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Lockdown Impressions – OpEd


In a memoir poem “Things I didn’t know I loved,” the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet writes about how he discovered his passion for the earth, sky, roads, flowers, stars, the cosmos, clouds, moonlight, snow, sea, the sun and the sparks from a train engine, as he smoked his sixth cigarette when one alone would kill him. The poem is written on March 28th 1962; he died a year later of a heart attack with a newspaper in hand as he collapsed at the door of his house. The last lines of the poem are: “I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty/ to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train/ watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return.” 

Very few poets or people for that matter are capable of celebrating life with such intensity, the way Nazim Hikmet does. For someone who was persecuted for his politics and spent more than a decade in jail, you will never find a single line in his entire work that sentimentalizes his own suffering. It is always about the sufferings of others, especially the ones who create the world but who are outsiders to it.

While sitting at home and feeling sorry for myself, thanks to an ill-planned lockdown, since I am incapable of heroic detachment like my favorite poet Nazim Hikmet, I pondered if there indeed were a few things that made life interesting. I began thinking of things that I like without habitually dwelling on them. Cooking, for instance! I must have watched scores of street, rural, local, international and multicultural cooking videos with a strange satisfaction. Since I know how to cook it added to the knowledge base; but observing the intricacies involved in making simple dishes makes you a little more appreciative of womenfolk who spend countless hours in kitchens, mostly thankless and almost certainly, unpaid labor. 

I have no idea how much of the animated sitcom Family Guy I watched. Very few things have entertained me on a daily basis as much as Family Guy. I began working on a paper on the sitcom; I owe it to myself to write this paper for the enormous amount of good time I had watching each of the characters from Family Guy.

Unfailingly once in a way I go back to the genius of the stand-up comedian, George Carlin (1937-2008). I like the black comedian Richard Pryor (1940-2005) a lot. He has an original mind and devastating wit. His capacity for entertaining an audience is infinite. I must have watched numberless times the roast show where Pryor is the roastee and he gets back at his roastmaster and the others who took the opportunity to make fun of him. Also, the one where Pryor is the first black President and the one on Idi Amin Dada; both, unbelievably good! Yet, if I had to declare in unequivocal terms who is the Shakespeare of stand-up comedy, there is little doubt that it is George Carlin. 

I like reading writers from the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. Some of them are remarkably good, committed journalists and intellectuals, writing to change the world. This is in addition to the fine quality of the writing in an accessible, reader-friendly style. The circumstances under which Pakistani writers have to be creative are difficult with the de facto presence of the army, an ineffectual government and the religious right which has a stranglehold on civil society. I also would like to add that as a newspaper Dawn tends to be relatively less biased in its reporting than most newspapers which often are platforms for jingoism and divisive politics; the hatred and prejudice of some of these print media, both in India and Pakistan, is the blindness of a bat in the cave of a tropical jungle at night. 

The columns I enjoy reading and recommending to students and friends alike are by the humane, truthful and someone who cares for the future, Irfan Hussain; the sharp commentator on South Asian and world affairs, Jawed Naqvi; Dr. Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, who is probably one of the few serious intellectual politicians in South Asia; the left-leaning Mahir Ali and the rationalist, Pervez Hoodbhoy. I recollect reading brilliant articles by women writers and some others whose names do not come to mind. I have nothing but boundless respect for every one of them. 

On the Indian side, I hear high praise for Ravish Kumar as an upright and truthful journalist which is rare these days. But, sadly my ability to sustain interest in Hindi-related journalism or work done in any local language including my mother-tongue Telugu is not so great, although I do speak these languages. I watch the English news channel India Today and though I don’t agree with everything that the senior Consulting Editor, Rajdeep Sardesai has to say about the world, I don’t doubt his integrity or the fact that his heart is in the right place. 

Among the books I need to complete reading is Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinkerby Pavan Kumar Varma, a politician intellectual with a strong ethical frame of mind. I also am going through his Ghalib: The Man, The Times and The Book of Krishna. I am yet to look at Sudheendra Kulkarni’s Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s manifesto for the INTERNET AGE though it is on my list of things that I ought to be reading. 

As a rule, we don’t have organic thinkers in South Asia worth their salt, who are able to analyze and give reasons to the masses of how and why the world works the way it does. South Asians are an insecure, sycophantic and petty-minded people who will do anything for money and power however miniscule. They have no notion of pride, dignity or compassion. The middle classes want to be white and western and the goal of their existence is to send their children to the United States or some western country so that they can get permanent residency and a citizenship. Despite their obsession with whiteness, not so strangely, they have nothing but contempt bordering passive-aggression when they encounter real white people; an unhealthy reverse racism thanks to the perception of cultural threat and fear of being assimilated by a dominant social group. In other words they want everything that white people have but not the people themselves. The poor on the other hand, while living a bitter condition, are drugged with alcohol, religion and films. The incurable disease of fatalism enables them to go through inhuman suffering without a whimper of protest. The rich are like the rich everywhere; everything for them and nothing for others. 

The South Asian colonial “double consciousness” is always about looking for membership in a group where you feel that you belong. It hasn’t helped anyone except politicians and the media to play on these divisions and keep people backward forever. The future belongs to those who keep their private views on faith to themselves, don’t put meaningless restrictions on women, allow girl children to decide who they want to marry (even if it’s a person outside their social group) or whether they want to be married at all and what career they wish to pursue, while embracing scientific rationalism combined with empathy as the source of one’s own freedom.  

It is Russia of the 19th century with its outpouring of genius in both arts and sciences that made possible the revolution in the early 20th century. We need those kinds of dedicated intellectuals who take their work seriously and who understand that at the heart of all social change is an individual; unless that individual becomes the source of everything that we contemplate upon, I cannot imagine any revolution ever taking place across South Asia despite the horrendous poverty and backwardness of the masses.

Yogendra Yadav is one of the few public intellectuals with credibility whose word I take seriously almost never casting a doubt. Knowledgeable, humble and balanced, he is always conscious of his own dignity as much as of the dignity of others, even while disagreeing with the ones who are hostile towards him. We need people with that kind of balance in public life to avoid the venom emanating from representatives of different groups with their rabid ideologies and demonic fury contaminating social and political space making normal discussion between people who disagree almost impossible. In the South Asian context, the political analyst Eqbal Ahmad (1933 – 1999) was a prototype of that kind of balanced and humane thinking. 

When we say that we need intellectuals to mobilize the masses and make them believe in a future we are talking about people like Eqbal Ahmad and Yogendra Yadav who speak the truth as objectively as possible while ensuring that everyone is included without exception. Cosmopolitanism is the antidote to the disease of provincialism. As Aldous Huxley says, we need to break out of our culture. We need to see the world as a bigger place with various kinds of people all equally deserving of consideration rather than the tunnel in which we were brought up. We need such an inclusive vision of the world especially in South Asia where people are divided into camps based on caste, creed, religion, language, dialect, gender and class. 

I refuse to accept that people are majorities or minorities at the end of the day; what they are is simply individuals and must be seen as such. That would make life so much easier on a daily basis; you don’t have to love everyone like Saint Francis; you just have to be nice to people who relate well with you and probably keep a polite distance from those who are ill-disposed towards you. Why should anything else matter about a person apart from how they are with you! I generally tend to consciously avoid bitter and resentful people who are constantly looking for a way to infect others with the unhappiness that they are going through. 

There is something fundamentally wrong with individuals from social groups that use the historical memory of suffering to settle scores in the present. In the animal world, poison is a way of defending oneself against predators like with certain snake species such as the cobra. In the human world, poison kills the poisoner before it destroys the others. Marginality and oppression are never enough of justification for having a poisonous attitude towards people who don’t belong to your group. The present is reality; there is no other reality except the present. Life has to change in the present. 

I don’t mean to sound patronizing but I am slightly disappointed listening to medical professionals and business experts and well-known individuals, especially from institutions and organizations with really big names, from the US and some other parts of the world including India. Most of the things said are pretty ordinary that can be arrived at through common sense. I am convinced that there is a global dearth of practical insights into the nature of reality or that simply the people who occupy higher positions are there for reasons other than really caring for their work or for people in general. 

You cannot have a system where the mind works independent of other factors. Real intelligence flourishes in the company of others. Sharing is at the heart of genius and all great leadership. You cannot separate the ability to give from the unlocking of the doors of intelligence that throw light on the mysteries of life and the universe. Intelligence is about believing that humanity has a future and working without rewards or thanks keeping the unborn in mind. 

In the end life has to be celebrated and loved at all costs. I think we need to make a list of things we love on a daily basis to make our actions meaningful. Life would be a little less unbearable if only we look for things we like rather than dwell endlessly on what we dislike. In one of his many reflective poems, “Since I was thrown into this hole,” Nazim Hikmet says of the poor,

‘You are as plenty

as the ants in the Earth 

as the fish in the sea

as the birds in the sky;

you may be coward or brave

illiterate or literate.

And since you are the makers

or the destroyers 

of all deeds,

only your adventures 

will be recorded in songs.’

And the rest,

such as my ten years’ suffering,

is simply idle talk.

The awareness that one’s own suffering means nothing in comparison to the suffering of the many is both ennobling and liberating. People who are eternally complaining about how unfair life is towards them forget what the weak and the nameless masses must go through for absolutely no fault of theirs except that they are born in an unjust condition and to mothers who are not in a position to preserve them from exploitation of the most unacceptable kind. However, in the end, even his ten years’ of suffering in prison means nothing to Hikmet, because what will go down in history is the labors of the ones who created the world and whose “adventures will be recorded in songs.”

*Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.  

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Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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