Sunday, May 29, 2011

Letters from Portugal: The Natural Order of Things

On the fifth of June Portugal will go to the polls to elect a new national government. This election, precipitated by the economic crisis in the country, comes well before the term of the Parliament was to end. Indeed, I had just moved to Lisbon in September 2009 when José Socrates assumed office at the conclusion of the last election.

As an enthusiastic anthropologist I was looking forward to every possibility to experience facets of the Portuguese life. So when my landlady and her friend excitedly decided that they could not bear to watch the results being announced on TV, but would proceed to the ‘street’, I joined them.

I had no clue as yet though, that the street they had in mind was the street in front of the Hotel Altis, where the Socialist Party was camping while awaiting news of the results. Some time after we arrived at the hotel my landlady’s companion announced that she was going to go up to the thirteenth floor where the big shots were following the announcement of the results. And so, the three of us walked into the lobby of the hotel, to the elevator, and then up to the thirteenth floor. In a matter of minutes, I found myself introduced to the Mayor of Lisbon, the minister of this and the minister of that, and cocktailed my way to the announcements of the Socialist Party’s victory.

What was striking about this whole experience was how easy it had been for us to get up there. It occurred to me, that such a prospect would have been close to impossible in India. First, the hotel would have been bounded by a wall, with guards at the entrance to the compound. Subsequently there would have been security at the entrance to the lobby, then at the entrance to the lift, and finally on the thirteenth floor. There would have been no way in which a shabbily dressed non-entity would have made it all the way, quite literally, to the top.

This experience seems to allow a counter-intuitive reading of both Indian and Portuguese society. India may be a polity marked by a severely stratified society, but it is one in which those who are at the bottom of the pile are not willing to be remain there. They actively challenge the system, transgress boundaries and assert their right to enter spaces they are barred from. The guards are present not because India is marked by a naturally hierarchical society, but because it is not. The guards are there to violently assert the hierarchy of the political and social order.

By the same logic, it appears that the absence of guards at the Hotel Altis is evidence of a 'natural' order of things in Portuguese society. Armed with the knowledge that Portuguese society is in fact severely hierarchical, one could hazard a reading that for the most part, the hierarchies of the system are not challenged sufficiently. The people know their place in the social order and stick there, reducing the need for the excessive policing that one sees in the subcontinent. One also imagines that the economic well-being produced through joining the EU was incentive enough to not challenge social boundaries. What happens to this social compact however, now that the good times are over? Could poverty within a democratic framework in fact prove to be a blessing in disguise?

(A version of the post was first published in the Herald 29 May 2011)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Feet of Clay: Amitav Ghosh and the Imperial Indian Gaze

A couple of days ago, an interview, of the part-time Goa resident author Amitav Ghosh, with Lila Azam Zanganeh for the magazine Guernica created something of a storm of outrage. Ghosh had suggested in the course of conversation, that ‘one of the wonderfully liberating things about India; [is that] it lets you be exactly who you want to be.’ One can see why this statement would generate a furor; a Dalit activist friend responded to this particular line by saying ‘say this to a Dalit, dear writer’. How can one forget that in various parts of India, on a daily basis, people (and not just Dalits) are not allowed to be who they want to be. They are not allowed to marry who they want, or wear the clothes that they would like, nor live where they want. In very many of these cases, when these people dare to be who they want to be, they are killed.

This sentiment of ‘freedom’ could easily be pulled out as the leitmotif of Ghosh’s responses to Zanganeh. A little later in the conversation, Ghosh suggests that the freedom of constant movement between continents and nation-states is ‘true of almost everyone I know.’ The problem with this assertion, even more laughable than the first, is that the freedom of movement between countries is not as easy as Ghosh presents it to be. Given that international travel is premised on procuring a visa, it is an extremely exclusive process, and even for those who manage to travel, a humiliating process. It is only a select group of people that are allowed the constant back and forth travel that Ghosh asserts for the populations of the world, even as he draws this ‘truth’ from the context of his own circle of the privileged global elite.

I was first introduced to the gossamer prose of Amitav Ghosh via his book In an Antique Land. Having subsequently gifted copies of the book to friends and family, I tracked down his other works, devoured post-colonial theoretical reflections based on his work, and recommended some of these works for courses I have taught. Ghosh’s narrative voice was a critical voice emerging from India. It transcended the national boundaries that seek to confine the Indian’s imagination, and re-introduced us to the multiple strands, ranging from Egypt, Bangladesh, Burma and farther afield to America, Britain and ‘Indo-China’, that comprise our intimate histories. In the Guernica however, Ghosh seemed to demonstrate a more fettered imagination, one chained to the contours of the Indian nationalist project.

Ghosh spoke frequently of a ‘we’ in the course of the interview. This ‘we’ were multiple groups he was speaking for; for those of the colonized, the people from the south, the people now emerging from ‘the long night of colonialism’. As should already be painfully obvious however, while encompassing this multitude, Ghosh is particularly representing, the ambitious, and grasping elites of these formerly colonized spaces, and definitely those from India. Their project, as is Ghosh’s, is ‘to claim the world from a point of view other than that which has been handed down from the West.’ He is, Ghosh informs us, 'looking at the world as an Indian.' His narratives then, as beautiful and complex as they may be, are the narratives of a group that now presumes to speak for the multitude. The stories comprise multiple strands, not only because this is the story of the subcontinent, but because they are part of the project where the Indian will speak for the (formerly colonised) world.

Ghosh suggested his perspective was informed by the fact of being ‘from a … large, increasingly self-confident country.’ Self-confidence however would involve drawing attention to the serious problems that continue to rack India, even as one burnishes the image of India Shining. Ghosh’s singular failure to do so, places him in the same position as the rest of the, in reality, deeply insecure Indian elite.

Deeply insecure of their place in the world, it is a group that revels in its own freedoms and its accomplishments. Thanks to its insecurity, this group is particularly deprecating of others, and almost completely self-involved. Consider Ghosh’s reflection that ‘What we see today in that nation-state is fading to be replaced by these enormous diasporic civilizations. India is one, China is one, England is one, France is one. Today it’s in fact those countries which are more and more tied to the model of the nation-state that seem more and more parochial—like America.’

America is the bad guy primarily because it is the imperial center that India aspires to be, and because the Indian desperately desires American recognition of its place in the world. Indeed, run through the latter part of the interview and one gets the distinct impression that Ghosh is in fact obsessed by a desire for American recognition. Representative of this desire for recognition is the embarrassingly insecure assertion that ‘People always think of Asians as being just involved in addressing science. Actually what you see is that this whole Asian diaspora is very profoundly involved in the production of ideas, in literary production, cultural criticism.’

Britain (and indeed France) may prove to be less of a problem, since these are now largely powers that while significant, maintain their power through association with America. While America may have its problems, and it does, it is hardly more parochial than India and its diasporic populations. Can we forget that a good amount of the funding for the hate campaigns in India come from India’s diasporic communities abroad? India may provide its diaspora with the benefits of Overseas Citizenship and forge this mirage of becoming a ‘diasporic civilisation’. However, let us also not forget that it is partly a diasporic imagination that ensures that the presence of the Indian nation-state is viscerally and violently present in Kashmir. And it is precisely India’s imperial ambitions that ensure similar situations in the North East and in the forests of Central India. For those outside of the charmed circle of international cocktail elites, the nation-state is not going anywhere, and the diaspora is a part of the problem, not the solution.

It is also the Indian elite's imperial aspirations that allow them to use the word Indian when they should in fact, be using the word South Asian. What the continued use of this imperial term for the subcontinent represents is the Indian elite's continued attempts to grasp the umbrella of paramountcy that the British Raj refused to devolve to 'India that is Bharat'. Ghosh is not innocent of this attempt, he has used the word Indian when others have markedly used the word South Asian.

So insecure is this Indian elite, that they need to assert that the origins of global culture in India. Ghosh mercifully restricts his claims for India to being the original font to Aesop’s fables, and the Arabian Nights. The more extreme are known to go to even more ridiculous lengths to establish primacy in intellectual production. How different really is this from the old tired claims of the European colonizers that sought to civilize the coloured person? If one is indeed interested in speaking for the colonized world, would it not have made sense to assert a commonality and shared production of a global culture, rather than asserting this claim of primacy in cultural production?

The point of these reflections is not to discredit Ghosh’s work. His work is important and beautiful. It can be read for meaning beyond the opinions that Ghosh demonstrated in his interview with Guernica. Furthermore, Ghosh is careful to abjure the more problematic tendencies that colonize the minds of the Indian elite. His rejection of the nasty prejudices about Muslims that populate the work of Naipaul, would be one example. Nevertheless, his writings do contain an ambiguous position on the figure of the Muslim. However, the interview demonstrates a couple of critical factors. First, that the writing of these new Indian voices is not innocent. As liberating as they may be, they are nevertheless the softer, liberal voices of an Imperium waiting in the wings. This is not just an Imperium of the Indian, but also of those dominant powers within the former colonized world. We have everything to fear from the elites of these proto-Imperia. Secondly, the interview demonstrates a point made in an earlier edition of this column, that the assumedly secular elites of this country, present their own challenges to the successful achievement of a secular polity. Their secularism, is not necessarily a commitment to a space where difference can thrive. This secularism is one more marker in the long term game being played for dominance both within and outside of the boundaries of the Indian nation-state.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 25 May 2011)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The prophet and the critic: Placing the op-ed and social critique in context

There are dangers associated with writing a regular op-ed, and cramming it with visions of utopia. One of these dangers is the reader’s presumption that the author self-consciously preaches from a position of perfection. This is to say, it is assumed that the author says ‘I am perfect, I have found the route, be like me’. To read the author in this way is perhaps a mistake. Dealing with this situation, the scholar of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant sought to thrust the blame for this situation on the audience. Kant reasoned that it was because of laziness and cowardice that it was so easy for other to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor! If I have a book that understands for me, a spiritual advisor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides upon a regimen for me, and so forth, I need not trouble myself at all.

While not as confident as Kant of the reason for this state of affairs, this column would like to grapple with this problem for a while.

An opportune way to enter into this discussion was presented in a response given by Arundhati Roy in an interview with G. Sampath of the Bombay-based newspaper DNA. G. Sampath asked Roy why, given the nature of her politics, Roy had not disassociated from her “big, MNC publisher and shifted to a smaller, perhaps not-for-profit publisher?” G. Sampath’s question could have been framed in another, perhaps more common and direct format: ‘You are not perfect (you associate with corporate interests) and yet you preach (disassociation from corporate interests). Do you not think you are being hypocritical?’

Roy responded that she “could also write these essays and stand outside the station and distribute photocopies. It’s very complicated. This system doesn’t leave you the option of being pristine. If you write a book, even if it’s a book on political stuff, you get royalties, you put it in the bank; even if you don’t do it, the bank invests the money in the stock market, so none of us can be pure, really. And if you are, then you have to live in your own purity and outside of engaging. In that pursuit of pristineness, you end up being ineffective in some way. I have to live with certain contradictions, as do all of us.

Reading Roy and Kant together, it appears that both of them suggest that there are some of us who are willing to break the conspiracy of silence that surrounds issues that ground the status-quo, despite our being immersed in, and benefitting from this status quo. This will emerges merely from an inability to stomach our own discomfort, not necessarily from consciousness that we will liberate the world and lead us on to utopia. A previous column had remarked on the value of Pope Benedict XVI’s caution in his encyclical Spe Salvi against the presumptions of seeing human effort alone as capable of bringing utopia. This caution seems particularly apt here.

The value of the social critic lies in articulating the discomforts in society and speaking the unspeakable. Giving words to the inarticulate is the first step, allowing for a vocal public opinion to manifest. In the course of this process, the critic may also propose possible ways to think about the issue. To see these as THE answers is to miss the point of ‘social science’. As a friend once pointed out, ‘science is about love for questions rather than love for answers.’

One could also see the role of the social critic, indeed as some of us would like to see Roy, as that of the contemporary prophet. But then, neither are prophets or saints (at least the saints of the Catholic Church) free of sin or error. Made from the same flesh as us, they too are entitled to personally struggle with the standards that they may intellectually acknowledge and go on to announce. I seek to make a distinction here between an intellectual understanding of an issue, fairly easy to achieve; and an emotional understanding. It is the journey of emotionally internalising a formulation intellectually arrived at that is often the challenge.

And yet, this emotional inability of the messenger, does not necessarily compromise the validity of their observation. Perhaps we have been too spoiled by traditions that insist that their central figures were without fault, and free of blemish. This tradition prevents us from entering into a dialogue with those who do propose challenges to the status quo and harness the power of moral codes to highlight that something is amiss in our current actions. The claim of self-perfection is one we read onto them, not one that is necessarily self -adopted. On the contrary, as Roy very aptly points out, the search for the pristine location would ensure that we fail to engage with others and wind up merely wrestling with ourselves.

Roy’s comments urge us onto yet another level of engagement, the discomfort with the idea of perfection. Returning to Spe Salvi, Benedict XVI teaches that perfection and utopia, can be the work only of the Messiah, and is hence always delayed. Our engagements with society, our critiques, our grasping towards perfection are necessarily a process. This would be a rather healthy recognition, because while acknowledging that there are problems with the status-quo, it does not fix a permanent solution. It does not set up the social critic (or the critique), as the font of truth. On the contrary, once we are able to reach the possible solution that has been proposed, we recognise new problems, and move toward the attempt to resolve these. While recognising the critic as merely a messenger, this proposition ingrains in us the ‘love for questions rather than love for answers.’ It commits us to thinking perpetually about process, rather than stasis. Stasis represents the establishment of idols, process their continual overturning.

This love for questions, and the insistence on emphasising process rather than stasis, would have been something Kant would have welcomed and delighted in. It also places the regular op-ed in context, it argues, and engages, it does not preach, and refuse to participate in reasoning out the positions it proffers.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 18 May 2011)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Lisbon at the end of Europe

One of the joys of living in Lisbon at the current moment is getting the ring side view to watch the Europeans slug it out, as the continuing crisis causes the masks of decorum and dignity to slip off their collective faces. Take for example the manner in which the Danish government, forced by its right-wing partners, has decided to reinstitute customs control on its borders. The move does not apparently go against the spirit of the Schengen treaty that allows for passport free movement within the Schengen zone, but it does seem to militate against the spirit of the Treaty. In any case, there are also reports of a desire by France and Italy to see changes to the Schengen agreement itself.

A similar sort of discontent has been brewing in the past couple of weeks between Finland and Portugal. Portugal that held out until the last moment, is now desperate for a financial bailout from its partners in the EU. Finland however, thanks to the protests of the True Finns, another right-wing group, has threatened to not play ball by vetoing the parliamentary vote necessary for Finnish approval to the EU bailout.

For a country that may grind to a halt in June if funds do not flow into its coffers, to be put in a position where one is nakedly dependent on a third party for mercy, is fairly humiliating. The civil society response was not long in the coming, taking the form of a video. First screened at the Estoril Conferences, as a form of mild-mannered and tongue-in-cheek diplomacy, it then careened wildly onto the internet via You-Tube.

To be honest, the video, available on YouTube as ‘What the Finns need to know about Portugal’ is somewhat embarrassing. For despite the novel facts about Portugal that were peppered into the video (did you know there were more mobile phones than people in Portugal) it is awkward to say the least when one boasts about the size of one’s former colonial empire, or that the largest number of Portuguese speakers outside of Portugal live in Paris (leaving unsaid the fact that they immigrated thanks to a lack of opportunity in Portugal), or claims credit for things that one has had either no connection with, or the most tenuous of connections.

The interesting bit about the video for this post colonial Goan living in the former metropole was not the nationalist sentiment it could offend. On the contrary, this video was interesting because it was a direct statement to the Finns, ‘fellow Europeans’; hence all the stuff that a post colonial would find embarrassing or humiliating in fact revealed much about the European imagination. It told us something about how Europeans indicate to each other that theirs, is bigger (if you get my drift) than those of the others’.

A fortnight ago this column pointed out that in turning to Europe Portugal made a choice to be a junior partner in the European formation. The whole drama around the video validates that observation, indicating that indeed, what also informs the EU experiment is racial arrogance, one that is turned inwardly against the Southern (and Eastern) partners, as much as it is against the ‘Third World’. To be the junior partner then, is to be in a humiliating position, a position that one can get out of, by attempting a humiliation of others. But only just.

And yes, you absolutely MUST watch the video!

(A version of this blog was first published in the Herald dated 15 May 2011)