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A Gray Nation

April 19, 2010

Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” is one of the best books I’ve read. It is the story of a modern day Adonis- Dorian Gray- who commissions a portrait of himself to capture and preserve his beauty and ends up trapping his soul in that “perfect” painting. Having removed his soul, his body becomes immune to the ravages of time and vice and he is led along a path of destructive decadence by the seductive Lord Henry Wotton. As he glides from debauchery to violence, his painting begins to transform to reveal the slow rotting away of his soul. Hating all ugly things, Dorian locks the painting away in the attic forbidding anyone to see it. Here the painting lies growing ever more disfigured, ugly, wrinkled and bent while his soulless body glows with his artificial never-ending youth.  As Dorian’s sins mount up, the painting rots away all the more. At the climax, Dorian Gray attempts to destroy the ugly painting to eliminate all evidence of his sins ,but ends up killing himself instead. He is found as a weak emaciated old man lying in a pool of blood beside the painting- now young and beautiful. The reality restored to the man. The artificiality restored to the painting.

I don’t know how he does it but by the end of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde leaves you laughing, thinking and terrified. Arundhati Roy’s propoganda piece on the Naxals produced much the same reaction in me, and in that order. So does every new announcement out of the Home Ministry regarding Operation Green Hunt.

Laughter, because of both the farcical hyperbole of Ms. Roy’s indictment of the State as the author of all ills as well as the State’s ham-handed attempts to spin the Maoists as vermin to be “exterminated” so that our tribals may be rescued.

Thinking, because despite the burlesque show in the media , this remains a very very serious issue.

And terror because once one begins to think about what the Maoists, and our response to them, is doing to this State one can’t avoid the dark foreboding of where this road is taking us.

It is indisputable that the State has a legal and moral right to develop tribal lands, for the greater good of the country.

It is also indisputable that the State has completely and utterly failed  to provide compensation or resettlement for our displaced populations .every. single. time. it has attempted any such project.

There is no reason for the tribals of Jharkhand and Chatisgarh to believe that their fate will be any different.

Because every time the tribal populations of this country have trusted the State, the State has responded with a sharp kick in the groin as punishment for their gullibility.

Agreed, that does not justify the “mindless violence” that the Naxal have inflicted on the State.  But though I find the tribal insurgency indefensible, I honestly cannot say that I find it inexplicable.

Violence is the currency of the State.

Consider that in this greatest of Indian cities- Bombay- no public leader can defend north-Indians without risking widespread riots. Consider that students cannot peacefully protest the government’s reservation policy without risking a police-led lathi charge. Consider that in the first case the police will largely ignore the violence, but in the latter they will happily dole it out on the “troublemakers” demonstrating against government policy. Consider that citizens of far-flung suburbs in Bombay who petition for years for BMC water-lines to be laid to their houses are routinely ignored, until they perform a rail-roko bringing public transport to a grinding halt. After the due demonstration of their disruptive powers, water lines are quickly laid. Or consider that, were I even a mildly public figure, my use of the city’s old name- Bombay, in a previous sentence, would be reason enough for me to be slapped around in my home or beaten up on the streets by the defenders of this city. Consider also that most of you would probably shake your heads and mutter “he asked for it” when you heard. And this is just in Bombay. The rest of this country is, arguably, at least as violent.

The inescapable truth is that we have institutionalised in our country a culture of violence, both State and non-State, and we consistently reward disruptive and destructive behaviour.

This being so, how can we tell the Naxals that their barbaric methods have no place in modern India? 

Or take the case of Vidharbha, Maharashtra where nobody wants to talk to, or even about, poor farmers killing themselves in the tens of thousands year after year, to escape starvation and debt. Yet this same society finds nothing wrong in publicly wondering, “why don’t the Naxals just talk to us?”.

If the State only addresses issues raised by the most disruptive groups in society, and by those with the most destructive power, how can we convince the Naxals that their horrific means will not succeed? 

At every stage the tribals will find precedents that give them heart. I can think of no better instance of sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind as this Naxalite problem.

I do not for a moment question that the Naxalite problem  (and it is, without qualification, a problem) is one that must be solved. I fully endorse that a large part of the strategy must be military. But this is as good a time as any to reflect upon the nature of the State that we, the people have created and acknowledge our larger problems, of which the Naxalites are but a symptom.

One of the biggest problems, in my mind, is how we see ourselves.

“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.”

“The reason we all like to think so well of others is that we’re all afraid for ourselves. The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”

Once upon a time, Indians willed into existence a perfect picture of the Indian State. And what a painting that was! A wonderful modern mythological canvas in true Indian tradition. Facts and not-quite-facts blending seamlessly to create the perfect civilisation back on the ascending path. Rising like a phoenix from colonial ashes to claim (that tired phrase) its rightful place in the world….Oh how we admired our beauty.

Deep down we knew that the painting was never really of India, but of us Indians as we wished we were; of our self-image in all its glorious wishfulness and contradiction. Yet somewhere along the line we convinced ourselves that that painting was our reality. We fell in love with ourselves.

Today that self-love has become obsessive and intolerant to criticism. We want only praises. “Don’t give us complexities and negativity,” we plead with tiresome jholawallahs and Indian Express types, “give us GDP figures and growth rates, give us stories of hope and money and sex, tell us how far we’ve come, tell us how we are better off  than our neighbouring states… no matter, tell us again”

We hide away our ugly realities in the attic, away from our eyes, to convince ourselves that we are indeed that beautiful place of the India of our minds. We commit countless ugly cruelties in the name of our beauty. As we stare transfixed by our false beauty, our media gleefully massages our egos. It plays the perfect Lord Henry to our Dorian Gray. 

Look no further for proof of this than that it took the Naxalites a full-fledged massacre, claiming the lives of 76 Indian paramilitary officers, to rouse us, howsoever temorarily, from our IPL and Sho-nia induced reverie.

In all this, our moral weakness hangs naked for the world to see. As we desperately seek validation from others we demonstrate our anxiety to preserve our fragile self-image, if by nothing else then by our wilful blindness. We seek only reinforcement of our manifest destiny of superpowerdom and reject anything that does not fit into that narrative. We want only to stare at our beautiful face and silence anyone who reminds us that we ceased to look like that a long, long time ago, if indeed we ever did.

We want to be surrounded by beauty and joy just like Wilde’s Dorian Gray. And just as surely as Dorian Gray, the Indian State has today become debauched, violent and intolerant. And just as Dorian Gray we wish to attack and destroy, in our anger, the ugly painting of ourselves that mutated in the attic while we tried in vain to forget all about it. And just as Dorian Gray, we will perhaps realise too late that that ugly painting is really us and not the “other”. That the Naxalites and their tribal followers are a direct result of our failings and neglect as a State. That they represent nothing more than the horrible social disfigurations that systemic violence and apathy will inevitably produce. That our beauty faded a long time ago. And that the best possible remedy is to acknowledge that the ugly painting in the attic is actually us.

‘It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution”

It is time to bring out the painting from the attic and put it back up on the mantlepiece.

[NOTE: Incidentally, I also have a problem with our laguage. I accept the State’s rationale on using words like “exterminate” and “Naxalite infested”. But, for example, when PC tells Naxalites to abjure violence, I start to have a problem. “Abjure”??? For god’s sake, can’t PC leave his harvard-man vocabulary aside for a minute especially when he is supposed to be making a direct plea to illiterate tribals? Perhaps I’m overreacting but in my mind his hi-fi english only reinforces the view that he is in fact addressing the urban middle-class elite who appreciate a clipped voice and a smart turn of phrase and not the tribals, who form only a rustic native background to his intellectual gymnastics.]

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