Our own holy things

On nationalisms, and other gods

We imagine our origins and our gods above and beyond us, building with the partitions of our selves the means of our own happiness and sorrow. These are the “Archimedean points” from which we move our worlds, so precious to us that we are willing to pollute our Ganges to wash away the stains from our dreams. Nothing discredits our cherished dreams, nothing is rendered unusable. We might speak in parentheses sometimes, but the dreams endure tenaciously in the middle, between ideals and any resistance to them. We condemn what we must and shift our borders of purity, assert what we can, but our hearts hold close their own holy things and anoint them with clay-myrrh. The vast freedom of our personal gods.

“And no one will ever know / whether the picture he saw clearly

as in a mirror was pre-determined / by his discipline and study

of old lore and by his innate capacity / for transcribing and translating

the difficult secret symbols,  / no one will ever know how it happened

…whether it was a sort of spiritual optical-illusion

…no one would ever know / if it could be proved mathematically

…that he saw

(or thought he saw) as in a mirror

…No one will know exactly how it came about, / but we are permitted to wonder

if it had possibly something to do / with the vow he had made–”

[from H.D.’s  “The Flowering of the Rod” Trilogy (40)-(41).]

Prescription for Possibility: Defenses and Plans

“There is a tide…,” but is this one?: On the utility of a movement such as the one in support of Anna Hazare’s call against systemic corruption

Responsible critiques of the support exhibited for Anna Hazare should separate the man from the cause and the movement—they should ask ‘What is being fought? By whom? What for?’–not easy when a man like Hazare is the ‘face’/symbol of widespread frustration and a catchphrase for its proposed solution.

As a review of criticisms in print and on the web from the last months will show, a call and a rallying point (for less corruption, more transparency) that should have been supported in some minimal way by every citizen–in principle, with criticism, with appeals to moderation and forethought–was instead attacked and vilified. What should have been celebrated—a sense of rudimentary civic responsibility, a blind pride in allying good causes with good ‘nationalism,’ a wish on the part of a burgeoning workforce to see some changes in one’s own country that one could be proud of, however misguided these impulses were—was viewed with suspicion, rejected and scorned. The lessons of the last subjugation still quicken in our blood–divide and rule. The ‘movement’ has been described as undemocratic or anarchic, its tactics as fascist; some have criticized Hazare and his supporters saying that he is not inclusive; in their own ways Arundhati Roy and Bukhari were both insidious in their divisive tactics, and we would be fools to fall for them.

‘We-know-better’ criticisms are useful and necessary in any democratic process, but their utility wanes when they cease to illuminate the problem and solution, to clarify the necessity or constraints upon both, or to be anabolic in general and be part of an ongoing effort to improve the situation.

This is, then, a plea for possibility. Criticise tactics, criticise methods and means, but support the main cause and do all things possible to keep awareness high and participation continuous among the people. If detractors do not consider Hazare’s movement democratic or inclusive or realistic enough, let them democratize anti-corruption awareness as a whole. It is possible to engage with the issue, even with divided agendas, even if one does not want Hazare as a talisman.

If, vis-à-vis this cause, we claim to be acting on our principles, or by basic principles of honesty or expediency, then the time has come to ponder why, as citizens (who admittedly break and consent to break little laws all the time to further our ends, we ‘have to’ grease those palms, lubricate those signatures) we are now willing to break laws to force a corrupted government to reform governance.

It is time to recapitulate, indeed, what those words mean that were used to support and demonize the movement, and the nature of the social and political contract that India was made from as well as the one it has evolved into. In fact, it is time to ask what ideas of citizenship the supporting thousands in this drama are drawing upon and aiming for through their chants of support.

It is no good following the definitional principles of other countries when we are trying to craft indigenous solutions. Through publicly debated positive movements such as the one supporting Hazare, we will and must inexorably define, collectively, what we are as a country. These will be our narratives, the stories and structures that give place and meaning to our histories, and it is up to us to reconcile local narratives and visions with a just vision and narrative for India.

Comparability and Context

In principle, the central government has been even-handed in its reflexive treatment of dissent: Hazare and his supporters, Irom Sharmila, protests in Kashmir. That is, it has tried to shut down and discredit each one. Detractors of Hazare found ammunition for contrast when the government could not ignore the middle masses any more, unlike what it is seen to be doing in the North and North-East. But the questions around Kashmir and the situation in NE India are very different from the question of political corruption, although they are not unrelated.

Irom Sharmila is admirable in will and maturity, but I would want to know more about the context of and in Manipur—Irom Sharmila Chom’s cause, the Manipur blockade we don’t hear much about, local and international factors, and so forth–before I could separate purity of intention from justness of cause. The same goes for Kashmir.

I ask for greater reflection on these comparisons–who is fighting? For what? To what end? How much is this for social justice and how much for political dramas of irredentism and revanchism? What are the means of the fight? Are these comparisons realistic, or even possible except within the narrative known as ‘India’ and the narrative of India or parts of it that they are ostensibly fighting against? Should not everyone—the middle class, the left intellectual circle, the media—ask for a measure of the ultimate dreams of each of these uprisings, and ask what they are going to aid after they’re done fighting and to whom they will owe allegiance then?

Hyperbolic comparisons likened the widespread support for AH to a second freedom movement, another Emergency, etc. The only point on which those metaphoric comparisons can stand is the extraordinary awareness among the long-silent middle class, the comfortable escapist class, to a cause neither separatist nor supra- or sub-national, and one that appears to some to go against their own enrichment.

A Middle-Class Way of Doing Things

Critics have a point about the usual somnolence of the Indian middle class and their surprising rally to Hazare now. There is no contradiction, I think: the middle class rises when its pockets get pinched. The catalyst is clear—it is not corruption per se but corruption to the extent that the gears are grinding to a stop. When a system is too clogged to function at all, it benefits no one, and those who did benefit in the past rally to get it to work again.  The people would be happy with a modicum of corruption if only things would get done and the nation would not be shamed internationally.  AH is to millions a tool—a sign. He is useful. And it just happens to be him. He is a focal point, something expedient for the expression of defensive and acquisitive impulses understood as idealistic and nationalistic feelings. We should rejoice that in this protectionist age there is still anyone willing to speak up for a common cause beyond color, caste or religion.

Some see Hazare’s call as begging for inequality. But is not the real danger in what AH is asking the threat of a more level playing field? Could it lead to the old specter of a uniform civil code? The middle class is asking for relative equality—why ever not? Another minority is asking for inclusion minus special tags. Is these days of Mayawati, is it any wonder that non-separatist agendas should be uncommon and thus viewed with suspicion?

And yet suspiscion of the motives and means of the middle masses is not unwarranted. For all the virtues of their late awakening, many of India’s protesters have been remiss in their domains of cognition and caring. Who wrote in outrage when Naga guerillas blocked highways to the NE? When hospitals and basic facilities went without? When is news of the troubled NE welcome to the cash-rich expanding middle class? Complicit in ignoring what they do not see, the slumbering millions ignore the tides at the borders and thus do not shape their collective decisions to a secure future. They are happy not to know beyond their bank accounts, and that is also why they are so angry about those who took crores from the national exchequer: the latter will still get away while the middle millions will not.

So far the class in question had shown little intent to bring about greater and long-lasting good, good for more people than a select few. The gated communities and elite schools proliferating now have not fostered public imaginations, i.e. public-oriented lives and ethics. The new housing ‘development’ projects of suburbia are mini-cities whose approach flyovers protect car-bound passengers from sight and smell of the abbatoirs and slums below. In my neighborhood in Kolkata a fully air-conditioned school has arisen opposite our house in a field that long lay walled and fallow and was used only for the yearly Durga Puja festivities. It is a school for the rich, teaching the terms of elite life for those who will not inherit the earth but will certainly inherit the mindset of the elite and their flights and fancies. It is one of many, I am sure. This is considered progress, and a focus for envy. We don’t all send our children to such schools but we all know and participate in the game to be rich and ‘in’ and connected while turning away from the naked beggar children along ‘bypass’ roads lest they disturb our equanimity. Our single-minded devotion to riches (not wealth, wealth includes far more intangibles and far more time than we nouveau riche pretenders can amass) and position is but a solipsistic philosophy, utilitarian and egocentric. We rationalize our behavior by saying that we are acting in the name of the nation or family or community and that our consequent far-ranging exploits bring but glory to the rest of us.

There used to be a name for such inversions of reason; it was called being mercenary. Soldiers of glory and of god may convince themselves they are acting for the greater good but in fact they are soldiers of fortune, acting for a good that is indeed greater than them but which is as narrow as their own ethical trajectories. The straight and the good were never synonymous with the narrow or the smart.

But. But. The much reviled middle is rising now, AH’s is still a cause worth supporting, and one would be foolish to hold the bourgeoisie in contempt on this one. Although a less corrupt society in India may still not be a just one, I advocate looking at the utility of these uprisings, using them, channeling them, and responsibly navigating them towards something better and more just.

I am, I suppose, pinning my hope on reflective action: reflection on the part of the protesters and on the part of the intellectuals whose rooted aversion to investment in public policy does not help if they will only criticize but not guide a public they see as misguided. It is up to people in positions of responsibility and power who believe in solving the problem of corruption to guide people into ways of using this nascent anger.

The anti-corruption brigade also needs to think if it wishes to be involved in matters larger than but still pertaining to corruption in India, i.e. matters of governing the nation in general; for not much will be achieved by cleaning a single stall in India’s Augean stables.

What is to be done (next)?

I have said that my view of this movement is positive but sceptical: I support the cause, do not know the man, and watch his followers’ tactics with a wary eye. I think this has potential, but I also think they must show their mettle if they really wish to achieve anything.

Gautam Adhikari makes good points: the fight and outrage must continue in between and continuously;  Parliament must be made to function properly; transparency and accountability must be enforced; the judiciary must have teeth and claws (Fasting as Democracy Decays).

In addition, I suggest the following plan:

1. Imagine the commonweal. If you are fighting for the reform of something held in common—a government, law, system of economic and social transactions, an ethic—then you must also imagine what you wish the common areas of the nation to be like. You cannot imagine the part and ignore the whole.

2. You must prepare for a long fight, and you must think strategically, as a closely linked body of people, and not disperse when the little individual needs are met. And be prepared for assaults–on ideals, body and community.

3. Those who are agitating now, the professional middle class, should prepare for some backlash or ‘false positives’ at the polls next time. The best way would be to plan and prepare for a long fight.

4. Have a plan for the nation and for its internal stability.

5. Money: you will need to tackle issues of public money, taxes, business and innovation opportunities. Tackle tax evasion among yourselves, and stop making darlings of those who stash undeclared wealth overseas.

6. Law. Fight the fights in court. Is this time to think of a uniform civil code? Draft it.

7.  Plan to mobilise, create and nurture newly-aroused public interest. Create consent. Time for re-education and nation-building from the ground up. Individual decisions must be made and must be aligned with each other, this is the only way.

8. Understand what we’re fighting—no bogeymen, no strawmen, we are up against old ingrained lies and quick-fix mindsets.  Get the PR right.  Reach out with soft power to the aam admi in neighboring countries, secure the neighborhood, use public faces to advantage.

9. Engage the urban poor first and then the rural poor. Without them, future domestic battles will come to naught. Find ways to talk to the poor, the ones who will be targeted and turned against their immediate employers (the middle class) at the next election. Find ways to convince them, but find ways to help them, too. You cannot ask them to fight on empty stomachs when they see their middle class employers wax rich behind gated compounds.

10. Turn out at polls. Field and support candidates at the local level who might be less crooked or at least are not criminals.

11. Get those middle class lawyers, professionals, business people, women at home, to actively implement changes in their communities and networks and neighborhoods. Practise the difference, live it, only then preach it. DONATE your expertise, pay your taxes, stop expecting to pass the buck. Develop a self-reliant and self-respecting mindset in the youth and children. Invest for the future.

12. Finally, be realistic. We are in a family fight, and our neighbors are interested in what happens to the property. A country under transformation is also too internally focused to be strong and prepared for external aggression. We live in a difficult neighborhood within complex geopolitics. Are we still practicing our nonaligned stance? Time to reconsider and engage with our foreign policy. Time to swallow our pride and learn from China.

You’ve said ‘no’ to corruption, which is wasteful and a drain. Now begin with waste and resource management in all ways—physical, temporal, and intellectual.


O Carol Ann Duffy, O my purist heart!

Carol Ann Duffy’s comments on texting as poetry have returned scathing criticisms. The story is here: Carol Ann Duffy: \’Poems are a form of texting\’.

And one of the responses I like best is here at Textual Chemistry.

Yet I must confess I find some of the ridicule and censure Duffy is drawing excessive. There’s no quibbling that Duffy’s comment quite outraged my own purist heart. Her statement was unfortunate and should have been better thought out and better-phrased; she should have separated a certain technique of working with words and thought-spaces (compression, expression in short spaces and short times, pith and gist and urgency all packed into travelling texts and tweets) from the elusive ‘attainment’ that is poetry, which quality must be present in addition to craft. As they are separated in the write-up above from HT and as they will be separated in the opinions of many from literary backgrounds. More, she spoke for herself, not for her position as poet laureate or the folks who know poetry and its history, and will therefore be crucified for not fulfilling a role.

I cannot defend Duffy, but I do think we should remember to take a poet’s words with some metaphorical salt: Duffy’s statement is acceptable, but only at the furthest metaphorical reach. Besides, we writers should take the effect of social and technological changes on art forms (both high and pop) seriously. I mean technologies as tiny connectors/enablers of social change, and the presence of a vast number of youth who do not (like to) think like us. If Duffy’s aim is to turn mass activity into some effort at thought-full activity (we can’t take away the technology, so we must make the best of it), surely that intention could be accepted, even if it was ill-couched.

Of course we won’t have poetry like the poetry of the past any more, maybe not even poetry as we know it in the future. If it comes, poetry will come out of the marrow of these new times, and it will be up to us to recognise it for what it is. Now let’s hope Duffy herself amends her original hyperbolic statement, perhaps even her agenda, for most won’t sieve her words for good intentions or read them metaphorically.