Loving to hate in Cyberia

I closed my personal page on Facebook three years ago when I realised that it was taking too much of my time. The final heated debate that took place on my wall was about my support for the Pakistan cricket team in the 2011 World Cup. My ‘friends’ accused me of being anti-national and of blasphemy. The viciousness was evident in many messages and comments. I responded to almost each and every comment in language that one could call courteous. But I was sucked into the very same sentiment of ‘hate’ from which these comments originated. I was as hateful within as the person I accused of viciousness. May be that was the reason I left but the Internet bug did not leave me. I still held on to a fan page and later opened a Twitter account.

With the polarised tension surrounding Narendra Modi, I have observed exactly the same hate, anger and fear in our voices. It does not matter if I support or reject Mod; it is about how I feel about the other view. At its core, these attitudes are not about political, philosophical, factual or historical differences; there is something lying dormant deep inside us. The ‘tone’ that emanates in these articles and comments is not about Gandhi, Nehru, the 1984 riots, pseudo-secularism, the 2002 riots, poverty, development, Uniform Civil Code or corruption. It rips something else. And this is not just a political phenomenon. It exists in any disagreement, be it on music, economics, science or even that most elusive quality of love! The language of expression is abusive, hateful and the ‘Like’ button is liked and pressed most is for Hate.

In our squabbles about being right or wrong, we are so filled with hate that we are unable to see who we really are.

And what are we?

We are insecure individuals clinging to ideas of society that make us most comfortable in our skin.

What is that ‘skin’?

Meant to cocoon, to protect, to conserve, that ‘skin’ has been turned by our various conditioning environments into a metal armour of hard impressions, tough presumptions and non-‘breathing’ understanding. It clogs the pores of our thought, our feelings, our very life-breath. But do we all not think and evolve? We do, but so tight is that conditioning armour that our evolving ideas function only within it and only further reinforce our ‘secure’ cocoon. From within this cocoo,n we sometimes try reaching out to that which is outside only to quickly grab that ‘something’ and bring it back into our own armour. Freedom to us is that which allows this insularity to expand, but strictly within and in control.

Our virtual avatar appears in different forms. It comes through as blatant and brash in some, clever and devious in others and a veritable charmer in yet others. It is such a charmer that it charms even the charmer. It works on me in the last category.

The Internet is a vent in our armours, an avenue to think and say things but from within our protective coat. It allows us to feel safe in our own kind. If I post online, I am sure to get a few who will like, share and praise what I have said because that reinforces a sense of mutually protective and aggressive security. I protect myself cased in the virtual from the crowd. In some spaces on the Internet I don’t even need to reveal my identity. “Go ahead, give it as hard as you can, let it be ugly,” we say to ourselves. Smile, as you ‘post’ with revenge because the opposite number cannot really hit back. Very rarely will I meet any of the people within these online rants to understand, let alone, confront them. The Net does something else. It makes every discussion unidirectional, microscopic and lacking the profundity that goes beyond the literal. It is ironic that unlimited virtual space limits our mental space. The Net has actually got us in its web, tangled, knotted up, tighter and tighter, by each sally of hate that we send; each jibe we post.

Inside all this lies a negativity, which burrows deeper and deeper into our flesh and spouts its venom in every word of dissent. When this dark lord makes us say things in anger coupled with triumph, he is actually laughing at us. He is laughing because we are oblivious to the truth: that all this hatred that we let loose is actually ‘going’ for none else than us. We seek happiness in the delusionary deconstruction of others. But we are actually destroying ourselves.

Originally written for The Hindu

The big paradox

I am a Carnatic musician and that, by default, ‘places’ me in terms of caste and the caste group that I most associate with. I was born — need I say it — into a Brahmin family. Almost 99 per cent of the people within my artistic world including musicians, impresarios, organisers and connoisseurs are from this ‘top of the food chain’, privileged. Even those who are not ‘born Brahmins’ and yet lovers of this art are, in many ways, very ‘brahminical’.

In my conversations with a number of Brahmins and other ‘higher caste’ men and women across South India, I have found a deep-rooted belief in the Brahmin way, in its rituals, identity and, generally, in the Vedic tradition. There is great pride in the systems that the Brahmins have put in place and a strong sense that these need to be nurtured and, even more significantly, protected. Even in families where there is no strong ritualistic streak, this ‘protectionism’ can be seen in the support of Vedic schools, temple reconstruction and programmes to protect the sacred cow. The buffalo, of course, is a lesser breed! In some ultra-traditional households, an air-wall stops non-brahmins at the kitchen door and house-help have taboos imposed on what they can touch and what they cannot.

Now comes the paradox. Would this same group of people, more or less as a group, go out of its way to proclaim its support to an ‘OBC’ for Prime Ministership? Yes it would, in fact, with great fervour. It is not that the upper classes have not voted for other castes in the past, but the great passion with which they seem to be backing Narendra Modi is very different. Does this mean that casteism has been erased from our minds? We know this is untrue. Then from where does this bond originate?

What the brahmins and the upper classes stand for goes beyond the rites and rituals of the Brahmin caste to something deeper — brahminism. It informs every aspect of Hindu culture framed and propagated by the controlling group — Brahmins. What does it actually represent? I do not accept the philosophical explanations given for this idea, which I believe to be excuses, as in social practice the manifestations are very different. Brahminism is about control, power, hierarchy, education, knowledge, purity and sanctity. Conceptually this idea permeates our social architecture. Achieving of these or certain combinations of the ideals gives people emotional, religious and intellectual superiority. Where does Modi fit in this structure? Through the constant development story he has given himself, he is a personification — and Brahmins love personifications — of education, knowledge, power and control. Add to that the overt exclusive Hindu religious image he has cultivated and what you get is a polished, pure and sanctified icon. Modi is always spoken about as powerful and decisive. These words are not just expressions of strength but they are also insinuations of a clear hierarchy where the rest follow the leader, almost like the rest follow the Brahmins. Quintessentially Narendra Modi epitomises brahminism.

Is this a purely middle-class Brahmin affliction? No, it runs across Brahmins, irrespective of their financial capital. The attraction is Narendra Modi — the symbol. As much as we will wax eloquent about the practical reasons to elect a person, ultimately we vote with our hearts. This draw comes from symbolism and, in the case of Narendra Modi, it is the Brahminism he is interiorising. And here it is a double whammy. Brahminism emanating from an OBC draws those lower in the caste structure to hope that they can embrace that very same ideal.

In the south, there is also the ideological possibility that many don’t think about Modi’s caste; an imperviousness that, under normal circumstances, I would applaud. But here the reason is different. Another ugly reality of our society is all that goes with skin colour. The fairer you are then the more brahmin you will be. Ask a random South Indian what caste he thinks Modi belongs to, and you are likely to hear “I assumed he is Brahmin.” Even if you are non-Brahmin, you can, if fair-skinned, get taken to be a ‘brahmin by colour’.

Modi has added another dimension to Brahminism. He wears his religion on his sleeve, shows it off and the upper classes are proud that he can take on ‘the others’ (read Muslims). Brahmins admire this tenacity that they feel they themselves lack. Modi combines that gumption along with all that brahminism represents. In doing so this honorary Brahmin unites the Hindu world and they call that sensation, Hindutva.

Originally written for The Hindu