All is changed, changed utterly, and yet there is the mango tree laden with fruit and birds, there the gulmohor tree wrapt in fire and furry squirrel, here and there the markers of my childhood and youth, and just here the pillars of my mother’s world (shongshaar). I am here in Calcutta to usher you into the realm of the gods, father, so they say, for you have spent a year beyond us already, but you seem to have left these messages behind. And all day, all day, the trills and tunes of the hidden koel bring back my childhood before it is chased out of the mango tree by the crows.
I met a man who felt he had not given because he had not lost.
I could not give him any reply. How do you rebut plenty?
Service. Loss. Excess. ‘Arpan.’ The sap rising. Is life, is death, is change, is tribute. We worship the deity that gives, the hero, the mother, the service-provider. We honor the outpouring. Overflowing. Life. And we do not count the wellspring that we cannot see. The arterial pulse, the energy of work and building and healing. But it is there, a live leaping wire, aching to connect and give. Plenty. The indomitable urge to Life.
Mother, I will build for you a ceremony of words.
Intonations, as I gather the brick-dust fallen from the heads of those burnt men and women filing tearless in the heat. They were building the bricks some of us will use to build our ‘havans.’ And I will chant under my breath as I run to gather the threads fallen loose from the dyed fabrics and the dyed hands of those who make our celebratory garments. I will, Mother, pant alongside the cattle being driven to market, waiting for the celebratory feast. I will walk with the farmer who dons his drums and feathers and travels to the city to make coins for his fickle harvest. I will heave and shout with the dark energetic boys on lorries who run the neighborhood shows, a few days to focalize youthful energy and rage. I will watch the crowds and the carnival, their emotions and their doubts sharpened by display. I will watch those who religiously abstain from such topsy turvy opiate festivals.
And I will etch with a little stick the altar I want to make for ‘you,’ the bricks of my lists, the chants of my queries. For nothing else makes sense of this senseless earth, its thrashing lives, its vast solitude in the cosmos. Without an accounting, this mind-hull of heaven is Nothing.
Ref: Durga Puja in West Bengal, India. They say it assumed it present ‘sarbojanin’ or community-affirming celebratory form in the 18th century, when it was a means of uniting the countryside against the British Raj. Sometime in the last few decades in Calcutta it became a carnivalesque city-wide festival. For the Bengali diaspora, it became a means of re-creating the social-hierarchical structure they knew in their childhood and youth, usually in conscious contradiction of the meaning of the festival. Recently, it has become a way to re-affirm culture and unapologetic heritage. Here, above, I have tried to wrest prayer from festivity.
She died. I hung her up like a second skin on the peg by the door. In the half-light she looked like an old bag or an empty poncho. My pallet was on the other side of the room. I didn’t need her every day. I had others who said they cried out my name. When I went out I wore her memory like a fragrant face. But perhaps it was she who walked and I stayed, flayed and looking sideways at the twin echoes of my groans. I disappeared when she/I went into the light and the shepherd died. We are body companions now, naked without each other.
The Tale of Kings, Rajkahini, (2015), has a song of warning. And its warning is meant to rise above the complex dialectic of opinions on why audiences will listen to it and why they should not.
Some will say, with painstaking accuracy, that the song ‘Bharot bhagyo bidhaata’ is not the Indian National Anthem. The Anthem is comprised of the few lines of Rabindranath Tagore’s original poem, this song in the film is the rest of the poem. Artistes will stress they are producing culture, Bengal, music, Tagore, mela-mesha, aman ki asha, tolerance, even warning, and certainly they are not promoting nationalism. India is not their focus, Bengal is, Bangladesh is. What will be heard of their fine distinction?
Some will listen and be roused by the familiar notes of an anthem they had forgotten to sing, and then felt forbidden to sing (it is surely too parochial, too unmodern, too jingoistic to sing for a nation whose structure gives you the mediocre benefits of its citizenship) and all in conjunction with the faces and names of singers and actors they admire.
Some will be moved to tears by the beauty of the words and the symbolism of the music, in which they will hear longing and belonging to a home, see memories of a fair place, a distant ‘city on a hill,’ and remember a time before the intensification of religious and ethnic tensions in the subcontinent. They won’t stand to attention and salute a flag or a symbol, but they will feel the pull of love and longing for the spaces they call ‘bharot’ in the same place in their hearts where they keep all songs of lost innocence. Nation, god and fate are powerful words to put into any memory, any song.
And some others will see a critique of nations. They will see the blood and corpses that built the wall of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and will warn the masses that such are nations. At least, such are nations whose boundaries were drawn by modern colonizers, and that is why, they will say, we must seek to re-draw those lines to suit better the nations and tribes and kingdoms and dreams we had before the world entered the age of nations. We need to re-order and keep re-ordering our world for the ‘better.’ Let’s start with the concept of ‘India.’
This is a time of confronting the nation, accepting it or rejecting it, a time of denunciations, and a time for the making of art about it. A time when nationalist sentiment roused by wayward echoes of anthems can be denounced as negative, and people can be taught what to think of the fate of the land beneath their feet. They will be taught to choose against whatever primal defense they will be roused to by the echoes of the Anthem. And many will do so. This is still a safe time.
Some others, good audiences, will see a warning of what happens when too many divided peoples begin to fight for what they want with axe and gun and knife. Perhaps they think that films and scenes such as these will tell people to turn away from militant nationalism.
I think yet some others will look at the path to a separate nation, will see it made possible by a bridge of corpses, and will think they can pay the price and do it.
Nation, god and fate are powerful words to put into any memory, any song.
It is an accepted, if debated, truism that terrorism is the answer of oppressed people, meeting endless illegal violence with illegal violence. Notice the ‘endless’? Acts of sudden death counter the perception of endless oppression by moving the counter from ‘what has been tolerated’ to ‘the intolerable’ and answering endless acts with nothingness and erasure. In case of pitched war (good old days of battlefields), acteurs erase each other, as expected. In the ideological spectrum of disorder into which terror falls, the impact is the element of the unexpected, and acteurs erase someone else entirely.
Terror is outward directed violence; self-immolation is violence directed inward. Both are part of a spectrum of responses to oppression and traumatic disruption. Not all acts on that spectrum are tactics of ‘resistance.’ Both can be claimed as a political gesture by actors. Both harness spectacle, and use the law of unpredictability. They are also still on the edge of the incalculable in expected responses, for the usually accepted ideology is not to cause irreversible harm to self or unrelated others. Death, that ‘horror’ is still a sin in most religions (of faith or materiality). No one expects you to kill yourself in pursuit of your ends; to them, to end yourself leads nowhere, so the calculation of gain or loss that precedes self-annihilation is outside the normally charted territory of probabilities of expected responses to pressure. And, because this is ‘off the charts,’ acts of self-annihilation as well as their acteurs are seen as cowardly for their refusal to continue to fight along the same lines as their baffled opponents who stand waving the red flag when the others have left the field.
In cases of terror randomness, difficulty of prediction of target and timing, and the fact that the affected persons are not related directly to the acteurs contrive to take the events ‘off the charts’ of calculable responses. However, the steady rise in calculated acts of terror against similar targets in the last decade has brought terrorism into the narrow spectrum of global public consciousness (and therefore the narrow spectrum of expected political topics in all nation-states).
The fulcrum of both types of acts of annihilation is the sense of responsibility and the nature of the social/public/civil contract that binds each person in human community, whether they believe in it or not. By harming ‘brethren’ one harms the target. The element of spectacle ensures that many bear witness to the disruption of order, and the public’s sense of self-protection and imaginative horror (what if it was me?!) put pressure on the target–the one most visible and therefore obliged to act–in both offense and defense.
We see, and serve both terrorist and target by witnessing and bringing our responsive horror into the public space. Something has threatened the edges of our ordered world, and we think if we bring it to light it might be dealt with. But acts of spectacular rupture are dealt with only by enlarging the spectrum of responses to them, as much as by enlarging the observers’ capacity to tolerate the new types of acts and acteurs. Quite an immunization process, these exposures. For the public, reeling with horror, quite quickly finds one narrative or another to contain and explain the range of previously unthinkable acts.
The whole is an interesting perversion of the idea that ‘there but for fortune, go you or I,’ each act the fine split between ‘you’ and ‘I.’
Update: March 30, 2015. Continuing the conversation on terror as spectacle, this article by Yuval Noah Harari in _The Guardian_.
You, Man, go on, tear up the script. I want to see the edges of that paper tear the light when you do it. Sharp edges. Make splinters when you scour wood. And raw, inflamed, cold skin. Scrape it out.
And you, Woman, cold as fury, you shall be ice shards in the wood fence. The bits that will pierce him when he reaches for the gate. Unable to burn, you will disappear and leave naught but the thought that if this is winter there must have been another season, too.