An essay on reading
Bread and Wine
By Ignazio Silone
Signet Classics, 2005 – Fiction – 279 pages
Forty years ago, I read Bread and Wine while living in Calcutta. Despite my indifference towards the folks who wrote The God that Failed, (Silone being one of them, along with Arthur Koestler, Andre Gide and others) I found myself transported by the languorous descriptions of pre-fascist rural Italy, around 1935. A peasant society– religious and superstitious with some of its members seeking some redemption, and others resigned to their fate — is swept away by the onslaught of Mussolini’s quasi-industrial fascist hordes. A fugitive socialist takes cover as a priest and contemplates resistance while dipping his black bread into his wine. The novel is about ordinary people making sense of two opposites: the popular inertia and the juggernaut that rolls their way, and the tension between the basic necessities of life and the attractiveness of sin. After forty years, I have visited the novel again today in Kolkata.
The boisterous, cantankerous adulation for Modi’s vision of India and the twisted secularism of the Premier of Quebec (the two places where I live, where veiled intolerance has become the raison d’être for extreme nationalist fervour ) seem like the fearsome predicament for those who re-examine history, without cherry-picking and sampling it. So, after having travelled the globe over the years, through Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, listening to debates about social development, about “Springs” that turned to winter, about plurality, the impact of globalization and settler-ism, the meltdown and geo-political terror-wars that trigger mass exodus—I find myself fugitized and subdued like the village priest in Bread and Wine. Under wraps in Kolkata and Montreal. Sandwiched between creatures from a Jurassic era, who on the one hand cover up their intolerance by resorting to opportunism (and notably idolatrous attempts at erecting mountainous statues of resurrected heroes), and on the other hand, call for preserving heritage and legacy, and camouflage their wanton supremacist ideology by erecting a “Charter of Values” and passing it off as laïcité or secularism.
This moment in Québec is not about corruption, governance, integration, assimilation, “respect for your hosts” or religious neutrality etc, as it is made out to be. It is the arcane debate about what my priest whispered into my ears versus what your priest whispered into yours. It is about running a society where what one “rural” church says is acceptable and what the other says, is not. It is about what must be “dismissed” as seditious, subversive and anti-national, and what must be “resurrected” as the embodiment of the true path for the Nation. It is about Duplessis and the Trudeau/Lévesque years of the Quiet Revolution. It is also about Mussolini and how he used the memory of Garibaldi (as did the Left). About Modi and his use of Patel. About the false dichotomy between Patel and Nehru. About the BJP and Congress and the rotten game of football where the crowds are left with no choices. History repeats itself, every half-century with open-ended memory games. Only it gets more unpleasant and dreadful, each time.
Revisiting Bread and Wine one gets a whiff of the Italian fascism that this book captures eloquently. It also captures the body politic of religious (Catholic) feudalism then, or its variants in pre-industrialized India, today. From crusty villages in volcanic craters, peppered with unrepaired houses and unrepentant peasants, hoarding hay and poverty and dipping their bread (their meagre belongings and survivalist instincts) in their wine (their sinful tendencies and occasional deviances). Aging, braying donkeys named Bersagliera looking for sexual encounters while hauling runaway socialists. Crazed fanatics deploying IEDs and a criminalized police force snatching jewelry from stamped-upon pilgrims. The smell is inimitable. But it is also the basis of what breeds fascist intolerance. Rural disconnection, provincialist fantasies about nation-building and notions of deliverance, repentance and confession. The dream of making fast money while dismissing the plight of the newly-arrived and the minorities. The highway to “quiet fascism.”
How does a donkey get christened? By hitting it on the head with a wooden spoon and whispering “Garibaldi” into its ears. This is done several times until the donkey for sure has grasped its name. Tough name. Garibaldi. Will make the donkey work harder and harder. A young girl has starved herself, trying to abort her foetus. She is only nineteen. If she did not, the whole village would throw her out, physically. We need tough donkeys. We need girls that understand the rules of the game. They cannot run away from the caste. We need to hammer home the truth that if you work hard, if you are a believer, if you are disciplined and a vicious nationalist–then there will be peace and prosperity under a strong leader. Otherwise, there is the Khap Panchayat that will set the standards for the Nation.
Yusef in Herouxville, Quebec, must know that until he becomes Joseph, or behaves at least like Guiseppe or José, he will be scorned, one way or the other, and turned away from the village. Yusef does not wear a headdress anymore today. He has assimilated. Darshan Singh, on the other hand, still wears his turban in Delhi, but waits for justice for 1984. Yasmina in Citizen Nagar, Ahmedabad wants to find out if the seven relatives she lost in 2002 will soon be forgotten. The atheist in a priest’s robe as in Mussolini’s Italy in 1935, waits, as well for memory to be de-appropriated.
The question is not What is to be Done ? But, What are We to Do?