A recent article in Mother Jones contributed an interesting historical detail to the debate over the construction of Park51, an Islamic community centre in lower Manhattan that is better known as “the Ground Zero mosque”. Several blocks of the city of New York are built atop a mass grave, 25 feet underground, containing the bones of some 20,000 African slaves. Therefore, the article contended, if the site of the former World Trade Center is to be understood as hallowed ground, by that same logic, the area which was used as the final resting place of those slaves was also hallowed ground, and swathes of prime American property (including Wall Street) were already a desecration of their memory and the atrocities committed to them.
As someone who has neither stake nor trauma related to the controversy, I do not feel I have the right to opine. But the very notion of hallowed ground intrigues me deeply. There are places which are hallowed by historic incident, and therefore on some level affect or move large numbers of people. But there are also places hallowed for profoundly personal reasons, and their violation — for it is perceived that way, to the person who holds it thusly — is a pain that must be suffered privately, without the release of mass outcry or public catharsis.
The idea of the hallowedness of a place is, in essence, a sort of secular sacredness. And although blessedness, or tremendous positivity if you prefer, can also render a place hallowed, nothing quite exalts in the manner that tragedy does. In examining some of the sites which to me are certainly hallowed ground, it’s always been the element of despair that engendered the profound meaning they came to hold to me. You can miss a place you were happy in, but what you miss is the happiness itself; but when you yearn for a place of more complicated emotion, it is for the place itself, for the intensity it imparted. Like holding your fingers to a flame not because you want to be burnt, but because the heat is so exquisitely real.
Some months ago, a pigeon began to nest on my balcony, and I put up with the smell, filth and inaccessibility for weeks because I knew what would happen if I cleared what was, to me, no more than a mess: traumatised by the incident and drawn back to the site of that trauma, the pigeon would never stop hanging around, disquieted by grief and yet potently drawn to it. I thought of how I too am magnetized to the sites of some of my upheavals, and saddened, wanted to spare her this experience if I could.
Hallowedness renders “holy”, but more importantly, it reflects our humanity: our mortality, as in the cases of the mass burial ground and disaster site of Manhattan, but also the persistence of memory — not necessarily just in what we choose to honour, but also our unwillingness to tear ourselves from a moment of transformation, the intensity of a shock that affirms over and over, “I felt this, this was real, and seared forever by it, I am”. A place that is hallowed also hallows, in the double-edged way which diffrentiates that which is blessing, and that which is luck.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.