I was finally able to return to my home province of Québec after being stranded in Western Canada where I had gone to teach and perform in late February 2020. Once COVID hit the region in early March, all my work contracts, flights and transport were cancelled. I found myself stuck for nearly four months in a province where I knew very few people. I tried to return to Montréal. However, it was impossible to get a flight back, as everything was shut down.

During my stay in these unfamiliar surroundings, I sometimes had heart-warming experiences, and at other times I feared for my life. I felt terror when aggressively called “F’n Chink,” “Indian N word,” and “Indian trash.” Experiencing this kind of racism was traumatizing and took me back to when I was a child, holding on to my mother’s terrified shaking hand, while she escaped a bunch of guys threatening us with racist slurs and calling us “dogs.”

In addition to encountering racial insults while isolated in an unfamiliar city, strange cars followed me around, and I was afraid of being kidnapped. Many people in this region thought that I was Indigenous and treated me differently. I stopped doing my usual two hair braids and started dressing in a way so as not to attract attention. Not that this made a great difference. They would then assume that I was Chinese or another “other.”

I also witnessed an armed robbery, right in front of my eyes. As the robber fled, he kept looking back at me to make sure that I (the witness) did not do anything to jeopardize his escape. I stood there frozen with two grocery bags in my hands, watching the expression on his face as it dawned on him that I would not. Frequent police presence surrounding crime incidents became the norm during this period of isolation.

There were other traumatic incidents as well. I witnessed things that would be hard to mention in this public journal and that made me feel like the world had gone crazy. These events are a reflection not only of a particular location, but also a reflection of the specific times we are living through, and the global role played by these kinds of fears in various provinces, states and countries — fears that have brought hidden issues to the surface for many.

This became quite apparent to me because of my circumstances. While most people were indoors self-isolating, I had to be out and about, frequently dealing with the logistics of not having a stable and secure home. I had to constantly search for my next accommodation, solve personal safety issues, and rent cars. Through all this solo travelling, I witnessed shut-down sleepy towns and cities with their inhabitants living in fear of the “other.” Many faced challenging emotional situations and looked for someone to blame. Unfortunately, this often manifested in racism, anger and violence towards the “other.” Many homeless people were even more gravely affected by this forced isolation. They were left on the streets with very few resources during this shutdown. People addicted to street drugs containing fentanyl were also hit hard. It was scary trying to move around even to get groceries, as some would threaten you. This was a sad situation.

After a while, I decided to move out of the city, and found safe accommodation in various small towns. I kept a very low profile as some residents did not want outsiders there during COVID. Some were quite militant about outsiders visiting their small town, and secretly took photos to post on social media in order to shame the individual. On my very first day in one small town, my tires were slashed. This is when I realized how vulnerable people felt and how far they would go to show that a stranger was not welcome in their town. Although I could understand their fears, I had no way of telling these local residents that my presence wasn’t a matter of choice. I wish I could have explained to them that I was merely in search of a safe shelter until I was able to return home. I therefore made myself as physically invisible as possible, but when I went out for grocery shopping, I had to tolerate some unwelcoming looks.

However, not everyone was like that. There were many in this region who generously welcomed my quiet presence. These locals helped me when I was in need, and took an interest in my well-being and safety, and I am very grateful to them. The online presence and support from my students were priceless. I looked forward to my once-a-week Monday session with joy and gratitude. My students saw me travel 400 km at times to find safe, available, affordable accommodation in locked-down towns. The messages of support from some helped soothe fears and feelings of uncertainty, especially on the days I faced racial insults.

It was difficult to always put up a positive disposition, but I tried my best. My students were already overwhelmed and bombarded with news on the media of everyday injustices. Like myself, some felt powerless at not being able to do enough for those who needed help. I also lost people I knew to COVID. I was not sure how “normal” it was for me to face racial insults in the morning, and then in the afternoon teach a sacred dance class on “Shakti and compassion.” As a teacher, I did not want to make my students feel worse than they were already feeling during the shutdown. Holding space, offering support and hope was all that I could do.

Sometimes I felt so lonely that I would visit the local Dollar Store or the pharmacy and buy something I did not need, just to be able to engage in some human interaction. I also felt for the stressed workers in these stores who were very much in need of a friendly smile every now and then, even from a stranger like myself.

Since my childhood, I have had to face racism regularly and to accept that it is a part of life, of being and looking different. I now realize that not much has changed. Racist incidents are just being recorded on camera more often now, and society is becoming more aware of them.

Québec is no different from other provinces in this respect. Experiences of not being seated in a restaurant, of being refused housing, being followed around in clothing stores by security, being called the N word or told “Paki go home,” or being threatened to be beaten up just because of the colour of my skin exist here as well. All these past personal experiences are still recurring today. After Bill 21 was brought in, banning many public employees from wearing visible religious symbols, many of us felt like strangers in our own province — a province we love and in which we have lived with great pride.

Colourism, racism, and casteism are very present in my own country of birth, India, as well, and the struggle of the Indigenous people, Black people, people of colour, marginalized people and societies, women’s issues, and threats of bombings and child trafficking continue on many fronts. These seem to produce more fear and anger, rather than love and compassion for one another.

After seeing and experiencing so much duality, divisiveness and fear over the past few months (and also throughout my life), I wish to now concentrate on “Hope.” This does not mean that I do not feel the sorrow, despair, pain and anguish that is happening now, or that I do not understand the importance of calling out injustices and offering support. It is just that I feel like also concentrating on the goodness that is out there. Doing so gives me hope, and this aspect does not often make it into the daily news.

Through various pleasant and unpleasant encounters, the awareness of residing on Indigenous land struck home and became increasingly prominent in my consciousness. I felt more keenly aware of being a visitor and a guest here on this land — something I had always known instinctively. After being repeatedly mistaken for an Indigenous woman and experiencing the type of indignation, danger and racism faced regularly in some parts of this particular region, the shocking tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women became inscribed in my own real-life experience.

The brutal racism faced by George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Joyce Echaquan, Chief Allan Adam and so many others can no longer be ignored. These incidents bring out our own hidden anger, humiliation, and memories of injustice and mistreatment, where one life is valued as being more important than another, even within the same culture at times, and where socio-economic inequalities translate into classism, racism, and casteism.

Racist incidents are happening all over the world: on the streets of Delhi, in France, in North America and beyond. It is a global human problem, and we must collectively form part of the solution. We are all interconnected and interdependent in this world. A universal consciousness flows through each one of us: if one of us hurts, then the rest of us hurt as well. Sometimes a gentle approach can bring the most powerful changes. I am grateful to the people who have helped me along the way on this journey. I learnt how, in the midst of the most challenging situations, generosity and hope exist.

As Gandhi put it, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” This gives me hope and belief in human goodness, as I continue to experience a connection with strangers through their smiles and helping hands.

 

 

© Guy Hakim

 

Once, after brushing my teeth, I spat into the empty box for my electric razor instead of the sink, right onto the fuzzy lining that felt like the beard of my Talking G.I. Joe. I don’t remember what he used to say. Something like, Okay, boys, watch out! Of course there was only one of us, but I supplied a chorus of acolytes to grunt in unison. I was an early adopter at multitasking, and I may well have been brushing with one hand and shaving with the other. My father wasn’t there, but I can hear his voice as if I’ve pulled a cord in my chest. Can’t you walk and chew gum at the same time? We used Crest, and I still do, but I shave in my office while scrolling through new faces on the dating sites. When I see “no beards” and “past settled,” I stroke my chin thoughtfully for stubble and look for a woman who reads Faulkner. My likes vanish or else the echo stops two metres away. So many cloth masks now, stylish and coy, but look at me: I cover my head to hide all the blond locks gone missing in action. That clerk, she’d worn a hijab, and I’d kept her talking because her words had resonated, her faith in the cordless waterproof razor, that I could shower and shave at the same time. Tell me more, I’d said. Tell me how I can do this and still live.

 

 

 

Forest Floor (c) Ajit Ghai

 

He walked among the trees. They smelled good. He had rarely taken the time to notice. The smell was a counterpoint to that tendency to see only the claustrophobic solitude of boreal forests. In the winter the forests were disarmingly quiet. The silence was simply an appearance, a way to fool the naive – the ones who assumed that what they could see was what was out there. All this organic matter was smart and unsettling. It hid, played tricks on you. Even in the deep of winter, a forest like this was much more dangerous and complicated. There was the cold, yes, but also the traps. The holes in the ground covered in snow that could consume a man whole. The sheets of ice that could crack open and devour you into the ice-cold water beneath, freezing you in minutes, rendering your brain, bones and muscle too stiff to clamber out. Could you imagine? Even if you did make it out what would happen?  Wet, cold, frozen, surrounded by a freezing wind and biting snow… no shelter, no heat…

 

A pleasant forest was not possible. These were sinister places, and in the summer the clinical efficiencies of the winter were replaced by a particular all-consuming force – the carpet of organic detritus and the living things that lived there, the crawling, ticking and cooing creatures that respected no boundaries or had no sense of personal space. Mosquitos, blackflies were bad enough but the drive of all the other creatures that carved a path, despite the obstacles in front of them, was incessant and relentless. It doesn’t take too long for that wood cabin that hasn’t been maintained to be consumed by the organic matter that surrounds it. It starts with the smells and scurry of ants invading containers of sugar – ant trap here, poison there just doesn’t contain the problem. This is their world. All solutions are temporary before being overrun by the creatures that inhabit the forest floor.

 

 

When we say first principles, we claim we are going down to the basics. To a fundamental truth. Being totally iterative, methodical and without prejudice. We are arriving at a fundamental principle. Scientists are not supposed to assume anything until they arrive at a first principles truth. Can we be sure that we have arrived at the core of a mathematical argument or a behaviour analysis? Can we plot that behaviour according to the fundamental first principles? Can we dig deeper until we arrive at a foundational truth? As Descartes suggested, we have to doubt till we reach that truth.

When it comes to first principles the core axiomatic belief – the basic assumption that cannot be deduced any further – becomes paramount.  Several centuries ago, Aristotle defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known.” A similar tenet in engineering physics is illustrated in the following equation:”

The derivative of square root ( √ ) of a function is considered a first principle. The basis, not the results derived from it. The fact that 9is 81, or that the square root of 81 is 9, is not a first principle. Basic science analysis requires going to the root cause and not the results, symptoms, or behaviour. The latter would amount to a clinical study.

Scientists keep asking the question “why” until they reach the indubitable truth.  What does the “truth” look like? Can we represent the truth visually? How would it look? We can offer an example, as it has been possible for several decades to represent a fundamental functionality based on a surface plot in 3-dimensional axes.

Here is a rather neat representation of the square root function in a 3D plot. Thanks to this site, however distant we are from mathematics, we can grasp that there is a first principle that governs variables and their behaviour. Every tweaking results in an aesthetic representation of the order. Taking one of the plots as an example:

Zero-pole plot

 

The author states the following: “The logarithm of the absolute value of √z  where z = x + i y in the upper half‐plane. The surface is colored according to the square of the argument. In this plot, zeros are easily visible as spikes extending downwards and poles and logarithmic singularities as spikes extending upwards. The square root branch point, that also is a zero at Z = 0 is visible.”

This is not about surfaces and neat colours. It is about our ability to represent certain truths – not all – at the present time, with fundamental behaviour patterns that are extraordinarily aesthetic.

 

Forming ideas and holding on to opinions

Going further, how do we form our ideas? How do we develop our opinions and affiliations? Who teaches us or makes us aware or lays the seeds in our brains about what is right and what is wrong? Are we simply impressed and attracted by the charisma of individuals and their writings or personalities at a formative period in our lives? Are we convinced by aesthetics or rectilinear logic, or simultaneously by both? Can form-fit-functionality (as understood in the engineering sciences) be an unconscious urge toward order, or is it an optimized comfort zone? Are the first principles in physics and mathematics convergent with first principles in philosophy? Or are they the same?

And, for that matter, at a more advanced stage in our lives, do we cling to our beliefs, ideas and affiliations out of obstinacy, egotism or plain laziness? Are we branded for life for our beliefs and opinions, or do we have an epiphanic transformation – à la Francis Fukuyama – later on?

BTW, Fukuyama, a leading proponent of neocon politics and author of the document The End of History, asserted that a civilization based on Western concepts of a free market economy had finally triumphed over socialistic ideas, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. His book became a Bible for Cheney, Bush, Perle, Wolfowitz and a whole list of neocon philosophers and believers in military domination of the world. But recently Fukuyama has dramatically reversed some of his opinions, distancing himself from a few of the neocons he had associated with, and has reconsidered some of his beliefs.

According to Wikipedia:

“In a 2018 interview with New Statesman, when asked about his views on the resurgence of socialist politics in the United States and Great Britain, he responded:

It all depends on what you mean by socialism. Ownership of the means of production – except in areas where it’s clearly called for, like public utilities – I don’t think that’s going to work. If you mean redistributive programmes that try to redress this big imbalance in both incomes and wealth that has emerged then, yes, I think not only can it come back, it ought to come back. This extended period, which started with Reagan and Thatcher, in which a certain set of ideas about the benefits of unregulated markets took hold, in many ways it’s had a disastrous effect. At this juncture, it seems to me that certain things Karl Marx said are turning out to be true. He talked about the crisis of overproduction… that workers would be impoverished and there would be insufficient demand.”

What brought about such a transformation in the mind of a hard-core neocon guru? Or was it simply a temporary ploy? Have Fukuyama and others like Joseph Stiglitz (the head of the World Bank, who has completely turned around and announced that “globalization” was a disaster) begun to see a creepy darkness rising up in the shadows, overtaking the colourful and glorious horizons they had contemplated?

 

 

Magnificent. Maddening. John Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) is a small story about big love. Seymour Moskowitz, played by Seymour Cassel, is a hapless parking attendant living in Los Angeles. He goes on dates, spends time with strangers at late-night diners, but mostly keeps to himself. His outlook is simple. His long hair and elaborate moustache are goofy. He runs hot but seems generally unbothered. That is until he meets Minnie Moore, played by Gena Rowlands. Minnie, who works at the Los Angeles County Museum, is a weary woman, impossibly beautiful, guarded, and love-tired—desperate for an idea of romance she’s built in her mind. She goes to the movies with her friend Florence and drinks too much wine, and endures bad dates because what else? Together, Seymour and Minnie are a tornado of indecision and somewhat histrionic infatuation. Theirs is a love story that looks like a mistake. She’s unconvinced. He’s fiercely certain.

Five decades later, the film holds up. Cassavetes’ agitated portrayal of romance feels fresh, true, and incredibly charming. Writer and filmmaker Jesse Noah Klein, and writer and editor Durga Chew-Bose reflect on the film that brought them together many years ago and that they’ve since returned to. On love—first love—relationships, romantic comedies. On hope and letting people in.

 

Durga: Minnie and Moskowitz is nearly 50 years old. Do you think there’s space right now for romantic comedies (dramadies?) of this nature? Or do you think the world that Cassavetes was trafficking in then, could be interpreted now as potentially too problematic? Romance of that frenetic, even violent nature would get lost in our cultural rhetoric?

Jesse: The romantic comedy often offers up a neutered, sanitized version of love. It adheres to a specific brand of wish fulfilment, an abstraction of desires. Early in M&M, Minnie (Gena Rowlands) says that “the movies set you up”—and as obvious as that may be, it seems as true now as ever. One of the revelations of seeing M&M, as I first did when I was 17 and now 15 years later (and all the times in between), was seeing a true representation of just how chaotic romantic interactions can be. The way M&M, and all the other characters, communicate with each other seemed the most honest depiction I had ever seen, maybe if and possibly because it was more real than my own interactions had been up until that point in my life.

Watching the film in 2018 was an altogether different experience. Since his death in 1989, Cassavetes has acquired a canonical significance that has made him at once ubiquitous and consequently less potent—he is in no way a well-kept secret as he was at various points throughout his working life. When I discovered the film right out of high school, I had no context of any kind, and was simply bowled over by something I’d never seen before.

A film like M&M is seen through a different lens now than it was even a few short years ago. The interactions across gender lines are fraught, in several moments frightening. As we look back at any artifact, be it 2 years or 200, there is no way to divorce it wholly from its context. The film was released in 1971 so likely written in the late 60s. Things were changing so rapidly then, each year scarcely looked like the one before it—an inherent flaw in how long it can often take a film to get made and be released. Moskowitz is a relic of the 60s, Minnie an amalgam of 50s politesse and 70s independence.

The very notion of the movie being too problematic for a 2018 audience underlines the issue. The film can be viewed as a permission slip for the mistreatment and degradation of women at the hands of the men who supposedly love them. But this is to conflate the character and the filmmaker and is all too easily done, as the most despicable man in the movie is played by Cassavetes himself. I’ve spoken to some who feel this way about the movie and I don’t think it is for me to prove anyone otherwise.

I see the film somewhat differently. The men in the film are so inherently and evidently despicable that it seems unlikely that Cassavetes was unaware of it. It does not seem to me that he is letting any of them off the hook or condoning their behaviour. He is simply saying it exists—showing it plain as day is as strong an indictment as an overt authorial condemnation.

Minnie has been far more let down by life than by the movies. Leading up to her meeting Moskowitz, she is subjected to the very worst the men in her life have to offer. In Moskowitz, she’s found an unsuitable partner; later in the movie she grabs him by the face and says “That’s not the face, you’re not the man I’m in love with.” He is not the person, not the type of person, she thinks she is destined to be with. But after Jim and Zelmo, and even Dick Henderson in the parking lot, she is coming to realize that perhaps there is no formula, and that she needs to let go of life’s reins and see where it leads.

This film would be skewered should it be released today (in North America), because of Minnie’s treatment, the way she is tossed around and tossed aside. But to me, that is to miss the point of what Cassavetes is driving at. She fights back. She hits Jim, and Moskowitz, and walks out on Zelmo when he turns abusive.

I do think romance of that frenetic—and yes even at times violent—nature would be lost in our present cultural moment. I think Cassavetes was showing the stops and starts, the bruises and indeed the scars, that are the price of love.

I think M&M is about how hard it is to fall in love, to trust someone, to make the dangerous leap of being vulnerable with someone else. I think it’s seldom something we do anymore at all. And that I do think is a shame.

 

Durga: What scene in M&M strikes you as the most romantic?

Jesse: In the film Minnie is rarely given the opportunity to take the initiative because Seymour never lets up. At one point he naps in her bed and she slinks to a local ice cream parlour. There she slips into the kitchen and calls him, inviting him to come. He balks at this and Minnie retreats, warning him, “Listen, if you want to keep it romantic” and in one of the many brilliant hard cuts, we then see Seymour pulling up in his old pickup truck.

He rushes into the parlour and immediately bellows “Minnie!” as if they’d known each other their whole lives. Just then two hot fudge sundaes are placed in front of them and Minnie smiles in a way unlike anything we’ve seen so far.

When Seymour does not understand her gesture, why they’re there at all, Minnie moves to put her sunglasses back on though he stops her. She says, “I think it’s funny, eating ice cream in an ice cream parlour. I think it’s funny that’s all.” He responds, “I get it, like reading under a clock. Or like I would do anything for you, even eat ice cream.” Minnie smiles and shakes her head, with no idea what Seymour is talking about.

Part of my love for this scene derives from my connection with both of them. I too have no idea what “reading under a clock” means, though I too would do anything for my partner “even eat ice cream.”

It’s a small moment in the movie and yet one that gets at its heart, how we spend our lives getting to know each other, getting closer moment by moment, gesture by gesture, building bonds, and lives. The scene shows them right at the outset where things are still fresh, where miscommunications like that one are the rule and not the exception. And yet within it there is also that sense of wonder, that anything is possible.

 

Durga: Is there a particular moment in that film that cracked your world wide open when you first saw it? (When did you first see it?) And did that moment hold up during this viewing?

Jesse: There is a moment late in the movie where M&M have reached yet another and what appears to be a final insurmountable impasse. She explains to Seymour that this just isn’t working, “There’s some kind of crazy here,” and retreats to her bedroom, hoping that to be the end of it. He starts to destroy the bathroom and she rushes back in to stop him. He tries to explain that this craziness, this discord, is the price of love, that he himself cannot predict what will happen next. He takes scissors out of the medicine cabinet and before he knows it cuts off half his moustache. He’s surprised for a moment, but quickly calms down and says, “I cut my moustache.” He then turns to himself in the mirror and proceeds to cut the whole thing off.

Minnie looks on. She’s pale as a ghost, her eyes puffy from crying. As she looks on it’s as if her entire outlook on life changes in an instant. She sees how wild and yet how free Seymour is. She sees in his act of simply cutting off a moustache it took years to grow how unpredictable and in turn how beautiful life can be. How things can change in an instant.

It’s a moment that transcends acting; it does not matter whether it is Minnie Moore or Gena Rowlands experiencing those emotions. Those few seconds on Minnie/Gena showed me not only the immense power film can have, but also how we can be changed by another person, by love.

The moment did hold up for me on this viewing. Part of that might be nostalgia—

it’s a moment that proved influential in immersing me in movies. But it’s also an optimistic one. In the intervening years I’ve become a filmmaker, and one theme I’ve been preoccupied with up until now is how we find ways to bridge the gaps between us—and in that moment it seems Minnie is doing just that. It’s a moment that’s proved crucial in my professional life and in my personal one.

 

 

Jesse: Did the film influence your personal life, your view of love, of how to be in relationship?

Durga: Minnie and Moskowitz had its way with me, which is, I imagine, what Cassavetes intended when he made a movie about how love—the sincerest, most ensnaring and hectic kind—reveals the amateur in most of us. Those who are unready, often unwilling, and in this case unsuited to each other. Those who experience love not as a feeling but as pure impact. As arguments and short tempers, the occasional chase, too. Dancing in parking lots, etc. Banging on doors, etc. Or as a moustache—like you mentioned—impulsively chopped off. Or as a woman—like you mentioned—refusing to take off her sunglasses indoors. Or love as a series of U-turns, of which there are countless in the film, signalling again and again the sort of distracted focus essential to falling in love. Seymour’s driving, all jerky and full of U-turns, is just one way he expresses love’s urgency. How it suddenly provides him with new purpose, even if it means manoeuvring life (or the road), exactly like that: suddenly. I liked that about Seymour and Minnie. Their love unfolds like the letting go required for holding tight. Brink moments. It made me want to write more than it made me want to fall in love. It made me want to watch movies more than it made me want to write.

What it also did was awaken me to a measure of vulnerability I wasn’t familiar with, and the extent to which feeling defenseless toward someone can be a good thing. Colliding, getting messy and tense. The emotional havoc of meeting someone who won’t leave you alone but whom you miss when they aren’t around. I felt that most from Minnie. Her big hair, her beauty, her lonely. Her reluctance, her boredom, her big shades. Her laughter at the altar. And before that, her shock and elegant horror upon being set up on a terribly depressing first date. Or even before that—like you mentioned—how she talks about the movies, how they conspire to set us up. The way Minnie can’t entirely show herself or even accept that someone can see her. It’s not denial so much as wanting one’s sense of self to be reflected in the person you love.

The film exposed me to the limits of our romantic expectations, or rather, the limits of our control over them—which is altogether different than settling (though often confused with that). Because the romance of Minnie and Moskowitz lies in how the film and its characters are susceptible to, and even welcome, elements of surprise. Seymour and Minnie aren’t meant to be, but can we imagine them with anyone else? Theirs is an exposing connection. Like some sort of lovely and long-anticipated acquittal.

 

Jesse: What was your initial reaction to the film and has it changed with subsequent viewings?

Durga: I was in my first year of college when I saw the film. It made me nervous. It was raw and barrelling and violent in an offish kind of way. It made me feel insecure and unsophisticated for not immediately understanding its appeal and even more so, wanting so desperately to get it. I found it rude. Too loud and physical. She falls down stairs. People fight, and punch, and shove, and slap, and sing loud, and yell and argue just because. I thought Minnie was impossibly beautiful and Seymour was strange but unforgettable—a character for sure, and characters like that, I’d come to understand, were up to something long term. Characters like that change me. They’re painful to watch. They require of me extra patience. They make me want to write and watch movies, and why would I want to do anything else?

I’ve since seen the movie more than a few times, and with each new viewing it feels warmer, and more importantly, honest. Like one of the truest depictions of love I’ve ever seen. It’s relentless, too, which ages well. It reminds me of you, Jesse, so it’s also hard to experience it outside of You. Some pieces of art belong to people, you know? And because of that, they exist as tokens of that person—of your way, your inclinations, your outlook on love and vulnerability, your relationship to storytelling. Even the film’s closing song, which we’ve both never been able to identify, sounds like you. Light, easy-going, moved by meaning. Familiar.

 

Jesse: Do you identify with Minnie?

Durga: Not really. She’s got a better sense of humour than me. She sings, and I’ve always perceived singing as a form of feeling free (fleetingly in her case, but still). Minnie’s got something pure-movie, pure-picture-glamour about her, which is funny considering how Minnie talks about the movies. As total letdowns. As art that creates false expectations and romantic, candied hope instead of revealing what’s true—something I don’t agree with, but understand why she’s saying it.

I see her, though, and care for her, which is a version of identifying. Maybe I identify with her need to establish space before allowing someone in, for deeply hesitating and even resisting whatever actions will reflect her vulnerability. I understand why she wants control. And I appreciate why it’s so tough for her to accept Seymour and to admit his wild entirety—the way he seems like he’s always spilling over—into her life. I love her tensions and the voice in her head. I love the way she shows concern. The little creases on her face; the way her coat is often draped over her shoulders. Minnie’s version of love is protected but also, so protective. She loves loyally, intensely and devotedly. Her eyes water—not just from tears, but from the outside cold, from arguing with Seymour in the outside cold, from feeling life severely and in big ways, and mostly, from being a woman whose susceptibility means she doesn’t smile often, but when she does, she glimmers. There’s hope there. Pure-movie hope. Which to me feels very real.

 

 

 

Voices from the past

In couplets written in the 15th century, the mystic and humanist poet, Kabir, describes how his heart cries out when he sees temple priests worshipping stone images of gods while turning away from living beings made by the very same gods; and when he finds the muezzin inviting believers to prayers while shunning kaffirs (a derogatory term for non-Muslims) who are, after all, creations from the same soil of the one earth and descendants of Adam, our common Biblical first father.

Kabir is said to have been born of a Brahmin woman and brought up by a couple of poor Muslim weavers. Barred from entering a mosque or a Hindu temple, he remained an anomaly, an exclusion, caste-less, an outsider. Even after his death, after he was accepted and idolized as a great saint, with his verses sung at satsangs or religious gatherings, there were passionate disputes on whether to bury him as a Mussalman or cremate him as a Hindu. There is his oft-quoted verse from the Guru Grantha (religious scripture of the Sikhs):

“We have all imbibed light from the one Allah

And are all created alike from the same universal Nature.

So why do we call some good and others bad?”

Other philosophers, poets and writers have echoed Kabir’s thoughts. Nazeer Akbarabadi (Wali Muhamad), 18th-century poet, writes for the masses. “Wild, inconsistent, huge like nature itself, at times crude, impure, filthy like the slums of the wretched” – these are the terms he chooses when he sings alike of “the Hindu and Muslim festivals.” His caste is of joy, “his religion a universal sympathy.” Shams Tabrez, 13th-century spiritual instructor of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi from Persia, sings:

“I know not my name nor caste nor colour nor creed.

Tell, me, O Mussalmans, tell me! Who am I?

I know not who I am.”

In more modern times, Mohammad Iqbal’s verses reflect the grandeur of Moslem simplicity of faith and character while he bows before the mazars (mausoleums) of saints like Chisti, Tabrez and Juned:”

“I will un-Moslemize ye by my song, O Moslems! If ye think your neighbour is other than yourself.”

And Yone Noguchi in early 20th century Japan is delighted that Japanese poetry embodying Buddhist thought is not “tormented by religion:”

“Oh! How cool

The sound of the bell

That leaves the bell itself.”[1]

Although today these beautiful words, folk rhythms and repetitions sound pleasing to the ears, and the simple questions they raise are disturbing enough to make people stop and think, “Sufi” (pertaining to Sufism, the inner or mystical aspect of Islam) has become a popular genre of music. This is clear from Bollywood, India’s massive Hindi film industry that churns out one song “in Sufi style” after another: versions of Amir Khusro’s Mast Kalandar or Bulleh Shah’s Dance of the Kamli: [2]

“The Hajjis visit Mecca to perform Hajj

But I am Heer, and my Mecca is Ranjha

Who has renounced the world for me!

I have lost my mind, and like a Kamli

I dance in the frenzy of love.”[3]

 

Alliances that create fear and violence

Regardless of this mesmerizing enchantment with music and verse, things have not changed. Even today, after 700 years, Kabir’s kaffirs and the dalidars (soiled ones) are never quite accepted, although lip service is constantly being paid to his words and those who sing them. Why is this so? Why is it that while almost all religious texts honour human values of inclusion, empathy, kindness and compassion, the practice of the official interpreters of these religions proves otherwise? Since the very beginning, leaders have used religion as an easy and effective tool to control masses, instill fear, hatred, vengefulness, communalism and violence, and build powerful alliances with the “unholy.”

For example, Yogi Adityanath, current Chief Minister of the most highly-populated state of India, head priest of the Gorakhnath Hindu Temple, leader of youth vigilante anti-minority groups, links himself with Kabir and Buddha. The Temple itself is known for its militancy and religious dominance. Its former head priest, Digvijay Nath, was arrested for “exhorting Hindu militants to kill Mahatma Gandhi days before he was shot. His successor, Mahant Avaidyanath, urged Hindu mobs in 1992 to tear down a 16th-century mosque and build a temple there, setting off some of the bloodiest religious riots in India’s recent history.” And Adityanath is now spearheading the cause of a national Hindu state.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/12/world/asia/india-yogi-adityanath-bjp-modi.html

“The World comes to my front door” by Caribb. Photo taken from flickr under Creative Commons license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Here in Québec, Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old student from Laval University, is suspected of having attacked and shot six victims at the mosque in Sainte Foy. Mosques in Calgary, Montréal and Ottawa have been targeted and vandalized. On an average in the US, nine mosques per month have been attacked so far in 2017, and efforts have been made to deny zoning permits for the construction of religious facilities.

http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/20/us/mosques-targeted-2017-trnd/index.html

https://www.aclu.org/map/nationwide-anti-mosque-activity

In Europe, populations are seething. According to the 2017 European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, “while the EU is facing a range of terrorist threats and attacks of a violent jihadist nature, from both networked groups and lone actors,” there have been more than “400 anti-Muslim hate crimes reported representing a 223 per cent increase.” In Germany, the number of racially motivated attacks has been higher than any year since the end of World War II. People aligning themselves with religious ideologies play a major role in fuelling this rage, while the principles of charity, love, social good, prayer, kindness and forgiveness are sacrificed before the altars of greed and hatred.

https://www.europol.europa.eu/activities-services/main-reports/eu-terrorism-situation-and-trend-report

 

Gender inequalities

When it comes to sexuality, the practice of most religions has been to take a negative view outside the parameters of the growth of the family. Havva or Eve, the first woman, is blamed for having coaxed Adam into eating the forbidden fruit, resulting in man’s fall from grace. Woman, with her femininity and seductive powers, is stereotyped across world religions and cultures as the eternal temptress, the manipulative Delilah, Salome, Jezebel, Kaikeye, able to throw the powerful off guard and come through triumphant in an unholy alliance with eternal damnation. Preoccupation with carnal thoughts has been considered a dangerous distraction for rishis (sages) such as Vishwamitra, whose power of deep meditation, seen as a threat by Lord Indra, was disrupted by the appearance of the beautiful apasara (heavenly maiden), Menaka, skilled enough to successfully lure Vishmamitra away from his divine focus.

“Devi” by swapnil gaikar. Photo taken from flickr under Creative Commons license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although Hindu scriptures pay high tribute to the ever-sacrificing mother figure, Devi (the goddess in her many forms, including that of Shakti, representing strength), socio-cultural norms bolster religious leaders in demanding more from the woman, and placing greater pressure on her to abstain, nurture, accept and preserve moral values. Hindus argue that their ancient texts grant Kama or sensual desire as one of the four principal objectives in life, a kind of offering, meditation or enlightenment, but it is far from what is practiced. This reluctance to accept sensual desire, and the promotion of celibacy for orders of monks and priests, often lead to aberrations and secret exploitation of those placed in their trust.

 

Alliances that encourage exploitation, fear and violence

Men and women of God take a pledge of poverty, chastity and obedience, and live in an environment of gender segregation to maintain chastity and prevent transgression. In the process however, this life of repression has the opposite effect, and the very segregation intended to be conducive to chastity ends up leading to secrecy, exploitation and an unspeakable breach of trust. In the early part of the 19th century, thousands of Indigenous children in Canada were sent to Residential Schools run by Christian orders of priests and nuns. It has now been confirmed that many of these children faced sexual abuse of the worst kind. Phil Fontaine, the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, claims that “In my grade three class, if there were 20 boys, every single one of them would have experienced what I experienced. They would have experienced some aspect of sexual abuse.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_sexual_abuse_cases_in_Canada

In Ireland, over 4,000 priests and deacons in active ministry between 1950 and 2002 have been plausibly accused of the sexual abuse of a youth under the age of 18. In one report, “four Dublin archbishops were found to have effectively turned a blind eye to cases of abuse from 1975-2004.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_sexual_abuse_cases

Official apologies have ensued. In 2008, the prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, announced that “the treatment of children in Indian Residential Schools” run as “joint ventures” with Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian or United Churches, “is a sad chapter in our history.”

In 2015, Pope Francis met with victims, and expressed his profound sorrow for the suffering of those who were abused by Catholic priests. Earlier, in 2014 he had condemned the Church’s handling of abuse, saying that the failure to respond to reports of abuse by pedophile priests had caused “even greater suffering” to victims. Our fear to expose what is considered holy and pure is the primary reason why it has taken over 100 years to acknowledge the shameful past of our government-led religious and educational institutions.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/27/pope-francis-sex-abuse-scandal-survivors

The above statistics are hard to believe, but this is thanks to an international network of schools and institutions set up by Christian missionaries, making it easier to scrutinize, especially after exposure of the first such scandal. We do not have the same kind of statistics for godmen from other religions, but this does not mean that they do not exist or that things are any different. In India, for example, there have been many accusations. Some have resulted in convictions, but many are never brought before the courts. Asaram Bapu, also known as Bapuji, is one such godman. With a large following and a list of 400 ashrams (religious sanctuaries) both in India and abroad, he was arrested in 2013 for allegedly raping a 15-year-old girl who lived close to one of his ashrams. In the same year, Mahendra Giri, or Tunnu Baba, was arrested for confining and raping a young woman over a period of four months. Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a godman-cum- actor, director and musician who is said to have turned 60 million souls toward “God Realization,” was charged in 2007 and convicted in 2017 for rape and criminal intimidation.

http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/28/asia/guru-india-rape-sentencing/index.html

http://www.dw.com/en/the-dark-side-of-indias-self-styled-godmen/a-38957408 

 

From the gates of despair

“Never again” is what we often say, but the mesmerizing power of the “sublime” becomes difficult to resist even when its lure is aligned with the depths of evil. In 1978, Jim Jones, the self-acclaimed apostle of the People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ (religious sect formed in 1955), was able to convince 909 people to kill their children and themselves by ingesting Kool-Aid laced with drugs, including Valium and cyanide. “It’s not worth living like this,” he says in the last audio recording before the massacre. “We win when we go down…. I cannot separate myself from the pain of the people…. I like to choose my own kind of death…. I’m the best friend you’ll ever have…. I have always taken your pains on my shoulders….We all crave for peace…. I practically died to give you peace….We are done in as far as any other alternative…You’ll regret it if you don’t die…. We are born before our times…. We are not committing suicide. It is a revolutionary act… We lay down our lives in protest of what’s being done!”

“Let’s make it a beautiful day!” says one from the congregation. “We are all ready to go!”

https://archive.org/details/ptc1978-11-18.flac16

We seek comfort by convincing ourselves that we are none of these. We are the rational and sensible ones with access to almost every piece of information over the Internet. We are intelligent, sentient beings. But even today, as I listen to the Jonestown “Death Tape,” I am disturbed to find myself beginning to understand how someone like Jim Jones could wield such magical thrall. There is the fire and fury we seek to reach, passionate heights or depths of destruction, unimaginable, unprecedented! We can still be moved to place our senses and reasoning in the hands of one or a few, and we can still find support for rallies against non-white, non-Christian populations, leading a death march the likes of which the world has never seen before.

I turn to Bulleh Shah’s simple verses, and it feels good to see how they have grown to become a part of the nation’s cultural fabric. Yet once the concerts are over and the microphones and headsets are turned off, mobs go back to pursuing, harassing, and at times, lynching those who feed on the sacred Hindu cow.

“Why do you fight with the devil outside

Without ever wrestling with the devil within?”

or

“Go ahead and bring down all places of worship,

The Temple and the Masjid!

Go ahead and break down all that can be broken!

But spare the hearts of people,

For that is where God lives.”

 

[1] The Spirit of Oriental Poetry by Puran Singh, London: Routledge, 1926

[2] Amir Khusro was a 13th-century poet, and Bulleh Shah, a 17th-century Muslim Sufi poet from Punjab.

[3] Heer (and Ranjha), a romantic Punjabi legend immortalized by the 18th century poet, Waris Shah, in which the search for love is portrayed as an ultimate sacrifice (fana) of one’s  body and soul.

Of late I have taken a liking to Anthony Hopkins. The Sir. The man with the iridium first stare in every movie that lets you know he has full knowledge of you and your family’s skeletons from several decades back. He strips you bare with his first stare.

Having played Hitler,Nixon and a range of serial killers and social screw-ups, and Picasso, for that matter, the aura surrounding his presence in a frame shot is devilishly complete. This is the face of a cannibalistic serial killer. Fiendish. This is not about playing the counter-hero or bad guy. This is about the disturbance that he leaves behind. The unholy concatenation of a series of evil desires and the instinct for righteous revenge. I would say that I have stayed away from him for a long time. Instinctively. In real life, I would not meet him in an elevator. Not even be across from him in escalators moving in opposite directions. An un-adulting childish instinct. His presence on the screen had a moon and crypt quality.  An X-raying blueness that singes the back of your skull.

And I realize now how silly I’ve been in attempting to delete and backspace every fear that lurks in me when watching his films. Because in general, it is that sense of self-preservation and safety that gnaws away at any adventurous desire to experiment, to savour life beyond that zone of comfort… undiluted, life, is it not? It is finally that sense of la-la-ness that overtakes and ossifies you down to the bone!

But now, in my own darkness, I find his eyes and composure comforting and even grandparental. There is a penetrating kindness that attracts. In another recent film (Fracture) where, opposite Ryan Gosling, his skills at conveying a commitment to righteous revenge – a driven justification for fairness, no matter what, and not just a pedestrian notion of retribution – are extraordinarily desirable. He loses out, but exits with superlative composure. And then there was the Zorro film with Banderas, where aged composure and cool triumphs over impetuous brattiness.

Hopkins has turned my hesitation about uncertainty and the unknown into a sense of calm about the rest of our lives. The concept of sunset has dawned. I am now a grandfather myself, and I understand that it would be most pleasurable to recite the words of a powerful unending poem as the sun sets on a beach where I have been left alone, and celluloid terrors and a sense of the unknown are no longer of consequence. I do affirm that Anthony Hopkins has mingled easily in the rare air that Oliver, Bergman or Pacino occupied.  In evil, there is superlative composure and yet the frightening radiance of life experiences that go beyond a world of smileys and emoticons.

 

“Coming apart” by Mike Tewkesbury. From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution, NoDerivatives.

 

 

. . . if virtue, as being subject to such various and uncertain accidents, were but the slave of fortune, and were not of sufficient ability to support herself; I am afraid that it would seem desirable rather to offer up prayers than to rely on our own confidence in virtue, as the foundation for our hope of a happy life. [Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, Book 5.] You could look up the Tusculan Disputations in a few seconds on your smart phone right now, and that simple fact alone could give you the impression that you were better off than Cicero or any of his friends. I wouldn’t blame you for feeling that way. You can even use your smart phone to lock your front door just in case you forgot in your hurry to get to work, so you’re not leaving anything to chance – or fortune as Cicero would have it. We don’t have to suffer the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune the way they did in Ancient Rome. There are times, however – usually at around 4:00 a.m. – when I find myself wondering if fortune has become more outrageous than it ever was.

 

“. . . when a child is born in Ghana . . . “

 

When I started graduate school in 1962, one of the men in my cohort was from Ghana. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our first child, a baby girl born on the day of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A few days later I told Sam about the new arrival. He shook my hand and said, “and you will have other children.” I wasn’t sure if it was a prediction or a piece of advice, but in any event I said we might have one more, but we weren’t planning a big family. “My wife and I have five children,” he said, and he went on to add, “when a child is born in Ghana, we cannot take for granted that it will live – we have many children, hoping that some of them will survive.” It’s not that the thought had never crossed my mind; every parent is acquainted with that fear. What I had not considered up to that moment was the certainty of uncertainty. They understand these things better in less wealthy countries.

 

Manuel Valadaõ

At the age of fourteen, Manuel Valadão signed on to a whaling ship in Flores, a small island in the Açores, roughly in the year 1855. Of his experience at sea nothing is known. At the end of a three-year voyage his ship made port in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Now seventeen years old, Manuel Valadão abandoned the sea-faring life and walked from New Bedford to a small town in Maine, where he found work with a local farmer. A year later he enlisted in the 17th Maine Volunteer Infantry as the only foreign-born soldier in the Regiment, which saw combat for the first time at the battle of Fredericksburg. He wrote to a friend back home: “the soldier’s life is not as good as I thought. I was in battle at Fredericksburg and I don’t think much of it.” During the Battle of the Wilderness, Manuel Valadão sustained a bullet wound in the leg. He survived the war.

At about the time Manuel Valadão was making his way up to Maine, another young man named John Davison Rockefeller took his first job as an assistant bookkeeper for a produce firm called Hewitt & Tuttle. He and his wife would have five children, including a daughter who died in infancy. A number of his descendants have become well-known public figures in the United States, but that’s another story.

When Manuel Valadão mustered out of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1865, he married and bought a farm along the Presumpscot River where he grew corn and kept sheep, along with a few dairy cows. Between what they could grow for themselves, a military pension of $12.00 monthly, some cash income from selling milk to the local dairy and corn to a nearby processing plant, the family were able to satisfy their modest needs. A small subsistence farm might not make you rich, but then you are not relying on a single commodity to sustain your family. You maintain a vegetable garden, keep chickens and maybe a hog, you exchange services with your neighbours. There are berries to pick in the summer. In late spring, the women and children shell peas, serve them up with butter, and that’s your supper. You get by. Manuel Valadão drove the hearse for funerals in the local community, he helped his neighbours in cutting timber, and his sons worked at the local barrel factory after school, hacking and hauling barrel staves. Judging from the account in a diary kept by his twelve-year-old son, the family did not suffer from economic hardship, although it could hardly be said they were prosperous. Sickness was a more pressing concern.

At the age of twenty, John D. Rockefeller went into the business of refining kerosene, competing with whale oil to provide cheap fuel for lamps he liked to call “the poor man’s light.” He eventually became the richest man in the world. Rockefeller’s success in supplying kerosene was not destined to continue for very long; his principal market was about to be obliterated by Thomas Edison and the emerging technology of electric lighting. Fortunately for Rockefeller the internal combustion engine was developed at about this time, creating an even more lucrative market for gasoline than there ever was for kerosene. And thus are great fortunes made. The confluence of Rockefeller and Henry Ford would eventually have a damaging effect on horse trading, carriage manufacturing, livery stables and in the long run on the future of the entire human population of planet Earth.

Manuel Valadão refused to countenance the very idea of the automobile. Of course by the time any motorcars would have been seen on the roads anywhere near Manuel Valadaõ’s farm, he would have been a man in his sixties. For him, cars weren’t progress, they were just a nuisance and possibly a threat to the only kind of life he ever knew. Rockefeller and Ford did not seek out Manuel Valadão’s opinion about this, and it probably would not have made any difference if they had.

 

A Thousand Natural Shocks

Manuel Valadão and his family existed in a form of life that had grown old. That life possessed its own kind of dignity but there is no way to know what he thought about it or whether he would have considered himself to be thriving. It would be dishonest to wax nostalgic about family farms or to idealize the social existence of a small close-knit rural community. If you asked him if his life was perilous, he might show you the graves of the four children he buried. By the time he died in 1919, the year after the First World War ended, his oldest son had moved on, attending college and then settling in the suburbs of Boston where he taught science in a high school. His surviving daughter and her husband kept the farm going but they ploughed their fields with a tractor instead of having it pulled by a horse. The small close-knit rural community they lived in persisted for many years, but in a new kind of world created by John Davison Rockefeller and Henry Ford. The owl of Minerva takes flight only with the falling of dusk.

A man who has watched his young comrades die in a war likely understands that he is living against a background of uncertainty. And then there are uncertainties in running a farm. You could think of it as playing a game, where the opponent is “nature,” or fortune if you prefer, playing by its own rules. We all know this game in its simplest form whenever we have to decide whether or not to take along an umbrella on a cloudy day. In farming there are many “natural shocks” to consider, mostly in the form of unforeseen weather conditions. A strategy of maintaining a small scale, low overhead and modest ambitions might be a good way to buffer yourself against another kind of uncertainty, namely fluctuations in the market price of corn or dairy products.

In June, 1911, Manuel Valadão presented a claim to the federal government to have his military pension increased from $12.00 a month to $15.00. About a month earlier the U. S. Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil Company, ruling it was a monopoly in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust act. This was a shock to John D. Rockefeller, but thanks to astute legal counsel, he was able to hang on to most of his capital. In building up Standard Oil, Rockefeller created a more precarious structure than he apparently realized. Uncertainty for most people basically had always meant the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. But in large-scale economies there is, in addition to risks such as catastrophic illness or planes crashes, a further structural uncertainty that can’t be eliminated because it is one of the necessary conditions for accumulating capital. Uncertainty is precisely what’s driving the market economy or, as my nephew once put it, businessmen are gamblers. You don’t work hard because you love stress and tension and feeling exhausted at the end of your day. You work hard because you’re worried about losing your job.

 

Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head . . .

It has become commonplace in election campaigns to say “people need jobs.” In one recent election the winning candidate was the one who promised people they would be able to have jobs working in coal mines. Let that one sink in for a minute. So let’s set aside the various job-creating proposals and whether or not any of them has even minimal validity, because I want to raise a more fundamental question. Is it not preposterous to say that people need jobs? The preposterous is a rhetorical figure of reversal, putting first things last and last things first, or in other words doing things ass-backwards. To suggest that a person “needs” a job is to suggest that a person is incomplete without one.

What people actually need is sustenance, physical well-being, peace of mind, a pathway (not just a purely abstract “opportunity,” mind you) to the full realization of their capabilities and their gifts. People need skilled world engagement. People need to work in reasonable conditions. Instead of asking how to satisfy a “need” for jobs, why are we not asking how a job can satisfy the needs of a person? I would agree that people benefit from doing work that satisfies their deeper aspirations. Unfortunately, the existential costs of holding many jobs –in the form of stress, chronic anxiety and burnout – have become prohibitively high.

When I first came to Montréal I used to see a dentist who would hum the first eight bars of “raindrops keep fallin’ on my head” over and over and over again as he performed the arts of dentistry. And then one day, apropos of nothing in particular, Marty suddenly stood up, looked out the window and announced, “The Canada Health Care Act was the greatest thing that ever happened here. For the first time in my life I had real peace of mind.” He stared off into space for a minute, nodded and went back to humming. It has taken me a long time to see the connection between the humming and the peace of mind. Even with Québec Medicare, raindrops keep fallin’ on my head, children die of untreatable illnesses, young adults at the peak of their creativity get a diagnosis of terminal cancer, cyclists are run over and killed by motorists. You can’t stop the raindrops from falling, and you can’t even accomplish the more modest task of getting your dentist to stop humming that annoying tune.

Manuel Valadão left things more or less as he found them. Eventually farming on his land came to an end; the forest took over and a rare wildflower was discovered growing where he once grazed sheep. Rockefeller and Ford created the technological eco-system we inhabit today. The implied promise in this transformation was that our lives would be cushioned against the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, and unburdened from debilitating labour. Better technology was supposed to create greater abundance and more leisure time to enjoy it. And yet, a funny thing happened on the way to achieving this. Instead of widespread peace of mind and time to think, there seems to be a pandemic of generalized anxiety. Many kinds of work have disappeared, leaving people whose work has been taken over by a device without a reasonable way to earn a livelihood. Has this now become a form of life that has grown old in its turn?

 

 

A Rock and A Hard Place

After my last check-up, my doctor told me I was doing everything right. “If the fates are kind you could have 20 more good years.” I did not have to ask him what would happen if the fates weren’t kind. Even with significant advances in medical care it seems that just living is ontologically precarious. A piece of building on Peel Street might fall on your head from a great height and kill you while you’re enjoying lunch with your boyfriend, a bizarre event that happened right here in Montréal. Even if no bad things happen, you are constantly being reminded, thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, of the myriad diseases that might afflict you, assuming they are not afflicting you already. The good news is that drug companies will have a cure for whatever ails you. The bad news is that the cure might be just as bad as the ailment it is supposed to remedy. Beyond that, however, we have to recognize that ontological uncertainty is not the only thing that ails us.

In Latin, precarius is something given to you as a favour by somebody else, or in other words it describes a bond of dependency. In that sense a job where you work for wages is already precarious by its very nature. It is an imbalance in the allocation of power defined by persistent insecurity on one side of the relationship. Whenever I think about a job, the first thing that comes to mind is a clock radio. You can’t take your time getting up, because the industrial economy has already taken your time. And as if the clock radio wasn’t bad enough, waking you up at 6:00 a.m. so you can drag yourself to work, now, thanks to your portable device, you’re still on the job wherever you go. People even boast of their ability to stay connected, forsooth. But this attitude is preposterous. If electronic media makes things easier for you, they make it even easier for employers to enforce a higher standard of industrial discipline – productivity they like to call it. We end up acquiescing in the condition of our own alienation, and accept that alienation is the best available possibility for living a good life.

So that’s the rock. You might just be inclined to say “no thank you” or “please don’t do me any favours.” But just consider the alternative.

The hard place is where you are when your job doesn’t provide you with sufficient compensation to keep body and soul together, or you don’t have a job at all. In that case you might feel envious of people who have gainful employment because they probably are better off than you are, notwithstanding their submission to the rigors of industrial discipline. Governments have begun to abandon their role in promoting the welfare of its citizens, dismantling programs that support activities taken to be unprofitable and limiting the scope of emergency protections, in order to create a more favourable environment for businesses. This then serves as an incentive for the rest who are getting paid for the work they do, motivating them to adapt to ever more exacting standards of hyper-productivity until technology advances far enough to render whatever job they might be doing obsolete.

There is a connection between the rock and the hard place, because taken together they represent the structure of the precarius, an overarching strategy of domination that prevails everywhere in our present economic reality. We are always faced with ontological uncertainty. In our present circumstances we’re facing something even more ominous. The new kind of uncertainty that’s keeping us awake at 4:00 a.m. is both intentional and artificial, an artefact of uncontrolled capital accumulation. If my nephew is right and businessmen are gamblers, then we’re all of us hostages to the risks in whatever game they are playing. Do any of the big players addicted to this pursuit really understand the rules of their game or what’s at stake for them and for everybody else in continuing to play it? Are there any rules? And why do the rest of us let them get away with it? Ontological uncertainly cannot be eliminated from our lives, but its effects can be mitigated. Artificial uncertainty created in the service of power is in fact unnecessary uncertainty. It’s time we put a stop to it. Because if we allow our own governments to persist in giving ever greater sovereignty to the gamblers, disguising what they’re doing by calling them “job-creators,” then our economic uncertainty is never going to end. If not now, when?

 

“Our freedom and its daily sustenance are the colour of blood and swollen with sacrifice. Our sacrifice is a conscious one; it is in payment for the freedom we are building.”

I don’t remember where I had come across these two lines by Che. I was quite young then, and didn’t bother to get to the source. It was much later that I found them in one of his letters in Socialism and Man. But ever since I first read these lines, they somehow got embedded in my mind, and I, who had never been good at memorizing my lessons, didn’t even have to write them down to remember.

In Che’s imagination, two things were inextricably linked with sustenance – freedom and sacrifice. The quest for freedom can be a good source of sustenance, but if one wishes to draw sustenance from this source one has to make some sacrifice. The sacrifice has to be made consciously, of our own volition. It is not the kind of sacrifice we are relentlessly called upon to make by the leaders that be, for the “security of the state” or some such noble purposes. The freedom it promises to usher in may be a small one, like freedom to speak our mind on the campus, to walk down a desolate street at night without a companion, or just to sip a drink sitting on a bar stool among people whose colour of skin does not match with ours. Yet we may not be able to enjoy even such small freedom very easily. We may need to shed some blood on the way.

Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a bright young engineer from India, had migrated to the United States in quest of a good life, and had been living one ’til he was gunned down by a racial fanatic at a Kansas bar on the evening of February 23. His wife, Sunayana Dumala, said at a heart-wrenching press conference:

“We’ve read many times in newspapers of some kind of shooting happening everywhere. I was always concerned: ‘Are we doing the right thing staying in the United States of America?’ But he always assured me good things happen to good people.”

That man, who would have celebrated his 33rd birthday in a month, like many others had thought that he could get better sustenance by relocating to a country reputed to be far ahead in quality of life than where he was born. But in doing so, he moved to the edge of his life unknowingly. Would he have migrated if he had known that he ran such a risk? The answer should be no. But I can’t say it with absolute certainty because Srinivas had strong faith in the preserving power of the good life in America. He also believed that good people could not suffer a bad fate. This conviction, perhaps, kept him going. He drew sustenance from his faith, but it could not sustain him in the end.

His wife had become worried, though. She, too, knew that life in America was good, but the news of violence all around made her anxious about the future. She trusted the assurance that her husband gave her, and it was her source of sustenance during times of anxiety. This, too, was belied when her worst fears came true.

In today’s world, faith and trust cannot provide sustenance for long. Reality catches up with anxiety all too soon. The anchor becomes infirm and uncertainty takes over. Uncertainty breeds more anxiety. The uncertainty over the freedom of millions of migrants to enjoy a good life in a good country in return for hard work makes good people like Sunayana Dumala anxious.

Anxiety and depression are on the rise everywhere, according to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) entitled “Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates.” As many as 322 million people are living with depression in the world today. The number of people suffering from depression rose by 18.4 per cent in the 10 years from 2005 to 2015. Anxiety disorders have engulfed 264 million people. The figure has gone up by 14.9 per cent within one decade.

India has a fair share of the affected population. It is home to more than 56 million depressed people, and over 31 million live with various types of anxiety. The proportion of women is higher than that of men in both categories. In WHO parlance, depression is the “single largest contributor to non-fatal health loss.”

Some of the people hit by depression and anxiety are led to believe that all sources of their sustenance have dried up completely. When they are convinced of this, they decide to end their lives. According to the WHO, “Suicide accounted for close to 1.5% of all deaths worldwide, bringing it into the top 20 leading causes of death in 2015,” and 78 per cent of suicides took place in low- and middle-income countries.

Why do people become depressed? The risk factors listed in the WHO report include “poverty, unemployment, life events such as the death of a loved one or a relationship break-up, physical illness and problems caused by alcohol and drug use.” Anxiety itself can lead to depression. If depression penetrates sufficiently deeply into one’s psyche, it can drive one to suicide.

But there is another kind of anxiety – the anxiety about the safety and well-being of others. This can drive someone to put his or her own safety and even life at stake. In Srinivas’s case, we find the example of Ian Grillot. The 24-year-old American construction worker put himself in the line of fire while attempting to shield an unknown immigrant from the attack of a fellow white American who was cranked up with hate. Later, from his hospital bed, he posted a message on the University of Kansas health system’s YouTube page explaining his state of mind when he made the move: “I couldn’t stand there. I had to do something. That is why I acted the way I did.” He also talked about happiness: “I was more than happy to risk my life to save the lives of others. There were families, there were kids inside, there were boys watching a basketball game.”

Grillot was driven to desperation by his anxiety, but that did not push him towards death. Instead he sprang into action, which is a sign of life. The result of the action could have been fatal, though, but at that moment he did not or could not think of the consequences. His only concern was to save the victim or to stop the attacker. This concern was what provided him sustenance, the motivation to get going.

There are yet others who value freedom – their own or that of others – and do not wait for a catastrophe to occur to be spurred into action. It is their will to break free that gives them sustenance. For them, a lack of freedom is simply unacceptable; a good life cannot exist without freedom. They know that their thirst for liberation cannot perhaps be satiated in a lifetime, yet they keep knocking at the gates of heaven, seeking answers to difficult questions. This is what Nachiketa did, the young son of a sage whose story is narrated in the ancient Indian text, the Kathopanishad. When he faced the Lord of Death, he asked him what lies beyond death – a question the Lord was reluctant to answer because he knew that once that mystery was revealed to a mortal being, the soul would immediately be set free and would no longer remain under his control.

Knowledge is freedom. Those who wish to keep mortal beings forever under control know that. So they feel intimidated when they find someone pursuing knowledge beyond a certain limit set by them. But some people still do that. Supporters of the ruling dispensation in India have accused Umar Khalid, a student activist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, of being a “fake student,” as he is over 25. “The guy should now go find a job and learn how tough it is to earn a living in this world instead of hanging around on the campus spreading dissent,” they advise. Listen to what he said in a media interview:

“It shows their utter disdain for knowledge…. If you take a job at the age of 23, then you get into production to become productive for the economy and productive for society. I think progressing knowledge is what we are engaged in, and it is as essential to society as anything else. As I said, they have started a campaign against knowledge, rationality and reason. They don’t want you to study, but to get out and get a job…. This is an assault on thinking and the right to resources. We will fight this. I will be a student for the rest of my life.”

Such conviction can be a very potent source of sustenance that can keep us alive in the face of a battery of assaults. We may become physically bruised yet remain mentally unbroken, and that is what makes the shackles of control chink.

Bo Jayatilaka, At the state border – From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution, NonCommercial.

Fifty years ago, a year before the Night of the Barricades at the Sorbonne, the peasant uprising at Naxalbari had pushed numerous students and youths in India to the far left. Dissenters acquired a new identity: ‘Naxalites.’ Half a century later, the likes of Umar Khalid in Delhi or those young women and men standing with the peasant struggle against the land grab in the name of ‘development’ at Bhangar in West Bengal are still called Naxalites. This undying rebelliousness, or Naxalism, has drawn sustenance from many sacrifices. Asutosh Majumdar, one of the young flames of Jadavpur University extinguished by the police with the utmost brutality, wrote in one of his last letters to his elder brother:

“There may be errors in our tactics, but the errors will not be rectified without practical work…. The blood of thousands of youths like us would reveal what is wrong and what is right.”

Another student martyr, Smaran Chattopadhyay, had written to his mother:

“If we do not succeed, we will know that we had taken the wrong method, we will know that we had taken the wrong method, wrong path and wrong politics. We shall try again.”

Fifty years later, some of the present generation are trying again. Like Che said, they, too, have consciously chosen a path of sacrifice in their quest for freedom. They, too, know that their sustenance is the colour of blood. But that will not deter them. The reason is revealed in Keats’ dream in The Fall of Hyperion:

‘None can usurp this height,’ return’d that shade,
‘But those to whom the miseries of the world
‘Are misery, and will not let them rest.’