Millennium Post

Betraying humanity once again

Legendary Saint-Germain-des-Prés, with its typical cafés and chairs laid out on the pavement is a cherished memory of Paris that any tourist would fondly remember. This quarter of Paris, with Café de Deux Magots and Café de Flores was once frequented by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Camus, Hemingway, and Picasso, as they debated and created in an age of reason. Pick up the latest bestseller, spread it open, order a coffee and watch the world go by is the usual Parisian way of life.

Had I been in Paris on the 7th of January, I would have picked-up a copy of Michel Houellebecq’s latest book ‘Soumission’ (Submission) and follow the debate around it on my phablet. Houellebecq, undoubtedly an important contemporary writer, has again landed in controversy with his latest book that talk of France in 2022. In the book, according to BBC reports, France continues “it’s slow collapse and a Muslim party leader takes over as the country’s new president. Women are encouraged to leave their jobs and unemployment falls. Crime evaporates in the banlieues. Veils become the norm and polygamy is authorised. Universities are made to teach the Koran.”But on that fateful day, I was in Chennai. I was reading the furore over Houellebecq’s book before going to Cholamandalam Artsist Village for a gallery opening.

While engaged in a conversation with Paris-based artist Vishwanadan at the gallery, a friend texted me about the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office. In a little while another friend called up to relay the same message. The bloodbath shook me from the inside. Paris is not a capital like New Delhi, where rape and murders happen almost every day. I was a student in 2005, when some in the media wrote about the riots in Paris. I came to know about the riots only after a few days, since its impact in the city was not cognisable. My only memory was the high homeland security advisory after the London bombings in the same year.

But exactly a decade later in Chennai all hell broke loose. My intellectual dilemma over Houellebecq’s novel evaporated. A quick reaction was to send an SMS to my writer friend, media personality and former Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, in solidarity. At once I wanted to go to Paris and stand by its people facing the chaos that followed Charlie Hebdo attack.

Incidentally my friends from US always branded France, which has largest Muslim population in the Western Europe, as pro-Islamic. Usually Parisians go to the Mosquée (Mosque) de Paris for hamam and perfumed tea. Maghreb countries are their favourite tourist destinations. Of course, in this context, I am not talking of the right-wing Front Populaire’s rising popularity.

Two days later my Parisian friend put up a status message of Facebook that said, “Métro St Mandé. Notre quartier est bouclé, prise d’otage à 100m de chez nous dans une épicerie casher.. mon enfant est à la crèche à côté.”’ (St Mandé metro. Our area is cordoned off, hostage in 100 meters from home in a kasher grocery…. My daughter is at the crèche next to it). She also uploaded some initial pictures before fright seized her. By then I was back in Delhi. I remembered her fascination for Mughal architecture and our frequent visits to Sheikh Nizamuddin’s tomb. I returned to our patron saint’s tomb that evening and prayed for my friend and her family. When faith in humanity fails, the invisible becomes the last resort.

Travelling by air has become a whole new ball game after 9/11. Millions of Muslim travellers undergo systematic harassment at all airports thanks to the actions of al-Qaida. The question of our privacy is now immaterial. In brief, mobility has become more difficult than ever and the age of suspicion has entered a new chapter.

After the Charlie Hebdo incident, Paris will not be the same ever again, at least for some time. It has become difficult for everyone, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Atheists. When conspiracy theories float freely on social media, with new layers draped around the event every minute, the ambiguity, I argue, is being manufactured. No one knows who Charlie is and who is not. Issues surrounding the freedom of expression are debated and reconfigured. But the story would definitely not end here. Death is of course inevitable, but seeing some people being killed like in such a manner would leave a stain of blood on our memory.

On each leaf of Houellebecq’s highly polarized writing, my reaction was that he is neither right nor wrong. He expressed his creative views. The problem is that we are bankrupt as a society today, and look at everything as a probable solution, from technology to spirituality from food to art. Perhaps we are really nearing the end of a certain way of thinking altogether.
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