Revenge and justice, corruption and moral order

In “Duty or revenge, no one is above the law,” Gurcharan Das ( speaks of the sentencing on September 29, 2011 of 215 government officials for the rape of 18 teenage girls from the adivasi hamlet of Vachathi, near Sathyamangalam forest, on June 20, 1992. The incident must be seen in the larger context of the hunt for Veerappan. Because this is Gurcharan Das, we are led beyond a review of the case to a discussion on public feelings about justice, revenge, duty, corruption and our expectations thereof. And again, because this is Das, the point is made with an analogy from the Mahabharata, “Ashvatthama’s night time massacre of the sleeping Pandava armies, which had turned the mood of the Mahabharata from heroic triumph to dark, stoic resignation.”

Das says, “Ashvatthama was a fine young man but he was totally transformed by his father’s brutal murder. Many of the officials in the Vachathi raid were also fine young men, but their personalities changed during the losing battle against the infamous outlaw Veerappan and they got caught in a Mahabharata-like escalating cycle of revenge. How else do you explain it?” Note that there is no debate here about whether the men were responsible for the act of rape, whether they should have been punished or whether all of those who were involved in the retaliatory operation were equally responsible, even if they were not the actual rapists. The point here is more subtle: an explanation that seeks to frame and bring within comprehension a horrifying event. What made such a thing happen? How do we make sense of the officers’ misguided revenge, and the public thirst for punishment (revenge) thereafter?

To the minds of unnamed ‘civil’ citizens of the entity called India, news of such an event threatens to upset all reasonable expectations how the law functions in relation to the social contract. If their belief in the ‘laws of India’ is true, then such things cannot happen or should not happen. But this did happen; does that mean there is no rule of law in parts of India? Such a thing, too, cannot be allowed to be true, therefore they cannot allow the original rupturing event to happen, and if that is not possible, must keep it from happening again, and must compensate for the harm caused by it. Reparations are expected, within the framework of civil society.

Das says that human beings ‘naturally’ expect to extract revenge for outrageous acts, that the ‘thirst for revenge’ is a ‘legitimate human need.’ But, because “only the state is allowed to take revenge in civilized societies and we call it punishment,” the people must rest with the civilized justice of a court of law, not the wild justice of revenge.

Das’s treatment of the case mimics the function of the court of law: in the end, it fits experience/phenomenon to the mind’s capacities, and brings it down from the realms of the rare and impossible to those of the punishable. But not so far as to bring it to the level of the banal. Das compares the defendents’ claims that they were merely doing their duty to the defense of Nazi officers who also claimed to be doing their duty through torture and death chambers. Hannah Arendt has called such justification the banality of evil, where monstrous acts and events can be made to happen through the mechanized orchestration of bureaucracy, duty, and/or loyalty.

Still, Das considers the possible effects of the slow corruption of nameless individual hearts in a long war. What happens when a man is not ennobled into heroism but driven to unreason? By comparing these men to Ashvatthama and thus the Mahabharata, Das at once moves the case from the realm of law (a distinct case abstracted from the larger enabling fabric which it ruptured) into the realm of ethics (right and wrong and the limits of justifiable action), and re-sets it back into the larger framework of society and community. Now we might speak of justice, not the law.

As I see it, the case stands at the intersection of two ethical-moral problems, both involving the way power works in society: (1) the duties, roles, and responsibilities of power in uniform and the limits thereof; (2) the problem of consent and corruption, not by money or easy gain, but by the insidious fingers of frustration, failure and resulting unreasonable anger. The men did wrong especially because they were in uniform, and one feels pity and horror for the villagers who might have been caught in the middle, but one also cannot ignore the plight of men who must stay within the law when their quarry is wholly free outside it and is perhaps aided by those who should be on the side of the law.

The law is abstract, pure and whole in comparison to the people it concerns itself with, who often give their consent to justice and order only with persuasion, inducement and even then only sullenly. Until more ‘men’ can be bred and reared in an environment that encourages, enables, and moderately rewards right action, we might expect to see more ‘men’ ‘betraying’ the purpose of their uniforms and the honor of all ethical codes.

No songs of winter

My heater and I and sounds of students in their hideaways. Music to paper over the silences. Until 4 a.m. when boisterousness and sirens replace the neighbor’s bass that reverberates through my bedroom floor.

A sense of slow time, the longue duree. Grey mornings and grey afternoons with little sharpness except in the air.

Sparrows indistinguishable from brown leaves wetted in the wind. I nearly step on one too weak to fly away. Its partner watches me from a distance. The gods in winter.

A lonely plastic bag on a high tree branch. Neither wants to be there.

The afternoon sun never seems to strike the bell tower a mile away. Altgeld Hall’s age and stone never open into magic realms.

I walk around campus, looking for signs of stray life, scattering seeds in hollows under likely trees. Looking for a little extra in the day. Call it grace.

The town seems most alive on those quick dawn and dusk walks around university buildings, when I am bowed under books I didn’t finish reading and looking for the nearest drop-box on a campus whose mind is elsewhere and  doors locked. Then it is I, and the birds and beasts, and some lonely markers of the youth that throbs here at other times, and the emptiness sets something free.


A friend pointed the way to this piece: I can only imagine the horrified reactions of so many blessed women who have good guys in their lives. Pardon the seeping irony.

Then my gentle readers will be aghast at my cynicism when I ask why some of us should be shocked at the language in the magazines and from the men. We all know and usually ignore the fact that this type of socialization exists and thrives: sexualized power fantasies are ubiquitous, to varying degrees, in any given aggregate, anywhere. Religion and romance sublimate them, here they are raw, that’s all. We all make use of fantasies, and both men and women use what works for them. The prospect of inalienable sexual power — we are still restricted or enabled by our anatomies and in this particular fantasy of lordship and bondage, men will usually be the lord — is beguiling and comforting.

Some of us who still travel outside private cars know this from the streets of common thoroughfares. But many of us don’t because we live in a world we try to insulate from such realities. As more and more of the middle-class begins to gain the privileges of security guards, minders, and numerous enclosures to guard their preciousness, the value of the flowers of their efforts becomes translated into ‘honor,’ ‘maryada,’ ‘grihalakshmi,’ ‘our women,’ and the freedoms that can only flourish in guarded spaces. Then, encountering brutalized (sexual) power, they are horror-struck and they condemn it most strongly.

What bothers me more is how rhetoric underscored by the Jezebel piece contributes to the narrowing of possibilities associated with the relationship of the male and the female. Language such as this adds to the polarization of that relationship, making picture-book romance one end of the spectrum and sexual domination sans affect the other. It flattens and makes into a monotone what otherwise we might better understand as truth, variation or nuance. It permits us to interpret our own social and sexual relations in limited ways, and encourages us to imagine them thinly. ‘Naturally,’ this leads to bewilderment, helplessness and denial when faced with recurrent reality and limited channels of interpreting  it.

Can writing differently change anything? I’m not sure much could be changed, or anything at all before a couple of  generations are past; socialization and its effects take a while to disperse beyond appreciable measurement and even then, easy fantasies allied with golden memories of lost times of power can exert a powerful hold on the psyche. It would be easier  and would give more permanent results to find less brutal ways to play out our desires to control another mind and body. We need other fantasies, in books, in film, in games, in play. We need to re-train our collective minds.

brief anatomy of dreams deferred

You can make use of raisins. Dreams in your pocket and dreams deferred, until life becomes the ‘sum of sums’ and death ‘the long division’. Raisins you can make use of, not so this.

Not so the slow loss of matter, moment, in the long stretched-out waiting. A matter of moments. The quiet of normalcy laying down the road, sedated by enormity. The horizon closing in like a bread-box. At first energy, then silent strain, then struggle to kick the traces, until wound and weakness rein you in. You stand there, do or die, people. Desperation, emphasis on quiet.

Hope and dreams are hung on the pegs of objects, plumb line to heart, straight line to happiness. We measure what it will take to get ‘there.’ We pay ‘interest’ on requisite action, until endurance skips event to event, and all becomes immeasurable and stretched too thin to pass through time.

They go, too infinitesimal to suffice and too stupendous to be useful.






‘Dreams at doorsteps’: Random winter ramble

One day of sunshine and one night of impending snow is enough to set me missing the Kolkata winters of my childhood and youth. Jim Reeves and Nat King Cole on Ma-Baba’s vintage record player, decorating a little tree with my sister,… winter sunshine and oranges. Christmas, New Year and birthday season.

When I was seven my Mashi took me to New Market and bought me my first Christmas tree, a little one made of wood shavings and green paint that we kept till the green had worn off and the bent branches had lost most of their ‘needles.’ I got a little sponge Santa too, that looked oddly like a dwarf or elf. A little box of tinsel came with him, to which my sister and I added whimsical ornaments. One time we added our Barbie’s shoe.

We learned our carols at school during ‘singing’ class out of a beloved songbook, all in a group, trying to follow ‘Tony sir’ at the piano. Tony sir, with the most luxuriant moustache I have seen to date. That songbook had carols but also lyrics from the usual suspects of western pop and folk culture–Jim Reeves, Nat King Cole, ABBA, The Beatles, Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, John Denver, Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan,  and other country and folk oldies. There we were, uniformed girls aged 4-11, in a primary school run by Carmelite nuns, dutifully belting out songs from ABBA without knowing the accompanying visuals or people. The entire commonwealth was (still) united in that missionary songbook of a postcolonial city, although, to give credit where it is due, it did give us a vocabulary of greeting to the upper-middle tiers of a globalized world.

My sister, who has a lovely voice, would sing carols at home with me all day, and Ma would correct my less-perfect tunes once in a while. Till today I can’t agree with her rendition of “Mary’s Boy Child.” In my teenage years Christmas carols got mixed up with pop and rock and much else, but the mist of oranges and sunshine never left.

Ma would always bake at this time of year, in the energetic afternoons, and the first year I spent in the United States away from family I gave vent to my homesickness by starting to bake. It was a disastrous attempt — my cake was mistaken for bread and the cookies were as large as the cookie sheets — but it did serve to commemorate my birthday for me.

The separation of joy came late. When I was in college at St. Xavier’s some of us went to attend the midnight mass at St. Paul’s cathedral. The crowds of the faithful were intent and kept separate from the many watchers. We weren’t the faithful, and we didn’t know the forms of worship or communion with community that is such an essential part of any remotely religious celebration. In that setting the call-and-response that evoked a certain time of year began to disintegrate.

At home the next day, Kutti Mamu brought his annual plum cake to our place and we opened the last of Baba’s wine stash from a trip to France some years ago. I didn’t question why we should all be happy without faith, we just were. I could proudly (postcolonially) assert that this too was part of my cultural heritage,  but the truth would be less aggressive and far more simple: it was just a time when the home was happy and the family came together.