“We need to be Utopian. We need to think of what our ideal social world would be.” – Nivedita Menon, February 23, 2018.
(Lecture on ‘Self, Labour, and Technology’ reflecting on the ideas of three voices from early 20th century India, namely: M.K. Gandhi’s ‘Hind Swaraj’, B.R. Ambedkar’s ‘Gandhism’, and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein’s ‘Sultana’s Dream’.)
While attending this lecture recently, I felt a surge of excitement for ideas after a long time. Attempting to investigate and understand the social world has never been a purely intellectual endeavour for me. It has also always been a deeply emotional journey. And after a long time I truly feel love once again for what I do, and what I want to do for the rest of my life, which is studying the social world.
And to not merely understand its dynamics, but to change it. Hearing Nivedita speak yesterday set my heart racing as a bubble of optimism rose in my chest and brought tears to my eyes. I felt, Yes! We can do it. We can change the world.
There are some precious days like these when we feel our faith in imagining alternatives to the bleak world returning, re-surging, filling us with energy that was only a memory on more despondent days. Yes, we must imagine Utopias, we must never stop dreaming of a new world, a better world, a just world, a world which is good for and good to each and every one of us and not just a privileged few. Life should not be the unfair and unjust race it currently is. Life should be a journey we take together as companions, compatriots, comrades, as fellow human beings living in this world together with dignity.
I am also filled with joy today. In fact, I am almost bursting at the seams with joy. I can’t contain it in my body anymore, it threatens to break loose, it possesses me. I want to dance, I want to sing, I want to embrace the people I love, I want to play with dogs and cats, monkeys and children.
I visited my old university yesterday. A place that saved me intellectually and emotionally from another college I had left before that. A better way to describe it is flight. Because truly I had fled that intellectually dead and emotionally overbearing space called a ‘college’. I fell in love with my new university immediately. It became a place that had reminded me once again, some years ago now, of how much I love studying what I study. Of the joy that can be found in work that we love. The excitement of sharing ideas with fellows that far exceeds the excitement of possessing ideas by oneself. A place where I fell in love many times with many entities. Teachers, friends, books, objects, authors, spaces. Dogs, too. And with tea, shared with friends on sunny winter days and sultry summer days, conversing about what we had learned in class. What we had read in books. What we thought. What we observed. What we hoped for, what we dreamed of, for ourselves and for others, for each other, and for the world around us.
That is what a university should be about. And that is exactly what my old university was. A place to forge connections – connections between ideas, connections with people, connections with places. Where we thought of the world around us and our place in it. Where our concerns were not the careers we would be pursuing, but the kinds of lives we wanted to lead. The nature of life itself and the world. That is what a university is. It is a space that promotes ideas, thoughtful reflection that exceeds the temporal and spatial coordinates we currently occupy, while also enabling us to focus on those very coordinates and study them intimately. It enables us to locate ourselves as situated beings in this world. We occupy space, we occupy identity, we occupy social position in relation to others. Not in isolation. This life is not an individual pursuit, we are not atomised beings.
And we must be political, because the world of human beings is always a political one. Our relations to each other are structured in power. At this university, I learned a definition of ‘politics’ that I carry with myself till today – “Politics is who gets what, when, how.” (Harold Lasswell). To claim to be apolitical, then, is to merely turn away from the reality of our existence in society.
The university enables us to situate our own position as political beings in the social world. And to care about the implications of these positions, for ourselves and for others.
My old university enabled us to think in this way because it was located in the heart of the bustling city, in a part of it which is steeped both in history as well as dreams of a ‘modern’ future. Compared to that, my current university is a gated community, comfortable in its partial isolation from the city and world around it. It imagines itself to be a microcosm of the society outside. An utter farce, in my view. It is too disconnected, time and space are structured differently within its walls. For one, it has too much space and too little population compared to the dense bustling city around it. In fact, it is an exception and not a reflection of the society outside (and it is very much ‘outside’).
My old university is also gated, but it does not stand apart from the city it is located in. Exit through the gate, and you find yourself near the historical Kashmiri Gate, a site of great political activity during the Rebellion of 1857. Take the left turn and walk further, and you reach Red Fort to your left, Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid to your right. Continue further, you will reach Daryaganj, where many a days are spent by book lovers buying books by the kilogram as per Daryaganj norms. Walk through a lane right across the university gate and there’s the Old Delhi Railway station. Another lane would take you to Qudsia Bagh, a garden palace built for one Qudsia Begum. Walk further, and you will find yourself in the historic ‘White Town’ of the city, known as ‘Civil Lines’ (the implication being that natives were the opposite of civil in the imperial imagination of British Raj).
Take another route and you reach the Kashmere Gate station of Delhi metro, manifestation of a modern technocratic dream of transforming Delhi into a ‘sky city’, where people may commute on multiple layers of space within the city. This is a route that I must have taken countless times as a student, one I know with intimate familiarity. As we ride an escalator that creaks (and of course it has to, even new things appear ancient in this part of town) my friend remarks, “The creaking upward thrust of modernity.” What an apt metaphor for India, perhaps for all ‘post-colonial’ regions of the world, where ‘modernity’, however it was imagined, was thrust upon us along with domination.
In this part of town, past, present, and future blend together seamlessly. They sit comfortably next to each other. That is why I fell in love with Kashmiri Gate, and with my little university located there.
As we walk past, an old man quietly works with his scissors, tearing through cloth. An old sewing machine sits in front of him, the kind that may perhaps exist in a museum in another country as a relic of the past. Here, it is part of life.
Not far from the old man, a makeshift temple blares devotional songs rather loudly. And while the temple appears makeshift, it has been rooted to this spot since as long as I can remember. What is new, however, is the shop selling liquor right across the street from the temple, not more than twenty paces away. Although I call myself an atheist, I have often felt the sway of devotional trance, especially when listening to devotional music. Participating in group activity often has that effect on us humans, and music only makes it more intense. We lose ourselves in the group, we lose ourselves in the feeling, in the moment, and in that space. We feel ourselves to be not contained within ourselves anymore, our identities merging. The sociologist Emile Durkheim called it collective effervescence. I imagine that the two states of being have some intimate connection, being inebriated and feeling part of the crowd. I think it is fitting that the liquor shop is so close to a temple.
A little while later, I attend another talk, this one with one of my favourite authors Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It is such a pleasure to hear him speak. He is a sprightly old man, young at age 80, and he can barely contain the energy of his spirit in his body. While seated on the dais, he moves his legs like an excited child, he injects his talk with sound effects and humour. He also gets up frequently, and moves around while talking. His energy is infectious, and I find myself falling in love once again with his words, this time not as written text, but as speech, and his mannerisms. He truly is a storyteller, through and through.
When I go to get my book signed by him, a beloved old book now yellowing and almost falling apart, I am a little apologetic.
I have a very old copy of your book, I say.
And Ngũgĩ says, That’s good!
It is very important to go back to the past. The present, today, is born of yesterday. And today contains both yesterday and also tomorrow. Today is pregnant with tomorrow. So they are connected, really. We must always remember our past, and particularly colonialism.As a writer, it is important for me to remember that past because it is the past that makes me who I am.
It alienates the colonial child from his environment, because the knowledge is not from your own surroundings but from elsewhere. The colonial system asks you to see yourself from the eyes of an outsider, instead of the other way round where you begin from where you are. The colonial system asks you to jump elsewhere and start knowledge from there, and then move back to where you are.
There is bullying all over the world. Do they have bullying in India? It seems to be quite a common global phenomenon. And every bully seems to shame the body of the bullied, that seems common. So that the bullied feels uncomfortable with their body, with their base. Your body is your starting point. To make you question your body is to make you question your own starting point. It is the same with the colonial system, it makes you doubt your own body because it wants you to accept the hierarchical order of society. We have to question hierarchy.
Education in general, and not just colonial education, tends not to teach us connections, but as if entities are separate. This is a false demarcation. Colonialism was primarily economic. But economic control is not possible without political control. And economic and political control are not possible without cultural control. So they are all connected, we cannot deal with them separately. We must look for the connections.
Literature does not develop in a vacuum. We don’t really quite invent our own languages. I use words of languages already in use, with their own histories, with their own worldviews, etc. Literature is actually a product of history, of the material world. So it is a product, it is a reflection of that world, and it reflects upon the world. It has all three elements. A great writer is able to reflect the condition of his time.