The year 2020 passed by like a ship in troubled waters. Time was slow, and the mind was full of anxiety. Life since March 23, 2020 – the day lockdown was declared in India – was indoors. But another life, the life of the mind, was elsewhere. Elsewhere was many places. It was the past one lived, now a cradle of memories. It was also the past of reading, and knowing the world. Elsewhere comprised of people in the world posting about their lives on social media. It was also about migrant workers walking home, some dying on the way due to hunger, or accident.
Elsewhere was places near home, the café and restaurant in the marketplace. The nearby was also elsewhere, for they were no longer safe places, so one stopped visiting them. Today the whole world lives elsewhere. No one lives at home because home itself is elsewhere. This connects to lives simply lived indoors in self-isolation as well as life under state confinement.
In The Discovery of India that Nehru writes in the Ahmednagar fort prison in 1942, he speaks early of an experience uncannily similar to ours: “Time seems to change its nature in prison. The present hardly exists, for there is an absence of feeling and sensation which might separate it from the dead past. Even news of the active, living and dying world outside has a certain dream-like unreality, an immobility and an unchangeableness as of the past. The outer objective time ceases to be, the inner and subjective sense remains, but at a lower level, except when thought pulls it out of the present and experiences a kind of reality in the past or in the future. We live, as Auguste Comte said, dead men’s lives, encased in our pasts”.
Prison is the metaphor of our times. The time of the anti-colonial struggle often meant time spent in jail. Today we have political dissidents and activists facing a similar situation, while the free world is also undergoing the paranoia of distance and self-imposed isolation. The present is so unreal that it hardly seems to exist within a structure of perception that is easily familiar to us, and it may appear that we are living in a time that is rapidly and strangely going past us, the way Nehru suggests.
Reason won’t help us understand this shift in our new condition. Often things happen in life and in the world defying rational expectations or understanding. Things emerge from the depths of nature and we are thrown off the saddle by its winds. The imaginary horse of progress runs with its back full of dead bodies. There are reasons behind it.
‘We share nature’s madness, but we must be responsible’
On May 20, 2020, the dreaded cyclone, Amphan, made landfall in the state of West Bengal. Huge damage was expected. I was particularly troubled for my 80-year-old mother who lived alone in the northern outskirt of the city. I was late in calling her to ask how she had prepared herself for the cyclone. The phone lines to Kolkata were switched off. I had a pang of guilt, and panicked.
The cyclone was expected to hit the city by late evening. The lockdown would prevent her from getting anything she needed urgently. I felt reassured after my sister who lives in Mumbai, informed that mother had managed to get candles for the night. The cyclone hit the shores of Kolkata as expected. Photographs and videos posted on social media – a bus damaged by an uprooted tree, upturned electric poles lying in streets, a tin roof thrown off from a building – spoke of the dramatic impact Amphan had in the old, colonial city.
The chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, said the next day in the press, “This was another virus from the sky.”
The cyclone, damaging life and objects, takes on the metaphor of a “virus” from nature. After COVID-19 entered the scene, the lethal impact of nature was suddenly being felt. It was time for a paradox to appear: we had to be careful about nature, even as we realised the need to mend our ties with nature.
Nature has lost its head. Why will a tree ever want to kill a man? Using the language of personification, one wants to raise questions on human life: Nature is nature, and has nothing to hide. It is not constrained by morality. You can’t blame a tree for killing a man. But we owe to each other. Our relations with the world are ethically binding. Our relation with nature is one of closeness and difference. We mirror a complex relationship: we share nature’s madness, but we must be responsible.
In an unfinished prose-poem, I tried to capture the broken language of devastation: “The cyclone tore the city’s flesh like a razor used by a madman. The city tottered like an old man’s bones. Trees fell like elephants, and the city broke like the back of a tortoise. Who will stitch it to life? Where will they bury the giant banyan tree?”
In such a moment of widespread loss, only the language of affect wrapped in metaphor can address the pain and bewilderment. Human reality is not rationally lived, only rationally controlled. When that reality (like nature) is out of control and throws us off balance, we can’t find much meaning, or solace, through reason.
In 1914, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a song that began with the lines: “The night the storm tore down my doors, / I did not know you had come home.”
It is the language of enchantment close to the heart of nature (or the nature of the heart) that is remniscient of the 19th century German Romantics. Tagore seems to say, when nature, like the beloved, arrives in a tumultuous form, we may fail to recognise nature as beloved. In the end of the poem, Tagore wakes up in the morning and finds the beloved storm in the middle of a house full of emptiness (desolation).
Is it the seeking of harmony in the aftermath of (natural) calamity?
Friedrich Hölderlin wrote in the Preface to Hyperion: “We have fallen out with nature, and what was once (as we believe) One is now in conflict with itself”. This conflict with nature is modern in nature. Reason seeks to control and dominate nature, but all its concrete citadels of stability get shaken (and broken) when nature loses its head. The Romantics sought a sensibility other than reason. We must look for it too.
Even when the postscript of a cyclone involves a material task of cleaning up the mess with cranes and human labour, we need to heal the heart that faced damages.
The modern (capitalist) world
Just as we are vulnerably exposed to the violent interruptions of nature, and the looming crisis triggered by the Anthropocene, we are also facing a social and existential one: of the capitalist world’s growing solitude.
In January 2018, troubled by the growing cases of lonely people in the country, then British Prime Minister, Theresa May, appointed a minister for loneliness. The problem of loneliness became a public affair. Everyone wore their loneliness bare. It was a matter of care, and the government responded with a ministry.
After the end of his 2019 film, ‘Family Romance, LLC’ shown on MUBI (about a strange, new phenomenon in that strange country, Japan, where a company rents out people playing the role of husband, friend or other, to step into the shoes of someone’s absence in people’s lives) Werner Herzog took part in a Q&A session. He did not sound cynical about the subject at all. He believed that “renting out people who help you along in moments of solitude is going to be big time coming because ageing populations in the industrialised countries create an enormous amount of solitude”.
What Japan is doing may play out in other, similar forms in the rest of the world. The promise of the modern (capitalist) world is ending for everyone across the class divide. Herzog gets specific, acknowledging that “with the explosive increase of tools of communication, meaning television, radio, cellphones… something was coming at us.” Solitude was waiting to get us. The future (of solitude) is no longer undefinable.
Herzog proclaims, “Twenty first century will be a century of solitudes.” Solitude is also a sign of devastation. Not just a natural, social and political devastation, but a spiritual one: of our relationship with ourselves, and the world. The pandemic fast-forwarded Herzog’s prediction. The whole world experienced a new structure and meaning of solitude. We were learning new things about ourselves, as old certainties gave way to new uncertainties. The time and language of rational argumentation and abstract theories have come to an end.
Postscript: We recently learnt that following Britain, the Japanese government created an isolation/loneliness countermeasures office in its cabinet on February 19, 2021, to counter issues like suicide and child poverty. The idea and appointment of a minister of loneliness spreads in the world. Reason cannot prevent – or cure – loneliness.
At George Floyd’s funeral service in Minneapolis on June 4, 2020, his brothers and nephew spoke about their hard and simple life while growing up, washing clothes and sharing the table – hard life is simple. The most memorable speech on the occasion was given by the Rev. Al Sharpton. He said with sarcasm, he never saw anyone in his life hold the Bible as (instrumentally as) then President Donald Trump did before the church. He would like him to open the Bible and read Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
Sharpton meant that you can’t use the Bible as a prop for an agenda that isn’t about justice. Trump was out of tune with time. Sharpton then came to the emotional part. He said “the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to be is you kept your knee on our neck.” He turned the policeman’s knee into a cruel metaphor of White supremacy. And he said it was time to “get your knee off our necks.” Racism is an unequal encounter between bodies, where the soul is forgotten.
One of India’s foremost political thinkers, Babasaheb Ambedkar, had reiterated in his long essay, Untouchables or The Children of India’s Ghetto (1935) that while untouchability was a social practise sanctioned by Hindu religion, slavery in the West “had no foundation in religion”. He emphasised that even though “Roman law declared the slave was not a person”, the “religion of Rome refused to accept that principle.” However, Ambedkar wrote, since “Hindu Law did not regard the ‘Untouchable’ a person, Hinduism refused to regard him as a human being fit for comradeship.”
Slavery has metamorphosed into modern racism. It does not come from the Christian religion, but from a phobic notion of difference based on colour. Racism does not allow colour to remain colour. Racism is the paranoia and disgust of difference. It commits violence upon colour. Racism is not a matter of religion, but a matter of law. The West is trapped between the law of religion and the law of racism: Blacks are also Christian, but face discrimination from white Christians. Can one law help western society, overcome another? Help to heal its survivors?
Secular law cannot eradicate prejudice. It can only punish the perpetrator. But racism does not reside in any perpetrator. It resides in the colour of language, the language of colour. Sharpton spoke the language of faith with eloquence and feeling to prove his adherence to the law that binds both blacks and whites together. There is a reason to invoke faith. Pity a nation that can’t be redeemed by faith. The Constitution is important to swear by. But as people of language, we need (the poetry of) Ecclesiastes 3.
In 2020, I was part of an informal book-reading programme on zoom for over four months with friends in the academia, where we discussed Charles Taylor’s famous text, The Sources of the Self (1989). In the book, Taylor narrates an anecdote of Scottish philosopher, David Hume, attending a dinner hosted by the Baron, Holbach. Hume expressed his doubts about there being serious atheists in the world. To which, the Baron asked him to look around him, and count the number of guests. There were eighteen at the table. To which Holbach said, “I can show you 15 atheists right off. The other three haven’t yet made up their minds.”
Holbach’s statement is interesting. To not make up one’s mind entailed for him, not to make up one’s mind yet “in favour of” atheism. In other words, for the mind to reach a conclusion, to form a proper judgement, would mean embracing atheism. That’s a strange idea, regarding the act of thinking. Why should a mind be made up for anything – for either god, or the absence of god? Both ideas won’t change the nature of reality, and we can’t, by mere thinking, assert that reality. We can only think it. Thinking is not deciding on a question. The task of thinking ideally is to simply raise the question and explore how far the question can take us. It is not for us to answer that question. The answer lies in the seeking.
Holbach’s idea that all we need to do is to make up our mind and realise atheism, is a rationalist understanding of knowledge. God exists, or does not exist, independent of our thinking. But God can exist, or not exist, in our thinking. The two Gods are probably not the same thing. To not make up one’s mind on God is to let God haunt the question. To answer that question either way is to impose a rationalist conclusion on the question. It is the hallmark of modern stupidity.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture during Lockdown (Headpress, Copper Coin, 2021), Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India (Speaking Tiger, 2018), and Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (The London Magazine, 2013).