There are enough faultlines in people’s lives without having to emphasize more. But it is these inconsistencies which push boundaries and gaslights us to trick sadness and happiness that make for engaging discussions.
From these cracks of incontinent desires and beliefs flow our base emotions. Focusing on them you become one with the emotions thereby better able to refrain from or indulge in them.
There is a myth that to fully live one’s life one has to wildly flail about in the throes of ecstasies and sorrows.With just a little thought, that aphorism refines itself to, know what you feel and then only give into it.
Andrew Juniper describes a certain Zen in his book on Wabi Sabi. Be attuned to the surroundings. The gentle decay of an organic world holds within it a melancholy that, when concentrated upon wholly, melts away the rest of the world.
If read in isolation it brings to mind contemplative monks under sakura trees on Mount Fuji. However, that state can descend when fully indulging in an activity too. In fact, when a human is able to drop her egocentrism, the veil of intellect that builds a wall of dualism separating self from the world, there arises a state of being that is serene in its stillness. Samurai soldiers use it when entering battles for their lords. The chimney sweeper enters it when clearing soot in cramped spaces. Many find cooking a therapeutic endeavor precisely because their focus is on the razor sharp knife edge slicing so close to their fingers that the entire world retreats into a hazy blur.
To not analyze this state is important. Intellectualism ruins meditation with its attendant structure, bringing sharply into focus a need to understand, categorize, and record experiences.
Even the best of hedonists have such moments.
Who is to say that there is not more in common between the hedonist materialists and the self-negating Buddhist Zen monks. They are connected in their ability to lose themselves in activities and meditations that gives meaning to their existence.
Ikkyu, the famously iconoclastic Zen vagabond, gave in generously to the excesses of the world, drinking and cavorting with the pleasure givers, wandering through his life as an enlightened itinerant.
It would seem tough to assimilate these principles of unbinding oneself in real lives.
I am not sure that is the case. You see, in succession, I read three books. Meena Kandasami’s “When I Hit You”, Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” and John Edwards’ “A Very Short Introduction to Sociolinguistics”, all of which deals, in some form or the other, with the Zen of life, if preferred to be viewed that way.
Within those three, in turn, John Edwards’ title helped me understand the former two books better. Meena Kandasamy refers extensively to language politics in her book, arguing and pleading and expanding on the social milieu through language and metaphors. Angie Thomas’ Starr alternates between White English and African American English (AAE), making starker her double life between the two worlds she inhabits and their differences.
In Meena’s book, she inhabits words. To escape the realities of her pain she detaches herself from her body, etching her violence in sentences and cinematic scripts. Her pain fuels her words.
Like the Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz explains, “War is the continuation of politics by other means”.
War here is rape. War here is physical abuse.
Meena’s husband’s savagery extends beyond his being first as words, then when repudiated, as boundaries, which when proved inadequate for total subjugation, physical rape. As a literary vehicle, one cannot help also appeal to the participatory nature of fogs of war – the unreliability caused by heightened excitement when in mortal danger.
Meena is a sociolinguist. She understands the power and limitations of languages. Where Zen monks preach the folly of language to describe life, Meena uses language to wrest back her life, ending with a deceptively cynical state of mind characterized by detachment. Meena’s endpoint, a temporary questioning of the need for attachment, makes her more reflective as a person than at any time during her uneventful upbringing or tumultuous marriage.
For Meena, like for many of us, it is not enough to be presented with calm at the very outset. We need a more tactile affirmation of calm descending on chaos for us to fully understand non-happenings. Calm as a process is a better lesson than calm as a state.
Angie Thomas’s Starr, similarly, inhabits a dual life. Her identity as a person is tied to her daily language, though even language does not help bridge the disconnect she feels when traversing her two worlds. At school, she has the self-shouldered burden of being the good black girl, while at home she is discredited by her affiliation with whites and Asians. Again, it is through her embracing of one identity, merging her hitherto distinct worlds into a hybrid single, that she attains peace.
One can’t help think what she could be by shedding even that single whole. Would she then lose both her homes and her family with such emotional asceticism?
If The Hate U Give gives a peek into the lives affected by the Black Lives Matter movement, how exactly does that peek help the readers, other than being an exercise in literary voyeurism? How is it any different from peeping into the bedrooms of poor people and coming away wiser?
THUG deals overtly with privilege.
Black lives caught in a web that makes normal living doubly complex. Even a move to the suburbs comes with accusations of jumping ship and a cutting out of roots. White people, no matter how much they try, are bound in their privilege of skin. One cannot wash away the layers of positive stereotyping, economic and cultural capital they are accorded, the support networks that open to reveal carefully hidden opportunities before a black, brown or yellow skin can even arrive at the scene.
The blacks have the added ignominy of institutional slavery and discrimination under the whites in America.
To be white skinned is not an option. To be white minded, however, is a choice.
To claim and give into privilege might be smart, but to not recognize and support black lives where it matters is pernicious. To tomtom the fact that one is white and use that as a cultural marker, glibly ignoring how it is perpetuating the never-ending cycle of disparity is racist.
Racism starts from the brain and ends in the skin. Not the other way around.
Closer home, in India, there is a more pervasive toxin. Casteism. What can Indians who practice caste in their everyday lives take from THUG? Can they disassociate themselves from their home privilege and empathize with the black minority in a foreign land? Does a switch in geography entail a switch in persecution status?
More importantly, they shouldn’t be allowed to.
There is a minority persecution they are subjected to in the US, but within that persecution, there is no division. No ignorant American, other than those imported from our country, is racist more to a Dalit and less racist to an Iyer. Brown is brown to a racist American.
Racial inequalities and practices, subdivided into its finer discriminations, sanctified and passed down as graded inequalities and perpetrated on castes deemed lower in the social ladder is casteism. It is a ladder of privileges. There is a negation of equality, an exclusionary spirit under the guise of culture, and a ghastly gene pool protection program that sustains this practice. If there are retaliatory misdeeds being committed by the lower castes onto the uppers physically and economically by force of numbers, there is also no let down of cultural barriers put up by the upper castes, almost like a hilly stronghold under siege by the barbarians.
This is not confined to the topmost rung of the caste ladder. Every section indulges in and is meted out this treatment. Caste does not exist. Only castes exist.
Blacks in the US have their own subculture, their own affirmative action programs, self-interest groups and vote banks, just like the lower castes in India. None are saintly, but in their uneven historicity both the situations mirror themselves in the ugly wresting of cultural and social power from the whites and upper castes respectively. There are opportunists everywhere but the struggle is real.
There are unashamed instances of the glorification of TamBrahms for example, being paraded and exported outside India. An attitude and lifestyle that I find abominable that I cannot see any difference between one calling themselves a Tambrahm and one calling themselves a Gadsden flagbearer. Centuries of cultural ramparts are being questioned, exclusionary divisions being sought to be erased and in that context “this is how things were, how am I harming you” is a weak, complicit, and racist argument, especially from those in the top of the cultural ladder.
I have met many Indians who are worthy of respect, but none who practice casteism or send bat-signals of social fences. If one still has to reach into these caste throwbacks for their lifestyles and identities, The Hate U Give might have been an exercise in scanning, nothing more.
One is justified in questioning if someone has understood the fight for any equality, be it feminism, equal pay, racism, ageism, gay rights, etc. when they are seen to be practicing with aplomb their white or casteist culture.
TamBrahm feminist? Can we please stop the sophistry?
Some principles are bigger than books. Some reviews need to be questioned.
Some guilts are nothing to be ashamed of. Normalization and a celebration of them though are despicable.
Like antebellum plantations, cultural beauty is fraught with bloodied history. Let us not revel in it indiscriminately.
Madhu, thank you for this maybe-a-rant. I read this post thrice and realised that I had to peel layers after layers to dissect and comprehend it. I stayed with it for a long while, meditating on your meditations and questions. It’s quite an enlightening post and it’s not common for an essay to take a route that can surprise. I couldn’t see where the piece was going. I liked it that way. My mind is now bent. And these: “TamBrahm feminist? Can we please stop the sophistry? Some principles are bigger than books. Some reviews need to be questioned.” Powerful, powerful questions. Thank you again!
I am following the tradition: Have you read Sujatha Gidla’s ‘Ants among Elephants’?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks a lot Deepika!!! Maybe a rant is true. I come across too many people so oblivious to the irony of calling themselves tambrahms as if it’s a matter of pride. I just can’t stand that tag (nor similar ones, nair, menon, namboothiri, trivedi etc etc.) nor anyone keeps emphasizing their caste identities, especially outside india. And they read all high minded books and write about white privilege, and curse trump and love obama. But ask them where their “practicing hinduism” comes from and they get all pious and suddenly it’s all cultural. Enakku vantha ratham, unakku vantha thakkali chutneya?
LikeLiked by 1 person
I see you. I really do. I quit some friendships because I was lectured on how judgmental I was with respect to casteism. A piece of advice like, “Just like how choose to not identify yourself as a brahmin, I choose to tell the world that I am one. You are not wrong. And I am not wrong either.” I understand Rumi said that there is a field beyond the right and the wrong. But some things are just so wrong and they should be left outside the magical field where everything is just just. I don’t mourn the loss of such friendships anymore, Madhu. With family though, I see myself being dormant and tolerant.
LikeLiked by 1 person