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Saturday, March 25, 2006

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Saturday Feature
 
Of fiction, power and politics
Syed Fattahul Alim
3/25/2006
 

          One needs to take a position in life. But taking position is not something that comes naturally. It is a matter of decision for someone who takes a position in life. And taking decision leading to a position in life is not a very simple proposition. It is a state of mind is often acquired through a process of learning in real life. Some persons appear genetically predisposed to take a strong position in the face of any crisis in their lives. However, it is a matter of debate if the quality or ability to take decision or position is acquired at birth or that it is a learned behaviour. Whatever that may be, persons who made their mark in history were able to achieve the feat by their purposeful actions. Those actions were dictated by the moral position those people concerned took about what they considered right or wrong. The perception of what is right or what is wrong should be the guiding principle of a person's life. Unfortunately, at this moment it is this principle that is in short supply in society. Principle or a well-defined moral position is increasingly coming under scrutiny by the modern man. What is the use of a principled position if it comes in the way of a person's immediate prospects of gain or success? Any gain or success in a person's life is measured by its utility or material value. So, a position guided purely by a moral principle regardless of its utilitarian worth carries no significance in the modern parlance where market is the determiner of the value or worth of anything. Where do principles or positions based on non-materialistic morality stand in a market-dictated value system? The celebrated Indian writer Arundhati Roy has argued at length on the issue of taking position in one's life vis--vis caution or discretion in taking any principled stand. Her position is about calling a spade a spade without being circumspect or hypocritical. The question of social and state power has been traditionally considered as one of politics or ideology. Politicians or ideologues generally run the show in these areas of human concern. Can a writer of fiction have any stake in this supposedly barren areas of power, dogma and politics? Arndhati puts her foot down and says that a fiction writer, too, should have her or his say on the subject of ideology and politics. What should understand by the modern-day slogan of free market and globalisation. Everyone, whether in the urban areas of the world or in the rural backwaters, is now chanting the mantra of globalisation. It is, as if, the only panacea for all the ills and distresses modern humans are going through. But what does globalisation or free market really stand for? How can it be the emancipatory discourse for the rural masses or the denizens of the shanty districts in any glittering urban centre of the world? On the other hand, is it not a new kind of placatory phrase to mollify the bleeding hearts of the crusader against exploitations and discriminations in society? It is like the failed slogans of the French revolutionaries. They wanted to change their society ruled by the feudal lords and the king and all their henchmen. Their beloved slogans were equality and fraternity. But lo and behold, the burghers who had long been fighting for a place in society were the usurpers of that grand ideals of universal brotherhood and equality between all men on earth. When it came to the question of real power, it was again the case of the proverbial old wine in a new bottle. The fighters from among the ranks of the masses of the dispossessed, the discriminated and the wretched of the earth, who thought it was a change in their lot once and for all were greatly disillusioned. The fighters against colonialism and its beneficiaries in the erstwhile colonies did face a similar reality after the colonizers withdrew their physical presence from the colonies. On a closer scrutiny, it was revealed that though the method of domination has changed, yet not domination itself. The new slogans and ideologies are in fact a new discourse of exploitation and domination. So, the concept of globalisation, too, cannot pass uncritically and hence accepted without qualification. Arundhati Roy raises these basic questions as she holds the new slogans of progress and development under the lens of her mercilessly dispassionate analysis and criticism.
"My thesis - my humble theory, as we say in India - is that I've been saddled with this double-barrelled appellation, this awful professional label, not because my work is political, but because in my essays, which are about very contentious issues, I take sides. I take a position. I have a point of view. What's worse, I make it clear that I think it's right and moral to take that position, and what's even worse, I use everything in my power to flagrantly solicit support for that position. Now, for a writer of the twenty-first century, that's considered a pretty uncool, unsophisticated thing to do. It skates uncomfortably close to the territory occupied by political party ideologues - a breed of people that the world has learned (quite rightly) to mistrust. I'm aware of this. I'm all for being circumspect. I'm all for discretion, prudence, tentativeness, subtlety, ambiguity, complexity. I love the unanswered question, the unresolved story, the unclimbed mountain, the tender shard of an incomplete dream. Most of the time.
But is it mandatory for a writer to be ambiguous about everything? Isn't it true that there have been fearful episodes in human history when prudence and discretion would have just been euphemisms for pusillanimity? When caution was actually cowardice? When sophistication was disguised decadence? When circumspection was really a kind of espousal?
Isn't it true, or at least theoretically possible, that there are times in the life of a people or a nation when the political climate demands that we - even the most sophisticated of us - overtly take sides? I believe that such times are upon us. And I believe that in the coming years intellectuals and artists in India will be called upon to take sides.
And this time, unlike the struggle for Independence, we won't have the luxury of fighting a colonizing "enemy." We'll be fighting ourselves.
We will be forced to ask ourselves some very uncomfortable questions about our values and traditions, our vision for the future, our responsibilities as citizens, the legitimacy of our "democratic institutions," the role of the state, the police, the army, the judiciary, and the intellectual community.
Fifty years after independence, India is still struggling with the legacy of colonialism, still flinching from the "cultural insult." As citizens we're still caught up in the business of "disproving" the white world's definition of us. Intellectually and emotionally, we have just begun to grapple with communal and caste politics that threaten to tear our society apart. But in the meanwhile, something new looms on our horizon.
It's not war, it's not genocide, it's not ethnic cleansing, it's not a famine or an epidemic. On the face of it, it's just ordinary, day-to-day business.
It lacks the drama, the large-format, epic magnificence of war or genocide or famine. It's dull in comparison. It makes bad TV. It has to do with boring things like jobs, money, water supply, electricity, irrigation. But it also has to do with a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has few parallels in history. You may have guessed by now that I'm talking about the modern version of globalization. What is globalization? Who is it for? What is it going to do to a country like India, in which social inequality has been institutionalized in the caste system for centuries? A country in which seven hundred million people live in rural areas. In which eighty percent of the landholdings are small farms. In which three hundred million people are illiterate.
Is the corporatization and globalization of agriculture, water supply, electricity, and essential commodities going to pull India out of the stagnant morass of poverty, illiteracy, and religious bigotry? Is the dismantling and auctioning off of elaborate public sector infrastructure, developed with public money over the last fifty years, really the way forward? Is globalization going to close the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged, between the upper castes and the lower castes, between the educated and the illiterate? Or is it going to give those who already have a centuries-old head start a friendly helping hand? Is globalization about "eradication of world poverty," or is it a mutant variety of colonialism, remote controlled and digitally operated? These are huge, contentious questions. The answers vary depending on whether they come from the villages and fields of rural India, from the slums and shantytowns of urban India, from the living rooms of the burgeoning middle class, or from the boardrooms of the big business houses."
A poet, a fiction writer or a novelist has the right to questions these political and ideological issues. Politics, power and ideology should no more be treated as the sole domain of the politicians and ideologues. Because in the final analysis, these apparently dull subjects are also about life. In truth, these are but the most important issues of life about which a fiction writer cannot remain indifferent.

 

 
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