Seeing in the dark

[This is a letter I am writing to a dear friend’s sensitive young son who is deeply troubled by the growing violence and the atmosphere of hatred around us]

Dear G.

Your mother tells me that you have been lately very tense and uneasy about the violence that is being perpetrated in the name of Hindus around the country and more recently in Delhi. I connected instantly — despite being older and unfortunate enough to watch the descent of evil leading right up to the trampling of all decency that we witness together today — and I wanted to write. This is not ‘advice’ of any sort. As a generation that failed to protect our children from these menacing fangs, what advice can we possibly proffer? I just want to share how I cope.

I went through the same emotions and exertions in the wake of the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act. It was such an assault on the India that shaped us all and that gave us some reason to be secure and even proud. To think that our citizenship has been put on hold and that the onus to prove it is on us is to also open ourselves to the possibility of being stripped naked before the unbridled violence of power.

Yet, after a few days, I began to feel a strange sense of contentment, strong enough to make me feel thankful to our oppressive government and its supporters. This is because I realized that this was, finally, a chance to confront life and society without hypocrisy; to use language that you probably do not approve of, a chance to purify one’s soul.

As India’s privileged middle-classes, we are so unused to confronting the ugly immoral face of the state. Till recently, that was the fate of the marginalized and oppressed people — dalits, muslims, adivasis. This violence aimed at human dignity itself that we face now, in other words, is something these people have known since long. This is of course a fact I have known for long as a teacher and researcher; it is probably something you know well too. But it is one thing to know; feeling is quite another.

The other day, I was cleaning up the kitchen at night, and I am rather obsessed with keeping it clean. So the sight of a cockroach creeping around the sink made me pick up the broom instantly. But I can never get myself to hit it. The sight of it cowering in a corner makes me me flinch. This creature is harmless I know, and that it had entered my kitchen hungry perhaps, looking for some titbit. This knowledge takes a moment usually to turn into compassion but this time it was instant. Why? Because I saw that this may be the future for us — all of us who have no other intention but to live decent lives now face the violent thug who wields the cruel broom in the name of cleansing the Hindu nation — if we sink into despair. Surely there is the moral force that drives us: I think we are all determined to live lives that are human — far richer than that of an insect. Hope comes easily to those of us who retain the notion of a higher force, called God or some other name. It can also come to those of us who believe that we are driven by moral force.

So let me ask: would it not be possible to look at the present as an unparalleled opportunity to raise ourselves as human beings? Hypocrisy is a luxury that is available to those who power smiles upon. Now that we are not favoured thus, will it not be possible for us to turn our attention within, to strengthen ourselves to resist evil? It is no coincidence that Gandhi could not stress enough the summoning of inner strength to gather up the courage to face a pitiless and blind oppressor. I find this possibility exhilarating.

So I find it comforting to be vocal and open in my support to the victims and condemnation of the oppressors. Yet I keep searching for ways in which I can heal the divides and avoid replicating the violence of the oppressor, dressing it up in ‘progressive’ colours. This way I manage to keep despair at bay.

There is a second way I have found effective in fighting off debilitating despair. That is to relentlessly pursue knowledge, keep at independent and truthful creative pursuits.

I often see during meditation an image I must have seen a long time back. This is a painting, of a medieval scene. In the painting we see the insides of a small cell in a monastery tower. A monk is in the foreground, busily copying the classics, totally absorbed in it. Behind him is an arched window, from which we see armies butchering each other below. In the extreme background, a town is in flames.

Recently, this image comes back to me almost every day. I know it is telling me what to do. To continue the independent pursuit of knowledge, to preserve the best fruits of civilisation, instead of letting myself get stupefied by the violence of armies bent on mutual annihilation. The armies in the image are not Hindu and Muslim. They are the many political parties we have; the battlefield is Indian politics. Theirs is a fight to death in the background of the burning city – our society – which they do not care for. The monk knows this. So he turns his back to the meaningless violence and focuses on preserving knowledge for the future. He looks at the future, the long-term, instead of the present, the short-term. We must all look at the long term, perhaps, even as we resist the demonisation of Muslims and others in the name of Hindus.

But, you will probably argue, that long-term is like a terrible, craggy cliff which we are forced to climb down; it makes our head spin, and I have to agree : Oh, G., it is indeed a Kafkaesque nightmare! We are travellers – a caravan – on a journey trusting leaders who many of us have full faith in, but very soon we realise that they have decided to make slaves of us all. Our voices of protests are drowned by those of us who are convinced that accepting slavery is the best. These leaders have made sure that we do not escape by digging up the way ahead into a deep trench, by taking away everything that would have ensured our safety on the road. Worse, the other aspirants for leadership among us who challenge these slave-drivers seem no better, and their battles only further maim us. Ahead of us is the steep wall of an abyss which we have to cross if we are to reach a future.

Once we have turned our backs on short-sighted people fighting for petty gain and engaging in strategy to that end, we must once again consider taking the challenge of the long haul in short steps. Is it not better to take the risk of descending it ourselves, instead of getting pushed into it as we try to dive for cover exposed to the cynical battles that our politicians seem to be waging? But you must protect yourself from vertigo. When we descend a steep cliff, we must not look at the abyss below, only at exactly the next step or few steps. That way, we conserve our energy and our confidence, and avoid fear.

I know that it is easier to think in metaphors than devise action. But once we see that we may rise higher, that these times may indeed make humans of us all, it will be less daunting. I pray that you and all other sensitive, humane young people, will guide us towards this.

Much warmth,


One thought on “Seeing in the dark

  1. That monk will stay with me .Once she appeared in a painting of mine ,Blue cloaked ,golden hued with shaven head.Her heart is a ball of swirling flames and tears are streaming down her otherwise calm face .
    Her stance is poised and her palms ? one is in ‘chin mudra’ ,blessing the one standing before her and the other in Abhaya…


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