*Mujhe Tumare Sign Chaiyen: The Act of Writing in Deewaar (1975)

For all the apparent simplicity of its plot, Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975) — on which I have written a book [HarperCollins, late December 2010] to which I made reference in my blog earlier this month — twists and turns on a number of phenomena, none perhaps as remarkable as the act of writing.  Though Deewaar has generated its fair share of commentary, scholarly and otherwise, I am not aware that the palpable significance of the written word as such has previously been registered much less interpreted.  To be sure, the tense indeed terse conversation that ensues between Vijay and his brother Ravi in the aftermath of Vijay’s purchase of a skyscraper, when Ravi asks for Vijay’s written confession – mujhe tumare sign chaiyen, ‘I want your signature’– has already been inscribed into the annals of the most famous dialogues in Hindi cinema.  Conversation is perhaps not the best of words; confrontation more accurately describes their exchange.  As an aside, it is notable that Vijay and Ravi each have conversations with others, but seldom with each other.  They exchange words with each other on a few occasions, but these should not be confused for conversations.  An older meaning of ‘conversation’, the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, referred to sexual intimacy and even the act of sexual intercourse; though this meaning of ‘conversation’ is now lost to us, the word retains suggestions of social intimacy, living together and consorting with others.  Such intimacy is not shared between the two brothers, even if Vijay frequently attempts to draw upon what he hopes are shared memories.

In a film bursting with crackling dialogues, it is scarcely an accident that many of the most telling lines are delivered around the subject of the written word, and that the signature marks the advent of a new sensibility.  Writing inaugurates a hermeneutics of suspicion, introducing new hierarchies of power and establishing a contrast between status, where one’s place in the social hierarchy is a matter of ascription, convention, and unwritten traditions, and contract, an agreement that is legally enforceable in a court of law.  The signature is the most dense and iconic of all acts of writing.  The written invariably introduces uniformity, even if there is inconsistency within a document and between texts; and the alphabetization of the script has even been interpreted as a charter of oppression for some people. The signature, moreover, is the infallible mark of identity, and forgery of a signature is tantamount to what, in modern parlance, is called identity-theft.

Let me dwell on the inaugural moment of the signature in Deewaar as a prolegomenon to a more considered evaluation of the act of writing that readers will encounter in my book.  These pages, modified to some degree from the text of the published book, should suffice to indicate the tenor of the argument.  The signature makes an early and pivotal entry in Deewaar.  Anand Babu, entrusted by mill workers with negotiating a fair agreement with the management, is confronted with a difficult choice.  A folder is placed before him, and as he turns one page after another, Anand Babu asks what is the meaning of this insult:  the proposed “new” agreement offers the labourers terms which they have already rejected.  Anand Babu is asked to turn another page:  smack in its middle is a photograph of his wife and their two sons, Vijay and Ravi, all now held hostage at the owner’s command.  There, in the background, is the crack of thunder:  events in the social world have their counterpart in the natural world, however much the modern dispensation to think of the physical and social worlds as distinct entities.  What, asks Anand Babu in obvious rage, if I were not to sign?  The plot, a sophisticated viewer is likely to think, is but chicken feed; and the Hindi film’s love for the baroque and the garish is none too subtly conveyed by the camera’s turn towards one of the more fearsome hooligans who is described, as he twirls his moustache with a menacing look on his face, as a man who has twice been to jail, once on the charge of murder.  ‘I want my wife and children’, says Anand Babu; ‘and I’, replies the seth, ‘want your signature.’  That is not what one would be inclined to describe as a fair exchange, but one must never underestimate the weight behind the signature.  Sign the papers, Anand Babu is told, or perish the thought that you will ever see your loved ones again.  Lightening strikes:  here is a portent of the unrelenting darkness that is about to descend on the lives of Anand Babu, his family, and the community of workers.

The seth holds up the pen in one hand; Anand Babu looks down at the photograph and then his eyes hover on the pen.  When I first saw this film as an adult, I was reminded of the essay question on which generations of school children in India were brought up, though perhaps in this computer age the question no longer resonates as mightily as it once did.   We would be asked to discuss, ‘Is the pen mightier than the sword?’, though the interrogative form always seemed specious.  It was understood that, unless one was willing to subscribe to some notion of naked power, the greatness of the pen had to be affirmed – an affirmation all the more necessary in view of the fact that, idealist sentiments aside, the pen was viewed as being at an incalculable disadvantage with respect to the sword.  Norms of civility demanded that the pen be made triumphant over the sword.  That apparent opposition – the one an instrument of civilization, of letters and philosophy, the other the symbol of brute strength – is in Deewaar dissolved at this junction, since both the pen and the sword are to be the instruments of Anand Babu’s defeat.  Wordlessly, Anand Babu grabs the pen; his hand clutched to it, he hesitates:  back and forth the camera moves, against the crescendo of thunder outside, between the paper that demands his signature and the image of his captive family.  The camera zooms in on his hand as he affixes his signature to the nefarious agreement, and then cuts to Anand Babu standing before the workers in pouring rain:  he offers no explanation for his conduct, only an account of his capitulation:  ‘I’ve signed all the papers of the agreement and agreed to all their demands.  I’ve also agreed that the labourers will toil at the same wages that they received before – and that if there is another strike, it will be illegal.  I’ve sold you all off.’

*Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

The enterprise of making a nation is fraught with violence.  People have to be not merely cajoled but browbeaten into submission to become proper subjects of a proper nation-state.  Overt violence may not always play the primary role in producing the homogenous subject, but social phenomena such as schooling cannot be viewed merely as innocuous enterprises designed to ‘educate’ subjects of the state.  One of the most widely cited works to have put forward this argument with elegance and scholarly rigor is Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen, where one learns, with much surprise, that even in the Third Republic “French was a foreign language for half the citizens.”  The making of France entailed not only the modernization of the rural countryside but creating, often with violence, proper subjects of a proper nation-state.  The making of the United States offers another narrative of the role of violence in the production of the nation-state, with the extermination of native Americans long before and much after the ‘Revolutionary War’ constituting the most vital link in the long chain of violence that marked the emergence of the United States.

Postcolonial thought, attentive as always to the politics of nation-making and nationalism’s complicity with colonialism, bestowed considerable attention on the various phenomena that can be accumulated under the rubric of violence; however, it had almost no time to spare for a pragmatic, ethical, or even philosophical consideration of nonviolence.  The violence of the nation-state may have always been present to the mind of postcolonial theorists, but generally this was reduced to the violence of the colonizer.  One thinks, of course, of Fanon, Cesaire, Memmi, and many others in this respect.  In those works that have underscored the complicity of nationalist and imperialist thought, a principal motif in the work (say) of Ranajit Guha, the violence of indigenous elites also came under critical scrutiny.  [See, for example, Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, or his programmatic note on subaltern studies in Volume I.]  It is characteristic of most social thought in the West that it has been riveted on violence – here, postcolonial thought barely diverged from orthodox social science, mainstream social thought, or the general drift of humanist thinking.  Nonviolence is barely present in intellectual discussions.  We see here history’s continuing enchantment with ‘events’; nonviolence creates little or no noise, it merely is, it only fills the space in the background.

One of the many genuine insights at which Gandhi arrived was the recognition that the practitioners, theorists, and ardent believers in nonviolence in Europe and America had become entirely marginal to dominant intellectual traditions of the West.  The Tolstoy who turned to anarchism and nonviolence was seen as having betrayed the finest humanist traditions that he had once embodied; Thoreau was dismissed as a freak; and Edward Carpenter was reduced to obscurity.  That the supreme novelist of 19th century Europe, feted and celebrated not only in aristocratic and learned circles but in the much wider and emerging public sphere, should have turned to philosophical anarchism, renouncing his own works and embracing a political view of Christianity that put him in the path of confrontation with the church, is something that passed the comprehension of Tolstoy’s contemporaries.  Gandhi was similarly inclined to view Christianity as a firm repudiation of Christ’s teachings on nonviolent resistance, though what role Tolstoy had in shaping Gandhi’s conception of Christianity remains uncertain.

The point cannot be reinforced enough:  nonviolence has never had any salience in Western thought, and postcolonial thought has in this respect scarcely deviated from the intellectual traditions of the West.  Once we leave aside Indian scholars such as Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy, for whom Gandhi perforce has had an inescapable presence, we find that postcolonialism in the Western academy never had the slightest truck with the histories and practices of nonviolence.  The fetish for violence manifested itself in a sustained interest in Fanon among postcolonial theorists; but Gandhi has long seemed, shall we say, unsexy in the extreme.  The case of Edward Said is instructive:  though he had gotten in the habit of furnishing lists of anti-colonial thinkers and texts to his readers, Gandhi remained singularly uninteresting to him.  It is informative that in a voluminous collection of interviews with Edward Said, edited by Gauri Viswanathan and published in 2004, the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. appears twice:  but where King is remembered around the world chiefly and justly as one of the chief architects of the civil rights movement, the preeminent prophetic voice of an aggrieved black America, Said mentions him both times only (and I should say without any just cause) as an unequivocal supporter of Zionism.  Many have pointed to the fact that the oppression of the colonizers was much more visible to Said than the resistance to colonial rule; but, even within the canvas of resistance, the idea of nonviolent resistance, and its histories, was not even remotely on Said’s horizon.  Nonviolence has been a gaping hole in postcolonial thought, and this alone points us to the irrepressible and uncomfortable truth of the deep structuring of violence in the entire edifice of modern Western thought.

See also related previous posts:

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

*Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

The nation-state is the only game in town; and, since we only have a conception of finite games, this game has winners and losers.  (As an aside, it is not accidental that the United Stats, which embodies the idea of the nation-state as well as any other country, remains incapable of comprehending games that are not finite.  ‘Finite’ and ‘infinite’ games, as James Carse has deployed those terms, go well beyond games as those are ordinarily understood, but for our purposes the literal examples of games [as in sports] will suffice beautifully.  American games, among them basketball, football, and baseball, cannot countenance the possibility of a draw:  a draw is not an acceptable ‘result’, and if the score is tied at the end of regulation play, the games goes into over-time, and if necessary into double and triple over-time.  Cricket offers the greatest contrast:  Americans are among those who are gravely puzzled by a game that, in its ideal version, could last five days and end, as was more often the case than not, in a draw.  Cricket in its classic test match version has long seemed to be a game where the killer instinct could not be exercised.)  In this scenario of finite games, a nation-state advances at the cost of another nation-state.  These nation-states [or, in the awkward grammatical version, nations-state] exist in a highly hierarchical relationship to each other, an idea equally to be encountered in the very apotheosis of the nation-state, namely the United Nations (where, as is transparent, the General Assembly that in principle deems all nations to be equal is wholly subservient to the wholly undemocratic organ known as the Security Council).

Well-meaning people like to speak of win-win situations, and hope for such outcomes, but the relentless logic of the nation-state permits no easy consolations.  One modern narrative, about the renewed ascendancy of China and India, shows as clearly as anything else how modern political discourse has succumbed entirely to the zero-sum politics of our times.  A prolific literature, which we can see multiplying before our eyes, adverts to various aspects of the race between the two countries.  The only points of comparison seem to revolve around the number of new cell phone connections, the amount of foreign exchange reserves, the share of each country in world exports, the growth of domestic product, the growth of the automobile culture, rapidly expanding consumer markets, and the like.  To be sure, such discussions are leavened by apparently more sophisticated considerations, such as whether India is, in comparison with China, disadvantaged by restraints on growth placed by adherence, however nominal, to democratic freedoms, or whether China’s one-child policy will work to its detriment as its population ages at a much faster rate than is the case in India.  Those interested in geopolitical considerations have taken this narrative further, comparing and contrasting the growing reach of India and especially China throughout Africa.  If the Chinese are tapping the mineral wealth of Africa at an astronomical rate, Indian telecommunications giants such as Airtel have also made spectacular inroads.

In these comparisons between India and China, the illustration I have taken (and discussed as a particular kind of modernist discourse in an article published two year ago), any reference to the fact that India and China long enjoyed civilizational ties before they knew each other as nation-states is dismissed as nostalgia or soft-headed romanticism.  The hostility to civilizational discourses in Marxism is well known, but postcolonial scholars have held a similarly corrosive view of civilizational languages and have not permitted civilizational frameworks to shape their arguments.  Tagore’s views, expressed in his manifesto on nationalism in 1917, are instructive in this regard.  He was obviously not unaware of the oppression wrought in the name of civilization, and nearly everyone with a modicum of awareness of colonial histories recognizes that the idea of ‘civilizing mission’ served to keep some people in a state of submission.  Nevertheless, Tagore also understood that ‘civilization’ offered the only countervailing force to the nation-state. The ‘Nation of the West’ was Tagore’s quaint if brilliant term to convey the idea that every nation, not merely those in Western Europe, will be made in the image of the nation-state as it emerged in the West: civilizations vary immensely, but the nation-state demands homogeneity not only within but in its very form.  Modern civilization is a strange thing, Gandhi opined in ‘Hind Swaraj’, but stranger still was the nation-state.  Civilizations are less insistent on homogeneity and more accommodating, in various ways, to ideas of plurality, diversity, and difference.

The civilizational framework may be important as it furnishes cues on how to think about such notions as ‘cosmopolitanism’, ‘citizenship’, and the ‘commons’.  The best of liberal discourse on citizenship seems positively anemic, operating, even after policy prescriptions are given full consideration, at a level of abstraction which says little about how, say, workers inhabit the condition of dwellers at home, in the workplace, and in the myriad pubic spheres of the nation.  The discourse of cosmopolitanism – “citizen of the earth”, to return to the term’s Greek roots – may be afflicted with similar problems, judging from the literature on ‘world cities’ that has been generated in recent years.  It may be argued that the idea of ‘world cities’ should be warmly embraced, if for no other reason that it shows a way out of the iron grip of the nation-state.  What new hierarchies, we may then ask, are established?  How does the present conception of world cities differ substantively from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century web of cities criss-crossed by imperialist and nationalist elites alike?  Do contemporary notions of citizenship offer a more expansive conception of hospitality and mode for thinking about, in Appiah’s phrase, ‘ethics in a world of strangers’?

See also related posts:

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

*Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

*Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

*The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

*The Footpath and the Skyscraper: The Pleasures of Deewaar

Few films from mainstream Hindi cinema have captivated audiences as much over nearly four decades as Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975, with Amitabh Bachchan).  At a book launch in New Delhi last evening, a journalist told me that the film producer, writer, poet, and former editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, Pritish Nandy, once declared Deewaar to be the single most interesting ‘masala’ film.  I cannot say how reliable is this information, but for many years I nursed an ambition to write a small book on Deewaar.   The results of that ambition are there to be seen in my book DeewaarThe Footpath, the City and the Angry Young Man, due to be released by HarperCollins India in mid-December.

Among the most spellbinding elements of Deewaar is what I have described as the dialectic of the footpath and the skyscraper.  To give readers a taste of what they might expect by way of interpretation, here are a few slightly edited passages from the book:

“Moving as he does between the extremes, from the village to a global trade in smuggled goods, from the uniform of a mere coolie at Bombay’s docks to tailored suits, we should not be surprised that Vijay [Amitabh Bachchan] teeters between the footpath and the skyscraper.   Deewaar has justly been described as a film that gives vent to the explosive anger of discontented young urban India, as well as a film that, while exploring, partly through tacit invocations to the rich mythic material found in the Mahabharata, the inexhaustible theme of fraternal conflict, provides an allegorical treatment of the eternal struggle between good and evil within oneself.”

“Compelling as are such readings, I would nevertheless suggest that Deewaar also puts on offer the dialectic of the footpath and the skyscraper . . . .   The footpath or pavement . . . has ever been present in the Hindi film, to be numbered among the dramatis personae.  The ubiquity of the footpath as home to the homeless, migrant labourers, and myriad others living at the margins of society is too self-evident to require comment.  One can think of it more imaginatively as a school where life’s lessons are imbibed:  while Ravi [Vijay’s brother, played by Shashi Kapoor] goes to school, where under the umbrella of the textbook, the national anthem, and the discipline of the rod he will learn to become the dutiful subject of the state, Vijay takes up shining shoes on the footpath. It is on this footpath that some of the dialogues inescapably associated with Deewaar take place:  issuing a retort to Jaichand for throwing money at him after his shoes have been polished, the young Vijay says, ‘I polish shoes and do not beg for money.  Pick up the money and place it in my hands.’  Vijay, Davar later cautions Jaichand, is the steed that runs long races (‘lambi race ka ghora’):  ‘He is not going to be shining shoes the rest of his life.  That day when he catches life by the neck, he will leave everyone behind.  Mark my words:  One day this boy will make something of himself.’”

“Sure enough, Vijay gravitates from the footpath to the skyscraper.  Elsewhere in this book, I have described the impossible gift:  when riches comes his way, Vijay’s first thought is to gift his mother the skyscraper built with nothing less than her blood, sweat and tears.  All the insults and humiliations heaped upon her, he deludes himself into believing, are thereby avenged.  Curiously, no sooner has he gained possession of the skyscraper than his fall commences, as if the footpath were beckoning him to return to his roots and plant his feet on the ground. ‘Meri ma ne yahan eente uthai thi’ (‘my mother carried bricks on her head here’), Vijay informs the businessman from whom he purchases the skyscraper, but the fact that his claim on this skyscraper is ephemeral, and ultimately undeserving, is underscored by the fact that the viewer’s sight of the building is barred throughout their negotiations. . . .”

See also the related post on Deewaar and the act of writing:

Mujhe Tumare Sign Chaiyen: The Act of Writing in Deewaar (1975)