Posts Tagged ‘Other’

Them Versus Us

May 16, 2009

The first part of this thought experiment was intended to test if my perception of the ‘Other’ was a reflection of nothing more than my own prejudices. It had me revisit repeatedly the same set of objects arranged in different ways to see how my reactions varied in response to the arrangements.

In the second part of the experiment I want to see the picture from the other end. This time I imagine myself to be a member of the set of objects and try to sense how I would feel in the various scenarios.

The setting is still the same – a classroom of children being visited by an outsider. (more…)

Ghalib – 19: New Year Thoughts

January 10, 2009

One would expect Ghalib to have a unique way of welcoming the New Year:

dekhiiye paate haiN ushshaaq buton se kya faiz
ik barahman ne kahaa hai kih yih saal achchhaa hai

let’s see what favors lovers find from idols
a Brahman has said that this year is good 

This is indeed a very clever and witty she’r, as the interpretation at Mehr-e-Niimroz will make clear. The play is on the word but which in Urdu, in the context of the lover, signifies an extremely beautiful woman. But but also means ‘idol’, and that pairing with Brahmin is perfect in the second line. Who would be a better authority on the behavior of ‘idols’ than a Brahmin (who is an ‘idol-worshipper’ in the eye of a Muslim)?

[A digression. Here is Marco Polo on his stop in India on the way back from China in 1292 AD describing the people: They ‘pay more attention to augury than any other people in the world and are skilled in distinguishing good omens from bad.’ They rely on the counsel of astrologers and have enchanters called Brahmans, who are ‘expert in incantations against all sorts of beasts and birds.’] 

Now consider the she’r as a totality: it is a comment on the myopia, the parochial self-interestedness of the lover. The astrologer has augured that this would be a good year and the lover immediately takes that to imply that the beloved would bestow favors upon him. For all we know, the astrologer could well be predicting that there would be no wars or terrorist attacks in the New Year. The astrologer may not even be aware of the existence of this particular lover. But the lover is only interested in taking the meaning that advances his suit.

But this is a layered she’r and this is where you have to acknowledge the genius of Ghalib. In 18 words, he rips the hypocrisy of human beings to shreds and leaves them naked, shorn of all their righteousness and moral pretensions.

Consider this as the classic interaction of two ‘Others’ – in this case, Muslim and Hindu. Now imagine a Hindu soothsayer offering to make the ultimate dream of the Muslim come true. How many Muslims would there be who would reject the offer because the benefactor is the ‘Other’, an infidel, an unbeliever, one who should be put to death instead?

Suppose instead that the two have a difference of opinion on the distribution of an asset. How soon is this likely to turn into an issue of historical injustices and oppression, of having nothing in common except an intense hatred of the ‘Other’s’ ancestors? How soon would there be cries to bomb the ‘Other’s’ entire community into oblivion?

So, Ghalib has proven it to you – there is nothing principled in these righteous positions that people take; the positions are taken in the service of selfish and parochial material interests.

[I am waiting for someone to come after me for being a Muslim-hater. Rest assured, the process of ‘Otherizing’ is entirely symmetric. Switch the religions of the soothsayer and the client and nothing much changes (or does it?) except that the story gets weaker – Brahmins, as Marco Polo noted, are justly reputed to be the best soothsayers with a greater knowledge of idols. From which, of course, follow the associations employed by Ghalib who knew such things well.]

And this brings us to the Partition in which a million people died and ten million had to leave their homes. It turned on a difference of opinion on the mode of governance that would best meet the concerns of all the stakeholders. It became a battle of the ‘Others’ who convinced themselves they had nothing at all in common after having lived together for a 1000 years, who were not willing to compromise on anything to prevent a million deaths.

We have mentioned in an earlier post that the situation in Malaysia was more complex – not only were there Hindus and Muslims but Chinese as well who owned most of the wealth. But people sat down and compromised and found a way out. It can be done. It can be done when we look upon the person across the table not as the ‘Other’ but as someone we would eagerly embrace if he offered to unite us with the beloved.

Back to Main Page 

Ghalib – 8

September 14, 2008

This week we have just the right she’r to address the issue of the ‘Other.’ I was about to say it hits the nail on the head when my head made me re-think the sentiment from the perspective of the nail. I wonder how the corn feels about the corny joke?

In any case – Onwards, Christian soldiers  (for a clue to the allusion, see Ghalib and Jesus on stone throwing on Mehr-e-Niimroz).

maiN ne majnuuN pe laRakpan meN ‘asad’
sang uThaayaa thaa ke sar yaad aayaa

Against Majnun, in boyhood/childishness, Asad
I had picked up a stone – when the head came to mind

Majnun is the archetypal mad lover at whom children pelt stones. The poet is about to join this torment, either as a child or in a state of childishness, when he puts himself in the shoes of the ‘Other’ – his head makes him realize what it would mean to be at the receiving end of such treatment. Here the effect of the language is powerful because the head can think in the abstract and also imagine the act of the stone hitting the head.

In South Asia today, more than ever, we need to think of the ‘Other’. So, what is the lesson we take away from this couplet by Ghalib? Is it, to phrase it in terms of the Christian ethic, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”?

But what happens if you believe the ‘Other’ has already done to you what you did not want him to do to you. Is it then “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”?

Perhaps. But that still does not preclude the responsibility to think – to use the head as Ghalib puts it.

Here is what Harjit tells Urvashi Butalia in The Other Side of Silence (Viking, 1998):

I cannot explain it, but one day our entire village took off to a nearby Muslim village on a killing spree. We simply went mad. And it has cost me fifty years of remorse, of sleepless nights – I cannot forget the faces of those we killed.

In times like these, there are those who hope to gain by inflaming the emotions against the ‘Other’. If it is just something you have heard, use your head before you pick up the stone.

No, America, Saddam Hussein, evil as he was, had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or 9/11. You got conned by the neo-cons. And how many people died because you threw the stones without using the head?

Back to Main Page