6.7.13

Arrogant Voices Muffling Silences




I learned my lesson many years ago as I walked out of her hut, her children trailing behind me in the narrow gully where my elbows grazed against the tarpaulin sheets. She followed slowly; she knew these children would go nowhere.

There was a small store outside. It sold cigarettes, beedis, paan masala, and in one jar there were sweets. I asked the shopkeeper to pack the lot. He wrapped them in a soiled newspaper. I handed it to the oldest child. The mother had reached us by then. "Iski kya zaroorat hai (Why the need for this)?" she asked. I merely said I felt like it. The kids held the open packet but did not touch the sweets.

Was I insulting her? Did I assume she felt no pride in her small home, in the life she lived with as much dignity as poverty could afford? I urged her to keep it, I had not brought anything earlier, I did not know where she would be, her house, her family. She was only a story, a post-riot followup.

She knew that. I knew that. I was not doing her a favour; she was granting me her time, opening up her wounds again. Those sweets would last for a week, two weeks. Then what?

There are people who call you brave, who think you are giving voice to the voiceless. At some point, you begin to believe it. Until you realise that sweets don't last. I am glad this happened early for me. I am glad I wept and felt guilty enough not to imagine I could change anything, that touched as I was by the feedback I was aware that it was from people like us.

No work — in films, in art, in music, in writing —can bring about radical change. If you need to get 'artistic' legitimacy for your beliefs, then you are just a riff, a mute painting, scattered words. None of these forms reaches those most affected. Award-winning photographs from war zones and disaster areas do not make us more aware, although they could potentially have an emotional impact.

Who has the time to understand issues when pictures from, most recently, Egypt show massive crowds with captions stating, "It wasn't the army that toppled the government, it was this." It is not even amusing. Where in the world do armies operate by popular mandate? Is a crowd at a square revealing of a popular movement?

The same can be said about the Delhi gangrape protests. Why no such protests later, especially when people in authority, like armymen, are involved? Is it because there is no president's mansion to break into? The right to dissent has been appropriated by a few, who are then built up by the mainstream media. This is ironic considering they have reservations about this same media.

So, do I go along with the accusation of 'armchair critics' and 'ivory tower intellectuals'? No. Not only because according to some I possibly belong to the category (even though no stories have come on a platter to me) but because my issue is not with opinion and analysis — it is with the arrogance that believes it is speaking on behalf of a group of people. It is arrogance to believe that those who do not express concern about what is being hammered into them are any less sensitive, knowledgeable or worthy.

This arrogance assumes the role of the 'other', and in that arrogates to itself an objectivity that implies those closer to the subject might not possess.

Is it true? Views by their nature are subjective. One is not a sitting judge at the court or an investigating officer that one can or even needs to be impartial. One can be fair by understanding the facts first before forming an opinion.

What I see more often these days is an opinion is formed based on others' opinions, riding on the back of populist movements. Some might say these are ideological beliefs and those espousing them would naturally lean towards them. An ideology is not static and it is arrogance again that relies on such pigeonholing, which some of these people snigger about.

A few issues are picked out and they become the template for pitching the voice.

One such voice appeared in last Sunday's newspaper. Those who claim to never read the writer had all read him on that day, which turned out to be the day of judgment. The poor jokes about his lack of penmanship aside, I found the whole discussion that exulted in rejoinders doing precisely what was done in that piece: patronise.

I had no intention and have none to post a riposte to the article by Chetan Bhagat. All I can say is that the reactions to his piece revealed the hypocrisy I have spoken about in the previous few paragraphs. This has become a good test case.

I should ideally have been hopping mad. "How dare he speak in the Muslim voice and run down the community with stereotypes?" was the tenor of the anger. Few realised it was his elitism in conflict with theirs. If he used the first person narrative to make Muslims into backward creatures, the opposition created the caricature of a liberal Muslim that satisfied them. It was Us vs. Them in which neither was the Muslim who they were speaking about. Yet, they too spoke for these people.

The P word was tomtommed. Privilege. It is privilege to speak, anyway. It is double privilege that they take up the rights of the market-driven groups and not those within their own communities, cliques, coteries. So, essentially, it was once again the voices who were telling people, in this case Muslims, who was the better outsider, the more sensible objective voice.

They were doing a Chetan Bhagat on Chetan Bhagat, and their sophistry just made it a bit smarter. It is unlikely that they will question the elite flag-bearers of causes, who not only become spokespersons but also make a joke of the problems facing those groups by seeking martyrdom. "Put me in jail, I won't stop my dissent" they say. Ask the people who are already in jail for crimes they have not committed what it is like. Ask those who cringe in corners not knowing when they will be picked up by the authorities or, worse, are just shot dead. They do not have the luxury of hunger strikes, marches. Their anger is leashed, so they cannot even run hopping mad about sedition charges.

The voices become self-promoters, whether they do it unwittingly or not. Their argument for being in the limelight is that the issue will get mileage. So, do we need to bring out the popcorn? Does mileage result in change? I understand that many of the issues are too entrenched, they cannot change overnight. But do notice it is mostly prominent, eyeball grabbing causes, preferably those with international appeal, that draw them. And, amusingly, it is the champagne set they look down upon that finds them utterly charming.

Post the Mumbai attacks, a discussion was organised. I was invited to be on the panel. It was a perfect intellectual setting. But my instinct was rebelling at: "Would love to have you, let us know soon. There are a lot of people who want to be on the panel ever since news of this has gone out."

Like who? I asked.

Prominent names. I could foresee something akin to a wine-and-cheese evening without the wine and cheese. "Look, where I am...look, what I am doing"...

I had opposed some of these people's stand and the last thing was to fight over the spoils of lost lives. In some ways, I accept this as my arrogance. But, I really do not want to be either anyone's voice or anyone to be my voice.

Many years ago, I learned this from a slum dweller, whose children carried a packet of sweets that would not last. Just as many concerns do not.

© Farzana Versey

---

Cartoon: Huffington Post

9 comments:

  1. FV,

    QUOTE: "... Ask the person who is already in jail for crimes they have not committed..."

    Are you, by any remote chance, speaking about Sadhvi Pragya, Aseemanand or Lt Col Purohit?

    Sorry, I was just wondering...! And it wasn't about the wrong grammer. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Always amazed by how you pick out that one sentence, which alludes to no one. Suit yourself. You know I was talking about those who are unrecognised and do not have supporters such as you.

    Glad to discover you are a "grammer" (sic) Nazi, too. Thanks, there were others also, mainly typos. Rectified. It's not easy when you aren't the voice of anyone!

    ReplyDelete
  3. The world is full of injustice here, there and everywhere. The good Lord does not believe in making things equal or in providing equal opportunities to everyone or even in providing a fair deal to everybody. Accordingly, sooner or later, one has to pick and choose which battles are worth fighting. Not every victim can be saved – in fact, saving some of them may be interfering with the natural order of things. A people who are incapable of fighting for themselves for their own legitimate rights will sooner or later loose those rights – such is the way of life. Why should “radical” changes be made, after all?

    And what is true objectivity? There is no such thing – never was, never will be. But when one argues one’s position, one needs to make a case to convince OTHERS – so trumpeting one’s own lack of objectivity as a badge of honor is likely to be counterproductive. True, every public outing is a compromise of sorts but without the attendant exposure what are the chances of making an impact – assuming one wishes to make any.

    BTW, you were not insulting the lady by making a present of sweets, nor were being “brave” – perhaps merely trying to overcome a sense of individual futility.

    In order to complete the circle, however, it would have been probably better to merely drop that little piece of good deed into the lake and forget all about it. Write those off as the wages of living in a screwed-up land.

    As with many other such things in life, forgetfulness is usually the less agonizing option!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous:" in fact, saving some of them may be interfering with the natural order of things"

    Yes, that is usually what the ones creating "natural order" like to say.

    -Al

    ReplyDelete

  5. Anon:

    Thanks for some thoughts on this. 

    {Not every victim can be saved – in fact, saving some of them may be interfering with the natural order of things. A people who are incapable of fighting for themselves for their own legitimate rights will sooner or later loose those rights – such is the way of life. Why should “radical” changes be made, after all?}

    I agree with Al regarding the "natural order" overtaken by the privileged. 

    However, I am perturbed that while you mention inbuilt inequality you assert that people are incapable of fighting for legitimate rights. Does that mean that the natural order is idiotic not to figure out what is legitimate?  

    {And what is true objectivity? There is no such thing – never was, never will be. But when one argues one’s position, one needs to make a case to convince OTHERS – so trumpeting one’s own lack of objectivity as a badge of honor is likely to be counterproductive. True, every public outing is a compromise of sorts but without the attendant exposure what are the chances of making an impact – assuming one wishes to make any.}

    I am not making a case for objectivity. Nor is one flaunting it as a badge. It is to clearly demarcate that opinions vary over the "same" facts. An opinion is often to express oneself, and hope someone will think about it differently. Others come with their own views and baggages. 

    I assume by 'public outing' you mean the kind I have issues with. The are very few cases where such exposure has resulted in any change. In fact, all it makes is an impact. Which is different from change. 

    {BTW, you were not insulting the lady by making a present of sweets, nor were being “brave” – perhaps merely trying to overcome a sense of individual futility.}

    Indeed. 

    {In order to complete the circle, however, it would have been probably better to merely drop that little piece of good deed into the lake and forget all about it. Write those off as the wages of living in a screwed-up land. 

    As with many other such things in life, forgetfulness is usually the less agonizing option!}

    As this statement has appeared following the sweets, are you suggesting that was the good deed? Or writing about it? If it is the first, then obviously I don't see it as such. If it is the latter, then again I don't. It was a professional assignment, and I do know that many people do not get 'involved' beyond their 'duty'. Unfortunately, I do. Or, as I see it, fortunately. 

    The "screwed up land" is home, and you know what happens when you have a leaky roof or dust collects over days. Forgetfulness just adds to the agony of cleaning up for *oneself*!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Farzana,

    For what it's worth, I was more taken by your story's reaction to the gift of cigarettes, beedis, paan masala, and sweets: “Why the need for this.” My immediate thought was along the lines of, “You can't miss” – crave, desire, long or pine for – “what you've never had.” At best one can create a limited fantasy as to what something otherwise inaccessible may be like (fueled, perhaps, by the 'expert' testimonials of others). She seemed a wise mother to want to shield herself and her kiddos from unrealistic expectations (given their circumstances – her own past experience, perhaps). My guess is that she sold all those items back to the shopkeeper at his cost for cash to buy food and bung the landowner some consideration on rent arrears on her hut – heck, they may even have been his kids (or the shopkeeper's). While they too are only a temporary respite, one will die for lack of food, clean water, shelter from heat or bone-chilling elements. One will not die for lack of a smoke, soda or sweets and other such items or activities of temporary forgetfulness and/or consolation – at least, not literally – and, at least, should one's livelihood not be dependent upon preserving a market for such extraneous things.

    In the Old Testament, there's the account of King Ahab coveting Naboth's vineyard, which was adjacent to the palace. It seems Ahab wanted to convert it to an herb-garden and offered Naboth pretty much a blank check if he would sell-out. Naboth refused, indignant that the king should think him willing to part with his patrimony. While there's more to the account, I find the juxtaposition of these two products, Naboth's grapes and the King's herbs interesting. Which of the two were more needful? The grapes (likely pressed and fermented into wine in addition to its somewhat less lucrative comestible use) or the herbs (a garnishment or seasoning for food in addition to perfuming noxious airs)?

    M.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Mark:

    {My immediate thought was along the lines of, “You can't miss” – crave, desire, long or pine for – “what you've never had.” At best one can create a limited fantasy as to what something otherwise inaccessible}

    Theoretically, I agree. But, sweets aren't inaccessible. In fact, they invariably offer you a cola, assuming you would not have water or tea in their homes. Of course, this is not to say there aren't limited fantasies.  

    {She seemed a wise mother to want to shield herself and her kiddos from unrealistic expectations (given their circumstances – her own past experience, perhaps).}

    Again, going by my experience with many like her, she did not feel I owed her anything. It is possible she might have returned those sweets back to the shopkeeper for money. But...

    {heck, they may even have been his (landlord's) kids (or the shopkeeper's).}

    That is judgmental and she comes across as someone who was ready to barter herself.  I do not assume that poverty necessarily makes you a victim in every respect. If it is of any consequence, she was married. I doubt if anyone would conjecture about, say, middle class women who also have their limited fantasies.

    Indeed, people survive without "extraneous things", and interestingly this has been appropriated by those who can afford them for 'health' and 'ethical' reasons. 

    In your example from the Old Testament, the grapes and the herbs probably were not the real issue. It was coveting/possessing that mattered. The products were an assertion of who could buy what and from whom and for how much. 

    ReplyDelete
  8. It's your story, Farzana. It's a good day when we are mostly agreed.  :)

    >>If it is of any consequence, she was married.<<

    It is of consequence then, imv (though not necessarily always). Involves two; vows taken, etc. Certainly, if both have given their witting assent to amend the arrangement of their trust (whatever the perceived necessity), there may not be any immediate consequence. However, the probability of some ugliness taking place increases exponentially, it seems to me, when there's betrayal or the perception of betrayal on either part.

    >>I doubt if anyone would conjecture about, say, middle class women who also have their limited fantasies.<<

    Well, there is the story of a sleepless King David walking the parapets of his palace late 'o night . . .  :)

    M.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Mark:

    It isn't about "my story" and most certainly not about lack of agreement! Therefore, I shall not dismiss this with the standard let us agree to disagree...

    I am a bit perturbed how this woman has become a case study, with her marriage at the centre. My mentioning it seems so skewed now.

    The vows taken and betrayal would apply if one were discussing such institutions. I would not know about her 'other' circumstances, but would not conjecture in the specific context. I am afraid but had my 'subject' been a man these questions might not have arisen. Things like "amending the trust" would have been an outsourced factor.

    As you can see I've been at a loss over this interaction. And now I discover that King David was middle class!

    ReplyDelete

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.