All around the world, political currents which seemed to some to only be undulating, just mildly threateningly, on the horizon have not-so-suddenly arrived onshore. Those who warned about what could come or tried to stop it were not able to keep bigotries, anti-democratic actions and sectarianism at bay. If this moment is historical, it is not only because people in the future (if humanity has a future, although climate change experts predict otherwise) will speak of it and trawl through records of it, but also because it has happened many times already. Such times – in which vast tides of populations turned towards destructive ideologies – are a part of known history, both recent and distant. In such times, Bertolt Brecht – who lived in exile away from Germany when the Nazis were in power – wrote, we will have to “keep singing”. To quote: “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing About the dark times.”
This could be read as a moral imperative – that there must be singing, so to speak, no matter how bleak the larger reality we live in. We can understand “singing” as including all manner of arts, all modes of study, and all acts of creation, including abstractly the raising of children, the tending of plants and self-care. But that final line – “About the dark times” – holds a standard for that imperative. Again, everywhere, the question arises of what the artist’s, teacher’s (or in our particular time, influencer’s) responsibility is in bringing awareness to injustice, helping galvanise change, or recording events.
Many hold this responsibility incredibly seriously, which we need. But to chastise those who don’t is correct only when it comes to those who refuse to, who support the status quo and prefer the different forms of denial that allow it. For there are those who create joy as neither denial nor distraction, but as salve and reviving agent. Beauty and sweetness are powerful healers. We cannot give in to the idea that there can only be grimness in “the dark times”; we must not lose our sense of melody, and of the many ways to strike a chord.
The Talmud – a legal compilation sacred to Jews, who were persecuted by the Nazis (our modern benchmark for democratically-elected evildoers) – offers possible instructions in the form of these beautiful instructions: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” The last line is the most resonant. It’s simply not going to be possible to be a torchbearer, a teller-of-truth-to-power, at all times. Exhaustion, personal circumstances, self-doubt, reasonable fear and difficulty will happen to even the best among us. Perhaps one more way to interpret that directive, and use it well, is to understand that it’s not necessary to be hopeful, or imagine that we must behave as beacons of hope, but when hope comes, we must honour it. In this way, little by little, we will still do what we can to resist, record – and rise above.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 19th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.