta, Sanjeev Sanyal, and Tavleen Singh far more bipartisan than any of their Left colleagues (Kavita Krishnan, Arundhati Roy, Brinda Karat).

For many days now we have heard people argue about the idea of india? This is a stupid argument in the first place. My idea of India changed drastically when I undertook a fairly long road trip of north-India earlier this year. My cousin -- who runs his small insurance business in Murshidabad district of WB and struggles to ward of the muslim goons who haunt the area often rants that ‘we should throw all muslims out of the country’ -- is quite different from my husband’s uncles from Madhya Pradesh who belong to the Hindu upper caste and openly advocate banning not only beef but all kinds of meat among Hindus. How can their idea of India concur with mine? I, who am writing this sitting in a Muslim country and enjoy my steak & red wine.

At Jhargola village in Rajasthan it was difficult for us to find a single shop in the local haat which sold clean cooking oil – mustard or vegetable. The local brand sold there is so badly adulterated that one can barely see through the foggy, dense mix inside the bottle. Till about a year ago, I worked at one of India’s largest private banks whose corporate brochure proudly claimed its network of 2500 branches & 12,000 ATMs. Yet, as we toured more than 1700 kms across Delhi & Rajasthan, we must’ve passed about 7 ATMs & only 4 branches operated by SBI, Union Bank & HDFC Bank. Mind you, I am talking about small towns which stretch across the NH7, not the heartland of our villages. In Mulund, I am spoilt for choice – Kotak, HDFC, Axis, SBI, Canara – you name it and you’ll find them all with 300 metres of my house. So, how can my experience of India and hopes and expectations from it be in any way similar to the priest’s family in Chittorgarh who wanted our advice about his elder daughter pursuing a career in Commerce?

I’ve always believed that the absence of choice is the worst fate than can befall us; bringing up millions of countrymen on a single, homogenized and sanitized ideology is dangerous. The greatest nation on Earth too is not immune to such danger. Why else would it be reeling under the threat of a presidential nominee who has openly insulted minorities, women, and gays and still hopes to occupy the most powerful office in the world? When you try too hard to accommodate the ‘other’ without realizing that its definition is fluid and ever-evolving, when political correctness takes precedence over the country’s interests, and when most of the country hasn’t attained the political and social maturity to even grasp what it means to be the ‘other’, we court such dangerous phenomenon as we are seeing in the world’s two largest democracies today.

For me the saddest day was not when the BJP won the election, but every time I hear one of my urban, salaried, ‘educated’ friends & colleagues evince the desire to turn India into a China (Kanhaiya Kumar would be shot in Tiananmen Square!) and speak glowingly of Saudi’s law & order (the punishment for rape is stoning; no wonder women are safe there! Kar sakenge humare desh mein?). Blaming the BJP is the most convenient & obviously lazy thing to do. It is far more difficult to introspect and accept historical mistakes, political mishaps and vote bank appeasements.

Apr 10, 2016

Notes on We Are Not Ourselves

It seems only fitting that I resume my book notes with Mathew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves (WANO), seeing as the book is about family (complete with its burdens of keeping up traditions & caring for its members), and forgetting (the state life reduces us to when we are nearly forced to forget why & how we loved the people we still are with for they have long since ceased to be themselves.)

I read somewhere that it took Thomas a decade to finish his novel & taste the fruits of success. A high school teacher in NY, he’d been working on his novel in between his class assignments. What never fails to surprise me is the unity of tone that an author is capable of maintaining when he’s plodding away at the same project for years on end (Donna Tratt’s Goldfinch is another example.) There is no abrupt deviation in the protagonist’s voice, no rude revelations about her character, and certainly no jarring breaks in between the novel’s different parts.

WANO opens with a dedication from King Lear, "We are not ourselves / When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind /To suffer with the body." Those familiar with Shakespeare’s play will recognize how pertinent they are in the context of what befalls Lear and how he is mightily reduced, and also subsequently elevated to. It hints at the diminishment that automatically follows when we are forced to abandon our true selves. While the major part of the novel focuses on a particular disease which brings about this diminishment, we also witness other ways in which people often forget their better selves, as in the case of the protagonist, Eileen’s mother.

At the novel’s centre is Eileen Tumulty, raised in an Irish-American immigrant family in Queens, NY. While the novel accommodates her scientist husband Ed and her son Connell later on, she remains the pivot from which all action flows.Thomas paints an authentic picture of the community Eileen and her family are a part of and which grants them their respective identities in America. The traits which will characterize Eileen for much of the novel and which will also determine much of how we, yhe readers, respond to her, are planted & described meticulously by Thomas in the book’s early sections. Her essential aloofness, her fierce desire to leave behind the gloomy environs of her childhood and aspire to a better life, her ambitions, her independence and sheer physical capacity for hard work, her wordless commitment to taking care of her own, irrespective of her personal feelings towards them – is all there in the first 200pages of the novel.

Studying to be a nurse so that she can one day get away from her childhood background of poverty and alcoholism, Eileen has no plans to marry when she meets Ed, a young neuroscientist who is as taken in by her as she is by him. While there is no doubt about how impressed she is by Ed, one cannot help but guess that part of her also sees Ed as an extension of her aspirations of material and intellectual ascendency. However, neither recognizes that there are huge differences in what each wants out of life and these differences in ideology, aspiration, intellectual power, and sheer will, forms a vivid backdrop of their long married years together. They are even different in what each wants for their son Connell and how they bond with him. Mathews great achievement lies in his depiction of their shared lives, the outbursts, unreasonable demands, emotional upheavals and occasional manipulations that most marriages are made up of.
When Ed is struck with early onset of Alzheimer’s, the novel begins its last and major section. What is remarkable about Thomas’ achievement is that what could have easily become a tear-jerker is transformed in his hands into a sacred gospel of other lives from which one can learn and be enriched. The reader feels privileged to be able to catch a glimpse of the magnificent spirit which animates Eileen and which is fully realized only in these later sections. It’s as if whatever we’ve known about her has only been a prep for this final revelation which strips away every impression and response we have garnered for her so far. Far from being distraught, Eileen accepts and tackles her husband’s illness in much the same way she had earlier accepted her mother’s irresponsible behavior. The underlying difference is, of course, the deep and unshakable love and pride she feels for him. If there is outrage, it is never directed at any deity or destiny, merely at those who now treat Ed as she knows he really isn’t – not quite himself.

Interspersed in the story of Eileen’s life is that of her son Connell, his extreme closeness with his father, his later quite-cavalier-yet-wholly believable response to his father’s disease, and final reconciliation with it.

Long after the novel ends, one is left with minute incidents and gestures that animate its narrative – a hand patting its knee compulsively, a letter from a father, a mother’s calm fury that she is on her own and must get through a long night, a humble and grateful acceptance that whie life deprives us of much, in the end, it also compensates in strange ways.