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.

‘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.