Tag Archives: resistance

The Venus Flytrap: Shaheen Bagh

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Night and day on the banks of the Yamuna river, a peaceful ongoing gathering led by women has become the inspiration the nation needs to turn towards humane principles. At Shaheen Bagh, crowds are said to burgeon to thousands at times. The very elderly hold court here bravely. Children have always been welcome here, and a vibrant culture of music, puppetry, reading together (aloud and silently) and more has been created by participants of all ages. A small shadow has fallen over this beacon of resistance. A four month old infant, Jahaan, who accompanied his mother Nazia for many rounds of vigil at the protest site, passed away last week after suffering from cold and congestion.

Nazia has already returned to Shaheen Bagh. “Why was I doing this?” she responded to the media. “For my children and the children of all us who need a bright future in this country.” She has two other children under six years old, and her family is of a working-class background.

There are many, especially among the privileged, who brand her selfish, irresponsible, a paid agent and worse. They blame her for her baby’s death. If Jahaan had grown older, and been murdered one day for having been at the wrong place at the wrong time while wearing a skullcap – as happened to 15-year old Junaid on a train in 2017 – would such tears still fall? There are similarities here to the concern that anti-abortion activists and right-wing people in many countries (including India) claim to have for theoretical children, even as they turn away from the plight of refugee children interned in border camps, queer children who are bullied to suicide, and students left behind by warped education systems that sustain generational poverty. The least vitriolic among them may find an individual case “sad”, while refusing to acknowledge how a sequence of events was set in motion. To do so would to be agree with those who protest, at Shaheen Bagh or anywhere.

The trajectory of this bereavement, and the blame for it, doesn’t rest on one person’s choice. How many details there are to determine whether a child will survive a Delhi winter if he has a bad cold. Does his shanty have adequate heating? Do his parents have money for medical expenses and nourishing food? Does their clinic have enough resources? Does the structure of society, with its interlinked hierarchal systems, provide for their wellbeing? In short: would this child survive a bad cold even if he hadn’t caught it a protest? How then can a parent’s decision to take him there be considered the sole one for his demise?

What kind of parent takes a child to a protest? One who cares. One who knows that the world that child has been born into will not let her protect it from its iniquity for long, and that by showing him the truth, she inoculates him against indifference. One on whose behalf we can also ask these questions: What kind of parent teaches a child discrimination? What kind of parent wants a child to inherit a world from which plurality, freedom and compassion have been excised?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 6th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Reconciling Spirituality & Resistance

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Last week, a possibly well-intended but definitely poorly-executed infographic made the rounds, with a pair of lists intended to distinguish Hinduism from Hindutva, the fundamentalist strain of the former. The infographic relied heavily on scripture and comparison, and erased completely the existence of oppressions of caste, gender and other divisions. As someone with a spiritual life, elements of which draw from practices which fall under the umbrella of Hinduism, I was appalled by its lack of political consciousness. I am not being purposely vague in my self-description. My phrasing is meant to register my opposition to many structural and practical aspects of organised religion, my discomfort in identifying myself with one, as well as the syncretism of my beliefs – while still acknowledging this part of who I am and what influences it.

This is a necessary self-reckoning for people of all spiritual inclinations and religious backgrounds. When fundamentalisms arise, responding by attempting to a-historically defend religions is not only insufficient but dangerous. When we do this, we participate in creating the veneer of gentility that allows for injustice and violence to occur and be swept under the carpet when it does.

I have only respect for those who find that the most effective way is to throw the bhakti out with the bhakts’ bathwater, as many distinguished sociopolitical thinkers have done. I can also extend my understanding to those who, unable to counter the sophistication of critical theory with a sound articulation of why they feel as they do, think that aligning with orthodoxy is the only way to retain the solace they receive from what is ultimately a deeply private engagement. They feel that they have no choice but to side with factions which, while possibly structurally oppressing them, will not overtly shame them (this is done covertly, by fostering insecurity and an inferiority complex). Both these sets of believers will disagree with me, but I do not see them as binaries and neither do I see myself as being in the middle.

I am speaking to – but not for – those who also belong to neither set, but who believe that a vital public rendition of one’s sacred self demands standing up against inequality, challenging systemic persecution and resisting tyranny. By its nature, this cannot be consolidated into a movement, but can interweave with the good work already being done.

It is not by defending religion that we absolve ourselves, but in practising a deeper enquiry into where our beliefs, practices and the world intersect. We must look at the true guiding principles of our private faiths, and see how perfectly tenets like compassion and integrity match with tenets like secularism and justice. This is far from an easy process, and has costs including losing personally meaningful guides who espouse bigotry.

I learned that if there is no room for my sexuality, my politics or my love for the environment within an available framework, I must make my own. And we each should. Our very own, deeply personal ones, which do not seek to evangelise, but which allow us to move through the world ethically and with grace – in all senses of the word.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sometimes, Resistance

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Sometimes resistance is in making art, in creating something that serves as a respite or a record, or even both. It’s a different mode of the imagination, working not with the potential of personal failure but against the question of greater futility. To ask the question of whether art is futile and then to make it anyway is an act of faith, and one which supports acts of defiance and necessary disobedience.

Sometimes resistance is in writing poetry, measuring words out so that they sing and sting at once. Sometimes resistance is in reading it: comparing translations, researching what happened in the year it was penned, finding out how the poet lived and died (and whether it was because of what they believed in). Sometimes it’s in the contemplation of how, stripped of those identifying details, it’s eerie in how many places, and at how many points in time, what’s described could resonate. Sometimes resistance is in saying the lines out loud, matching their rhythm to a melody. Sometimes resistance is in a song.

Sometimes resistance is in putting one’s body on the line, in marching or in sitting for hours in candlelight or under the sun, letting placards shout when the vocal cords need rest. It’s in letting sheer presence register a cause, while risking physical danger.

Sometimes resistance is in prayer, not merely for one’s own comfort, but with the profound belief that nothing that is truly holy will condone cruelty, especially when it is executed in its name.

Sometimes resistance is in study, in seeking out information that has been suppressed, tracing the trajectory of events, applying one’s own intelligence, and always remembering the proverb, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”

Sometimes resistance is in argument, in saying the words as clearly as possible even while shaking and shaking with rage, or with sheer horror at the lack of empathy in the challenger. Sometimes resistance is in consciousness-raising conversation, in listening non-judgmentally and offering counter-points.

Sometimes resistance is in crying afterwards.

Sometimes resistance is in silence: the dignity with which one leaves a table at which no room is made for anyone deemed the Other, even if one’s own name is embossed on a seat there. This is not the same silence as lying by omission. It is not the same silence as turning away.

Sometimes resistance is in drawing a kolam, putting one’s intention into something destined for disintegration. Sweeping it clean and starting over with fresh intention each time. Quite often, perhaps, resistance is like drawing a kolam. It’s quotidian work, located at the threshold of what is personal and what is public. It’s a generous act, sustaining legions of working ants. Averting evil through its geometric codes. Inviting blessings and visitors. One bends to the ground and touches it in the most eloquent rejoinder to the question of art’s futility, as if to say: “I draw this pattern because I believe in its beauty and its function. And because my belief in its power – and my capacity to replenish it – won’t change, you are more than welcome to step across its lines”.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 9th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Reminders At Reis Magos

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Here is a partial list of some of the plants I noticed a few days ago at the Reis Magos Fort in North Goa: asarina vines with light purple trumpet-like blossoms; frangipani trees statuesque in a courtyard that could been in a different edifice (an inspired house, a resort); dark-leaved Krishna tulasi; white bougainvillea; coconut trees ridging the coastline of the Mandovi estuary; a banyan tree that – a sign tells you – parasitically strangulated a coconut tree over almost a century then collapsed once its host caught fire; flowering weeds whose names elude my knowledge, growing mutinously between the red laterite bricks. I had wanted to see the fort, and the view of open water from its citadel points, but once I was there a strange feeling made me linger on the foliage instead.

When this Fort became a jail, the opening at the back was sealed with masonry,” said a signboard on the wall outside an entrance. I didn’t step inside. There was a lamp hanging from the ceiling, and beyond it a simple door with bars that revealed fronds of leaves, the water, and Panjim on the other side of a bridge. In other places therein, the glass that had been put in during reconstruction transformed the space, as windows do. Sunlight flooded away the tangibility, but not the fact, of what had happened within those solitary confinement cells and prison holds. To imagine what had was what caused the dizziness that made me steady myself with greenery.

I found it beautiful, this centuries-old fort restored into use and given such serenity only as recently as a decade ago. Its beauty was necessarily marred by its history, exhibited in signs throughout, in captions alongside photographs of freedom fighters and longer descriptions chronicling aspects of Goa’s political past. I skimmed the texts, a little apprehensive about the slant they may take. One anecdote caught my eye: of how African soldiers (from where, though; the only description was “tribesmen”?), themselves under colonial rule, had been deployed by Portugal to suppress revolutionary dissent. In order to manipulate them, they were shown maps depicting Goa as being larger than India. It’s an age-old tactic, exaggerating threats, and still used today to spread misinformation and goad people into inhumane actions.

It was impossible to ignore the larger signs (except if one can’t read in English). Near the entrance, I looked up to see a “Death Hole”. Upstairs, in a hall lined with art by Mario Miranda, was its other side. One could reverse vantage points: feel the claustrophobia of the idea of hot oil cascading from the ceiling, and then feel the bloodthirst and security of being where one could thwart the enemy.

From within a fort, one can believe oneself safe. One can take borrowed pride in its architecture. One can even let the robust walls muffle the sounds of nearby screaming. One can. That never means that one should. History doesn’t only echo. Sometimes it’s in what’s here, condemned to repetition. The signs are all there, and when we’ve steadied ourselves on pretty plants and sun-dappled waves and sea breezes, we cannot refuse to look at them.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 26th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Do Not Be Daunted

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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.