“The children of Adam are limbs of one another, created from a single substance.
When one limb suffers misfortune, the others cannot be at rest.
You who do not suffer the pain of others do not deserve to be called human.”
– Sa‘adi, Twelfth-century Persian poet
We cruised along I-95 – that parallels the Atlantic Ocean and connects Maine with Florida – on this sunny Sunday (30 May, 2010) morning. This was my first Memorial Day weekend in the US and we were heading off to New Hampshire for a day-out. The sun-bathed verdant greenery of the East Coast along with speed-induced lull always makes me feel content. I deeply cherish these moments as they remind me of the lush green paddy fields and tropical greenery of Bengal. We four first met in Hyderabad years ago, parted ways, and then re-connected through marriage and friendship. As I was quietly absorbing the serenity of the landscape, they chit-chatted about our life in Hyderabad, those long-forgotten moments of intimacy, and the turn life has taken for each one of us. There is a tinge of sadness in remembering about days that would never be the same again.
We, Indians, seem to be unable to continue a conversation for too long without being aware of our religious identities, especially when two of us are Hindus, one a Christian, and another a Muslim. A Bangladeshi friend of mine once found our extreme religious self-consciousness strange! I guess if one came from a country where the state refrained from adopting any particular religion as its official faith and, instead, promoted secularism as the official creed, while ignoring the very founding trauma of the nation embedded in troubled religious identities, one becomes doubly aware of the schizophrenic nature of our religious discourses. This schizophrenic religious imagining could have been highly generative had it not been for the ultra-right religious movements and counter-movements that surfaced in the nineteen eighties. (We often turn a blind eye to the 1984 Sikh riots that could be termed with some finality as the first religious pogrom India ever experienced, excepting of course the violence of partition). The fluidity of religious imaginings of the earlier era crystallized into suspicion for one’s neighbors who looked different, who prayed to a different god, and who ate different food.
Our car veered towards Exit 31A and soon we were on 3A North that goes straight to New Hampshire. In the course of the conversation, we remembered an incident that had recently occurred in an Indian air-plane. A religious scholar from one of the most prominent Islamic seminaries in India boarded the flight on his way to London to attend a religious conference. Just as the flight was about to take off, the bearded Muslim man called up an acquaintance on his cell to inform about the impending take off. A woman passenger sitting behind him panicked assuming that he was apprising his fellow conspirators about their plan of hijacking the plane. The man was de-planed, arrested but was later found to be innocent. The incident was widely touted in India as a case of deep penetration of Islamophobia in our modern psyche. As my friend voiced what has become a pretty commonsense explanation for such feelings (that it is the violence Muslims perpetrate that generates such passions among non-Muslims), my mind blanked. I have heard such retaliatory explanations innumerable times and have fiercely debated in favor of a more nuanced understanding of the problem. At other times, I have kept quiet feeling exhausted at the thought of fighting a losing battle. This was, however, so very different. Coming from a friend whom I have known for years and with whom I spent some of the best moments of my life, I completely lost it this time around. The long shadow of violence perpetrated by radical Islamists (and the absence of a discourse of violence perpetrated by western/eastern states) managed to cloud our long-cherished friendship.
I demanded that I be dropped off right on the expressway. The mere thought of travelling in the same car with them was too traumatic. As we kept on arguing, we reached the suburbs of Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire. Like many other US cities, I found Manchester eerily deserted. Walking off in a huff, I just roamed around a bit without any idea where I was going. I had not forgotten to take my cards and the only book that I was carrying with me. After minutes of aimless wandering, it occurred to me that best course of action will be to return to Boston from where we had started. I thought of returning to New York after picking up my luggage from Boston. I couldn’t figure out if I were to take a taxi back to Boston or I should be looking for a bus. Sighting a taxi was well nigh impossible in the suburb of Manchester, at least where I was. Having lived in the west for close to three years, I knew that help is merely a asking away. I found Comfort Inn nearby and walked in. I explained to a friendly looking Indian origin (her name tag was the giveaway) elderly attendant that I got stranded in Manchester and wanted to desperately get back to Boston. She called up a few travel agencies to find out the cheapest mode of transport back to Boston. She allowed me to use the hotel internet connection to check out if there was a bus leaving Manchester. I found out that a bus would be leaving in another hour and a half. The distance between the hotel and the bus terminus could not be covered by walk. She asked me to wait at the lobby before she found out how to drop me at the bus stop.
I sat at the lobby and started reading Barnett R. Rubin’s The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (Yale UP, 2002/1995). All the while I was marveling at the charity of the attendant. Why would she help me without any benefit to the hotel? Neither did I arrange for my stay nor was I a recommended guest to whom some of the service privileges could be extended. As I sat reading and thinking, a similar incident flooded my memory. I was living in Uttarpara (part of greater Calcutta) and studying for my 12th standard. My father rented a place for me and my food was arranged in a local restaurant. I could walk in and eat whatever I wanted to! It was an altogether different matter, though, that not everything I wanted I could find there. My choices were pretty limited! My father visited me once a fortnight and my mother came during the exam time. Having lived and studied in a super-strict Ramakrishna Mission school and hostel prior to that, Uttarpara was a genuine taste of freedom for me. It did not take me long to find a close friend with whom I could go to watch films, while away time, bunk as many classes as possible, and follow girls on our bi-cycles. My friend fell in love and I was trying to work out my EQ having lived life in a hostel devoid of women. The only women I knew then was my mother and sisters. The first quarter results were published and my grades shocked my father to no end. I must admit I knew all along what was coming. Study was the last priority on my list of priorities at the time. My father found out about my grades when I had to ask him to sign the report card. He beat me up black and blue. In an act of teenage rebellion, I left our rented place that night with a vow never to come back. I walked to the station and got into a local train. I traveled between different stations until midnight. Finally, I got off at the Hindmotor station which was named after the Hindustan Motors known for the Ambassador cars they manufactured. I roamed about the factory complex before sitting down to watch a film with some strangers at a roadside film-screening. There was an all-Bengal strike the very next day. Strike or bandh, as they are called in Bengal, has been one of the most potent weapons for political parties in Bengal and it attained a new popularity with the left parties in the sixties and seventies. To cut the story short, I walked about thirty miles next day along the railway track to reach home. Seeing my plight, my mother was reduced to tears!
The attendant managed to arrange for a hotel vehicle to drop me off at the bus stop. A middle-aged, genial driver (James, name changed) asked me to follow him to the vehicle. He seemed to be in a chatty mood and asked me what I was doing there. I had to re-narrate the story of my being stranded at Manchester and my desperation to get to Boston. Seeing the book, he was curious about what I was reading. When I showed him the Rubin book, he told me that he served as an army officer in India. He migrated to the US twenty years back and tried his hand at export-import and other businesses. Driving the Comfort Inn vehicle was his part-time job. There was more surprise in store as he informed me that he regularly publishes articles on India’s insurgency problems. He gave me a lucid exposition of how most of the insurgency problems are a result of the competing pulls of ‘globalization’ and ‘disconnect.’ The current Maoist violence in India (he was referring to the Maoist railway sabotage on 29 May, 2010 in which close to 150 people died in West Bengal), according to him, is the result of this ‘disconnect’ arising out of an uneven globalization. His theory gave me an invaluable framework to think of the Afghan problem. We drove along the beautiful Merrimack River. He dropped me off at the bus terminus and refused to accept any money. I wish I could spend more time with this interesting man!
The lush green park – flanked by a church steeple, the Buckman Tavern, the Hancock-Clarke House, and the Burial Ground – might appear as any other park to a casual visitor. The day before our drive to New Hampshire, we watched the kids play soccer, the elderly take a stroll, and a few visitors sit on the benches around the park. The entire park adorned American flags in anticipation of the celebration for the Memorial Day. As I sauntered around the park, I came across a memorial built in one corner. The plaque on the memorial read:
Sacred to Liberty & the Rights of mankind!!!
The Freedom & Independence of America,
Sealed & Defended with the blood of her sons.
This Monument is created
By the inhabitants of Lexington,
Under the patronage, & at the expense, of
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts,
To the memory of their Fellow Citizens,
Ensign Robert Munroe, Messers Jonas Parker,
Samuel Hadley, Jonathan Harrington Junior,
Issac Muzzy Caleb Harrington and John Brown
Of Lexington, & Asahel Porter of Woburn,
Who fell on this field, the first Victims to the
Sword of British Tyranny & Oppression,
On the morning of the ever memorable
Nineteenth of April, An. Dom. 1775.
The Die was cast!!!
The Blood of these Martyr’s
In the cause of God & their Country,
Was the Cement of the Union of these States, then
Colonies; & gave the spring to the spirit. Firmness
And resolution of their Fellow Citizens.
They rose as one man, to revenge their brethren’s
Blood and at the point of the sword to assert &
Defend their native Rights,
They nobly dar’d to be free!!
The contest was long, bloody & affecting
Righteous Heaven approved the solemn appeal;
Victory crowned their arms; and
The Peace, Liberty & Independence of the United
States of America, was their glorious Reward.
Built in the year 1799.
This serene park in Lexington (now an upscale Boston suburb), renamed Battle Green, was witness to one of the many battles between the British army and the American patriots that finally led to the Declaration of American Independence in 1776. The pre-dawn advance of the redcoats was staved off by handful Lexington patriots who hurriedly gathered at the Buckman Tavern (that still stands). On the eve of the Memorial Day, re-visiting a founding moment in the history of American nation, I could not but help thinking of the centrality of violence in human civilization.
As I bought a ticket for Boston, I felt a gnawing hunger. The ticket attendant directed me to a small eatery at the corner of Elm and Granite on the edge of downtown Manchester. I clumsily ordered for a veggie sandwich. As I walked back to the bus terminus, a billboard with a smiling Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a barrel of oil, and piles of American dollars caught my attention. The words read: “Iran makes a KILLING every day we wait.” The intended pun on the capitalized ‘KILLING’ while reiterating a common discourse of violence still differentiated between the perpetrators and victims of violence.
I started this piece with the twelfth-century Persian poet Saa’di’s lament at the erosion of a feeling of common humanity. Suffering, thought Saa’di, will bind humanity. In our own times, it is the pervasiveness of violence that lends itself as glue for bringing humans together. Amitav Ghosh, the Indian anthropologist-turned-writer, wrote of an amusing incident in his The Imam and the Indian (Permanent Black, 2002). In the course of his fieldwork in an Egyptian village, the writer met an Egyptian Imam who considered the Indian Hindu custom of worshiping the cow and burning their dead as backward. Soon the heated conversation turned into a proclamation of superiority over the other’s country. In his excitement, the Imam reminded the writer that Egypt was modern as it possessed powerful bombs and guns like the west. The writer, in turn, claimed the superiority of Indian guns and bombs. Ghosh draws a somewhat sad and hopeless conclusion from this debate: “So there we were, the Imam and I, delegates of two superseded civilizations vying with each other to lay claim to the violence of the west” (11).
As our cheerful journey to New Hampshire fizzled out in Manchester owing to the violent ways of radical Islamists, as James spoke of insurgent violence in India, as I witnessed the encapsulation of a violent moment in American history at Battle Green, as I read the words on the billboard, as I heard of the Israeli attack on the aid workers the following day, I once more became aware how we lived our lives under the penumbra of violence. Could the pervasiveness of violence in our lives, instead of being a new weapon for segregating humanity, become the new congregatory space for human kind?