Sunday, November 30, 2008

Communities and Affiliations


I was wondering if I should write this at all. Everybody's talking about it and I'm not sure if one more piece written on the Mumbai attacks will change anything in however small a way. But I feel like writing about it because I'm interested in the psyche of the indignant. There's certainly a lot of indignation involved here. We're indignant as a nation that a bunch of boys could walk in and blow up our national symbols with such apathy. We're indignant as a society that politicians have Z category security while we have none. We're indignant as humans that harmless people were shot dead for no fault of theirs other than the fact that they were present. We're indignant with ourselves that we have such short memories and we will forget this and get on with our lives- not because we have resilient spirits but because well...what else are we going to do? There's indignation worldwide on the Mumbai attacks- Israel is indignant that the Indian government refused its offer of sending Israeli commandos. Pakistan is indignant that the Indian government is choosing to 'play politics' over this issue. The Americans are indignant because nobody gets more indignant about 'The War on Terror' than they do. It's their baby, after all. The terrorists did this because they were indignant about the victimization of the Muslim community. Their specific targeting of Americans, Britons, and Israelis has made that much clear. There's a lot of indignation doing the rounds globally at the moment.

Why does one person want to kill another? Self-defence and personal grievance are simple enough to understand. But communal grievance is a lot more complicated. I'm tired of hearing people make statements like 'Terror has no Religion'. Of course it does. To say that it's got nothing to do with religion is to bury your head like the proverbial ostrich in the sands. Recognizing the fact that terror has religious connotations does not make you a fundamentalist- Hindu, Islamic, Christian, or whatever else. These terrible acts of violence that are performed with chilling frequency are done in the name of religion and to dismiss them away as political gimmicks alone is dangerous escapism. The Gujarat riots happened when I was in Stella. In our 3rd year, Rakesh Sharma, the man who made Final Solution, a documentary on the riots, came to our college for a screening and discussion. Rakesh was very candid with his audience, upbeat despite the threat calls he kept receiving from Modi's cronies. The film was scary. There were first person accounts of rape, eye-witness accounts of lynchings, interviews with gravediggers on the nature of wounds on the bodies of the dead, openly fundamentalist speeches by saffron volunteers, children narrating their experience of the riots- it was horror that redefined for me the limits of human violence.

And yet, after we watched the film, a friend of mine snickered that Rakesh was uninterested in the Sabarmati Express. He was a pseudo-secularist who'd never make a film on the Kashmiri Pundits. Why didn't he talk about dead Hindus? Why doesn't he talk about Muslims who killed Hindus? This line of argument usually pisses me off. Another friend in our group is Muslim and we routinely fed on her college lunch without any Hindu-Muslim hatred simmering over the heavenly paneer rolls she brought to college. I got angry because it seemed so thick and hypocritical to match one atrocity against another. I was already disappointed by a number of seemingly intellectual acquaintances of mine who spoke for social justice and equity in their term papers while routinely using words like 'para' [pariah] in non-academic life. Feminists who hate Periyar for his anti-brahminism [Periyar was anti-brahminism, not anti-brahmin, a distinction that many people choose to pass over], never mind if he did more for women than did any Acharya. Families I thought I knew who had no qualms at all in making shockingly communal statements by normal way of discussion.

Maybe I was finding all this bewildering because I was brought up in a family where the only connection we have with religion is the Marxist sentiment that religion is the opium of the masses. We don't have a puja room at home and we've only ever visited temples to admire the architecture. My dad is a funny kind of atheist who swears by dharma, karma, and kurma [compulsory for Deepavali breakfast]. He doesn't believe in God, but he believes that good will happen to people who do good. If the Chinese legalized God tomorrow, my dad might pray a bit under the red flag. It's a brand of atheism that values self-belief but also has a sneaking hope in destiny. My mother is a weird kind of atheist who sounds like the Bhagavad Gita even during normal conversations. She doles out philosophy like peppermints. Her theory is that if at all there had been a God, the person's dead now since babies are being burnt in Iraq. 'God is Dead' as Nietzche would have it. My brother is a scientific kind of atheist. He's a physicist and has sufficient explanations I don't understand to prove the non-existence of God. I don't know what I am, though. I'm not religious, I don't pray, I don't identify myself as Hindu [I used to say I'm a pantheist when I first discovered that word], I don't think God will help me in a crisis situation, I don't think good will happen to me if I do good. I used to be a tight little atheist throughout school because my family was atheist and I had no problems challenging my classmates to make God appear before them if He [I wasn't a gender theorist then] really existed. Now, I'm happy being a skeptic, I'm agnostic. I don't know and I'm happy not to know. I think my atheism shook for the first time when I saw the Himalayas. It seemed implausible for something that beautiful to come out of nothing. I also think tiger stripes couldn't have just come from a silly little cell you can't even see. I'm not always rational and I like the romance of the Brahma's dream theory. That we're all absurd little characters in Brahma's dream...and one day, when he wakes up, our lives will end abruptly. It ties up with my love for Becket and every other existentialist laughing sadly over the human predicament.

To my family, religion is a lot of bullshit. We all reached someplace in life because of hard work and brain cells, not by praying frantically before exams or donating money to Tirupathi. And though I'm not a staunch atheist, I find rituals and ceremonies useless. Charming, yes. Quaint, yes. Romantic, yes. But in essence, useless. So I suppose, it's much easier for me to be objective about religious communal violence- purely because I have no affiliations towards any religion in particular. I don't feel hurt when someone says something abusive about the Hindu community. I don't care if someone makes fun of Nairs because my caste means nothing to me. The only time I was ever interested in it was when I discovered that Nairs originally came from Tibet [I was doing a term paper on a novel about a Nair family and this research was necessary]. But this is not to say that I have no affiliations at all. I get super pissed when North Indians complain about the lack of Hindi knowledge in Chennai. Why can't you learn our goddamn language instead of sticking to your national language refrain?- is my instinctive reaction. Note that it's 'our language' though Tamil is not my mother tongue. I identify myself as a Chennaiite- genetically Keralite, but strongly, very strongly rooted in this city I've grown with. I can read and write Tamil, I cannot read or write Malayalam. I think Tamil is a prettier language than is Malayalam. Abuse is fuller with the hard vallinams of Tamil than the nasal mellinams of Malayalam [Malayalam theri is a lot of fun, but it doesn't give one the satisfaction of abuse, it's more comic than angry]. I speak more Tamil than I do Malayalam. I get pissed when I go to Kerala and people ask me how come my Malayalam is decent though I'm running around with unbathed 'annachis'. I'm irritated by the way they stereotype Tamilians, because hey...Kerala is not my home. Chennai is. I get wild when people saying 'karore' and 'thurty thoushand' mock South Indian accents. None of this is personal, mind you. I get pissed when someone asks me why I don't have a South Indian accent- it's meant to be a compliment. But I bristle because it's an insult to my community. I get bugged when auto drivers think I'm a North Indian because of my nose ring. I make it a point to speak to them in propah Madras Tamil to prove my affiliation. When my friend and I got our nose piercings done, we did it on the right side because South Indians pierce on the right. Apparently, Mallus don't pierce their noses at all, but who cares about that. I'm happy to be identified as a 'Madrasi' though a lot of non-Tamils get pissed off- I'm a Madrasi wonly.

Outside India, I will defend my country to any nose-in-the-air First World citizen. I'll get properly angry with Hayden for calling India a Third World nation. I will talk about the melting pot that is India. I will celebrate all its festivals in conversations I have about its secularism- a secularism that does not annihilate differences but embraces them. I will pooh-pooh France's idea of secularism and congratulate the Indian Constitution. As the only Asian and non-White in my MA Gender Studies class, I was the spokesperson for squalor and chaos. I made my country endearing though I've been frustrated by it. But I wouldn't stand up in a class and speak ill of my country to people who don't belong there. Patriotism is a funny thing. With my friends from other Third World nations, I had no problems laughing about our Third Worldness. Nigerians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis- we all bonded over our respective poor country's currency exchange rate in relation to the GBP. Don't get me wrong, none of my Gender Studies classmates were racist- I got along better with them than I did with my Indian flatmates. And yet, it was somehow not-done to make fun of your 'community' [here, the Third World] to 'outsiders'. Same way I make fun of Mallu and Tamil accents with my Mallu and Tamil friends.

Communities are funny things. They provide you with a sense of identity that's essential to existence. You can't be a nothing. Even if you think you are a nothing, you still belong to a community of people who think they're nothings. There are rules you have to follow to be a nothing. A constitution exists to be a nothing. Communities are integral and are prone to give in to indignation. Because what you say about my community, no matter what you personally think about me, affects me. I'll defend PSBB KKN to a PSBB Main alumnus, Stella Maris to a MOP alumnus, South Indians to a North Indian, Indians to a non-Indian, humans to an alien. What happens when there is a conflict within the communities you belong to? The statement I keep hearing after the Mumbai attacks is 'We're all Indians'. I remember after 9/11, Mohammed Ali said, 'I'm an American Muslim'. Which affiliation do you privilege? Which identity do you hold dearer to your heart? Or must you choose at all?

Indoctrination camps- whether Hindu or Muslim- push one identity up over another, making it absolutely essential to make a choice. Either this or that. Communal grievance becomes a compelling bond. Your community versus mine. That is why it does not matter if a two-year-old Isralei child is orphaned in India- it is evened out by the fact that a two-year-old Arab child was orphaned by Israelis elsewhere. When we close our eyes in terror and wonder from where these demons rise, remember that they rise from a very normal human tendency- this tendency to belong. I am, in no way, justifying terrorism or even trying to make these dastardly acts remotely alright. I'm merely trying to point out that by making these acts seem inhuman, we're distancing ourselves from the possibility that we, or anyone else we trust, could indulge in them. That we're immune to indoctrination. Such a belief would be escapism, too. We're all prone to communal grievance, communal violence, communal instigation, communal provocation- if we lay ourselves open for these sentiments to be churned and seized into frenzy, we might...we just might...pick one identity and erase all others with ease.

Communities are irrational. I didn't know I was a Malayali Indian in Chennai till I was told I was. I didn't care about my identity when I came into this world yelling my lungs out. But now, this is my community. I wasn't born with that knowledge, but that knowledge is who I am today. These are my affiliations today.These are the identity marks I will defend. All this is human...sadly, insignificantly, common. We're all matryoshka dolls. One community inside another, one identity encapsulating another. What does your smallest doll look like?


Anonymous said...

My smallest doll is totally free. it/he/she is whatever it/she/he chooses to be.

vishesh said...

well this requires either a very long comment or a very short one ,so first let me do the latter..

End of the day we are humans on earth.

GB said...

@Anonymous- All our dolls are what we choose them to be, aren't they? The smallest doll, the last to be broken, is probably the favouritest in the doll case. Would you kill to save it from blows?

@Vishesh- Yes, but sadly, violence is human too. How are you going to escape that?

Anonymous said...

GB - only the smallest doll is totally free. The rest of them can choose to be any size or shape provided they can accomodate the littlest one. Like an algorithm where every step branches into two, only at the first stage you can make a choice that will lead you to all possible outcomes, once you have made your first choice you will find that some doors are irrevocably shut for you.
The smallest doll is man/womankinds greatest hope. Hope - that beneath all the layers of "social construct" we are all essentially fellow carbon based biped travellers on a large spaceship. Hope - that when all else tells us how different we are, we can still reach out to one another. Hope - that this smallest doll will always be there to say aiaiyo when we hear that on the news that a baby has been hurt,before the outer doll asks which community did this baby belong to. This littlest doll is what helps us empathise with each other, relate to one another,it is makes us human.

Visitor said...

That was a very lucid explanation - I would go with your line of thought.

GB said...

@Anonymous- Yes, I agree with the 'aiaiyo' part completely. We react with an aiaiyo when we seen bloodshed before us because it is our instinctive, spontaneous reaction. But after that initial reaction, don't we build our thoughts on the knowledge we've gained about the situation? This 21 year old terrorist who looks like any college boy, if you didn't know who he actually is, wouldn't you be shocked if someone shot him dead before your eyes? Wouldn't you feel sympathetic? But if you know who he really is, your reaction alters, doesn't it? I know this is what you more or less said, too...I'm chewing on my own thoughts at the moment!

Yes, the smallest doll is probably what is left of us that is primal- the life instinct which abhors death because it is nature's law that life must reproduce. This instinct which turns us all into animals in darkness- the way our senses become acutely alert when danger rings loud inside our heads. I wish we could just go back to that smallest doll state instead of stifling it with layers and layers of other dolls. But then I wouldn't be who I am right now.

@Visitor- I was watching the Kerala CM's reaction to the snub Sandeep's family gave him. I guess his smallest doll is 'Chief Minister' with a mean mind and a huge ego. He's smashed all the other dolls superbly- Keralite, Indian, Human. Just Chief Minister who can't take someone hating these frigging ceremonies of state.

Surjeet Rajendran said...

It is appalling that in the 21st century, when we, as a society have gained such a lot of scientific knowledge, our very existence is being threatened by ridiculous religious BS that was produced a 1000 years ago.

Anika said...

@ gb- yet another brilliant post. i was wondering in the middle where it was going, but made sense. i liked the matrioshka doll metaphor(?).
also, gujarat riots happened when we were in school, before we joined stella.
and you know identity is a funny thing. i would have never in my life thought i would become so 'regionalist' when i went up north. but i did. i think it has to do with the 'survival of the fittest' category. and now after getting stella, i'll still defend the college. i've never identified with my mallu roots, but i will eat my appam and chicken stew and cappa and meen curry and still say i am a malayali and not a malayalam at the end of the day. =)

GB said...

@Surjeet- Wah, britherji comments as himself in defence of the scientific community!! :D Most of our family goes by the communist bs Karat and Co. churn out every now and then. Phew.

@Anika- Yeah, Gujarat happened when we were in school- my bad. But I guess I started analyzing it only after I entered college...when we were busy analyzing everything. I think that's when the riots actually happened for me inside my head.
And yeah, North India makes you a Karunanidhi...especially when you suck at Hindi!! :D

Anika said...

@ gb - hahhaha true.
btw see second commment. comment for the comment. go comment.

vishesh said...

@anon: Well lets say that smallest doll,is the child in us.End of the day if we can go back ,sit down and see it from our smallest or most truthful and innocent self we can understand things better...

@gb: (cont from above) that is the problem with us,we all feel,others should see us and take to us with love , innocence etc.Violence is human too? I will say that violence is natural...

We humans are supposed to be creators,that is what we have a brain for..but the first step,i.e. the choice we make,is "bad" then we will end up being " bad". The reason why you and me ,don't go around killing or hurting people is because,we made the right choices(or so I think).

Who knows behind that fellows life? We can speculate and say,he could still not have done it.But patriotism is only so much,too much of it becomes communism..

Anonymous said...

vishesh : i agree with you the smallest doll may indeed be the child within us, but dont you think children can be cruel,walk into any school playground and watch them pick on the weakest or the one who dares to think act or speak differently."Lord of the flies" deals with this way better than i could ever hope to.
GB: violence is indeed part of our psyche. Like all carnivorous animals we have our eyes on the front to judge distance better with binocular vision to attack our prey, while the herbivores have eyes on either side of their hand for all-round vision to spot predators. It is a trait that helped us hunt mammoths and survive sabre-toothed tigers, and we are here because a cruel and unforgiving nature selected those of us with that trait over and over again throughout evolution. What is the point of it all -GB, as you rightly say the driving force is self replication - we are driven by the "selfish gene" (as richard dawkins writes),to create more and more copies of ourselves. This drives everything from chenghis khan to the flu virus and herein comes the mentality of allegiance to siblings and tribe. Your siblings share genetic material with you so it is in your best interests to support them,your tribe is more likely to have your blood relatives hence your allegiance to its members, all the while the driving force is the shared genetic material that can be passed on to the next generation. What is interesting is how this feeling of belonging is exploited worldwide by religious leaders, by politicians, by businessmen - watch the rise of IPL league - a machiavellian manipulation of the nations youth, to make money by giving them synthetic communities to belong to.
The saving grace is that harbouring selfish genes doesnt make us selfish humans, we humans are the only species that have evolved to such an extent that we enjoy a collective awakening of consciousness that can overcome individual primieval instincts. There are no bad communities only bad individuals.

GB said...

@Anika- Did off.

@Vishesh- I think most of humanity's problems come from our compelling need to prove that we're not animals. Animals are violent when they guard territory or hunt food or defend themselves or for mating (to prove who's alpha male). The kind of violence we're discussing is human, not really natural if you go by the above description. This violence comes from human-made communities that create divisions within the species- this kind of violence does not aid in the propagation of the species (guarding territory, hunting,self-defence, and mating do...they're all linked to the life instinct).

And I don't know about you and me having made the right choice. We haven't really lived to 90 years yet :) It's too early to tell if we will end up killing someone! That's what I was trying to say in that post...that by distancing ourselves from this sort of violence, we're making ourselves more vulnerable.

Patriotism is about nations, communism is about communes. They are in fact, quite opposite in meaning. Patriotism is parochial. It concerns a group of people who belong to a particular land defined by human-made borders and boundaries. For instance, a patriotic Indian will support India in a war against Pakistan. But India and Pakistan were a single nation not so long ago. Patriotism is strongly connected to the physical. A Pakistani who loves India more than Pakistan will be considered a traitor, not a patriot.

Communism, on the other hand, is an ideology about life and lifestyle and is closely linked to labour and the deconstruction of human-made social institutions such as family, marriage, private property. A commune is a group of people who live as 'free' humans- they are not linked to one and another by artificial bonds (like marriage). Labour and the fruits of labour are enjoyed by all in the commune, there is no private property in a commune. This was the ideal world that communist ideology envisioned.A world in which we don't draw borders between each other because of gender, sex, class, caste, religion, race, nation etc etc differences. Communism, unlike patriotism, is universal- anybody can be accommodated in the commune.

GB said...

@Anonymous- Quit being Anonymous and tell us who you are :) Agreed. Especially because I think IPL is so boring. Hehe.

vishesh said...

@gb: so we will consider Ms.Gandhi as a patriot as long as she lives in India.

Thanks for reminding of my tenth history reader :P you said anyone is welcome in a commune...
But won't too much of something lead to the opposite until there is a balance?

We have private property,but when will that private property become public? Only when when we have a feeling that all are brothers and sisters...Of course you would have said the pledge in school..All Indian are my brothers and are we missing something?

lets say a person loves his/her brother/sister.We can say love is patriotism ,but acme of it would be getting too bossy ,if you don't have any other way to exhibit it.

@anon: I have not only seen but faced it too :) But then again that isn't really the immaculate child :) BY the time we enter the play ground a lot of serials and movies and violence and fights at homes and parents,grand parents etc etc have gone in :) Of course to go back further than that,we wouldn't remember anything..but that is the point i guess,not to have any bias and then try to evaluate :)

Anonymous said...

gb: my friends call me N, grownups call me sri and people who know me well, well they just dont call me :)
i live in the green and pleasant land of our erstwhile dorais,where you did your genderal studies and generally get my mail dropped off at

GB said...

@Vishesh- People have a problem with Gandhi lady because they feel she can't be a patriot ever because she doesn't belong to this country. When I said 'physical', I meant the no matter how many years she's lived here, a lot of people won't get over her Italian-ness.

As for private property- it's not going to become public by common love and understanding and the rest of the yada yada. It may only ever become public by some bloodthirsty revolution. And the time for that has passed.

@Anonymous- Thanks for the introduction. You sound a lot like one of my earlier blog readers and I was wondering if you were him.

vishesh said...

ha well ok last words:-

Guess i am too stubborn and i like to make such weird statements like
" But patriotism is only so much,too much of it becomes communism.."

:P Sometimes i think i sound too much like a politician and that is why i always get into arguments :P

Karthik Sankar said...

Hi GB,
I actually googled to find out ur blog after the abrupt closure of ur whyiamabrownie blog.I see that I have lost track of a lot of ur articles ever since u moved over.hmmm will read them soon.

Well religion,ethnic all add color to our human existence. Its like a dog can wag its tail but what will happen if the tail starts to wag the dog.Thats exactly the problem.

Existence of God?Well I have written about that in lengths about it.

Visitor said...

GB -your admirers seem to locate you (hound you)? wherever you go. All the best. :)

Srini said...


Stupendously written: I could see several strands I have myself seriously thought at lengths about coming together on this one. And your takes on identity defence and its context (as a South Indian to a North Indian, an Indian to another country in the world, a citizen of this world to those from supposedly the First World) as well as its opposite (teasing Mallu and Thamizh accents for instance within Thamizh and Mallu groups) are commendable. Even more creditable is the fact that you have lucidly brought out trends which may seem disparate but which in a deeper sense are properly guided by a rationality that is personal but one which does not offened or get offended by others' sense of rationality as well.

I will come back to read this again, sometime:)

rasmi said...

Felt compelled to leave a comment as a "Matryoshka-loving Communist kid" myself. Indeed a great read and a sensible blog, too. btw, am an ex-WCCite; though that may be the outermost doll in my case :)