This is going to be a patchy column – one that does not tell a story expressing a reasoned single line of thought. It will be disjointed, reading like a stream of consciousness. Maybe there is a connection, but does that really matter? At times I wonder whether in wanting to speak or write sensibly, we get so obsessed with making the correct, accurate, error-free argument, that the seed experience is lost. As human beings, we move emotionally from one space to another, taking time along, stringing together a life of experience. I hope this piece does the same.
When I read Rohith Vemula’s suicide note, I said to myself, “This is the most aesthetic expression on human conflict that I have ever come across” and I felt that instinctively in the most profound sense. It was not just the gut-wrenching, hard-hitting truth in the words of the note, but the larger philosophical imports that they carried.
Every word is real and tangible for millions around the world, the privileged and the unprivileged. It is not just about Rohith’s own mental state; it speaks to us about what it means for a person from the fringes of society’s borders to enter and reside within the heavily guarded fortress of the traditional insider.
Some come in and make it their life’s agenda to become like us, while a few hope to remain as they are, yet play our game. That is usually a losing battle. If you want to belong, you have to be a damned good actor. If not, you are the troublemaker, the one who is not grateful for the favours we have generously granted. To become one among the establishment you have to sacrifice yourself, purge a part of your being. The cost of erasing oneself is only paid by the individual.
When we put in rules, we want to keep the divergent out. We want only those who are just like us to come in – homogeneous excellence is what we call it. There are those other rules too – the unwritten, unsaid ones – that live within the darkest reaches of our mind, those that we use to assess people by colour, race, caste, age and gender.
The moment we meet someone, we are ticking or crossing many boxes in our minds. Do we really believe that the people being put through this word-less inquisition are unaware of this practice? They, on their part, manipulate our covert system by playacting the role to the best of their ability. When Rohith Vemula says there is no real love without hurt, is he speaking about this? Has this social order contributed to that emptiness he felt? Like he has said, has the value of a man been reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility? This is not just about Rohith, but about all those that need to negotiate the powers at the helm, be it the lower caste and classes, women or LGBT. We do not listen to people; we only offer freebies, concessions and favours since it is “our” image that matters.
Can we tame the bull or not, ask many from the interiors of Tamil Nadu. But we ask a second question: is it a just, equal fight? And then go on to dictate the rules of the game. No hurting the bull, forcing rods into its anus, stuffing alcohol down its throat or blowing chilli powder into its eyes. That it how it was in the past, exclaim the elders. This is our culture, a traditional ritual of masculinity with socio-economic relevance. It is its present commercialised version that has made this “culturally rich contest” an act of violence.
But who created and proliferated these commercial monsters? We did. The same ones who today find the sport ghastly and the participants uncivilised. When we, with sound liberal reasons oppose the idea of banning beef and do not object to the idea of Halal, can we argue that jallikattu even in its old avatar is barbaric? Can we afford to overlook the contradiction in opposing jallikattu and forgetting that numerous membranophones such as the tabla and mrdangam use the skin of goats, cows and buffaloes? Should we ban them since they are constructed for aesthetic pleasure and not sustenance? Let us be aware of the reality in all its nuances.
Where, how and who draws these lines? It is social power consortiums. They exist across institutional bodies. Therefore the judge, the administrative office, politician, the elite upper caste rarely pass judgements taking into consideration the complexities that force a contestation between cultural heritage and animal protection; it is their own socio-strata driven morality that guides action.
Conversations on animal rights and cultural traditions must emanate without the compulsion to establish power or control over society. We must ignore the whisperers who cloud our mind. There is no perfect road or approach; it is another quest for direction, not necessarily resolution. We can nevertheless choose a path of enquiry that is not about ourselves, that which seeks a rediscovery of a cultural core rooted in ethical living – a cohabitation that is not stuck in false dichotomies such as the cruel jallikattu aficionado versus the compassionate animal activist.
And then there are people like me, today’s privileged active liberal. Not too long ago, many of us were very different people, unconcerned about the others, with one clear and solid goal in life: making it big, larger than life. And for me that was becoming star musician. I dreamt of auditoriums brimming with people jostling for space just to get a glimpse of me, hoping to hear one line of a raga through my voice. I was intoxicated, always in an inebriated state that engulfed me even more once I attained that coveted position. I was far removed from the realities around, even within my own functional circle. I was not ignorant, just plain insensitive. I may not have pushed people over but a “second person nudge” was not beyond my reach. I saw relationships change, become bitter, but there was always a justification.
But I seem to have changed. Today, I speak for hours and write pages about equality, humanity and beauty. I am not the same person. Or am I? Is all this also about achieving another goal, to be known and perceived as a reformer, liberal, deeply thoughtful human being. Are all the words real to me, or are they substance-less sounds suspended in vacuum? Are they said to fulfil my own selfish need to sound socially and politically aligned with the people I want to be seen with? In the process whom am I now pushing on to the pavement? Whom am I not listening to? Maybe I have just not changed one bit, it is still all about me…and has always been that way.
We have constructed relationships with people and the planet on the basis of self-gratification. This includes satisfying all that we want from the various circles of relationships; the personal, social, economic and political. Goodness is a favour, your use is defined by my culture and my rules are always for my betterment – if you join the bandwagon you will benefit.
But if we want to seek a dialogue, we need to ask the following questions. Can there be giving which is not about “me” giving? Can there be a debate on animal rights that is neither based on our own cultural mooring or modern notions of animal welfare? And can a discourse on the subaltern not begin with condescension? If we truly can, then there is hope that someday we will experience the stardust in all of creation.