Oh Europa, My Lady, Whither are you Going?
An Open Letter, January 2012
My Lady, I wanted to write this letter and share with you my thoughts at the turn of the millennium itself. I could not; I had to wait a full twelve years to be able to do that, a time-frame significant to those of us who know the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is the grand story of the relationships between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two groups of cousins. When the Pandavas asked for their just share of the kingdom, their cousins, we are told, connived to make them accept a twelve year exile before considering their request. Some of your children dislike me for much the same reason and treated me pretty similarly. Be that as it may, the twelfth year is now up and the mutually agreed period of exile has run its course. I am, at last, free to talk to you.
When I look at you, at your past, at your deeds and their consequences, I feel a deep sense of sorrow. You see, in their striving to bring true religion and civilization, to make money and become powerful, Europeans inflicted massive damages on the world, on humanity and on multiple cultures. They transformed continents into markets, peoples into slaves and, in so doing, colonized most of the planet, destroying peoples and groups in the name of religion, progress, civilization and democracy.
But do they realize how they made you suffer in this process? You see, you did not survive this onslaught on humanity without paying a heavy price yourself. You underwent two world wars that destroyed continuity between generations, you experienced fascism and Nazism that tore the fabric of your culture, your own people were destroyed through the Holocaust and concentration camps that inflicted horrible wounds on you that can never properly heal, your nations were split into artificial hostile camps in the cold war from which you have not yet recovered,… Any one of these events would have staggered a nation; cumulatively, they tore open gaping holes in your memory. Thus, what is absolutely essential to you was tampered with: the memory of who you once were. As a consequence, you barely realize who you now are and hardly know where you should be going in the future.
You, my Lady, are suffering from amnesia. Some of your children could have helped you here, made you remember your past and cure you of this malady. Instead, these, the historians, mindlessly collect factoids and destroy your past by transforming it into a set of historical facts. Where historians failed, there the philosophers could have helped: they did not; they have produced a story, which puts paid to all grand narratives, as though remembering who you were for the last two millennia is a false narrative that is best destroyed, desecrated, forgotten and buried. They call this story ‘Postmodernism’.
You are not a stranger to me, My Lady. In fact, you became my mother-in-law when I married a European. But my relationship to you is richer and more complex than this fact and it both antedates and postdates the event of a marriage: you see, when my mother taught me that the teacher becomes the second father, she did not quite tell me what happens when that teacher, which is what you are to me, is a woman. So I can only assume that you become my mother, the second mother as it were; thus, I owe you a debt of gratitude which I can hardly repay, even though it is my obligation to try. Therefore, I will address you like I would my own mother, and not as I would talk to my mother-in-law. If you become my mother, Europeans become my cousins, my own relatives.
For some time now, I have been troubled by what is happening to you, even more troubled that none of your children is helping you, but troubled most by the worry that they might in fact be burying you while you are still alive. They do not seem to understand that you are merely suffering from an ailment; you are not moribund, not yet dead or even close to dying. How can premature burial cure cultural amnesia? Yet, in this letter, I shall not complain about them.
In the land I hail from, there once lived an extraordinary poet Kalidasa, who wrote a play called Abhignana Shakuntala. ‘Shankuntala’ names a girl and, in Sanskrit, ‘abhignana’ means ‘remembering the forgotten’. Today, we need another Kalidasa; not to write Abhignana Shakuntala but to write an Abhignana Europa. I wish I could do that, but I am neither a poet, let alone a great one like Kalidasa, nor can I give back your memory. Even though I look back with admiration at the things you have realized and at what you have accomplished, I am very, very perturbed by what you have forgotten. Thus, I shall make a beginning with the hope that a new Kalidasa will emerge out of the millions who constitute your children, to tell you how great you once were and how great you still are, if only you could remember what you have forgotten since. Yet, I am afraid, even this will not suffice; you need more than a new Kalidasa to remember. To make you understand the ‘why’, I need to recount a story.
Let this story begin at a time that also marks the end of your most acute suffering, namely, after the first fifty years of the last century. The ravages to your internal organs were so devastating that you, my Lady, went into a coma. The United States of America, your sister one presumes, nursed you back to health here: she helped rebuild your towns and cities, revitalized your commerce and trade and she even airlifted food to mitigate the dramatic consequences of an imposed division of a nation into two warring factions. Rightly, Europeans are grateful for what she did; they owe her their lives in more ways than one. However, you needed more than physical health but, here, she failed abysmally. Not for the want of trying but because she herself underwent changes that sapped life from her.
You see, after the Second World War, your sister rightly lifted her restrictive immigration policies. Now, she allowed people to come from different shores and continents to live at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. While doing so, as a mother, she committed an unforgivable act: she neglected to care for her new children, transformed them into orphans, taught them no culture but instilled in them only the greed for money. When orphans multiply with no teachers to teach them, with no cultivation or education or culture, we know what happens: we know our Oliver Twist well, do we not? Criminals take over and run schools for the orphans, not in order to teach them how to live well but to ensure that they learn to steal. This is what America did to her new children: she orphaned them, neglected caring for them, and left them at the mercy of criminals who set up schools that taught them to make money by hook or by crook. As a result, she, their mother, lost her life blood, became drained and anemic; her orphaned children knew no more why they ceded from Britain, nor what ‘No taxation without representation’ really signified. Today, the self-styled inheritors of this tradition have taken the grotesque form of the ‘Tea Party’ – a bunch of lunatics who are beginning to define the politics of the United States by borrowing slogans from thoughts they scarcely comprehend. That is the price you pay when you forget your own past. Your sister, America, sold her soul for a dime and a cent, precisely at the time you lost your memory due to suffering. But neither fact excuses the failure of the progenies: to remind you or America where you are coming from and where you should be heading.
Let me tell you something more: this sister of yours has created criminal gangs called ‘lobbies’, which run America. These are small groups of individuals financed by huge amounts of money that care only for narrow, sectional interests. These lobbies buy politics and politicians through money and favors; they mortgage the democratic election processes by spending gigantic sums on televised lies. Most Americans, the students from orphan schools with little education and no culture, buy into these advertisements as though they embody God’s own truth. They cannot distinguish between fiction and reality, between lie and truth, and between falsehood and deception. These lobbies not only buy votes and politicians: they also formulate narrow policies, which, when strung together, get sold as the ‘National interest of America’. It has little to do with the national interests of America; as the history after the Second World War demonstrates, she is rapidly losing friends, including those from ‘Old Europe’, as a pretentious American disparagingly referred to you not so long ago. America is isolated, America is going into a decline, but these orphaned children do not even know that they are watching Rome burn while their presidents play fiddle like Nero did. America is burning, my Lady, but there are no firefighters left anymore: not in the Americas, not in Europe, nor anywhere else in the world.
The United States of America. Is she truly your sister, a daughter or merely a pretender to the title? Whatever the case, she had great promise and showed great potential at birth. ‘Give me your poor’, she said to the world at large, ‘give me your wretched and give me your weak. I shall make them proud and strong’. She fulfilled her promise too, or, at least, people thought she did. It does not matter which of it is true, but the point is that she knew why she existed. However, something happened after the Second World War: perhaps, your present situation also interfered in her past. Be that as it may, while you developed cultural amnesia she learnt just this: greed for money. Today, my Lady, the ‘American Dream’ signifies only this: anyone can make money there, if only one is greedy enough. America sold herself to the incessant greed to make money, more money and even more money. Any protest is stifled in the name of ‘fighting socialism’, ‘fighting communism’ and ‘protecting freedom’.
The American public has become so illiterate that they hardly distinguish between democracy, socialism, authoritarianism and dictatorships. They shout slogans ripped out of contexts borrowed from your liberal and socialist thinkers of yesteryears. They disfigure and deform these beyond all recognition and such one-liners then become the planks of American policy towards other nations and people. The price she is paying for it is huge; the price the world is paying for it is also huge. America has become a poison in the palace of nations. Instead of occupying her rightful place, which was hers even without asking, she has fritted it away in the last five decades by supporting authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, by promoting terrorism under the guise of supporting ‘freedom fighters’, and by attacking weak countries using her military might. All of this in the name of her ‘national interest’. Which national interest is served, my Lady, when, decade after decade, you support dictators and terrorists? America has no national interest to protect, because she is not a nation anymore. Today, she is simply a collection of lobbies, a collection of interest groups, a collection of people crazed by money, who are steering America hither and thither without any idea of where she should be going. So, you see, your present state is not obviously without universal impact; it has not only impacted America but also the rest of the world. We need you today. Come back to us my Lady, because if you go the way you’re going, human destruction is an assured fact.
Your sister’s progeny, the present day Americans, are pretenders to the throne. They falsely claim that they are continuing your legacy, the legacy of democracy. You would have known this for a falsehood, if it was not for your amnesia. Contemporary Europeans are beginning to blindly and unthinkingly reproduce the worst from America and, in the process, mutate, deform, disfigure and destroy what you once stood for. Mindless imitation is more damaging here than it is elsewhere.
Today, such unthinking people suggest that voting periodically and having a peaceful transfer of power is what democracy is all about. Did you fight for centuries for a mere voting procedure? Surely despots also organize elections, the way China does today, and have themselves elected. Why fight for this? What did you oppose? What did you want to realize and achieve?
Everybody preaches democracy but nobody seems to know what it is. It gets reduced to voting, to universal suffrage and to peaceful transfer of power as though with these things in their place, society is rescued from the clutches of sectional interests and narrow ideologies. You, my Lady, did not fight for this; the earlier generations of Europeans did not die for this, even though this was surely a part of their dream, a part of what they wanted to achieve. They wanted something more, which they did achieve, even if imperfectly. On their way to realizing their dream, the earlier generations knew that there were the general interests of society, general interests of people, which trump any narrow sectional, class, group, or nationality interests. They believed very strongly that general interests override all sectional and particular interests and democracy was desirable because it represented to people their own interests as a people. This was the democracy they fought for, and this is the democracy that the despots and the authoritarian regimes fight against. If this was not the case, Pinochet with regular elections and Hitler with popular elections would all be democrats. But they are not. They cannot be that because they would not and could not represent the general interests of a people. Because such general interests are not given a priori, it is the task of the democratically elected political parties to hammer out a general interest through discussions with the people as a people: not as social classes, not as interest groups, not as lobbies. But as members of a society desirous of living peacefully with each other.
One does not pass a legislation for holding arms, as they do in America, under the pressure of a lobby like the NRA. One does not use the murder of school children as an excuse to transform citadels of education, which is what schools should be, into prisons by calling for the police to ‘guard’ the inmates. One does not protect tobacco, automobile and other industrial lobbies because they pay the politicians; instead, one looks at what they are doing to the interests of the people, both national and international. Today, democracy is being honored by raping it: your philosophers and historians either stand by the wayside or applaud the act. As though this is not enough, they also want to publicize this state of affairs, promote and transfer it to other cultures and people. Do they realize what they are doing when they do this? Are you even aware that such things are happening in the name of your past, in the name of your travails and in the name of the torture you underwent and in the name of the results that you once tried to achieve?
Do not misunderstand me, my Lady. Not all your progeny is doing all of these things. There are indefinitely many, both in Europe and in America, who think the way I do. But their voices are drowned and their numbers overwhelmed. They too despair, not knowing what they should be doing. In their despair, some of them seek to ‘build a European identity’ or even encourage people to ‘become’ Europeans. This would be comic if it was not so tragic: how could they want to ‘become’ Europeans, when they are already that? So, it appears, they too do not know who they are. Stands to reason, does it not? As your children, they too are afflicted by the amnesia you are suffering from. Perhaps, this explains why neither your historians nor your philosophers can help you; why even America cannot help you. It is not their bad faith that is responsible for this, My Lady, but merely their helplessness.
Thus we arrive at the questions of the millennium: what should you do to get your memory back? Who can help you here? When your erudite historians with their impressive tomes about past events gaze helplessly; when your brilliant philosophers with their obscure and not-so-obscure tracts produce impotent discourses; when your gifted politicians succumb to the siren song of ephemeral political success; when even a nation like the United States of America can do no more than play the bully; who, then, can help you here?
Amnesia is a tricky thing. We know of a few remedies that can cure: we wait and hope for the memory to come back; where possible, we also administer ‘memory enhancing’ drugs, whose efficacies are dubious at best; further, we encourage the patient to seek out familiar places and people, interact as the acquired skills and knowledge permit and jiggle the forgotten back into existence through an exercise of the ‘not-forgotten’. We have waited for more than five decades now and no doubt will continue to do the same for some more time to come. Your writers, thinkers and politicians are the only drugs we have and I have already expressed my skepticism about the results. So, it appears that there is but one option left for you, which is to seek out familiar places and people. However, what are these places and who are these people?
In retracing your actions among people to recover your memory, there are many things that should not be repeated, some only partially and yet others perhaps in full. I possess no special knowledge to help you in this regard. I do not need to: the Europeans will learn what they have to do, when the time comes. For now, all I can suggest is that you partially retrace your actions in your ex-colonies, who have become proud and independent now. To do what requires doing, the Europeans have to seek them out: not in ones and twos, but in hundreds of thousands; not as colonial masters meeting their subjects and not even as tourists. They have to go to them as concerned people, who are looking for a people-to-people relationship. These contacts will provide you with new contexts where the reproduction of some of your old actions will be fraught with new meanings but still help you recollect yourself. It will not be the colonial context because that is long past; but it will be context where the Pandavas and the Kauravas meet, as children of two different mothers. This time the meeting shall not take place on the battle field where they destroyed each other but in a festival where they come together as family members.
However, I cannot speak in the name of all your ex-colonies or even one. But I can speak of my mother’s land and invite you to come and seek us out in numbers that beat the imagination. While I cannot promise you anything in the name of my brothers and sisters, I can let you in on an insight that should help you in your quest. This insight will tell you why Indians will help you because, you see my lady, you can help them too when you go back there: you can give something back to them that they badly need today.
You see, when your children dominated and took us over, they turned-off the taps, which brought water to our lands. This life-bringing water is the traditions of a people that connects them to their past and to each other. Because of the event of colonialism, Indians lost trust and faith in their own traditions because they related colonization directly to the nature of these traditions. The land of millions, they reasoned, could not be dominated by few thousands unless their own culture and traditions were backward and primitive. The Europeans, drunk with their belief in the truth of their religion and the strength of their civilization, told us that we were indeed primitive if not barbarous, stagnant, and in need of progress, true religion and modern science. We believed them; we could not argue with the power of colonialism. Thus, we have come to accept as God’s own truth that our traditions and cultures are hindrances in every way. In doing so, we let them tell us what our traditions are, what these cannot do and the Europeans did what they thought was in the best interests of all concerned: they turned our taps off.
By turning the taps off, they did not merely sever our links to the land, to our past and indeed to knowing who we were. It also made us ignorant of the very existence of these taps, had us believe that these were useless drainage cisterns built by people from so-long-ago. Our traditions ceased to be seen by us as taps; they became useless drainage pipes from the past. Therefore, we do not know that water came through them once. All we see are useless pipes, which work no more; that is what our own traditions have become to us now: useless and stifling customs that have made our soil into an arid land. When Europeans ridiculed and trivialized our culture and traditions, while within a colonial ambit, they turned the taps off; now, it can be turned on again by helping us to rediscover the strength and power of our culture and traditions. In this sense, Europeans do know how to turn the taps on; after all, they turned them off before. Please have them do so: that is what they will have to do when they come to India.
Having been the cause of many induced famines in Bengal, the British observed the result of one such thus: “we can now safely say that Bengal, once the granary of India, a third of Hindustan, is now a jungle inhabited only by wild beasts.”
Then it was at least a jungle; now it has become a desert where nothing grows except the cacti. My Lady, this is a fertile land, not a desert. It is a crime to transform fertile lands into deserts when mankind is starving for food. All it requires to make it fertile once again is to have the taps turned on. Let that be done because food is needed not just for us but for the whole of humanity. That humanity is starving today.
Help us reconnect to our traditions, my Lady, and we shall help you rediscover the memory you have lost.
So I invite you, my Lady, to send your children to us. Together, let us build an ‘India Platform’, a platform which will be the foundation of a festival hall built big enough to accommodate both my siblings and your heirs. May we come together this time to celebrate and not to destroy, to enjoy and not to suffer, to remember and not to forget.