Axioms we live by…

My friend constantly looked over his shoulders. He had been mugged the night before and that made him suspicious of any moving object around him. I had been waiting for him in front of a wine-shop as we headed to another friend’s party.  His swollen nose bore the marks of being punched and kicked by the muggers as they failed to get hold of his purse and cell-phone. His efforts at constructing a coherent narrative showed how traumatized he still was. As he was being dragged behind a tree by the two muggers, a car slowed down just in time making the duo flee.

 Immediately after the incident, my friend had called me up. I could sense how shaky he was. As it often happens, the very first thing we do after an incident of this sort is to identify the perpetrators in terms of their race, ethnicity, religion, and other markers. In India, after every communal riot (and I am not trying to compare communal riots with mugging. In my opinion, however, there is a deep underlying similarity as I consider them both to be criminal acts), people are always eager to find which community ‘threw the first stone.’ In fact, the literary and filmic representations of partition of India and of more recent communal riots have always grappled with this problem of zeroing in on the ‘first’ movers. Often it is axiomatic to assume that a particular community started these riots.

As I listened to my friend narrate his horrific experience over phone, I told him bluntly not to generalize this incident to ‘label’ a particular people. To him, it might have sounded an absurd, morally righteous position as he was coping with pain. It could have sounded a hollow, politically correct statement to be made by one who didn’t have to go through the pain and humiliation. The next day, I met my friend in front of the wine shop and, to my surprise he displayed a remarkable composure in thinking of the incident as an accident, as a hassle that one might encounter in any big city.

After the party, I accompanied him back to his apartment as he was apprehensive of his safety. We reached his apartment around 4.30 in the morning. It was too late for me to come back to my place. I decided to sleep over. As I was returning to my apartment this morning, I decided to get off at Jackson Heights to do some Indian grocery. Jackson Heights was chock-a-block with Sunday shoppers and it somehow reminded me of Karol Bagh in Delhi. When I first moved to NYC, I made a conscious decision not to live in Jackson Heights and in places where most of the Indians lived. But occasional visits to JH made me think of some of the overcrowded shopping areas in Indian cities. There is always a shimmering energy that is almost contagious. And yet, unlike Times Square, the place does not alienate one as the crowd is not composed of tourists. The vigorousness of ordinary, everyday life fascinates me.

I bought a few typical Indian grocery items. As I was waiting for my turn to pay, I could hear an argument breaking out between the cashier, an elderly Punjabi woman, and a customer, a young, ordinarily dressed woman. I was the very next person in line. The young woman left and the elderly woman was still muttering under her breath: “Yeh Pakistani ladkiyo ko koi tamiz nahi rah gaya. Pehle ye log purdah mein rahti thi, baat chit soch samajh kar karthi thi. Ab yeh purdah se bahaar nikal aiyee aur ab koi tamiz bhi nahi hai (These Pakistani girls are now bereft of all good manners. When they wore purdah, they had better manners; they knew how to speak with respect. Now with their purdah, they have discarded all decorum.).

I picked up my stuff and walked out of the shop. I was trying to make sense of her statement. Did she mean that Pakistani girls must always be in purdah? Or did she mean a traditional way of life is more conducive to ‘better’ decorum? That women must always act in a particular way? Whatever be the implication of her statement, this much I knew for sure: when it comes to other people and cultures (be it a case of mugging or argument), we live by certain axioms…

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3 Responses to Axioms we live by…

  1. Arpan says:

    Sir, I just wanna ask as to why the meaning of words are different when you try to go back to their origin.Axiom today as it stands means, ‘something apparently true’ but from where it originates it means something substantial.Isn’t ‘apparent’ and ‘substantial’ different things altogether?
    [15th century. Directly or via French < Latin axioma < Greek axiōma "something worthy" < axios "weighty, worthy"]
    Microsoft® Encarta® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. And isn't it hard not believe in what has been taught by history to be apparently true, Nepalese here in our chicken-neck region and African-American/Mexican/colored people in America, suffer from this misconception but there have been instances when these misconceptions are proved right? So how far does one really have to go to believe in one's own judgement rather than taking the easier way out? What are your thoughts?

  2. Arpan, sorry for the late response. You have raised some very interesting points about the etymology of words – the origin of words, what they meant at a particular point in time and how the meaning changes over time. If, as you point out, the word ‘axiom’ meant something substantial and if now it means ‘something apparently true’, I do see a kind of continuity in the meaning – if the word meant something weighty, it came to bear the weight of a tradition. If something is axiomatic, it meant that something substantial could be said about somebody without explaining it as we could fall back on tradition to justify it. In our own times, if the word ‘axiom’ means ‘something apparently true’, we think it’s true because it is backed up by tradition. In that sense, axiomatic may mean that we say something about another culture, or our own culture because we think that is apparently true as it is backed up by the weight of tradition.

    Your second question is interesting. Sometimes we internalize what is said about us. This is what we call, following Foucault, discursive production. E.g., the discursive production of Nepalese identity or black identity – how are these identities produced through discourses and who produces the dominant discourses (in the case of Darjeeling Nepalese, it could the Bengali majority). Some of these ideas produced by the dominant discourses come to stick. That’s how stereotypes are manufactured. No tradition is natural. Traditions are constructed. What might appear natural has been contructed through discourses. That does not mean, there is no real world out there or that Nepalese or blacks do not commit crimes. My whole point is how certain stereotypical ideas about other people are naturalized, fetishized. As you mention, we must be trained to critically reflect in order to engage with others!

    • Arpan says:

      Respected Sir,
      I have not all internalised what has been said by the dominant culture because as far as my life’s experiences with the dominant culture is concerned it has not been as bad as was the case with your friend who got mugged or the lady at the dept store (who might have grown old seeing the Pakistani girls as demure and docile).
      But yes there are instances where one is made to believe in something simply because he/she is ignorant about it, for e.g the migrant status attached to the Nepali speaking population in India (which is a result of the fact that mostly what our ancestors say is our real history is still in oral form with no one to verify them as facts), simply because all the major research work or history of our own has been undertaken by an individual who belonged to the dominant culture, be it the white scholars or the Bengali intelligentsia, who no matter who/what come in with a bit of notion of their own which later creeps into their work, which later is substantiated as History.
      So will it be really be appropriate to substantiate something which in itself is substantially debatable?.
      And although am not discussing Theories with you Bhabha says that Theories, Tradition, History themselves contribute towards the continuation in domination of the dominating class, creed or rule of law, isn’t it (vaguely)?
      So when everything be it Axioms, Tradition, Social ethics etc all boil down to personal discretion then why do we emphasise so much on the above said things?

      With regards

      Arpan

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