Dreams and Other Lifelines

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

“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.’

Nilanjan Dutta is a journalist and human rights activist based in Kolkata.