Millennium Post

After Hurricane Sandy blew the veil

The cold-blooded violence of the Taliban, the ability of Germans to build precision instruments, the courteousness (‘How are you doing?’) of a white bus driver in Boston, the ‘sense of justice’ of the British, the ‘spirit of entrepreneurship’ of immigrant Europeans in North America, the dapper look of a New York police officer, the sense of duty, discipline and punctuality that is apparently absent among lesser folks – this long list is only a small set of qualities that are attributed to the intrinsic nature of a group of people. The Pashtun are prone to gratuitous violence ‘by nature’. The other examples I cite also have this quality of being explained by the nature of the people, an ethnic-quality, so to say, that specially marks them out, for good or for bad. This way of explaining away differences between people not only obfuscates strands of commonality between them, but also works against initiatives of transformation of societies from within (Pashtun women cannot ‘save’ themselves and Pashtun men cannot have any role in such an initiative). Such ideas also make us permanent prisoners of an inferiority complex (lazy, dishonest, unclean men) – piecemeal personal liberation coming through some kind of internal theorising that one is among the very few with the ‘wrong’ skin but the ‘right’ nature. It is not easy to see the world bare naked, without the ideological veil of the civilisational pecking order, especially when it has been naturalised. Rare are the moments when the veil is lifted. It is the witnessing of such rare moments that helps one unlearn, cleanse oneself off handed-down ideologies and breathe easy. And here comes the story of the hurricane. For nature in itself (not our perception of nature) has not been brainwashed.

Because it has not been brainwashed, it can be irreverent, indiscriminate. It can lash Haiti’s coastline and lower Manhattan in similar ways and in one stroke can be the great equaliser when dehumanised Haitians and refined New Yorkers, the ‘animal’ and the ‘ideal’ both are frightened and shiver. Rare are these moments when layer upon layer of ideology, constructed over centuries, can be briefly peeled back to show what is generally concealed by the apparent disparities between the garbage-scavenger of Mumbai and the iPhone-totting yuppie New Yorker. The approaching Hurricane Sandy caused panic. People tried to stock up on water and food. There were fistfights to buy water.

There was no queue. There was no ‘discipline’. There was no ‘West’. There is no ‘West’ without surplus – the genie that bankrolls the breathing space between mere survival and the life of consumer dignity.

A friend from New Jersey called. There was no electricity. ‘What’s the correct way to wash my clothes without the machine – you are from India, you know right?’ Alas, I am from elite Kolkata, but I knew by seeing. Put water, put clothes, put soap. He asked, ‘And then spin by hand?’He wanted to mimic the machine. With the power gone, the powerlessness showed. Notions of differential ‘progress’ due to difference in ‘intrinsic’ nature felt dubious, the arrows pointing to paradise momentarily did not all point in the same direction. Rare are these moments when the inclined plane of progress, where difference in ethnic location becomes difference in ‘developmental’ time, caves in near the peak. It self-corrects fast. Electricity will be restored. But in the intervening darkness, if you remember what you saw fleetingly, you will never believe again.

To be able to look at your belief-system being battered by a hurricane is not easy. Just one day of a Hurricane blessed holiday of the underclass janitors is enough to create a stench that one has learned to associate with some and not with some.

In the gullet, from where the Empire State Building cannot be seen, pecking orders briefly collapse. They collapse without Hurricanes too, on a daily basis, between the rounds that the janitor makes, in the obnoxious splatters in lavatories of Michelin starred restaurants, in the toilets left unflushed in poshest of hotels. The anonymity of the restroom latch lets out a ‘West’ that is more like our skin we have learned to hate. To take away a single-minded aspiration, from those who are otherwise alienated from all other aspirational trajectories, can be destabilising. The frequent restroom cleaning keeps the ideological veneer on, for us to aspire and be awed.

Cleanliness is next to godliness. Surplus makes near-godliness achievable in this earth. In my native city of Kolkata, India, there often are lumps of human excreta on the roadside every morning. As I stroll down the manicured streets of Boston, a dirty thought emerges. If the surplus were to evaporate, would the sauve Bostonian come to resemble the morning people from Kolkata? How would the sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue look, early in the morning?

Would the air still be filled with the nauseatingly the high number of ‘Thank you’s, ‘Sorry’s and  ‘Excuse me’s I say and hear every day? Would this veneer of gracefulness, thankfulness, personal space, yoga retreats and wine-tastings still mesmerise? What does it take to lift the veil? The ease of unraveling might hold better clues to our commonalities and differences than ideologies of progress and development.  (IPA)
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