An Unforgettable Image, Appropriately Contextualized

In the summer of 1992, I traveled to India to visit my family: my mother, my brother, his wife (my sister-in-law), and my little, then barely six months old nephew. The monsoon lay around the corner, promising mixed relief from the brutal heat of the North Indian plains; the humidity would still oppress, but evenings and nights promised to be cooler. My days at my brother’s air force base passed quickly: morning teas with my mother, playing with my nephew, indulgent afternoon beers, a lazy nap, then a long walk with my mother through the leafy, broad-avenued cantonment, and finally, at night, an old Indian favorite, several whiskies with club soda to accompany a hearty meal. It remains, to date, the most treasured of my many trips back ‘home’ since migrating to the US in 1987. Much was to change after that trip; those few weeks marked the end of an era of sorts.

Among the many pleasantly nostalgic vignettes of that trip that I can summon up quite effortlessly in my mind’s eye, one particular afternoon stands out clearly. That day, my mother and I returned to my brother’s residence on base from a brief train trip to meet some family in Central India. On arriving, my brother asked if we had had lunch, and on hearing we had not, suggested we get some take-out from the local market. My ears perked up, and I suggested we sample the wares of a local shop, which specialized in making the North Indian snack called kachori; this establishment’s products were known far and wide for their lip-smacking taste, and every daily batch produced by the cooks sold out in a few minutes. My brother looked at the time, saw it was just about that hour when the kachoris were to go on sale, and suggested we bust a move if we wanted to get lucky. I complied. We scored, picking up two dozen of the savory, spicy snacks. A dozen were to be consumed that afternoon itself; the remaining would have to bide their time till the evening. On the way back, I suggested to my brother that it would be a shame to not wash down our meal with a cold beer. He agreed, and we stopped off at a local shop to pick up a few three-quarter-litre bottles.

As we rode home on my brother’s motorbike, we noticed an unusually powerful afternoon monsoon shower brewing: grey rainclouds coalesced rapidly into gigantic black thunderheads building and lifting ominously as the winds picked up and little dust devils began dancing by the roadside. We arrived home, placed the food on the dining table to be sorted out into plates, opened our chilled bottles of beer, and stepped out into the lawn to watch the show being put on for our pleasure. As I drank the beer, its cold wetness in my gullet bringing relief from the heat, I felt exhilarated; the buzz was kicking in. All was well; I was at home with those I loved, beauty was all around me, good food awaited.

As we watched the storm brewing, my sister-in-law, a painter and artist, standing next to me, spoke softly: ‘Look at that; my most favorite vision of all, white birds flying with the black rainclouds as backdrop.’ I looked up; there they were, ivory-white wings silhouetted against the now-almost-ebony-black clouds, a stark and stunning contrast. It was, without doubt, one of the most startling and striking visions I had ever had of nature; it remains so to this day. And I knew, even at that instant, that my assessment of the beauty of the image presented to me, was directly and immediately affected by my placement (an air force base my father had flown out of many years ago), my company–those I missed so acutely once I had crossed the black water, my sense of belonging in a space that felt familiar, the love I could feel around me (and perhaps the beer too.) Without those accompaniments, I would not have seen what I did.

Note: In The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism, his psychoanalytic study of the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sudhir Kakar writes:

The artistic streak in Ramakrishna was strongly developed, and it seems appropriate that his first ecstasy was evoked by the welling up of aesthetic emotion; an episode of ‘nature’ mysticism, it was the consequence of an aesthetically transcendent feeling: “I was following a narrow path between the rice fields. I raised my eyes to the sky as I munched my rice. I saw a great black cloud spreading rapidly till it covered the heavens. Suddenly at the edge of the cloud a flight of snow white cranes passed over my head. The contrast was so beautiful that my spirit wandered far away. I lost consciousness and fell to the ground. The puffed rice was scattered. Somebody picked me up and carried me home in his arms. An access [sic] of joy and emotion overcame me….This was the first time I was seized with ecstasy.”

 

 

Neera Tanden And A Cultural ‘Obsession With Hierarchy’

Over at his blog, Corey Robin details an interesting Twitter spat with Neera Tanden–“the person who many think will be Hillary Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff….the head of the Center for American Progress, the Democratic Party think tank that works closely with the Clintons.” Tanden is an arch-defender of Hillary Clinton–which is unsurprising given the passions political allegiances can inspire. But as I’ve observed her interactions on Twitter with those she considers foes, something about her defenses of HRC, the Democratic Party and its many shenanigans during the primary season, her own brand of ‘progressivism,’ her obsequious fawning over heads of state as contrasted with her snappy, brusque, interactions with journalists and bloggers, struck me as familiar, possessed of a distinctive and recognizable style. I finally realized where I had seen it before–in the Indian manifestations of the universal phenomenon termed ‘sycophancy.’ That in turn is rooted in a particular and peculiar Indian understanding of, and relationship with, social and political hierarchies.

In Being Indian (Penguin, 2004, pp. 7-21) Pavan K. Varma writes:

Indians are exceptionally hierarchical in outlook, bending more than required before those who are perceived to be ‘superior,’ and dismissive or contemptuous of those perceived to be ‘inferior.’ Understandably, notions of self-esteem and personal image, in conformity with perceived ‘status,’ are of great importance to them….the obsession with hierarchy, and the symbols that project it, is not a monopoly of officialdom….The structure of hierarchies may be changing, but ‘for an Indian, superior and subordinate relationships have the character of eternal verity and moral imperative–(and the) automatic reverence for superiors is a nearly universal psycho-social fact.’¹  This acceptance of the hierarchy of power gives a particularly Indian colouring to the meaning and operation of modern concepts like democracy and equality.

To an Indian, the projection of power and the recognition of status are intimately related. When a person’s entire worth is dependent on the position he occupies on a hierarchical scale, the assertion of status (and its recognition by others) becomes of crucial importance. In order to preserve status, one has to be seen to be above those below, and below those above. There can be no ambivalence in these equations.

Tanden is Indian-American, the child of immigrant parents, and in her political identity–which like good anti-essentialists, we would expect to be a hybrid of sorts–she seems to have found a pitch-perfect blend of stylistic elements that are most relevant to the achievement of her personal and career objectives. In particular, from the Indian cultural predilection for deference to power and hierarchy–one reinforced by the Indian family structure with its overbearing emphasis on respect for ‘elders’ and essential conservativeness–Tanden has drawn on, and found, a fecund reservoir of political behavioral patterns.  Those–defer to superiors, defend your position in the hierarchy at all costs, smack those down below you–should help her in her steady ascent through these lower orders of being. The ruling class will settle for nothing less.

Note #1: Here Varma cites the Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar‘s The Indian Psyche: The Inner World; Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors; Tales of Love, Sex, and Danger. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996, p. 138.

‘Empire,’ ‘Self-Government,’ and ‘Religious Conflict’

In The Colors of Violence, an attempt to contribute ‘a depth-psychological dimension to the understanding of religious conflict, especially the tensions between Hindus and Muslims [in India]’, Sudhir Kakar writes¹:

If Hindu-Muslim relations were in better shape in the past, with much less overt violence, it was perhaps also because of the kind of polity in which the two peoples lived. This polity was that of empire, the Mughal empire followed by the British one. An empire…Michael Walzer observes,² is characterized by a mixture of repression for any strivings for independence and tolerance for different cultures, religions and ways of life. The tolerance is not a consequence of any great premodern wisdom but because of the indifference, sometimes bordering on brutal incomprehension, of the imperial bureaucrats to local conflicts of the people they rule. Distant from local life,  they do not generally interfere with everyday life as long as things remain peaceful, though there may be intermittent cruelty to remind the subject peoples of the basis of empire–conquest through force of arms. It is only with self-government, when distance disappears, that the political questions–‘Who among us shall have power here, in these villages, in these towns?’ ‘Will the majority group dominate?’ ‘What will be the new ranking order?’–lead to a heightened awareness of religious-cultural differences. In countries with multireligious populations, independence coincides with tension and conflict–such as we observe today in the wake of the unravelling of the Soviet empire.

This  analysis of religious conflict is not inconsistent with those that see it grounded in economic dispute and class struggle; the political questions noted above have an economic dimension to them as well, for variants of the power being mediated and parceled out and haggled over are very often economic ones; and class struggles may only become more starkly visible when the mediating hand of empire is removed. It is however, in the Indian context, inconsistent with those accounts of Hindu-Muslim conflict, which view the two ‘communities’ as living in a state of peaceful, tolerant amity before being rudely interrupted in their mutually respectful reveries by the heavy hand of the divide and rule colonialist; instead, here, it is the colonial stamp that keeps the incipient clashes at bay.

The empires of the colonialist enterprise displaced questions of power to its centers, away from the margins, and rendered its most central questions in a form that appeared only in highly restricted forms–pertaining to survival, not flourishing–to its subjects. ‘Local conflicts’ of the sort alluded to above remained low-stakes affairs, the spoils accruing to their victors not great enough to warrant the mobilization of a favored group along lines that emphasized social, cultural and religious identity. It is only when the trappings of the immense power associated with governmentality become visible that the group draws in closer and prepares to make an ambitious, even if expensive and bloody, play for power.

Notes:

1. Sudhir Kakar, The Colors of Violence, Penguin Books India, 1995, pp.  241

2. Michael Walzer, ‘Nations and minorities’, in C. Fried, ed., Minorities: Community and Identity, (Berlin: Springer Verlag), pp. 219-27