I can’t remember the first time I felt excluded. I can’t remember ever feeling excluded. Maybe because for certain people, being excluded is a normative state of mind. In any case, I never looked at it as an undesirable way of being. I loved the fact that the seas and the mountains merged within me, that I could feel at home in totally diverse geographical and cultural spaces, or that I could once speak 6 different languages before I even turned ten. Years later, lovers would describe me in the exact same way: as this exotic, improbable creature, who could be so many different things at once. I had a yearning for extremely divergent things that could never exist in the same place: for instance, I wanted to walk directly from the surging, mildly chaotic seas of Chennai to the Chinar trees of my childhood, yawning in the horizons while I gasped as a baby. I craved for vadais and chutney while dawdling at a weekly bazaar in Bombay, but hunted a million markets in Chennai for just one pair of jootis.
I was also different things within different spaces and contexts. I was Muslim when neighbours and acquaintances attacked Islam for being backward and primitive (although I hardly had any knowledge of the Quran and had never stepped inside a mosque), but I was Brahmin when a boyfriend accused all Brahmins of hogging spaces of culture and influence. I was vellaikari (a pejorative term for light-skinned ‘Outsiders’) on the flaming streets of Chennai, but I was a Madrasi to my neighbours in Delhi. I was always never enough of one thing: friends jokingly referred to me as half and half. I was lucky in a way to have any friends at all; today I am more empathetic to feelings of confusion that most people encounter when they interact with people like me.
In my late teens, angsty, disillusioned and on the verge of yet another breakdown, I stumbled across Hannah Arendt while loitering inside a used bookstore. I loved the way she dissected the predicament of the Outsider in The Origins of the Totalitarian; the figure of the Jew (sans a homeland/ No Locusts Stand I) loomed far and wide in my periphery. In her passionate, biting political analyzation of the rise of Nazism in Germany, I found a kind of empathy towards my own, as yet unverbalized predicament. A couple of years later, when my disillusionment had begun to desiccate into stiff, solidified cynicism and push me anxiously down the strangely satisfying path to ‘productivity’, I watched a televised interview of Arendt titled Zur Person. Arendt spoke of how she always knew she was ‘different’, a feeling that was strangely linked to her feeling ‘special’ in relation to others. This made sense, considering how Jews as a community existed as sort of oscillating between the positions of the Pariah and the Exceptional. They were often victims of anti-Semitism, but were given special privileges by the government, privileges that in no way reduced the anti-Semitism that they continued to experience; on the contrary, it could be said, they fuelled them further. Such a deep understanding of the Jewish identity could also be used in other, more diverse contexts, like the one in the subcontinent for instance. In a strange way, most of us, even those terrifyingly oppressed by totalitarian regimes, have some privileges. Perhaps it’s caste, or class, even gender (an argument that I would later use against the ex who wasn’t insightful enough to grasp the often sliding guises and nuances of Identity). What makes us cling to our identities of oppression and not vice versa? A part of Arendt’s interview that really struck me was her description of what the lack of a Homeland does to the identity of the Jew. She contended that
“..the Jews suffered a lack of belonging, because they were dispersed. As with all people who are pariahs, it generated a special warmth among those who did not belong. It is a warmth I know very well. The Jewish Humanity signified by their lack of a homeland was something very beautiful. This standing outside of all social connections, the complete open-mindedness, was something I experienced in my mother. She also exercised it in relation to the entire Jewish community.”
Perhaps it was there, in that darkened room as Arendt’s image loomed and flickered across my laptop screen, that I finally found a voice to verbalize this thing that had lumped itself on my person all along. This sticky, vile, strangely obsessive thing called Identity. For most people, Identity is a given. You are either the Victim or the Perpetrator, the Doer or the person who has the thing Done to them. What do you do when you identify with neither or worse, with both? What if finally you realise you were only a spectator? Identity is a painfully funny thing. Arendt was a Jew and all the Jews were Jews just like Christians were Christians and Muslims were Muslims. But what set the Jews apart, or united them, was a lack of unity, a lack of Home. And that was what made them a beautiful people, the beauty that was soon to have made a mockery of itself the minute they latched on to a Homeland. The idea of a Homeland is very different from an actual, tangible piece of land that you assign a history, a culture, a memory and a past to as a whole group of people. What happens to you as an individual, and as a member of a group and community, when you allow a piece of land to represent you? And on the contrary, what differences do you find in yourself when you are told and believe that you have no homeland, no land/tomb/cultural artefacts to represent you? There are Minorities and then there are the Outsiders, who have no claim to anything that might stand for them. I believe that I have the great fortune of belonging to the latter category.
Recently, only a few months before the lockdown, finding myself in a kind of turmoil owing to the unending anti-CAA protests, I turned to Arendt again.
The streets were a veritable fire casket in those days. Smoke hit at me from newspapers, until I had to leave home without so much as glancing at them. The University seemed to be brimming with unspecified emotion. The initial days of the nationwide protests seemed to be boiling with hope. Hope mostly because, the protests were headed by Students (disproportionately from the Humanities disciplines), the category of people no one seemed to expect much ‘action’ from. University after University rose up in a kind of utopian flowering of rebellion. Police constables were dispatched to various locations. The Students began to be separated from the rest of the populace.
There was too much striking down and reaction to be able to contemplate the goings-on of the time. As students inclined toward the Left, most of us were expected to march on to the street and join our comrades without so much as taking a breather. The fear was high-pitched and palpable, almost melting into the collective desire for change.
Gradually though, the protests began to be marked with unending violence. The other, more ‘civilian’ sections also began to get involved in the mayhem. The reports from other campuses rained in through the morning newspapers and television screens, until I had to shut them down and sit on my terrace, hoping to drown myself in the silence. But there was no silence. I could hear things, mostly my own fear, even in the dead of the night. I remember going for protests wearing layers of clothing, arming myself with my Communist badges and brooches, perhaps wishing away the danger of the time. I would call up friends at Jamia and JNU at odd hours, sometimes past midnight, my voice frantic with worry.
A few days after, I remember going for a protest to Jantar Mantar, and falling ill due to sudden menstruation on the way. I reluctantly parted with my comrades, and walked into the nearby Sri Ram Centre canteen for a bite to eat, dizzy with hunger. The room was darkened with people scattered all over, turned toward a glittering television that played the breaking news. At first, I tried to avoid looking at the screen, focusing intently on the thali in front of me. The rotis seemed limp when I folded them, the dal on the other hand tasted funny. When I finally did look up at the TV, I saw some of my comrades being thrashed by the police. I abandoned my lunch and rushed out for a smoke, trying to eavesdrop on the titbits of conversations around me, attempting to swallow down the fear and the rising pressure of guilt. The weather was uneasily bright and cloudy. I smoked in a hurry, with some desperation, trying to burn down certain things inside of me, and breathing out in a jiffy.
I turned to too many, haphazard things in the weeks following the incident, my mind torn into too many pieces at once. Crowds. Rap music. A growing fetish for pain that served to calm down my senses. Sometimes even strangers.
But mostly, I read. I read hungrily, obsessively, sometimes to the point of madness. I read minutes after I woke up, in the dead of the night, while climbing up the stairs, even while waiting for my metro card at the subway. The words swivelled around me long after I put the book down. I sometimes heard noises the way I read, dunking my head in the chaos, waiting to tear off my own flesh.
I started by rereading The Origins of Totalitarianism but went on to read The Human Condition. Arendt craftily opens up her argument here, this time distinguishing between vita activa and vita contemplativa, the active life and the life of contemplation. Under this, she explores the Public and Private realms, Labour, Work and Action, before emphasising the connection between the Active Life and the Modern Age.
“As the rapid exploration of the world shrunk massive physical and geographical distances between countries and groups of people, man’s position within the world became increasingly inconsequential. As a consequence of this deep sense of alienation, disciplines like Philosophy focused increasingly on the Self. The world of science was a chaotic, intensely unsettling world where nothing could be grasped with certainty. The Self on the other hand, could still be known (or could it?).”
Arendt’s work of course, is a testimony of the importance of the vita activa and its important leaps through time. It was through her understanding of the value of doing that I was able to live through the days of little else but this Doing. Reading Arendt in times of crises always feels like an impassionate balm on the senses, but it was wonderful to finally be able to connect these various threads, through her readings as well as the vita activa of our current times. In Zur Person, she disagrees with the interviewer who refers to her as a philosopher, by calling herself a Political Theorist instead. The tension between Political Theory and Political Philosophy became intensified by her experiences as a Jew in Nazi Germany, when she understood that contemplating life from the comforts of the armchair was no longer even an option for people like her.
Because of course, there is no Homeland, or Collective Artefact, or Communal tangibility, or an actual knowable steady subject to hold on to. Perhaps contemplating anything, or holding on to anything from the comforts of an armchair isn’t an option for anyone. Maybe structures are made and remade to counter our collective anxieties over the possibilities of our own increasing inconsequentiality, but inconsequentiality is a good thing, or the only true reliable thing there is, a fact that has today been brought about by the complete overhaul and destruction of our current systems.
Perhaps what really matters in the end is what we do, rather than what we are, something that becomes progressively unreliable through changing times and contexts.
Perhaps the beauty of the Jewish people prior to their acquiring a Homeland depended on a large part to their freedom from a Home, and from their freedom that arose out of disunity and breaks in the system.
But perhaps there is no System.
Perhaps there is only the Outside.
Perhaps being an Outsider is the only thing there is.
ARENDT, HANNAH. 1951. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York. Schocken Books.
ARENDT, HANNAH. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.
SEASON 1 EPISODE 17. Zur Person. Interview by Günter Gaus. 28 October 1964. Television.