Visions Of A Pogrom, One Act At A Time

Thirty two years ago this week, I climbed up to the roof of my home in New Delhi and looked out and over at my city’s skyline; once again, I saw plumes of smoke rising into the sky. A pogrom was underway; homes and businesses and people were aflame. The Sikhs of New Delhi were bearing the brunt of reprisal killings and riots following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister, by her Sikh bodyguards. She had been shot dead on October 31st, 1984; the riots began that evening, and continued for a week. My mother had told me on the night of the 31st that she had heard stories of Sikhs being pulled off buses and beaten; we both did not realize that lynchings were being carried out. The next morning, my brother, curious to see what was afoot, accompanied his friend’s uncle, a Delhi-based journalist for the Daily Telegraph (UK), on an investigative foray into some South Delhi neighborhoods. He returned with a chilling tale, one that nauseated me then and continues to do so today.

That morning, in a residential neighborhood not more than a couple of miles from where we lived, my brother had seen a mob attacking a Sikh family’s residence. They were attempting to swarm over the gates and break open the doors of the house; their advance was being held up, desperately and futilely, by two Sikh men–presumably brothers–on the roof. One was breaking off bricks from the roof with an iron rod and passing them on; the other was throwing the bricks into the rampaging crowd below. My brother did not finish the tale; he did not need to. In my mind’s eye, I knew what had happened. The ending was foretold; sooner or later, the mob would break through the iron gates and the wooden doors of the staircase; they would race upstairs and overpower those two men. Then they would beat them to death, perhaps with the same bricks and iron rods that had been used to hold them off in vain.  The most sickening and violent of deaths, that at the hands of a vengeful mob, would be those men’s fate.

Some thirty-two years on, I’ve not forgotten those images; the one I had to draw using the resources of my own imagination, and the ones that were clearly visible to me, hanging over New Delhi, signaling the utter and complete breakdown of the city’s moral sensibilities. I was not threatened by the violence personally, but fear was contagious; I did not venture out of my street for an entire week. It was the closest I’ve come to living in a war zone, and it’s not an experience I ever want to repeat; I cannot, to this day, understand how life can go on in those precincts; the fear felt by those in New Delhi whose lives were actually in danger that week seems inconceivable to me.

The 1984 pogroms remain one of modern India’s most shameful episodes, a shame exacerbated by the fact that more than three decades later, very few perpetrators have been brought to justice. They’ve not lost their capacity to induce nightmares in me; the numbers of the dead published in the newspapers chilled me, as did the photographs of wailing women and children. But most of all, I will never forget that story of a desperate family trying to hold off inevitable death, their last moments on this earth filled with terror and pain, the voices of hatred ringing in their ears.

Hillary Clinton And The Supposed Political Windfall For Feminism

The ‘feminist legacy’ of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi is an ambiguous one. These women, in varying fashion, rose to great political power, and exerted it with varying degrees of aplomb. (They both earned nicknames that assimilated their visible displays of ‘steel’ into a stereotypical vision of male toughness.) Gandhi came to power in a nation whose imagined and real social role for women was sharply limited; it is unclear what Gandhi’s being in power had to do with the greatly increased visibility of women in Indian public life (the latter presence might well be linked with the changes in the political economy that have been introduced in India since the 1990s.) Thatcher’s ascendancy was seen as a victory for women in British politics while her policy support for women’s causes was widely debated. Again, in her case, it is not clear whether her tenure broke glass ceilings and rolled back the tide of sexism in British public life.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it is unclear to me that the election of Hillary Clinton as president will represent a windfall for feminism and women’s rights. The US of 2016 is not the England of  1979 or the India of 1966, but patriarchy–engaged in mutually supportive roles with corporate structures–still rules the roost here. The American corporate stronghold over politics, whose most visible symbol is the rampant economic inequality that so permeates the lives of American citizens, is better than most in co-opting potential foes as allies.  In its embrace, traditional identity politics matter for little (even as Barack Obama found that his being black was as potent a political force to be ranged against him as any other.)

Materialist feminists know that dismantling patriarchy will not be done without dismantling the economic system it works with; elect an economically privileged person to power and they will simply perpetuate class privilege. Their identity lies with their class, with their economic group, with the allegiances that ensure their economic and political power. Nothing in Hillary Clinton’s record–stretching back to her days in Arkansas–indicates that on taking power she will enact policies that will act to dismantle the very system that is her, and her family’s, best friend. To be sure, the symbolic value of her victory will be immense; it would send a powerful signal to many women, old and young, that their voices have been heard, that they have political representation of a kind, and that oft-repeated-claim that more young women will find it possible to dream about political power will sound ever more plausible.

But those same women, I fear, will find their paths to the ‘top’ blocked if the routes remain the same. And they will resolutely remain the same unless power–in this political and economic system–is exercised differently, for different ends, by those who attain it, by those who show their priorities lie with matters more weighty than the mere retention of that power. Hillary Clinton does little to indicate she will make the kinds of possibilities dreamed about by women more tangible, more substantial. Worse, her election could weaken those arguments which claim that women are economically and politically under-represented. Remember, the refrain will go, if she can make it, so can you.

Amitav Ghosh And Dževad Karahasan On ‘An Aesthetic of Indifference’

In his essay The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi (New Yorker, July 1995), Amitav Ghosh introduces the reader to the Bosnian writer Dževad Karahasan and his ‘remarkable essay called Literature and War (published…in the collection Sarajevo, Exodus of a City), which ‘makes a startling connection between modern literary aestheticism and the contemporary world’s indifference to violence.’ Ghosh goes on to quote Karahasan:

Let us not fool ourselves…The world is written first – the Holy Books say that it was created in words and all that happens in it, happens in language first.

and concludes:

It is when we think of the world the aesthetic of indifference might bring into being that we recognize the urgency of remembering the stories we have not written.

Ghosh is invoking here his own long-held silence, finally broken by the publication of his essay in 1995, an account of ordinary citizens’ reactions to the terrifying pogroms conducted in New Delhi against the Sikh community in 1984–as reprisals for the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, the Indian prime minister, by her Sikh bodyguards.Ghosh interprets this reticence in light of Karahasan’s remark that ‘The decision to perceive literally everything as an aesthetic phenomenon – completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth – is an artistic decision. That decision started in the realm of art, and went on to become characteristic of the contemporary world.’ He resolves his indecision about writing about the 1984 killings by conducting a form of self-inquiry: Is he a writer or a citizen? Should he write about the riots and his response to it, as the former or as the latter? Should he only write about the violence, or all else that accompanied it too? Write Ghosh finally does, as a citizen, as a human, as a friend, who is a writer too.

In so doing, in recounting tales of terror, cruelty, and bravery, Ghosh depicts a world infected not by an ‘aesthetic of indifference’ but one of engagement and attention. A world created with an aesthetic of indifference would be a bland and colorless one; it would lack the horrors of the world Ghosh describes but also its animating spirit. Karahasan’s remark about the primacy of the word suggests an even more radical fate for the world not written about: it ceases to exist.

The point to be made here, that the writer bears a responsibility to pay attention to the world around him, to make note of it with an unflinching eye, is an old one. Indeed, it is disappointingly conventional: the writer must write; all else is subordinate to this foundational principle; to not write is to commit an existentialist sin.

Ghosh’s own reflections add another twist: that the responsibility to write about catastrophe has a moral dimension; the writer must not seek out an affected, neutral, ‘from on high’ pulpit from which to issue commentary, but must instead introduce his own moral perspective into the words written, that his writing must bear his personal impress. These perspectives introduce into what would otherwise be merely voyeuristic forays into the violence of atrocities, a much-needed corrective: they make human and comprehensible the inexplicable. In a world underwritten by an aesthetic of indifference we look on unflinchingly at the terrible, but our gaze is a banal and bland one. Its sees little; it feels even less. What could be worse?