Other Country

Photo Credit: @KANWARDEEPSTOI

BY CHITRA SANGTANI

Fireworks shot up and burst into glitter. The children on the balcony to my left started clapping. This began to resonate across the block as others joined in, some banging their metal thalis. From the opposite side, a loudspeaker was bellowing  “Om jai jagadish” at an impressive volume.

It was one of those tracks where only the main refrain had been recorded and was set to loop every ten seconds. Each time it looped, the notes stumbled, striking a clockwork tick right in the middle of my brain. The sight was nothing short of spectacular; a mystic séance to ward off the virus. Layers of sound wove in and out of each other. Traversing all corners of the candle-lit landscape, they rose higher and higher into the ether, encasing me, singling me out.

I kept looking back at my room worryingly; I had left the lights on. From another side of the block, someone blew a conch shell, which I have always thought sounded like a call to war. All the while Abuzar is speaking to me on the phone. His voice, pressed into my right ear, is saying: “Yeh desh to barbaad ho gaya hai, yeh barbaad ho gaya aur bilkul khatam hi ho gaya hai (this country is ruined, it is ruined and it is totally finished).” More fireworks go off, this time from my own roof. There are at least five figures standing above me in the dark. “Kuch bhi nahi bacha, hum bas apne satisfaction ke liye abhi tak thora bahot kaam kar rahe hai, likin yeh to already barbaad ho chuka hai pura ka pura (nothing is left, we are only doing some work for our own satisfaction here and there, but it is already ruined, all of it).” All the while I am laughing, manically, out of fear or desperation. 

Traveling full throttle, through the portal that is covid-19, I feel time thickening.

Some after-thoughts

I hate this country.

It makes me nauseous.

If you manage to get everyone to do anything at exactly the same time, it is likely to look spectacular.

On the 5th of April at 9 pm, Modi was everywhere. In each neighbourhood, each house, each flame that was lit in his name or in fear of it. It was a stroke of mastery. In so far as he had disciplined the nation in a way that extracted hope, he was a god.

I thought back to how my sense of discomfort kept increasing the longer I stood on my balcony. Yet returning to my room was not an option. Finally, there is no escape from the place in which you live and so, intimidated by sheer numbers, I had switched on the torch light at the back of my phone.

News reports about Dalit and Muslim households that had been attacked emerged the following day. In some cases, people were targeted for not having turned off their lights and in others, precisely because they had adhered to the call. Thus, the event had unfolded into a net. There were certain bodies that would fall into it, no matter where they happened to be standing. The attacks were conducted by “local mobs,” i.e., their neighbours.

Things are looping… How is it that we are playing the same roles and responding to the same triggers each time? My friend Asif wrote, “this country of mine is not the same today. Or today I’m realising that this is how it always was but I was not able to see it.” I told him I am trying to understand what makes people want to kill each other even though we are all already dying. Does the propensity to take life arise because we are already dying, or in spite of it?

Kashif describes communalism as a kind of “jinn” that gets inside peoples’ heads. The jinn is a creature made of smoke-less fire. It was created by God long before he made humans from mud. Nonetheless, the jinn share many traits and characteristics with humans. They have tactile senses, can eat, sleep, grow, have sex and are endowed with the capacity to feel passion, empathy, jealousy, hurt, etc. However, in being made of smoke-less fire, they also have power to turn invisible, can travel extremely fast and are capable of shape-shifting. I imagine them floating around, entering and corrupting vulnerable bodies like a rumour, a gas leak or a WhatsApp message.

I’m feeling nauseous again. A few months ago, I wrote a piece describing my encounter with the “pain” of country. This was a pain that had drawn me to the gates of Jamia and to the sounds of the dafli in the midst of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. In reading the piece, Surajit commented that “desh (country) knows when it can extract what it wants out of me.” In doing so, he re-articulated something I had initially imagined as a latent force into something more active: a thing that pulls and tugs, taking you where it wants. This is not speak of “desh” as an autonomous thing, but as a certain “thingness” that is already mixed up in everything you happen to know of the world: memories (childhood especially), people, food, lovers, language.

Was it this very thingness that had suddenly turned rogue becoming something that neither Asif nor I could recognise? A country, estranged. Or was it that we could very well recognise it, that it had, in fact, always already been there, lodged somewhere in the mush of “everything we happen to know of the world.” This was the stickier sorrow. With the riots feeding into the virus and the virus feeding into the riots, I came to the sickly realisation that if I felt the “pain” of country, so too was I entangled in its propensity for violence and contamination. It was this “desh,” both other and the same, that necessitated the vilification of bodies perceived as threatening to its socio-immunological order: Muslims, migrants, Dalits, sex workers, disabled people, homosexuals, etc. These are the bodies through which it defines its borders and whom it sacrifices at the cost of its own “protection”: through neglect of their hunger, organised abandonment, police brutality, or by instigating their killing at the hands of the community.

In his writings on the virus, Paul Preciado highlights how “immunity” and “community” share a common etymological root. Through Modi’s appeal for Janta curfew, which brought people to their balconies banging their thalis, and again, when he called upon the nation to light its candles in order to  “defeat the darkness of despair,” it was “community” that had been summoned. “What a thief,” Abuzar remarked. “He is stealing our ideas.” It was true. Just a few weeks earlier it had been us who stood holding candles in a silent vigil, mourning for the lives and livelihoods lost through state-instigated communal riots in Delhi. Modi had taken the power of this collective gesture and turned it on its head, creating surveillance out of solidarity.

Whilst we are up to our neck in hardening borders, that creep further into our neighbourhoods, our homes, inching closer to our skin, periodically, I also feel them merging and collapsing into one another. The jinn, like the riot, like the country, like the virus, signifies a thingness both internal and external, i.e. a ‘self’, enmeshed in others. Insofar as we co-inhabit the world with jinn, it cannot be destroyed as if it were a foreign entity. In order to exorcise it from another’s body, it must be lured, coaxed, persuaded, reasoned with. In this way it is different to how “zeher” (poison) might enter the body [politic], spreading itself unaware and indiscriminately (the sentimental education of right wing propaganda has often been described in this way). On the contrary, the jinn is not wholly apart from ourselves. Our encounters with it are often caught up in games of possession and desire that are also of our own making.

Similarly, despite Modi’s calls to a phantasmagoric war and the excitement of residents who picked up their domestic utensils in arms, the Coronavirus pandemic is not something that can be ‘defeated’ because it never arrived from a place of ‘outside’. The environment we live in also makes up the conditions through which the virus was borne and now thrives. Much like a riot, it does this in an intensely local manner, attaching itself to those in its immediate proximity, yet also exceeding the frame of a singular body or event (as a young man in Shiv Vihar, in the aftermath of the recent riots relayed to me: “I had only heard about [the riots of] ’86, now I have seen them with my own eyes“. In their multiplication and duplication across time and space, the riot and the virus, as non-events and non-bodies, only assume certain characteristics, coming ‘to life’ as it were, through the shape of a world as it already exists. That is to say, the designs of our political, economic, public health and carceral systems – all of which, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore points out, have long been engaged in the sorting of lives into various categories of deservingness and risk.

Traveling full throttle, through the portal that is covid-19, I feel time thickening.

As I lie in my bed, on my phone, reading about the witch-hunting of Muslim protesters and the overturning of labour laws in the country, I have the feeling that the world outside is mutating. So too is my body. I have stopped feeling lonely and for the most part, do not feel hunger. I feel lethargic. I am horny often, but not for sex. Rather, for a form of intimacy I cannot yet describe. For something that I have perhaps never thought of as “sex,” something that might be called “sex” in the future.  

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