Editorial Note:  Nilanjan Dutta writes from India. In this essay he raises legitimate questions about the corralling of citizens by the state, using the pandemic as an excuse, and its exploitation of lock-down measures and terror to erode people’s will to resist the larger enemy of systemic, widespread profiteering—also known as neoliberal capitalism and globalization.

While Canada and certain parts of the world did not impose heavy lockdown measures and curfew, in India and some other countries, only four hours’ notice was given at midnight to “stay at home and not come out,” which created enormous hardship for the poor and for migrant workers left homeless, unemployed, and exposed to the elements. Nilanjan refers to “the mask” not only as a protective device, but also as a metaphor for gagging and prodding the population so that “we are becoming amicable to the idea of a strong and omniscient state.”

 

The Mask and the Face

Which is a mask, which is the face?
Nothing can be seen clearly. I feel
helpless as one feels after a terrible fever.

Memories haunt my brain; near the head,
Near the feet, my desires are dark
Like kisses of snakes; and in sleep
My dreams can’t even breathe.

Birendra Chattopadhyay
July 6, 1968

 

Once upon a time, people used to tie a piece of cloth over their faces when they came out in the street to demonstrate. The cloth could signify several things: if something terrible had happened, it could mean that those who were protesting were at a loss to find appropriate words to condemn it. Or, it could indicate a gag on freedom of expression. In some cases, the demonstrators could use it for concealing their identities, or to protect themselves from being tear gassed by the police. It is also not uncommon in certain parts of India to use masks as protection against the high levels of pollution.

Now, a large majority of the people around the world can be seen in the streets with a cloth covering their faces, and they are not demonstrating against anything. The face cover is being called a mask, which they are wearing to protect themselves and others around them, not from the roving eye of the state—that is no longer possible with the help of such a simple device—but from a common enemy called COVID-19. Hiding behind a mask will not attract any censure now. Not wearing one will.

Like in “lockdown,” most people would not want to go out and risk being called weirdos who don’t want to participate in this great nationalist exercise to “break the chain of infection.” Not even those who would otherwise jump into the frontlines of resistance to break a curfew. Why is this so?

I got my answer in an article about the current situation in the West Bank, featuring a conversation between Amahl Bishara, associate professor at Tufts University, and Nidal Al-Azza, director of the Bethlehem-based Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. . Nidal Al-Azza says:

Palestinians are used to being trapped under military curfew, so maybe they know how to cope. But this is different. In a curfew imposed by occupying forces, Palestinians seek to challenge it. They impose a curfew, and we break it. But today, there is not that desire. This time, staying home is required to protect your family, yourself, your neighbors, your people.

That is why we accept what the state tells us to do. And the state talks to us without pretence, without putting a mask on. It does not need one. For we have become convinced by now that the state is our protector. Even if it is the same state that a few months ago used to bark at us orders that we were loath to follow. If I feebly try to question the logic of any of the state diktats regarding the “proper code of conduct in the time of corona pandemic,” I would see friends’ and comrades’ jaws beneath the mask stiffen: “I hope you are not talking about shunning protection?” Curiously enough, the state itself cannot protect its most loudmouthed leaders. Masked or unmasked. Be they Bolsonaro and his wife, his deputies, the Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, several of Trump’s entourage, the Bolivian President, or princely royalty and famous film stars, who energize and propagate the hegemony of the state in so many ways.*

**Editorial note: As we go online, not only have several key members of Trump’s entourage become infected by COVID-19, Trump and his wife have also tested positive.

Talking about herd immunity is a taboo. “Just look at Sweden, they did not lock down and dreamed that herd immunity would come and save them. Now the country is boiling in a COVID soup.” As of the last day of July, Sweden had a total of 5,755 deaths, 80,359 cases and 2,566 in intensive care. Its average death rate over the last seven days of that month was seven deaths per day.  Up to the same date, the United Kingdom recorded 302,301 cases, Spain 285,430, Italy 247,158, Germany 207,828, and France 186,573. The death figures were: United Kingdom 45,999, Italy 35,132, France 30,254, Spain 28,443, Belgium 9,840, Germany 9,134 and Netherlands 6,147.  These stats may take any turn by the time this write-up sees the light of day. But I am just looking for some rationale behind branding Sweden as a rogue nation as far as COVID management is concerned. Sweden tried something. It didn’t pan out as planned, but now conditions have somewhat stabilized.

States across the globe have created a “mainstream discourse” that we have all learned to accept. And if we stop questioning, we will learn to accept that whatever they ordain—from a free run of the “market forces” to a “lockdown”—must be in our interest. They need to teach us this, because it is essential for the success of a common project that they are pursuing—to save capitalism.

Once all our states had opened their doors to facilitate a great economic tide called “globalization.” It had given a fillip to capitalism after the Cold War fatigue. Now if they are closing borders and again cocooning up national economies, it is because capitalism needs another phase of nanny handling. It has never really been able to recover fully from the shock of 2008. The so-called fourth industrial revolution which aims at giving machines a mind of their own only immerses it into a deeper gorge of diminishing jobs and demand. Economies such as India and Brazil, which seemed to survive the previous tremor unscathed, were showing signs of jitter for a few years before this new coronavirus appeared on the scene. We all know the story and need not recount it here.

So, capitalism must be saved after all. The age of COVID-19 has brought about the much- needed trust between the unmasked state in its full benevolence and command and control visage, and us with a mask, in compliance whenever possible. The ‘war’ metaphor is also reigning supreme: the war against the virus, the war against the enemies of capitalism. We must win all. And who doesn’t know that during a war, it is the duty of every citizen to rally behind the state?

 

 

We will do that willingly because we have also learned that only capitalism can save our lives. It has control over modern science and scientific research for vaccines and remedies to take us out of this pandemic mess. We are becoming more and more amicable to the idea of a strong and omniscient state. We are not questioning why the state, in its bid to enforce the lockdown and mask-wearing regime, is handling the COVID-19 situation as a law-and-order issue rather than a public health emergency.

All power to the police—that is the order of the day. (See, for example, “Teargas, beatings and bleach: the most extreme Covid-19 lockdown controls around the world” and “Policing under coronavirus: the real test is yet to come.”)

Numerous apps and devices are appearing to assist in the noble cause of “contact tracing.” But history tells us that police power and surveillance networks will not be put to noble use if, after winning the battle against the new coronavirus tomorrow, the people of the world go back to their war against capitalism the day after.

We will be powerless then if we surrender our right to raise questions now—however “naive” and “irrational” our questions may be. Have the pundits who polish up the policies of the state proven themselves to be unfailingly rational? Managing the global pandemic situation would not have become so messy if they had.

Even within the scientific community, there are interesting counterpoints. For example, listen to what Vikram Patel, the Pershing Square Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School, has to say:

It is perhaps not surprising that some scientists vociferously called for governments to act swiftly to impose lockdowns. After all, most of my community, and the government officials who conjure and implement these policies, enjoy salaried jobs which can seamlessly pivot to online platforms which we can operate with ease from our spacious homes in which being locked down can evolve into a rather congenial opportunity to master culinary skills and not have to commute to work. It will not surprise me if the reputation of scientists, already tainted in some quarters as being elitist, will be further muddied by our role in this pandemic.

While there are diverse opinions in the scientific community, too, we are being bombarded with the sermons of only those whose pronouncements are favourable for the state policies of policing the pandemic. This, we are told, is the “new normal.” The state will wear the mask of “returning to normal” (which is non-masked) and carry out all its projects without any pretension. And we, wearing a mask, will keep silent.

Capitalism knows how to make a contract even with the Devil and profit from it. The Black Death in 14th-century Europe had provided it the right conditions to germinate and grow (like a virus does when it gets into the human body). The corona pandemic might offer capitalism a second life. It is up to us whether we will allow it the opportunity by not questioning the “new normal” now. If we allow that, we will also accede to capitalism’s moral right to trigger future pandemics and epidemics—by destroying the forests, causing polar ice to melt, conducting some deadly experiment in the laboratory, or something that we are not able to think of as yet.

 

 

Conception, photos, commentary: Tilak Seth, Keya Dasgupta and Subhendu Dasgupta
English text: Nilanjan Dutta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing and rewriting history are primeval pursuits of human beings. Not all human beings, maybe, but at least those who care for power. The ones in power believe that the past can provide them with some displayable justification for their hegemony. Those who do not possess power but aspire to do so may also take recourse to history to back up their claim.

History is not an archive of bygone facts. It is a story weaved by craftily picking up threads from the past to suit one’s purpose for the present. In the course of this exercise, the body of the past becomes highly contested.

Everyone takes part in this contest – from Alte Left to Alt Right. Only, the former are too shy to admit it. They do not seem quite comfortable to stare at the blank spaces in group photos from which they have airbrushed the faces of their former comrades. They do not like to discuss in much detail when and how these old guards of the revolution became renegades and agents of imperialism. The pangs of a ghost conscience seem to chase them, however hard they try to exorcise it.

Those on the Right are more forthright in this respect. They not only acknowledge that they want history tailored to their taste, but even emphasize that that is how history should be written. So, if we wish to understand the tricks of this trade, it is better to pay attention to what the Right says. We would like to recommend the contemporary discourse in India as a lucid lesson: “Rewriting is part of the writing of history,” said the chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Arvind Jamkhedkar, in an interview with the Press Trust of India on April 15 this year. “History has always been rewritten and it is a healthy thing because there have been exaggerations,” he explained.

Of course, the head of this premier state-sponsored institution steered clear of the business of reworking the teaching of the subject per se. It was not the ICHR’s mandate to decide what should be taught, he said, but to encourage scholars to conduct “fresh and meaningful research to rewrite history.”

The latter task is instead taken care of by a non-official Alt-Right body called the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas (educational and cultural uplift trust). It has sent a set of recommendations regarding the revision of textbooks for schoolchildren to the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). The recommendations, as reported in newspapers, notably call for the removal of English, Urdu and Arabic words from Hindi textbooks, the views of poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore on nationalism, and extracts of artist M.F. Husain’s autobiography. References to the Mughal emperors as “benevolent,” the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a “Hindu” party, and the Kashmir political party National Conference as “secular” are also sought to be expunged.

The Trust has been pursuing the goal of “purification” of textbooks for years with great tenacity. Beleaguered by its legal notices, Penguin India withdrew from the market Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History in 2010. In one of these notices dated March 3, 2010, the advocate stated that “it is a haphazard presentation riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies.” It is interesting to note the accusation of heresy, a term drawn from Christian theology, when the very next paragraph states that “the aforesaid book is written with a Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light.”

But the ire is not always directed towards Christian or foreign authors. Following agitation by the Alt Right, the Delhi University was forced to remove renowned Indian poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” from its history syllabus in 2008.

A.K. Ramanujan

Another organization floated by the Right, called Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (which translates roughly as “save education movement association”), has been mounting pressure directly on the National Council of Educational Research and Training for sanitizing the curriculum. In 2006, it filed a public interest litigation demanding as many as 70 changes in history and social science textbooks. The Delhi high court directed the National Council to form a committee to study the objections. The committee accepted some of them.

The right-wing establishment has been trying for decades to mould the minds of school-going children in such a way as to make them vulnerable to its preaching. Having seen several reputed academic bodies and publishers bow before it on earlier occasions, this establishment has naturally become bold and hopeful of having its way. Although some Left and liberal intellectuals dismiss such hopes as the wishful thinking of extremist “fringe” elements, there is cold logic behind every point raised in the right-wing wish-list.

There are three major areas in which the Alt-Right think-tanks seek to intervene: language, history and ideology. These are the three core elements that play crucial roles in shaping the young learners’ mental make-up. They determine whether the children might grow up with a largeness of mind or turn into narrow-minded bigots.

Every language, at various stages of its development, picks up and assimilates “foreign” or “loan” words that make its vocabulary richer. The move to expunge these words – as envisaged in the proposal to eliminate English, Urdu and Arabic words from Hindi textbooks – is an attempt to make the learners forget about the syncretism that is the very basis of Indian culture. It amounts to cultural cleansing, similar to the racial cleansing attempted by various groups in other parts of the world.

Likewise, history is sought to be cleansed of all footprints of cultural assimilation. And we must note that these revisionist proposals seek to obliterate not only the historical episodes of the life and times of Islamic rulers. They also target other episodes that are unrelated to any so-called foreign religion, but simply do not fit into the right-wingers’ scheme of things. A glaring example is their objection to a chapter on the 12th-century Kannada devotional poet, Mahadevi Akka. According to them, the mention of Akka shedding her clothes as a mark of protest to social injustice is an “attack on Hindu culture in the name of women’s freedom.” Clearly, the target here is women’s freedom, and the aim is to protect not any “culture” – let alone “Hindu” – but the values of patriarchy.

Rabindranath Tagore

The jewel in the crown is the charge that the National Council’s textbook for Class X “places nationalism against other ideals,” asserting that “an attempt” has been made “to show a rift between nationality and humanity by citing thoughts of Rabindranath Tagore.” Ironically, the tirade of our modern-day nationalists echoes the tune of the imperialist reviews of Tagore’s 1917 lectures on Nationalism by war-mongers in contemporary Europe: “Several reviews described the lectures as a poet’s limited perception of current events, stating that Tagore has failed, ‘in his bitter mood’, to comprehend ‘what Nationalism, to an enlightened European Nationalist, really means’.” (Susheila Nasta, India in Britain: South Asian Networks and Connections, 1858-1950).

The “enlightened European Nationalist” of Tagore’s time has come back in many avatars today, both in the East and West. It is quite obvious why some would like to erase from schoolbooks the words that he spoke a century ago:

The political civilization which has sprung up from the soil of Europe and is overrunning the whole world, like some prolific weed, is based upon exclusiveness. It is always watchful to keep the aliens at bay or to exterminate them. It is carnivorous and cannibalistic in its tendencies, it feeds upon the resources of other peoples and tries to swallow their whole future. It is always afraid of other races achieving eminence, naming it as a peril, and tries to thwart all symptoms of greatness outside its own boundaries, forcing down races of men who are weaker, to be eternally fixed in their weakness.[1]

Such a historical view of nationalism may destabilize the present global order that allows one nation to celebrate the jubilee of its state foundation by massacring another, as other nations stand by like spectators and watch.

 

[1] http://tagoreweb.in/Render/ShowContent.aspx?ct=Essays&bi=72EE92F5-BE50-40D7-8E6E-0F7410664DA3&ti=72EE92F5-BE50-4A47-1E6E-0F7410664DA3

 

 

 

 

Cover picture from Nilanjan Dutta’s original book of translations. The sketch is by the late Debangshu Sengupta.

 

Since human beings are eminently perishable, they seem to have an obsession for permanence. It is normal for people to yearn for what they do not possess or do not have a chance to possess in their lifetimes. But this holds good only for external things. It is another matter when they realize that they are already in possession of something that is indestructible, something that “weapons cannot tear, fire cannot burn” (Bhagavad Gita 2.23). That becomes a source of immense strength – the courage to endure the lows of life, and yet envision unattained heights. The realization of this inner strength is the recognition of the spirit. When the spirit takes over, all bodily pains recede.

The poems of Birendra Chattopadhyay (born in Dhaka, September 2, 1920; died in Calcutta, July 11, July 1985) celebrate this indomitable power of the human spirit. The decades over which his life as a poet spanned were marked by constant turmoil and transition in the society of Bengal. He was no mere observer, but one who identified himself with the forces that were consciously oriented towards bringing about a revolutionary change in society. Driven by this conviction, time and again Chattopadhyay broke the police cordon and suffered imprisonment. He wrote piercing poems and prose pieces that sprang from the pangs of a newly independent but partitioned country in the late 1940s and ’50s, and the tumult of the people’s movements in the 1960s. In the 1970s, his poems decried the massacre of radical youths in the strongest of idiom, and in the same decade, he raised a rare voice of protest against the Indian Emergency among the older intellectuals of Calcutta and campaigned wholeheartedly for the release of political prisoners. His towering presence was a regular feature and a source of assurance for the young protesters in every rally, including the “risky” ones. In the 1980s, his poetry raged against the acts of betrayal of the Left establishment (then ruling the eastern Indian state of West Bengal) but unlike many others, he did not lose faith in the ideology of the Left movement.

No wonder Birendra Chattopadhyay became a rallying point for a host of young poets as well as prosaic “activists” like me. The blend of revolutionary passion and romantic imagination made his poetry sublime. Throughout his literary life, he relentlessly  inspired and encouraged us to keep our spirit awake and unblemished without falling into the trap of spirituality.  “Hold your head high, even in hell,” he told us. Meanwhile, the poet became inflicted with life-threatening cancer and embarked upon a different battle, and it was during this phase that his poems found the most intense expression of death-defying spirit.

Shortly after Chattopadhyay left us, I translated a few of his poems into English at the request of revolutionary Telugu poets K.V. Ramanna Reddy and Varavara Rao. Later I translated some more, which were compiled in a book, Here Lies Your Motherland, in December 1985. Here are revised translations of some of the poems written from his deathbed.

 

 

Young Poets

Words have left me long ago
And yet, I want to say something more

Young poets! Come forward!
The world has not run out of words
By the sound of your footsteps
I would know the road I must tread.

 

Sad People

People who are sad
For human beings or a flower

They know life from hunger
And tell Death: ‘We will never recognize you.
There’s no place for you on our earth.’

If they see a dead bird on the ground
Around it they sing songs of rebirth
There’s sadness in it; but without sorrow
Can one take love to the heart?

 

You, Death

(To Dr. Bhoomen Guharay)

It is not true that Death doesn’t wait for anyone.
Often he has to.
He knows, victory will be his in the end. But
some small defeats, to the indomitable human will
He must suffer. Humans know they are not immortal,
but still they write poems, sing, draw pictures,
And then, Death sitting beside their bed,
begins to lose his patience and courage.

Death, you must learn to be patient and
give us time to get prepared.
Let us feel that the touch of your cold hand
is not a frightening story.
On that day keeping you in front
We shall start our journey not destined.
Then we’ll tell our dear ones frank and clear
‘He is insurmountable, but we haven’t lost the game either.’

 

To the Young Poets

From behind the clouds your faces are becoming clearer
I am happy. I can see some real human faces
and touch them.
Teach us to be fearless, so that we
can cross Death now blocking our way in front.

 

A Few Lines for B.C.

Why does he write his name

On stone
When the sun goes down?

The stone is washed away by the river
The water

Recedes, he knew it

He knows…

 

A Poem for My Daughter

Flowers do not bloom throughout the year
Birds do not sing throughout the year.

Still, dream remains. The people we know
Stay near.

Even if flowers do not, human beings remain.

 

 

Dennis van Zuijlekom, Cutting Edge – From flickr under creative commons license: Share, Adapt.

 

A couplet from the ancient Indian philosophical tracts, the Upanishads, has been familiar to the western world for a long time as it appears in the epigraph of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Razor’s Edge. It reads:

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.

The translation makes me confused. The original Sanskrit verse in Kathopanishad ends with the words, kabayo badanti. Literally, it means “the poets say.” The Bengali translation by poet Rabindranath Tagore leaves no doubt about that. But why did Maugham – or maybe his guru Maharshi Raman – translate it as “the wise say?”

I am in a dilemma. Not over which word is appropriate – ‘wise’ or ‘poet.’ The question that stirs me is: can both Maugham and Tagore be right? Can both words be appropriate here? Maybe it depends just on the way you look at it. Who can meditate that the path to salvation – or liberation (now I am changing a word in the translation) – can only be compared to a razor’s edge? One who is wise, or one who is a poet? Can one attain this realisation through the acquisition of knowledge and processing of the knowledge through rational thinking, or by daring to transcend through poetic suspension of rationality?

Maybe I could solve this problem some day. But before that, it pulls and plunges me into another more severe problem from which I see absolutely no respite. Can it be that there is no duality here at all? The wise and the poet might be the same person. Maybe the poet is the wisest person in the world, and hence knows what it takes for one to attain liberation. And that is why the poet should be banished from the Republic. The poet is an enemy of the state – a subversive, a terrorist, an enemy combatant. The crime of knowing the path to liberation and telling people about it is high treason, sedition.

So what do the seditious poets tell us? That the path we have to tread is extremely treacherous. It can not only leave our soles bleeding, but also make us slip into a bottomless ditch if we do not watch every step.

Yet some people take this path. The dangers of the road do not deter them. Maybe they are even stimulated by the challenges of the journey. When we were young, some of us were very fond of the phrase, “Live dangerously until the end” (courtesy of Godard, not Nietzsche). “Learning to live dangerously” had become our motto. Very few could learn it properly and those who did developed a tendency to skid off from the path of life forever or, at the least, land up in a dark cell. We who dropped out of the course midway diverted to another path – called career.

It should have meant a smooth life. But I found – and I am not the only one – that this path, too, was strewn with thorns. Let me confine this narrative to my own experience. I was in the media. Journalism is an honourable profession, we are told. As an added attraction, a lot of people get to know you, and perhaps some of them respect or envy you. You get to know a lot of people, too, and some of them are perhaps so well entrenched in the corridors of power that you could not have dreamed of meeting them ever in your life unless you were in this profession.

But how many people know what happens in this hallowed world of the media? My first employer was a popular daily newspaper. Within some years of my joining, this 140-year-old institution with a great ‘nationalist’ tradition folded up without notice. The owner family’s patriarch had become too old to run the ‘news empire’ (very appropriately, the title of a column which he used to dictate during the last phase of his editorship). His children and grandchildren were either more interested in other occupations such as politics, or simply not up to the job. After a brief layoff, I found a slot in the foremost English weekly of the time. A decade later, the owners, one of the largest media houses in India, decided to discontinue its publication, along with that of a sports magazine. According to them, it was not fetching enough revenue. Not that it was not selling well, but the returns were not up to their expectations. It could have been a jute mill instead of a media house, we would have heard the same story – not making enough profit. And workers can never guess just how much profit the capitalists expect.

I was lucky though. The “largest selling English-language daily in the world” launched an edition from my city and took me in. My designation remained the same and my salary increased, but there was a crucial change that I had to accept. My previous two employments were ‘permanent’ ones and we used to be on a pay-scale determined by a national wage-board through collective bargaining with our unions. That era was over by now. Like everyone else, I was put on contract. The management’s ‘appraisals’ based on our ‘performance’ determined our raises and renewals. Well, I got both, along with frequent by-lines, more responsibilities and occasional pats of the back. I learned many new mantras. “My newspaper will be like a bar of soap,” the young owner announced after he took over the reins following his father’s death. The top executive of the group, who was known as ‘the Pope’ in media circles, came and addressed us. We must avoid doing stories about “the old, the poor and the ugly,” he advised, reasoning, “Nobody likes to read about them.” I tried to interject, “But this is a newspaper, sir. What if the old, the poor and the ugly make news?” With a cold look, he replied, “I’ll come back to you,” which, of course, he never did. Welcome to the world of new millennial journalism.

At some point, I decided to stop. The immediate irritant was a new editor whose behaviour I could not digest, but underneath, there was a desire for a change. I put in my papers and started hunting for a new job which I never got. I did not match the ‘profile’ they were looking for: much younger, more malleable and someone they thought would be more adaptive to the ever-changing ‘new’ technology. I simply became redundant. Fighting this redundancy, I began to learn to live dangerously in a different way. I have had to learn how to work more and earn less. I wonder who coined the word ‘freelancer.’ I am free, without a lance. My life is no longer like I used to know it. Precarity has overtaken security.

Meanwhile, many changes are happening in the world around me as well, not only in the domain of media. The flight of jobs from the most advanced capitalist parts of the world, the catastrophic restlessness among the ‘privileged’ working class of the North, the rollback of outsourced skilled work from the South, thousands of émigrés facing the threat of being sent back, millions in my own country living in fear of losing their livelihood – all these events are convincing me increasingly that I am no longer an island, I am part of a new class in the making.

Two centuries after Marx’s birth and about three decades after his ideology was pronounced dead, I have found the meaning of the ‘relative surplus population’ that he had spoken about in Capital. I realise that I have become a part of that. I have also realised with my life – and with the life of many others around me – how right he was when he wrote:

The consumption of labour-power by capital is, besides, so rapid that the labourer, half-way through his life, has already more or less lived himself out. He falls into the ranks of the supernumeraries, or is thrust down from a higher to a lower step in the scale. It is precisely among the work-people in modern industry that we meet with the shortest duration of life.

But then, will not the bell toll for us, too? For now I remember the first line of the couplet that Maugham did not quote. Nachiketa, the child protagonist of Kathopanishad who defied death to knock at the gates of heaven and question Yama (the lord of the afterlife), heard the call: “Arise, awake, claim the boon you are entitled to,” followed by the line about the razor’s edge. I offer a new translation for the precariat:

Arise, Awake, claim your rights, the poets say:

Walk the razor’s edge, liberation isn’t far away.

Maybe I have changed a couple of words. Maybe we can change it further and sing:

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise, ye wretched of the earth!…

Montréal street art (Photo by Jody Freeman)

“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.’