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Littérature et poétiques pluriculturelles en Asie du Sud

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Annie Montaut

Writing in turbulent times

Écrire dans la tourmente

Geetanjali Shree

Résumé

Le texte se donne à lire comme une reconstruction, une téléologie, une chronologie ; des récits connexes/déconnectés ; un collage. Il revendique un statut pour l’auteur qui parle dans les moments de trouble, un statut qui met en jeu non seulement un je mais un nous, parmi des participants de hasard, des observateurs, des acteurs de la trajectoire et du voyage qu’on voit progressivement se déplier. Le temps et le lieux se situent quelque part dans l’après-1989, dans l’après-1992, au Gujarat, le Rathyatra, à Ayodhya, le Kar-seva. Il s’agit d’émeutes, de démolition, d’émeutes, de représailles, d’émeutes. Quelque chose s’effondre – bien plus que l’objet/enjeu matériel du conflit. Un langage. Une image. Une éthique. C’est-à-dire, pour généraliser, la laïcité. Qui s’effondre.

Texte intégral

1A reconstruction. A chronology. Some connected/unconnected narratives. A collage. And an ‘I’, not just ‘me’, but, ‘we’, incidental participants/observers /interveners in the trajectory and journey thus unfolding.

  • 1 Rathyatra: A march undertaken by BJP leader L. K. Adavani from Samnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Utt (...)
  • 2 Kar-Seva: Voluntary service done by Hindutva activists to promote the cause of the rebuilding of th (...)

2The years, 1989 and on, 1992 and on. Rathyatra1 in Gujarat. Kar-Seva2 in Ayodhya. Riots. Demolition. Riots. Backlash. Riots. An edifice crumbles–the disputed structure. But more. A language. A façade. A morality. Generic term– secularism. It crumbles.

3We, the educated middle class. In universities. In and around liberal professions. Shaken, arguing, re-searching. We speak and feel a loss of confidence at the repetitiveness and over-familiarity of what we are saying– have these words, being used at least since Nehru, outlived their value?

4And from around us and even from our midst, other words. Which, it’s not as if we have never heard before, but, always in tones more hushed and diffident than now. Secularism a big mistake. Secularism not secularism but anti-Hindu, pro-Muslim tirade. What’s happening had to happen. The wounded, neglected majority had to burst out. Scared and held back in their own nation despite being the majority.

5This tone is undermining ours. Its confidence is trashing ours. We feel a bit foolish, our words are ringing hollow. We use them still. Out of habit. Defensively. Aggressively. Confusedly. We wonder what to rethink and how and where to begin.

6Far from us–we still think–in the old parts of the city, among poorer, less educated, traditional sections of the people, there are killings, actual active barbarism. We are safe, separate, civilized, we still think. But affected. In our sensitive hearts and discerning minds. Upset. Wary. Beards are being shaved, false names are being used for travel. Even from amongst our kind of safe, merely talking folk.

7People like us belong to the university area. We are talking of nothing else, thinking of nothing else, disturbed and feeling futile, hopeless.

8Relatives speak with open anger–they wanted it, we’ve given it, Pakistan, why have they stayed back to foment riots and chaos?

  • 3 Halal: Like kasher. Cutting the animal for meet, slowly, not in one blow.

9A young medical intern visits us regularly. He will soon leave for the u. s. where he has a brilliant career waiting for him. But you know he says, Aunty and Uncle, we educated do shy away from it but there is some truth in all this, they are so used to cutting and killing because of practices like halal3 that cruelty becomes part of their nature.

10It does strike me about doctors constantly cutting up bodies and dipping their hands in blood but my young man is a kind, scrupulous doctor and a vegetarian to boot!

  • 4 Thaal: A round tray/plate, usually metal.
  • 5 Diya: An oil lamp made of clay.

11I am a writer. My writing has corne to a standstill. I cannot see the value or think of writing anything else except this that’s going on. But I cannot write about this, for, really, we know less about it now than we did till yesterday. When we felt on top and unchallenged and saw ourselves as the force of current times. Suddenly everything is challenged and everything is changing too fast around us–new tones and colours, new voices, new visuals. Killings go on. Other atrocities too. And fiery speeches by ‘religions’ politicians. And a little idol of a Hindu god or goddess at this Crossing or that, cordoning off a holy space, with a few flowers and a few coins at first, a prayer thaal4 and diya5 next, a little platform soon and an enclosure and a roof and a new temple has sprung up. One more. The townscape is changing fast. So much urgency in the air. Which way are we going? So much confusion in the air–what is right and wrong in our comprehension?

12That gives me the cue. Really, that’s all I can write about. The confusion. That’s all I am, we are, at that moment.

13A moment perhaps so fraught, so overwhelming, that the distance between thought and feeling shrinks, maybe vanishes. If literature is about subtlety, understatement, deflections, detached observation, then can their be literature at such a moment? When the ‘outside’ turns so invasive that it is as if no private ‘inside’ space remains for the writer? What is the writer without that solitude? I don’t know, I can’t judge, though I might, when theirs leisure and time for literary debate, say why not, there is no one kind of literature alone, the canvas of literature accommodates many modes, many transgressions and different times and different compulsions strain at the borders of different literary maps, reshaping them too, if need be.

  • 6 Sudarshan Chakra: A weapon shaped like a wheel, associated with Lord Krishna.

14This is a moment which will not/cannot pass me/us by. I cannot wait for heart and mind to emerge clear and apart before I start writing. It is like being caught in a storm which has to be dealt with right there and then. An inevitability, an incumbency of that moment, an urgency of that time. But what sense can be made of scenes whipping around in a storm? Then let that be but record what you see flying around. Record it quickly, it’s urgent, even without making sense may be, to be able to make some sense in better, easier times. A round object whizzed past. Make a note. Was it Krishna’s Sudarshan Chakra6, a flying saucer, a javelin, a burning tyre? We might figure out later. But record it straightaway. As witness, not analyst. Of that moment where continuities are cracking, stories are tuming upside down, clarifies have clouded over.

15That’s what I express. The collage of life around us. Violent. Ordinary. Absurd.

  • 7 Math: Hindu equivalent of a monastery.

16My novel Hamara Shahar Us Baras (Our City that Year). A university area this side, a riot-torn city that side. We here, they there. Characters, Hindu and Muslim, and those who did not grow up defining themselves as either, trying to make sense of the trouble on that side, believing there are two sides, there and here, untouched by each other. They want to write, speak, understand. But are paralysed by the ‘storm’. The novel has four main characters. Two university professors, one Hindu, one Muslim. The Muslim has a Hindu wife, who is a writer. The Hindu professer is their landlord’s son. And the landlord is old man Daddu who loves to share an evening drink with them, in which time he makes their earnestness the butt of many a joke. These are people disturbed by events in the old city, the emergence of the math7 in the city. They want to write about it, talk about it, they even joke about it. But as the story moves on and they get further embroiled in all this, they just seem to lose more and more touch with what’s going on and with each other.

17The form evolves as the subject unfolds. Continuities of routines and events constantly disrupted, unities of thought constantly dislocated, curfew today, bomb blast tomorrow, schools closed today, normaley back tomorrow. A collage of unconnected, uneven, may be important, may be mundane events together making the fabric of life of that city. Our city that year. Silences between the broken narratives, which are also narratives, pregnant, sinister, what... Changing landscape of the city, a graduai overlapping of ‘them’ and ‘us’, a flow back and forth between ‘there’ and ‘here’. Changing the mindscape of people, altering friendships, imbuing university politics, anything and everything, turning it into Hindu or Muslim. Slowly as the novel journeys on, turning answers into questions, creating riots and chasms of a kind on this safe, our side of the city too. Riots that hâve flared up under peoples’ skin, in their minds, are coursing through their blood. Their friendships, interpersonal relationships, begin to get affected. Their sense of humour undergoes change. Beliefs they took for granted demand re-evaluation.

18All this recorded hurriedly, haphazardly, by ‘I’, an invisible unexplained copier who is nothing but a sense of urgency personified, who cannot wait to first understand, then write, for time is being lost and it may ail go, just go, so just puts down on paper whatever cornes in view, in whatever jumble, urgently and immediately. In sum the form the novel takes is as if an explosion has thrown bits and pieces of a ‘whole’ all around in a haphazard fashion.

19And the end cornes when Daddu is mobbed. The ‘noble’ old man in the novel who looked pretty much unconcerned about all that is going on and lived with his laughter and evening shots of whisky behind closed doors, teasing with affection these anxious people who he says have taken on the burden of the world on their shoulders. An aggressive loutish mob at his door forces him to come out and in that encounter he ‘falls’, not so much from the push a hooligan gives him as from his own breaking into a tone and a language of hysterical abuse and ugliness which his cultivated dignified self could never square with. It is the humiliation in this fall that destroys him, a fall brought about by the take-over of his space and culture by this mob. Daddu retires into a silence, which hangs like a metaphor over the entire novel.

20The novel solves nothing. No matter–that’s probably not its role. It does, however, with small details and occurrences in the daily life of the characters in that city, show a graduai breakdown of the lives and unities they had built up. It compels its characters, Hindu and Muslim to so define themselves, over and above their other identities, in that city which is not just one city in that year, which is not just one year.

21But the novel does something else too. In writing it and despairing over the new twists and turns confronting us, I nonetheless feel reaffirmed in what we lived by and believed in. It still stands and in spite of everything that does happen, the characters do not capitulate to a monochromatising of identity, national or individual.

22For me this is an important effect of the writing of Hamara Shahar Us Baras. Our reasoning needs reworking but what we feel is valid. Our faith, and intuitively so. The pain at a temple destroyed five hundred years ago is not the pain of the demolition today, for us. We may be a minority but this pain is real, we are real. Our faith stands, through all the confusion, all the shaking up of our dogmas, and intuitively so.

*

23Some years pass. There is a break in time. Not really. The loud and confident language of the new religious is now a part of the North-Indian mainstream at any rate, more than ever before. But life has acquired a semblance of law and order.

24January 2002. We are in Ahmedabad. Kite flying season. It’s full of gaiety and amusement and celebrated widely. A mix of old and new–disco music, alcohol, traditional gur (molasses, jaggery) snacks, sari clad housewives and jeans and jacket clad youngsters all on the roofs. Of old houses in old mohallas (neighbourhoods) with terraces upon terraces joined like a city unfurling under the skies.

25A sky of kites. Made and sold by local Muslim craftsmen. Some fancy high tech ones brought and bought from western European countries too. All shouting, laughing, flying kites. Sometimes hanging on to their mobile phones in one hand!

26It does not occur to us to look at the skyline and fix it permanently in our mind’s eye because a month later it is going to be different! Who of these women, men, which of these roofs, we cannot be blamed for not wondering, will be charred remains and that’s all?

  • 8 Modi: The Bharatiya Janata Party/BJP chief minister of Gujarat.
  • 9 RSS: Rashtriya Sevak Sangh, a militant Hindu organization.
  • 10 VHP: Vishva Hindu Parishad, another Hindu militant organization.
  • 11 Dalit: A current generic term employed for the so-called lower castes.

27But may be we should be blamed for not wondering. Post facto we can see that we could and should have seen it coming. Modi8 and his brigand. RSS9, VHP10. Dalit11 converts out on the rampage. There has been committed preparation going on. Waiting for a spark.

  • 12 Godhra: The station where, on 28 February, 2002, a train carriage was burnt, purportedly by Muslims (...)
  • 13 (Terrible) Gujarat: Anti-Muslim violence followed in Gujarat in the wake of the Godhra tragedy.

28Terrible Godhra12 happens and the pogrom list long prepared and ready is acted upon. Terrible Gujarat13 happens. Mobs are set loose in supposedly spontaneous avenging fury. The State’s law and order machinery is not on duty and when is, it looks the other way.

29We live part of the year in Gujarat but are in Delhi just then. We hear and see our first televised live riots. A new machismo. Jean clad youth on two wheelers holding aloft tridents and swords and posing with pride for photographers, delighted to appear on front pages and be seen and recognised by the world. Really sure of the rightness of their cause? And method?

30Relatives speak to us. For once we agree with you, what the Hindus are doing in Gujarat is terrible but, you know something, had it been Muslims doing it, no one from their community would be expressing regret and shame like us.

31Relatives are not outsiders. Not the illusory them on that side of the city. They are us and here.

32We go to Gujarat. Ahmedabad. Baroda. Godhra. I can’t really imagine what it is like to be a Muslim in this India but I don’t feel entirely removed from the experience either. As a woman, a secularist. It sounds like a joke but my husband has a beard and so we are taken to some areas under police protection and in the company of a leading Gandhian.

33The few privileged, elitist, educated Muslims, many our friends, have left the city, refusing to live the psychology of victims–but, the refusal is a bit specious isn’t it and has changed their smiles. The majority of Muslim survivors are in camps. Insect colonies I think when I see them. Which explains also our desensitization to their plight–the lower and lower middle class clusters who anyway live huddled together in hovels and slums and shanty towns and look only half human to us.

34The Hindu areas of Ahmedabad live with much of that desensitization still– americanized young on mopeds, loud music, fast food parlours, shopping glitter, unaware or uncaring or unbelieving of the different scenes in areas adjoining theirs.

35We go to Naroda Patiya, one of the worst attacked areas. Black remains, like after a nuclear holocaust I imagine. That’s as far as my imagination goes. I cannot imagine the people who ran from here or could not, from the display of avant-garde sculptures of black, smoked, smelted, mangled two wheelers and three wheelers, fans, furniture, refrigerators, cupboards, chests, dishes, what not... I cannot imagine, however much I try, what it is to be one of the women dragged out and gang-raped in the open lane where broken bangles lie strewn. I notice I am walking ridiculously, on tiptoe, to avoid getting the ash on my feet or avoid touching down with my shoes on what might have been I dare not imagine what or who? To avoid polluting myself or to avoid trespassing on someone... something...

36We also go to Godhra where the hapless carriage stands as a monument of grief for all who wish to make the pilgrimage. We look at all the suspicious evidence of it and many of us step down convinced the burning of this carriage was a ploy of the Hindus. At that very same moment some others step down from the other door and are heard saying to each other they should bring all secularists and Muslims here and show them this to straighten out their brains!

37Are we not in tune with the people?

38What is it that we are missing? Not catching?

  • 14 Faiyaz Khan: One of the greatest classical musicians of 20th-century India, Muslim by religion, who (...)
  • 15 Wali Deccani: 18th-century Muslim poet who represents a synchretic Hindu Muslim tradition.
  • 16 Tika: Mark put on forehead by Hindus.
  • 17 Aarti: Ritual waving of the lamp in circular motion as prayer.

39We return to Delhi. I speak at some meetings. Of how we stood in a redwalled temple to Hularia Hanuman that means riotous Hanuman, in what was once a Muslim’s kebab shop. It’s one of the many Hularia Hanuman temples that have sprung up overnight in Gujarat, giving this new attribute to the god. The mazaar (tomb) of Faiyaz Khan14 was desecrated. That of Wali Deccani15 was destroyed and overnight became part of the paved road on which traffic vehicles roar past. A slightly coarsened texture in the road showing that’s where once it was, where Wali still lies. Enter Gujarat and signs greet you–Welcome to the Hindu nation! Kathas (mythological/religious taies) and kirtans (religions chants) all night on loudspeakers, sky-high idols of gods and goddesses, temples galore, are fast becoming our environment in far-off Delhi too, all marking fresh Hindu fervor. And non-aggressive but increasingly more confident well-to-do Hindu daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law, in resplendent silk saris and carrying pooja thalis (prayer trays), followed in tow by their tika16–wearing menfolk, block and divert traffic on roads for aarti17 processions, on hitherto little known holy days.

40Some friends are enraged–so what is wrong with beautiful rituals that the faithful do? And a few days in Gujarat, and you speak like you are experts on everything. It’s not a few days, we say, but a few more days in Gujarat and India, showing us a changed environment, a loud, garish, larger than life audio-visual effect all around, which we did not have before.

41Friends are not aliens, they are not the illusory ‘them’ on that side of the city. ‘Them’ are ‘us’.

42We are depressed, even powerless, and it’s little consolation to know that what is happening in India is a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere in the world by forces unleashed by globalization. Nor does it comfort our daily existence that the breakdown of barriers–which we welcome–is why there is this need for a re-erection of barriers.

43I am a writer. Our collective mood translates itself into a story. A story about two friends in these turbulent times, one Hindu, the other Muslim, and while the Hindu friend sits waiting in the verandah of his Muslim friend’s house, making himself as visible as possible to keep attention from being directed to his friend, the Muslim sneaks in like a shadow and a thief into his own house from the back door, to take out some belongings he could not, when he left in a hurry and now the house may well be burnt in the kind of riotous fury that’s raging in the city.

44The times, the writing go on. We despair and hope...

Notes

1 Rathyatra: A march undertaken by BJP leader L. K. Adavani from Samnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh to popularize Hindutva.

2 Kar-Seva: Voluntary service done by Hindutva activists to promote the cause of the rebuilding of the temple in Ayodhya, where the mosque stood, as the supposed place of birth of Lord Rama.

3 Halal: Like kasher. Cutting the animal for meet, slowly, not in one blow.

4 Thaal: A round tray/plate, usually metal.

5 Diya: An oil lamp made of clay.

6 Sudarshan Chakra: A weapon shaped like a wheel, associated with Lord Krishna.

7 Math: Hindu equivalent of a monastery.

8 Modi: The Bharatiya Janata Party/BJP chief minister of Gujarat.

9 RSS: Rashtriya Sevak Sangh, a militant Hindu organization.

10 VHP: Vishva Hindu Parishad, another Hindu militant organization.

11 Dalit: A current generic term employed for the so-called lower castes.

12 Godhra: The station where, on 28 February, 2002, a train carriage was burnt, purportedly by Muslims, to kill Hindu Kar Sevaks in it.

13 (Terrible) Gujarat: Anti-Muslim violence followed in Gujarat in the wake of the Godhra tragedy.

14 Faiyaz Khan: One of the greatest classical musicians of 20th-century India, Muslim by religion, who sang at the Baroda court.

15 Wali Deccani: 18th-century Muslim poet who represents a synchretic Hindu Muslim tradition.

16 Tika: Mark put on forehead by Hindus.

17 Aarti: Ritual waving of the lamp in circular motion as prayer.

Auteur

Geetanjali Shree is a writer. She is also associated with theatre. She did an adaptation of Ghare Baire, leasing out the feminist potential of Rabindranath Tagore’s famous text which was staged at the Kamani Audiorium in New Delhi. In 1991, concerned about growing

Hindu fundamentalism and realising

that the question of Hindu identity inescapably got embroiled in aggressive polemics the moment it was linked with the Muslims, she adapted Tagore’s Gora, a work that does not ignore the dangers of ‘Hindutva’ while probing, at a deep philosophico-existential level and with great sensitivity, the question of Hindu identity. This was staged at the Shriram Centre, New Delhi. Her last play, Make-up, that explores gender differentiation and movement across genders was staged in 2002 in Berlin and in 2003 in Brazil. Some of her stories have been translated into other Indian languages, and also in English, German and Japanese.

Academic publications
– 1989 Between Two Worlds : An Intellectual Biography of Premchand, Manohar, New Delhi, Literary Publications.
– 1998 Hamara Shahar Us Baras (novel in Hindi), New Delhi, Rajkamal Prakashan.
– 1999 Vairagya (collection of short stories in Hindi), New Delhi, Rajkamal Prakashan.
– 2000 Mai (English translation with an introduction by Nita Kumar), New Delhi, Kali for Women. (1st ed. in Hindi 1991 ; 2nd ed. 1994.)

© Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2004

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