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December 15, 1999


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Feeling Good About Being South Asian

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Amitava Kumar

On my way back from Kathmandu, where I had gone to attend the Film South Asia '99 festival recently, I stopped in New Delhi for a day to meet Uday Prakash, the Delhi-based Hindi writer.

Uday was working on a poem on his computer when I rang his door bell. The half-written poem was there for me to see on the screen. It was entitled, Ek Bhasha Hua Karti Hai ('A Language That Happens To Be').

"There is a language that when they speak it / scientists and third class jokers / and the most honored prostitutes as well as the revolutionaries are all ashamed of...," were the opening lines of the poem.

I am presenting them to you in my very inadequate translation from Hindi, unable to capture that tone of fine learning and sharp, vernacular earthiness that characterizes each of Uday Prakash's writings.

I asked Uday to print a copy of the unfinished poem for me. Because there was a line in his poem that had arrested me: Woh bhasha jismein likhta hua har imaandaar kavi pagal ho jaata hai... ('The language in which every honest poet writing in it turns insane').

What is it about writing in a language, rather, confronting the culture that surrounds it, that threatens its writer with madness?

Perhaps because it is a language in which, according to our poet, "a bonded postman of the last century even now distributes / the history of civilization's most uncivilized and painful letters."

The deepest hurts of our century are well-nigh inexpressible in any tongue. And, in the week that I spent in the subcontinent, the ongoing theater of atrocities in New Delhi presented its show in all languages.

On the day I arrived, a newborn was stolen from his mother's hospital bed. Six or seven days later, the mother still lay in the same bed in the hospital ward, waiting for her child to be returned. A day before I left Delhi, a sex-worker was forced into a police station and gang-raped.

The woman was taken back into custody after she received a hospital check-up -- this, despite the fact that she was in pain and bleeding profusely -- because the police said that her injuries had not been found serious enough to gain admittance.

How to document such loss and struggle? The questions of a culture's sensitiveness and the efforts of its artists to sharpen awareness and bring change were never far away from what was happening during the documentary film festival in Kathmandu. Organized by HIMAL South Asia, a media group based in Nepal, this festival brought together South Asian documentary film-makers and their work.

Bollywood film director and lyricist Gulzar, who inaugurated the festival, said that the documentary film draws attention to "the real life and its roots."

But, quite apart from having the opportunity to see good, realistic documentary films, an event like Film South Asia also provided the resources for shaping a regional ethos. This ethos is one that, to begin with, transcends the murderous nationalist oppositions that divide countries of the subcontinent.

Equally important, in the context of cultural exchange and solidarity, the different nations and its citizens engage as equals, unbothered by the hierarchical determinations of national economies and arms arsenals.

In the 'desi diaspora', here in New York and New Jersey too, we should have reason to feel good about being South Asians. And for the same reasons. Ever since the Kargil farce -- that ended in tragedy for so many soldiers, killed on both sides, and numerous families uprooted as a result of bombings -- the need is all the more greater for such a flowering of regional camaraderie among ordinary people.

I cannot end this brief travelogue without touching upon one more station on my journey. I stopped for two days in my hometown, Patna, in Bihar.

I had arrived in the middle of the election drama. Repolling was to take place at a few places in the state capital because there had been allegations of "booth-capturing" and illegal balloting. It was still early in the morning when I picked up my cameras so that I could head toward the northern districts where the repolling was to take place.

Right in front of my parents' house in Patna, in the park where I had grown up playing cricket, there was an RSS shakha meeting in progress. I could see the saffron flag and the tell-tale khakhi shorts. I had not seen these young men there before during all my previous visits, so I went over to chat with them. I waited while the dozen or so youth, most of them I'd imagine in their late teens or early twenties, performed some drills.

Their marching was quite clumsy and their attempt at callisthenics non-rigorous and rather shabby. But, here they were -- the Hindu right's barefoot foot soldiers -- and I was curious.

I was made to wait a little longer. After the drills, the youth stood in a circle and played a game in which they ran in circles and giggled a lot while chasing each other. When they stopped, I approached them for the first time. I told them that I used to live in that house over there, just across the street, and now I had come home for a few days. Could I talk to them?

They all nodded. Their leader, a serious, spectacled fellow, said, "Please wait so that we can pray."

The prayer was a chant that began with the words, Hindu rashtra ki anant shakti jag rahi / Arya desh ki swadesh bhakti jag rahi. ('The Hindu nation's endless strength is rising / The nationalist devotion of the Arya nation is rising').

What do you want to aim to do here, and what do you like about whatever it is that you are doing here? I asked in Hindi. The answers I got were simple. And, what was also surpassing to me, the answers were given with an air of what I cannot but call unimpeachable innocence.

"Our aim is that in our Hindu nation each person become a shreshta nagrik (good citizen). Whatever it is that we do, we try to do it together. The biggest thing among us is discipline."

To enforce this fraternal feeling and also the discipline, these young men met every day for an hour. To me they were the upper-caste, middle to lower middle-class set of Bihari society that felt marginalzed by the rise of the so-called backward castes and its alliances with other minorities.

In Bihar, Laloo Yadav's appeal has relied mostly on Yadavs and Muslim votes. These men, with little economic potential and decreasing political clout, had reached out for a right-wing nationalist ideology that granted them morality and masculinity -- at the expense of the minorities and others who, till yesterday, were regarded as inferior.

I asked them about this. I inquired whether in what they were doing. Was there any place for Muslims? Or dalits? How many among them were any of those groups?

Unfazed, their answer was automatic. And a little chilling. "He who has been born on this soil is a Hindu. We do not demand that the Muslim be separate in India. We dream of an akhand Bharat (an undivided India)...."

I went and shot my pictures of the elections after that. Long lines of men and women waited patiently in the sun to exercise their democratic right. But, as I write about the need to create a regional ethos, it is the youth in the park near my childhood home who draw my attention. As far as I could tell, they were decent youth.

They looked cheerful and harmless as they chased each other and, in an attempt, not without its own pathos, to acquire and give respect, they incessantly greeted each other with namaste. And yet they were disappointing to me because they were drawing back into a narrower identity.

Being Indian no longer meant a whole host of things; nor was their Indianness outward-looking. Their India was unitary and insular. And they appeared utterly susceptible to the further corruption of right-wing ideologies.

This was a vision of India in which piety would rationalize genocide; patriotic fervor would disguise cupidity; and, a desiccated and moralizing ideology of discipline would choke any sign of non-conformity.

This having been said, I couldn't help feeling that the youth were not wholly to be blamed for not knowing otherwise.

Their fears and their silences have not been drawn into that circle of conversation of which, say, the Film South Asia 99 is such a fine example. The mindless consumerism of mainstream television has offered the youth impossible dreams and the realization that impossible things are not for them.

Other, more meaningful, issues have never been addressed or resolved -- except in the retreat into the uninterrogated embrace of a familiar, regressive ideology on the rise.

The difficult thought that forms in my mind, and which I must allow and even embrace, is that it is possible that it is this other -- the one who would not permit me or my loved one on the soil of the India of his making -- is also the one capable of bringing me gifts of ordinary humanity. And that, in our letters, in our writings, in our films, we are fighting for such a possibility.

Amitava Kumar is a professor at University of Florida and the author of 'Passport Photos'. An earlier version of this article appeared in 'Little India'.

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