The persistent veils

When I tell them that I do not understand race, they remind me of caste.

I tell them that race is only one of many metaphors for the notion of purity and community–like religion [and caste, if you will, although caste is not religion] and nation. They tell me that race is a problem peculiar to this country and that as a foreigner I cannot be expected to understand it. I cannot tell them that I have met it just as I have met caste–as something other and alien to my thinking. Or that my Indian consciousness is alien to the one they imagine for me. How do you dishonor your host?

I would like to remind both peoples that things have changed. Again. That globalization has happened and that its process has been akin to the lifting of partitions within a fish tank. The water, the occupants, the territories, even the axes of reference, have changed irrecoverably. Never again will the same boundaries of nation and belonging be drawn, and not in the same way. That is the way of time, and history. I would like to remind them that we have lived through a century of great migration and great erasures. If we are still who we were and where we were, we are in the same place only in the way the survivors of a flood come back to their huts after a flood, a famine, a plague or a conquest. We are continually trying to rebuild ourselves in exactly the same place. Refugees replacing ourselves.

In the process of running away and running towards, we have chosen our essentials among the many that swept by–theories, praxes, coat-hooks, conveniences. Some chose to define a name and a face by color (race) so that they would know who belonged to the new place and who would receive the new currency in privileges; some chose religion (and forgot faith in the bargain); others chose nation and region, and chose to go to war on its strength. None forgot their old needs, and neither did they forget the greed for the new. Starved of so much, covetousness and parsimony became kin to the inheritors.

Space, territory, control, power. The desires and dreams haven’t changed. Perhaps the terms have become spacious nodes of meaning, inhabited and embattled by different forms of the terms at various times–inserted into present history by each of us as we live out the interpretation–but the iconic (shadow, or underlying) forms of organization haven’t changed. The persistence of memory.

In these cross-currents of deciduous and perennial things, we tend to hold on to the spar of knowledge that we find most comforting and most likely to carry us through. If enough of us find similar spars, the laws of survival dictate the ruling paradigm, or a paradigm shift. So we know, so we live–encouraging the embrace of the other in the neighbour’s yard but barring it in our own little kitchen garden.

Someday, I hope to cut a little hole in the hedge, and look through, as I might have done when we were children.