‘To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.’
Arundhati Roy, The End of Imagination, Outlook, August 1998
In 1947, the famous midnight that India and Pakistan became independent, the Mahatma sat in a quiet village spinning khadi. On the one hand he was far from the songs of jubilation that marked our freedom from colonial rule; and on the other, from the communal riots that killed and displaced millions. In the non-violent nationalist movement he masterminded – spanning decades of sacrifices and difficulties (we were there?) – what and who had really won?
You ask me to pay a tribute to those who lost their lives in the shocking events last November in Mumbai. And I wonder how I can, possibly at all? I hear that our friends have started partying again in Colaba. I hear that Mumbai is back again on its feet. The undying spirit of an iconic city is back to its buoyant self. I hear there is wine again. Soufflés and lilies, and manicures.
You ask me to pay a tribute to those who lost their lives in the shocking events last month in Mumbai. And I wonder how I can? He who shoots is also just another young thing like me somewhere. Or is he not? I wonder what it takes for those killing to transcend any fear of their own deaths? What does it take to not be able to see the preciousness of life ahead? He who fights, fights for what? Does he have a favourite drink, perhaps? Did he celebrate his birthday last year? Does he like watching films? What makes his life?
The country is on high alert. People have been forewarned of such attacks after similar episodes elsewhere. But how does one perceive in advance the threat, or estimate in aftermath the impact, of a city’s transformation overnight? Can an apparatus measure the wailing cry of marginalisation? Of being lost to history’s hidden caves? The uncried tears, the hammer-killed dreams, the unspoken abuses and the heavy despair? Can it measure the invisible hurts that scar people? If such equipment existed, what would it look like? How would it show what it has measured? What would be the units it would use?
What can stop the will of one who has made a decision, whose life is made of such decisions.
I wonder if, God forbid, the next time someone decided to take up arms like this or in any other way, this apparatus could warn us. Go Clunk! Clunk! Clunk! Beware! As if, after countless wails of necks and waists being mercilessly cut, we still need to be warned of what’s coming or what’s going on underneath the banal calmness of our secure cities. You ask me to pay a tribute to those who lost their lives in the shocking events last month in Mumbai, and I wonder if I can. I wonder, in fact, if I am shocked at all.
In my garden outside, a cat is teaching its young born to feed itself – it rapidly attacks a squirrel. It is a beautiful Zen garden alright. The sound of the water flowing is calming and nourishing. There were French toasts for breakfast. The sun is showing itself slowly, much later in the day. My feet are warming up. My friend muses she loves the day as much as the night. The flowers from the raat ki rani – night jasmine – have not bloomed I see. They are missing for their fragrance.
Luxuries are relative and mine is this oasis in the middle of nowhere. Luxuries elsewhere are different – perhaps, martyrdom? Dying for a cause? Someone’s handsome self being so candidly caught on camera effortlessly bringing a nation to shame. A little more money for the family?
I had cancelled my flight to Mumbai the same day earlier for a curator friend’s art show opening (The artist showing is known for his conversations with ahimsa). I wonder if she has sold any works? Another dancer-friend performed with her troupe the very evening at one of the Taj Mahal Hotel’s rooms, and stepped out – as if guided by some other force – to have dinner elsewhere. She runs a centre for non-violence through the performing arts. She has been attacked many times, for speaking on the side of culture and not economics alone. An industry has just driven into her state to international applause, as the fate of countless other industries hang at the hands of 10 men in her neighbouring state. Is there a connection? The triumph of one national icon and the scars on another?
The world’s most famous luxury label’s window shines empty, saddened, as its store’s crumbling walls give way. Certainly, enough is not enough. Is it ever?
I thank God that my friends and family are safe.
I sit at home thousands of kilometres away sending healing to victims, family and friends of victims, those who perpetrated the terror. I do not know how to get my hands ‘dirty’ in the country’s politics. I do not know what else I can do. I wonder about the helplessness of the most helped....
I wonder also if it has been the help of the most helpless that has kept any fabric together.
I hear there are Facebook groups being formed that espouse for change in young India, that a ‘bratty’ bunch of elite Indians are finding ways to understand what they can do to be better participants in changing the nation. I hear that political parties are being born in cosy homes, getting ready for uncosinesses.
The flames of the candles being lit on the Gateway of India don’t warm me for all their earnestness, for we have missed something terribly important, somewhere...
In 2002 we are a bunch of cool kids from design school that are helped through raging mobs in a small village in Gujarat, to be saved by local people(risking their own lives) who bring us through secret passages to our camp. Between special security forces and past burnt houses-sheds-vehicles, we arrive to find that our neighbourhood shops in Ahmedabad lie burnt and looted – we hear that one tea-stall owner has burnt down another tea stall, a bakery owner led an attack to burn other bakeries. We have no eggs and bread for a week, a special patrol car goes into town to buy us our essentials – toothpaste, talcum powder, safety pins, Crocin. The security guards on campus have declared that they will leave if a crazy crowd approaches the gate. We hear that the hostels of IIM and CEPT – similar educational institutions - are attacked. Our guards inform us that strangers are enquiring at our gates about the religions of our students.
A high-profile parent suggests that students from Delhi are picked up by a special helicopter – where is the nearest helipad? I am upset my parents are not wielding their special connections with any government to have me picked up in the same way. My father is angry I could even suggest such a thing. My mother teaches me a special mantra to chant whenever I feel scared. All phone lines are working. A few days later, we’re on Commercial Street, sipping coffee and eating muffins at Barista. I shop for a new pair of shorts. It all seems safe. Our classes go on, and we finish the term on time.
We are escorted, again, in special security, to our home-bound flights. Another summer of enjoyment and making merry. I make plans for my career ahead – exciting internships in New York and Paris. Perhaps, with a little help from a friend, I will even make it to the Dior show this autumn.
A few years later, the well-heeled leaders of India’s business class have descended on the river banks across to celebrate ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ (The Sabarmati river has been severely narrowed, as wide concrete banks come up to accommodate ice cream vendors, merry-go-rounds and vegetarian restaurants). It is a showcase of how a progressive state can provide the best investment opportunities for a ‘safe’ billions of dollars. We are told that the climate here suits most ideally the pregnant ambitions of a shining India. I think of how a leader of the 2002 carnage had reportedly ripped apart a pregnant woman’s womb, and flung the foetus in air at the edge of his sword.
How does a generation grow up with such seeds? What kind of flowers bloom on these trees? Do they bloom at all? Does terror ever breed in the saplings of such atrocity and mindlessness? How does memory create itself to deliver its verdict? The punishment of what it has seen? Does it then become the face of the unheard, the crushed.
Does it then choose to not hear, to crush?
Or is there some magical alchemy of the soul we have missed here? (‘Let’s learn to forget the past.’) Is it, perhaps, not so direct? There are responsibilities and rights and duties we must all see. Perhaps there are some of us who are more tolerant, some less. Some just need to get their next job done. It is as easy.
Perhaps those who arrived once can leave now? The tamasha has ended. Some think it can be that easy.
You ask me to pay a tribute to those who lost their lives in the events last month in Mumbai. And I wonder how I can, possibly at all?
How can I, until I have the promise of not forgetting? Not forgetting that those who lost their lives did so, so that millions of lessons could be learnt for billions of others. Not forgetting that while we mourn, the hands of terrorism have reached the ‘marbled corridors’ of where we eat and shop, hundreds disappear in villages overnight – for belonging to their castes, and religions, and genders – where our magazines and television channels never reach. Not forgetting that the same hate that held our favourite city to ransom - is also as daily and everyday - as the politics of whom we exclude and include in our homes, in our ghettoes of the ‘fashionable’.
The prophesied Third World War is here; it has been for a while now. It is sparked by the mundaneness of how we utter our words, the casual abuses on our streets. The same politics of division that gave violent birth to our nation is millennia old – nothing new. It is the daily practice of how we chose to become deaf and blind and mute as it suits us. Kabhi bhi, kahin bhi -Whenever, Wherever. To whoever.
Today, 61 years later, as I sit and spin a yarn for you, I wonder where it all begins from and where it ends. Where it all began from, where we hope to end. Where we might begin and what we might take to the end.
Mayank Mansingh Kaul is a Delhi-based textile designer. He has been involved with Cultural and Creative Industries’ Policy, khadi and craft development, fashion curation and writing.
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