Facing Violence

In a week during which several deaths have been recorded in India – in each, the perpetrators belonged to a social group who did not wish to enter an economic or social contract with individuals from another social group perceived as simultaneously inferior and locally oppressive, and wherein each symbolic action (words, raising the national flag on Republic Day) was the offensive trigger for violent retaliation (Chandan in Kasganj, Manjunath in Bangalore, Ankit in Delhi) – I connect the news to an incident I witnessed in Kolkata.

On Jan 28th, 2018, late at night in Kolkata, India, I observed three women being threatened with violent communal retaliation by an Uber driver because one of these women questioned the driver’s peremptory ride cancellation after the car was loaded and the trip had started. The driver told them to get out, physically intimidated them, declared he would block their street departure location with his car all night, and if the women didn’t shut up he would bring people back from Kidderpore. (The driver obviously guessed enough about his passengers to threaten them with violence from a different religious community). All this under the benign and smiling presence of local traffic policemen, who blamed the women because they couldn’t detain the driver.

Violence becomes real when it is personal. Up close, it is also a large emotion, inciting us to large actions. If we have learned to exteriorize and blame all our misfortunes on the ‘Other’ and its deliberate malice (person, group, entity, event), we enter the justificatory realm of virtuous scapegoating.

If I say my city has changed in 20 years, I will likely be called a bigoted bhakt or worse in India, a vile Islamophobe in the U.S., and a Modi-moron in my old discursive academic world (which told me to leave since I was an un-progressive settler colonial anyway). My good interlocutors will throw Ayodhya, Kashmir, NE India and Trump at me (lumped under an imagined category in their heads that they mis-read from Anglophone media; they still ask, ‘You speak Hindu?’ To which I say I don’t).

In that accusatory and reformist narrative, women such as these in the Uber tale are collateral damage in the necessary revolution of the world and the righting of historical wrongs.

In my reasoning, retaliatory justice is short-sighted and unpardonable, especially when supported by history shortened to 500 years. Violence, no matter how ‘halal,’  neither purifies nor resolves.

And yet this is how the world begins to burn again. I invite you to think on this article: https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/civility-and-rebarbarization

The PhotoBooth app on iPad tells you in childlike ways how the user’s face can be distorted and changed. The world is the same. How we see distorts what we see.

An impolitic remark

Allow me to open a conversation on this article with two points, stated ba(l)dly and rhetorically:

A.Is this just? Or is it a selfish and calculated demand? Should such posts be offered to the family of every police officer or wardi walla who has been slain? Is the wife willing to prove herself capable to ‘man’ such a post? Does this not turn a tragedy into a profitable scheme, using opportunity for reward?

B. I would like to set this against the purported voice of every Muslim in the Kashmir valley, who (we are told repeatedly) think the wardi is to be automatically attacked. Where are the imams and maulanas on this discrepancy of Muslim voices? If they support both instances I can only say they are playing and taking advantage of a democratic system: the state is the only way a perceived minority can get advantages and benefits, and yet they must bully the state into giving them special status. Attack the state and yet keep it going, both must be kept in balance.

And now, allow me to add nuance.

This woman has understood that those who have only wealth but little power will be hated and persecuted. To be a widow with money but no real power would mean little freedom from the conditions she implicitly wishes to escape. This speaks of a rational understanding of the way society is tied together, of what Hannah Arendt in _Antisemitism_ describes as the ‘rational instinct’ that power has some function and is of some general use. We can hardly criticize this.

The questions for the public at large, to my mind, may be framed like this: should this be a solitary case or a representative one? Even if we reward one particular person and family because they are exemplary human beings and citizens, will the members of that person’s tribe/religion/social groups accept the judgment as singular, or will they turn it into a template for future redress? A brave man’s family should be honored, but to what extent should ‘we’ distribute in disproportion the meagre riches of a corrupt state mechanism? To what extent should a citizen be asked to ‘understand’ this poverty of the civil state? To what extent can and should we trust a wronged and biased fellow citizen to correct it? All these turn upon the fine lines between love for one and ‘love’ for many, the particular and the general, the special and the common, and the ‘manifest manners’ of minority and majority dreams for the future.

The real fear, to my mind, is the balance of disorder. For the tension between the destruction of structures of power that are oppressive and threatening and the installation of nodes of power that are more favorable cannot always be maintained at the proper pitch. Violence and rebellion will occur in this play of opposites before new orders are established, and often those new orders will be more coups than revolutions.

Of love and poetry and hunger

I met a man who had left love for hunger. No poetry could console him, he had found the right way. And he wanted me to remember his broken love. It trailed behind him, his bright banner as he wandered the world, gathering to himself the lesser feelings. He had to have those, the small coins, because he had lost so much. A man does not choose his roots. When he cannot change them or change the direction in which they grow, he leaves them behind.

From me he demanded full acceptance or nothing at all. My words did not reach him. He took them and dissected them at the kitchen table and showed me their remainder. Then he put them aside. He would brook no argument, he wanted so much love. And he made his world small, and direct, and simple, taking all refuge in loss and short distances.

And when I left he bade me remember the love he had left behind. And he bade me speak with fire and slay with pen. I said I could not promise, I did not command my muses. He did not believe me, this self-made man, so he let me go. This Kashmiri man, this Indian woman.




“tomar kono badhon naai
tumi ghor chara ki taai |
ei acho bhataae aar
ei to dekhi jowaar e

bolo kothae tomar desh
tomar neiki cholaar shesh”

[Decontextualised quotation above from the Bengali song “O Nodire Ekti Kotha Shudhai” adapted for film “Siddhartha” (1972)]