Vikram Johri: The life political

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 15, 2013 20:25 hrs

There is a sense of agitprop to our lives. Burn this; finish that; eliminate a third. There is a commitment, a degree of urgency, almost like things can be changed in the here and now. Who are “we”? “We” are feminists, gay rights advocates, environmentalists, Naxal supporters ... the list goes on. Nor are “we” necessarily on the left. We could as well be libertarians or free marketers. But mostly, it’s the ideals of the left that give us the frisson we seek.

We rail against the atrocities committed on a host of groups: Dalits, the poor, Muslims, women, the transgendered. When we consider our stances, we assume the moral high ground. We know we are better, we are doing the right thing, we have raised our voices for the underdog. 

We belong to an elite group that is full of ideas, attends the best institutes, goes to the right places, and then, as a measure of kindness, adopts a certain attitude. It boggles our minds that we, who went to English-medium schools and read Shakespeare in middle school, have led a life so distant from a majority of our countrymen. When we walk on the outskirts of our cities and let the giant vastness of the landscape consume us, we both relish and are discomfited by the security that lets us be a guest in our own land. We have been nurtured on a gentle benediction that sits ill at ease with the rampant amorality we witness around us. Our love for the “other” is not a put-on, mind. It is us. It burns in us. It makes us stand in the biting Delhi cold to protest against government inaction in the face of a brutal atrocity on a woman. 

We look at the vast machinery that keeps our lives in steady comfort and marvel at its generosity of spirit. We wonder if it’s in the nature of their religious faith. Or if it is a fatalistic surrender to extant social norms. Or is it something different altogether, which we do not have the capacity to parse?

Some of us move on, finding a place for ourselves on distant shores. For others, India is the land where they were born and will go to their graves. We see so much callousness, so much smothering of our ideals. We see love being stripped to its bare bones and then larded. We decide love is not worth it. Love is patriarchal, since it forces us into marriage. Love is traditional since it leads to karva chauth. We deride customs because they come with a certain baggage. We want to define love in our own eyes. Redefine it. We want love to be free and slick and smooth and all-consuming and deep and intense and smoke-fuelled but not, heavens no, regular, binding or traditional.

So we keep out. We don’t commit. We flit from one person to the next. We find the right person until they show feet of clay. We struggle to love since our politics stops us from accepting conventional social structures. When we do find someone, we pass them through multiple prisms to see if they match our world view. If we are gay, it’s easier. We can cut loose because there are no expectations. Ironically, that makes some of us seek the very social strictures that our straight brethren are gasping to shed.

At times, we wonder: isn’t a little less perfection OK? Such as when we see the homemaker lady who stays next door returning from the temple with the pooja thaal in her hand — and we, because of who we are, see all the markers of victimisation. Vermillion, bangles, head covered. An elaborate thaal showcasing her belief in a God whose presence we question in a world racked by poverty and hunger. Worse, she looks content. Where is her angst? Why is she not debating? Is she apolitical or has she been co-opted? 

Or, is she, horrors, genuinely happy? Our gaze follows her. She is nearly ethereal in her simplicity. We want to reach out to her, and ask her how she remains blissful in a world that does not let us rest. We tell ourselves she is ignorant. That comforts us. We struggle, often successfully, to look at her with the calm gaze of the outsider, but we cannot escape viewing her as a somewhat inferior being. We have to, since that is the only way we can return to our political selves, marinating in our angst. Even though we must acknowledge that we are in the woods, looking for a tree to call our own.

Every week, Eye Culture features writers with an entertaining critical take on art, music, dance, film and sport

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