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Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime V

(Being, a gentle reminder to the reader, a cornucopia of assertions, satire, commentary, interpretation, Trump-comedy, and much else, but always grounded in at least some facts.)

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The Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, Ohio, founded and shuttered in 1977 on September 19, a remembered in the area as “Black Monday”. Source: http://postindustrialrustbelt.blogspot.com/2014/10/rust-belt.html

Few phrases have done the round as much in this election cycle in the United States as the “Rust Belt”. On Washington’s Beltway, jubilant Republicans and morose Democrats will doubtless be talking about the Rust Belt for a long time, indeed until such time as rust begins to acquire around the idea of the Rust Belt and, like all others phrases that have done their time, this one too becomes a hazy memory. Contrary to received opinion, the phrase “Rust Belt” is not of recent vintage, dating, as is commonly imagined, to around 20-30 years ago, a period which witnessed both NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the emergence of China as a global economic powerhouse.  This is when jobs began leaving the United States, corporations started taking recourse to outsourcing, and the industrial heartland in the Midwest—and especially the area around Pittsburgh and other steel-producing towns—went into decline.

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The Rust Belt of the United States. Source: https://unitedstateshistorylsa.wikispaces.com/Sunbelt+and+Rustbelt

The veracity of this claim is not my concern at this juncture.  However, what is interesting is that though the term “Rust Belt” began to acquire popularity around the late 1980s, similar uses of the term can be dated back much earlier.  The Oxford English Dictionary informs us that the phrase “Rust Belt” was used as early as 1869, when the San Francisco Bulletin stated that “a foreign demand for wheat and barley would set a good many farmers on their pins . . . The demand will not, of course, help those who rented lands within the rust belt.”  More tellingly, a good decade before NAFTA entered into force, well before, as Trump and common wisdom would have it, Mexico, China, India, and other countries began swallowing up well-paying jobs that had sustained decent American families, an Associated Press story, published on 30 November 1982, stated that “unemployment is extremely high in many areas of the so-called ‘Rust Belt’, the heavy industry areas of the Midwest and parts of the Northeast.”  For all the tens of thousands of economists—the anointed ‘queens’ of the social sciences—writing on this subject, the claim that unemployment in the Rust Belt surged following the enactment of NAFTA and the packaging of jobs to China remains largely unexamined.  The rust on the Rust Belt has a longer history than is commonly imagined.

There is a consensus among commentators or “pundits”—proud Indians will doubtless have taken note of this, pointing to it as one of myriad signs of how Indian words have now become normalized in English—that the Rust Belt states won Trump his Presidency.  It is Hillary Clinton’s neglect of these states, and her presumption that the working-class was in her pocket, that is supposed to have sunk her bid for the presidency.  Of course, as scholars in particular are wont to say, such a claim is “problematic”, since even many outside the Rust Belt voted for Trump.  A majority of white women, 53% to be precise, appear to have voted for Trump, notwithstanding the fact that well over a dozen white women stepped forward with allegations of being sexually abused and assaulted by him; similarly, though Trump reeks of racism, fewer black people voted for Hillary Clinton than did for Barack Obama.  One could easily multiply such facts, but there is nevertheless a widespread and credible view that the Rust Belt states proved critically important and perhaps decisive in Trump’s victory.

So much for the view from the Rust Belt.  India’s much derided (or vaunted, by some) ‘Cow Belt’ furnishes us another perspective on the US Elections in myriad ways about which I shall be only tantalizingly suggestive.  Both India and the US are what may be called ‘bovine’ countries:  the cow is venerated in India among the Hindus and devoured in the US; in the Midwest, especially, beef jerky is a delicacy.  But let me not venture forth, for fear of being targeted by the internet gau rakshaks, on the numerous delectable ways in which India and the US, joined at the hip as the world’s two largest democracies, are bovine-minded.  The Cow Belt, which some view as a derogatory term, refers to India’s Gangetic heartland from where Narendra Modi drew his strongest supporters in 2014.  It is sometimes called the ‘Saffron Belt’:  in either case, it is in this densely populated part of the country that Hindu nationalism has its widest appeal and where gangs of young men have organized themselves into vigilante groups that terrorize Muslims and “pseudo-secularists” (as they are described by the advocates of Hindutva) who do not pay obeisance to the cow.

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Four young Dalit men stripped and beaten with belts, allegedly for transporting beef–not a crime under any Indian law, but a heinous offense to the Motherland and to Gau Mata from the standpoint of self-appointed Guardians of the Cow. The incident took place in July 2016 and was video-taped. Source: India Today.

It is here that a person might get beaten to pulp on the mere suspicion of eating beef or transporting dead cows to the slaughter-house.  In both countries, the narrative takes on the same hue, registering the disaffection of the ‘majority’ in the ‘heartland’ who are bereft of jobs and hobbled by some form of political correctness.  White racism in the United States, of course by no means confined to the ‘Rust Belt’, meets its match in Hindu chauvinism in the ‘Cow Belt’.

But there is seemingly another obvious reference when we speak of the perspective from the ‘Cow Belt’ on the US Elections.  Many commentators have pointed to the ‘strong man’ who seems to be trending worldwide today and have suggested, as did Pankaj Mishra in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, that Narendra Modi, with his boasts about his 56-inch chest, may have set the example.  Trump’s all but explicit remarks about the shriveled penis of one of his opponents in the Republican primary might seem to bolster such a view.  But it is doubtful that Trump emulates anyone except himself:  he has an equally long history both of boasts and of parading his own masculinity. Moreover, was there ever a time in the politics of the last two to three decades when the ‘strong man’ did not reign?  Have we forgotten Manuel Noriega? Or Saddam Hussein? Commentators would have been more on the mark if they had been sensitive to the shifts in the register of masculinity among ‘strong men’, shifts which portend what I would call an incredulous masculinity.  What could be more fantastic, for example, then the fact that Rodrigo Duterte, now President of the Philippines, as a candidate promised that if he were elected President he would gun down drug users and traffickers and, as President, would immediately exercise his privileges in granting himself immunity from charges of murder!  Whatever one may say of Modi, he lacks this kind of devilish humor and ingenuity.

There is also the matter, finally, of the Chastity Belt. chastitybelt American feminists and women’s organizations have rightfully expressed alarm at the looming erosion of women’s rights, and in particular women’s reproductive freedoms, under a Trump Presidency.  The sexual profligacy of Donald Trump, who even hinted that he would have made a stab at his daughter if she were not his daughter, should at once remove the slightest suspicion that anyone might have that the President-elect would like women to be decorous.  He may like, one suspects, women to be the playthings of men, but he is no advocate of the view that women should be chaste.  The same cannot be said of his Republican allies in Congress, whose views on abortion I discussed in a previous blog and who, it would not be too much to say, certainly think that some women—black women, Latinas, poor women, working-class women, Muslim women—should regulate their sexuality.  The metaphor of the ‘chastity belt’, nowadays a sex toy but in its heyday an instrument for ensuring that women did not step out of bounds and remained available to their husbands, was brought home to me when I stumbled upon this gem from Sarah Palin, another wondrous specimen of American political comedy:

With so many belts to go around, I wonder if we might not all want to make a lunge for the lungi:

lungisdonthavebelts

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In 1974, the young but already acclaimed German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, released a remarkable new film, Fear Eats the Soul [Angst essen Seele auf; also known as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul], which was as daring as it was prescient in its treatment of the reception of foreigners and particularly Muslims in Germany.  The film features an unusual relationship that develops between Ali, a Moroccan guest worker in his late 30s, and a 60-year old white German widow from a working-class community by the name of Emmi.  A chance meeting between the two blossoms into love, but, as lovers have often found out for themselves, others won’t let them live in peace.  A younger man with a much older woman is a phenomenon that continues to be rare in most societies; some people are even likely to find such a relationship abominable.  However, what most offends Emmi’s daughter, son-in-law, friends, and co-workers is that she shares her bed with a Moroccan immigrant.  The canard that foreign workers—many, though by no means all, of them Muslims—are “dirty” is repeated in Elli’s former circle of friends and workers; and, as societies are wont to do with women who show any degree of sexual independence, Elli is soon condemned as a “whore”.

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder

In Germany, given the enormous burden of its history, the question of xenophobia is of paramount importance.  Germans have striven over the years to contend with their past, and it is certainly unnecessary to recount their myriad efforts to acknowledge, and atone for, what transpired under National Socialism and the country’s transformation into a totalitarian state.  In recent years, even as most European countries have been shockingly indifferent to the fate of refugees who have attempted to made their way into Europe from Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, Germany has been generous in opening its arms to this—as it sometimes represented—flotsam and jetsam of a surging humanity.  In comparison with every other country, in and out of Europe, Germany has certainly been salutary in its reception of refugees.  Nevertheless, the anti-immigrant sentiment that is now openly voiced in most countries of Europe, and that has taken the form of virulent forms of racism and discrimination, is now being heard in Germany as well.  Far-right parties had been making inroads in Germany over the last twenty years, but their sentiments have thus far not been shared, at least not in public, by the majority of Germans.  However, yesterday morning’s newspapers carried a report that, perhaps in submission to growing public animosity towards Muslims, whose otherness is symbolized to many people most distinctly by the veiling practiced by many Muslim women, Chancellor Angela Merkel had indicated that the use of the hijab in Germany will henceforth be severely curtailed.

Quite apropos, then, of all this, it is perhaps fitting that last evening I should have had occasion to see Fassbinder’s comparatively little-known film, Katzelmacher, released as part of a set of five DVDs of his early films in Criterion’s Eclipse series.  Fassbinder shot this film, in black & white, over a period of nine days in August 1969 and was able to release it just two months later.  The word, “Katzelmacher”, is said to be Bavarian slang for “foreigner”, though the word has also been rendered as “trouble-maker”; and Fassbinder himself is said to have elaborated upon it thus: “a foreigner, especially someone from the South, who is supposed to enjoy great sexual potency.”  The film centers on a group of young friends in one of Munich’s neighborhoods who appear to have largely aimless lives:  their conversation centers on financial woes and gossip about who is sleeping with whom.  There isn’t much camera movement:  the film moves between a few different locations, among them a street where they gather for conversation, a run-down restaurant, and a few “domestic” apartment interiors. In keeping with this bare-bones cinematic minimalism, necessitated to some degree by the small budget with which Fassbinder was working, is the use of recurring tracking shots of pairs of the principal characters strolling down a street where they are the only pedestrians. The men are abusive to their female sexual partners, slapping and hitting them at will as it seems, and it would be far too much to speak of men having respect for women; indeed, scarcely anyone seems to have any respect for anyone else, and the women bitch about each other.  There is no laughter, no joy, no humor.  One woman, Rosy, engages in a form of prostitution, charging even her boyfriend for sexual favors.

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Katzelmacher: Aimless Lives of the Young.

What disrupts this pattern of living is the sudden appearance of Jorgos (played by Fassbinder himself), a Greek guest-worker who takes up residence in the apartment of Elisabeth, which she shares, though not with any great pleasure, with her live-in boyfriend, Peter.  By the late 1960s, when Katzelmacher was released, there were over two million foreign guest-workers in West Germany, from countries such as Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Morocco.  As in the case of Japan, the wartime machinery in West Germany was in the aftermath of the war diverted to industrial production, and by the late 1950s the economic resurgence of West Germany was such as to generate a huge demand for foreign workers. Jorgos is first taken for an Italian; he is then discovered to be “a Greek from Greece”.  Soon, the rumor is circulating that Elisabeth is sleeping with Jorgos; though the rumor is without any foundation, the implication in part is that Jorgos is without any morals.  Any such insinuation, as Fassbinder suggests, would be comical if it were not (as it eventually turns out) dangerous, considering that none of the other characters can even remotely be viewed as a paragon of the virtuous and morally upright human being.  Peter, who does not take kindly to being reminded by Elizabeth of his sheer worthlessness as a man capable of any degree of financial autonomy, loses no time in suggesting to this motley group of rather pitiful specimens of bourgeois middle-class life that the Greek is muscular, of better built, and larger than any of them—more particularly, in the region of the genitals.

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Beating Up on Imigrants: Jorgos is set upon by the young men of the neighborhood, in a scene from “Katzelmacher”.

Some might suppose that it is sexual envy that feeds the anger and resentment of this circle of young friends.  However, though anti-immigrant feeling may feed on predictable anxieties, such as the notion, now being widely trumpeted in Trump’s America, that immigrants “steal” jobs, xenophobia needs no such rationale and can live off a great many others rumors and anxieties.  For the young women and men in Katzelmacher, vindictiveness towards immigrants is something like a sport; for no apparent reason, Jorgos is constantly taunted as a “communist”.  Greece, in fact, was under the rule of a military junta from 1967-1974, and thousands of communists were hounded, killed, and exiled to remote Greek islands.  The only person who stands by Jorgos is Marie, whose boyfriend, Erich, is a particularly vicious and violent hoodlum of sorts; but her affection for Jorgos, far from saving him, makes him a target of attack by Erich, Peter, and others.  Jorgos is beaten up badly; he is tempted into returning to Greece.

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Jorgos and Marie stroll down a street: from “Katzelmacher”, directed by Fassbinder.

The film ends with Marie and her friend Gunda strolling down a street, hands held together, and exchanging these words:

Marie:  In the summer, he’s taking me to Greece.

Gunda:  And his wife?

Marie:  It doesn’t matter. In Greece everything’s different.

The anti-immigrant narrative now sweeping through the US and much of Europe has nowhere to hide and nothing to say for itself:  it is pathetic, farcical, and tragic as much for immigrants and refugees as it is for wealthy host societies who have apparently still not learned to live with difference and understand what constitutes hospitality and ecumenism.  The bold minimalism of Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher brings us closer to the emptiness that lies at the heart of anti-immigrant sentiments.

 

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 The gifted Indian writer Raja Rao, in introducing Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s memoirs, Inner Recesses Outer Spaces (1986), did Kamaladevi (3 April 1903-29 October 1988) the unusual honor of describing her as “perhaps the most august woman on the Indian scene today.  Firmly Indian and therefore universal, highly sophisticated both in sensibility and intelligence, she walks with everyone, in city and country with utter simplicity.”

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

We shall not linger on what exactly Raja Rao may have intended to convey when he suggested that she was firmly Indian and “therefore” universal, for surely not everything Indian is universal, nor does India, whatever the conceit of those who always applaud it as the “greatest” or oldest civilization, have a monopoly on the “universal”.  The greater puzzle is why Kamaladevi, who left behind the impress of her intelligence, insights, and remarkable energy on everything that she touched, and whose contributions to so many diverse fields of human activity are such as to stagger the imagination, is so little remembered today in India and is virtually unknown outside the country.

Born into a Saraswat Brahmin family in Mangalore, Kamaladevi was initiated into politics at an early age.  Her memoirs are scanty on early dates and details:  she lost her father, who had not written a will, when she was but seven years old, and the family wealth and properties all went to a stepbrother with whom there was little contact.   At a stroke, Kamaladevi and her mother were left disinherited.  This dim awareness of the precariousness of women’s lives would, in time, lead to the recognition that, as she wrote in her memoirs, “women had no rights”.  At the home of her maternal uncle, Kamaladevi received another kind of political education:  he was a notable social reformer and visitors to the home included eminent lawyers, political luminaries, and public figures, among them Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Srinivas Sastri, Pandita Ramabai, and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru.  Throughout, however, Kamaladevi’s mother and grandmother left the deepest impression on her.  Both women were educated, ecumenical in their interests, and enterprising, and it is from them that Kamaladevi inherited her own love of books.

Kamaladevi

Like many educated upper-caste Hindu women of her generation, Kamaladevi was brought into the political life of the nation in the 1920s and 1930s by the ascendancy of Gandhi and his insistence on adhering to a nonviolent struggle.  Kamaladevi’s relationship to Gandhi, whom she acknowledged as a titan without peers, is a vast and complex subject.  By 1923, she had fallen under his spell and she enrolled herself in the nationalist struggle as a member of the Congress party.  Three years later, she had the unique distinction of being the first woman in India to run for political office.  Kamaladevi competed for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly and lost by a mere 55 votes.  Along with the rest of the nation, she was completely captivated by the Salt Satyagraha, but she differed with Gandhi’s decision to exclude women among the initial group of marchers.  Though Kamaladevi was charged with violation of the salt laws and sentenced to a prison term, the most dramatic moment that brought her to the nation’s attention occurred when, in a scuffle over the Congress flag, she clung to it tenaciously.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

While Kamaladevi’s admiration for Gandhi never wavered, and the ideals to which he aspired became her own, she occasionally felt stifled by the authoritarian strands within his personality and felt restless at the slow pace of change.  She had been slowly drifting towards the socialist wing of the Congress party and in 1936 she took over leadership of the Congress Socialist Party.  Meanwhile, Kamaladevi had been establishing extraordinary networks of political solidarity within and outside India.  In 1926 she met the Irish-Indian suffragette Margaret Cousins, who founded the All India Women’s Conference and remained its President until Kamaladevi assumed that role in 1936.  Kamaladevi’s first writings on the rights of women in India date to 1929; one of her last books, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, was published in 1982.  Over a period of some five decades, Kamaladevi articulated in dozens of writings and speeches a distinct position, one that was mindful of the liabilities faced by Indian women that were both peculiar to them and common to women everywhere.  While she became an advocate of positions that are now commonplace to women’s movements all over the world, such as equal pay for equal work, she also resisted the idea that the experience of the West was to furnish the template for women’s movements in India.

Kamaladevi was, however, also a key figure in the international socialist feminist movement.  From the late 1920s to the 1940s and beyond, Kamaladevi became not only an emissary and spokesperson for Indian women and political independence, but for larger transnational causes, such as the emancipation of colored people around the world from colonial rule and political and economic equity between nations.  She attended the “International Alliance of Women in Berlin” in 1929, only to become aware of how race and national boundaries might become obstacles to the solidarity of women:  it was a “misnomer” to call it “International”, she says, as the only non-Western representatives were from Egypt and India.  At the International Session of the League Against Imperialism in Frankfurt, Kamaladevi could discuss problems encountered in common by colonized peoples in West Africa, North Africa, Indochina, the American south, and elsewhere.  Though this has never been recognized as such, Kamaladevi facilitated India’s emergence as the leader of the non-aligned movement and the crafting of the Bandung Declaration of 1956 which was nothing other than a clarion call for a fundamental reordering of the world order.

Kamaladevi was a prolific writer, and her twenty odd books furnish unimpeachable evidence of the wide array of her intellectual and political interests, and a global outlook which shunned alike a narrow nationalism and a superficial cosmopolitanism.  She traveled to Nanjing and Chongqing and met with resistance leaders during the country’s occupation under Japanese rule:  from this resulted a small book, In war-torn China (1944).  Yet, given her spirit of inquiry, she also took it upon herself to visit Japan and came to the conclusion, in Japan:  Its Weakness and Strength (1944), that the Japanese, who had sought to be the vanguard of a pan-Asianism, had bloodied their hands with the most virulent strands of materialism and imperialism.  She is also among a handful of people in India in the 1930s-1950s who wrote widely on the US.  In Uncle Sam’s Empire (1944) and America:  The Land of Superlatives (1946), she reverses the gaze.  Reams and reams have been written of the saffron robe-clad monk, known to the world as Swami Vivekananda, visiting Chicago in 1993 and thereby bringing Hinduism to the New World; and yet we know little of the sari-clad Kamaladevi wandering around the United States, making her way into prisons, union meetings, political conventions, black neighborhoods, and American homes, and leaving behind the distinct impressions of an Indian feminist with strong nationalist and socialist inclinations of the possibilities and limitations of the experiment with democracy.

Kamaladevi was arguably the best traveled Indian woman of her generation, and built up a resume of foreign trips that enabled her to enhance remarkably international networks of political solidarity; yet, as her work in social, political, and cultural domains amply showed, she remained solidly grounded in the ethos of Indian life.  The lives of common people were of abiding interest to her. The city of Faridabad today has a population of around 1.5 million; but hardly anyone is aware of the fact that Kamaladevi played the critical role in giving birth to this industrial township, a flagship project that she undertook as the founding leader of the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) to resettle nearly 50,000 Pathans from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the wake of the post-partition migrations.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

The Kamaladevi that most Indians are familiar with is a figure who, above all, revived Indian handicrafts, became the country’s most well-known expert on carpets, puppets, and its thousands of craft traditions, and nurtured the greater majority of the country’s national institutions charged with the promotion of dance, drama, art, theatre, music, and puppetry.  It must seem strange to those acquainted with the first half of her life that someone who was so intensely political should have eschewed every political office in independent India.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi.  Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi. Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Did she abandon “the political center” as she acquired prominence as an authority on India’s craft traditions and the country’s tribal populations?   Greatly disillusioned by the partition, Kamaladevi had come to recognize that India was not going to even remotely take the shape that she had envisioned at the dawn of freedom.  However, it may be a mistake to partition her life in this fashion.  Her life offers many cues about the intersection of politics and aesthetics and in her resolute insistence on autonomy and the integrity of every life we find the threads that enable us to fold the various Kamaladevis into one majestic figure.

[The Plural Universe of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, co-edited by Ellen DuBois and Vinay Lal, will be published by Zubaan Books, New Delhi, in 2016.]

(Originally published in the Indian Express, Sunday Magazine (The Eye), 25 October 2015, as “A Beautiful Mind:  Looking Back at the Life of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay”

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Jeremy Seabrook, an independent writer, journalist, and chronicler of the human condition who has long had an interest in South Asia, probing especially the lives of those who inhabit India’s slums and Muslim ghettos, turns his attention in his most recent book to the workers of Bangladesh’s garment industries who clothe the world but, like the weavers of Bengal in colonial India, barely have enough to cover their own nakedness. The book takes its title from Thomas Hood’s elegy on the women workers in Lancashire’s textile mills, “The Song of the Shirt” (1843):  working “in poverty, hunger, and dirt,” moving their fingers to the command of “Stich! Stich! Stich!”, they sowed at once, “with a double thread, A Shroud as well as a Shirt.”

 

If Bangladesh has emerged at all in the news in recent years, it is on account of the disasters that have befallen its garment industry, none as calamitous as the collapse of the Rana Plaza commercial building under whose debris over 1,100 people were left dead.  Seabrook’s book is a searing indictment of the callousness of factory owners and others in the global system of the circulation of capital who are complicit in creating miserable working conditions for those employed in Bangladesh’s largest and most profitable industrial venture.  Yet it is also an extraordinary tribute to the workers who pile into Dhaka and other centers of the garment industry from all corners of the country.  Their lives are sketched not so much in detail as in poignantly suggestive prose.  Do people flee to that “washed out concrete jungle” that is called Dhaka, which Seabrook unflinchingly describes as one of the world’s ugliest cities, to escape the narrowing of human possibilities that Marx sought to capture in his brutal condemnation of the “idiocy of the rural countryside”?  One might suppose that it is the aspiration to become something in life, or merely to earn a livelihood, that brings people to the city from the interior, but what would then make the story of Bangladesh so distinct?

 

Rana Plaza Building Collapse, Dhaka

Rana Plaza Building Collapse, Dhaka

The recent migrants coming into Dhaka “bring the sincerity and artlessness of rural life—qualities ripe for transformation into exploitable labour” (37); yet the city where they arrive with such hope becomes another prison, reduced as they are to 12-hour working days in window-less rooms and under the watchful eyes of cruel taskmasters.  But the specificity of their stories is to be derived from the particular conditions which push them to the city—the loss of ancestral land, the inability to feed too many mouths, the need for money to secure a dowry for a sister, and so on.  Perhaps more than anything else, Bangladesh is a land dense with rivers and scarred by cyclones.  The rivers are teeming with fish but the river is also “thieving” and “hungry”; when the Meghna overflows, its ravenous maw swallows up whole houses, agricultural land, and people (105-9).

 

Garment Factory in the Mohakhali area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2010.  Credit:  Clean Clothes Campaign.

Garment Factory in the Mohakhali area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2010. Credit: Clean Clothes Campaign.

In this short yet compelling book, Seabrook skillfully weaves together tales of peasants with stories of weavers, moving back and forth between the village and the city, water and land, lush green fields and the ramshackle appearance of South Asia’s urban patches, even the poetic and the idioms of history.  He is versed in historical sources but not burdened by them; and only someone with the sensibility of a poet can ruminate on the strange interplay of fire and water that has shaped the contours of the lives of his subjects.  Water, in the form of “tidal surges, cyclones and floods”, has “always been the most usual element that brings death to Bangladesh” (29); the villagers flee this menace to arrive as laborers in the city’s garment factories, often to be consumed by the fires that have time and again struck the garment industry’s ill-regulated factories and warehouses.  One might have thought that water fights fire, but in Bangladesh the two often collude—as if the poor did not have enough wretchedness in their lives.  There are other desultory facts, almost poetic bits, that take the breath away:  who would have thought that Murshidabad, once the world centre of silk weaving and now a haunted culture, perhaps once accounted for “5 percent” of the world’s total product (176-77)?

 

The Song of the Shirt, writes Seabrook, “is a reflection on the mutability of progress.”  The dominant narrative of human progress presupposes “a deterministic and linear process,” but Seabrook insistently reminds us that “experience in the clothing and fabric industry suggests certain areas of the world are liable to periods of industrialization, but equally to de-industrialization” (17).  The most ambitious aspect of Seabrook’s intellectual enterprise, and not surprisingly the one that is most fraught with hazards of interpretation, is his attempt to suggest the various ways in which Bengal and Lancashire offer a mirror image of each other.  The demise of the weaving industry in Bengal under colonial rule “coincided with the rise of the mechanized production of cotton goods” in the greater Manchester area; even as Dhaka became a ghost town, “Manchester became the centre of intense economic dynamism”.  Lancashire is now utterly denuded of its textile mills, and Manchester has lost population; but, in “a ghostly replay of traffic in the other direction” of “the machine-made clothing” that wiped out Bengal’s famed spinners and weavers (17), Dhaka with its 2500 garment factories has become nearly the epicentre of the world’s manufactured clothing.  Seabrook invests much in this comparison, constantly suggesting similarities between 19th century Britain and contemporary Bangladesh with respect to the lives of the workers, the nexus between the state and manufacturers, working conditions, and much else.

 

One might be moved, by Seabrook’s comparisons, to accept that widely quoted French expression, “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.  But this temptation must be resisted, if only because a sensitivity to the politics of knowledge should introduce some caution in comparisons between Europe’s past and the global South’s present.  Nevertheless, in Song of the Shirt, Seabrook has accomplished the enviable task of rendering naked the social processes which have helped to clothe the world and disguise some unpalatable truths about the treacherousness of what is usually celebrated as entrepreneurial capitalism.

 

[Review of Jeremy Seabrook, The Song of the SpiritCheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries (New Delhi:  Navayana, 2014;  ISBN:  9788189059644; 288 pp.  Rs 495), first published as “The Textile Jungle”, The Indian Express (18 October 2014).

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In his recently concluded visit to the United States, where he addressed a jubilant crowd of around 19,000 people, Narendra Modi all but dedicated his government to the Non-resident Indians gathered to celebrate his triumph.  “You have given me a lot of love”, he told his admirers:  “This kind of love has never been given to any Indian leader, ever.  I’m very grateful to you.  And I will repay that loan by forming the India of your dreams.”  This was music to the ears of his devoted listeners, whose achievements Modi has promised to teach his countrymen and women to emulate:  “I want to duplicate your success.  What do we do to duplicate that success?”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, 28 September 2014.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, 28 September 2014.

 

The members of the Indian Civil Service who governed India after it became a Crown Colony were described as, and believed themselves to be, “heaven-born”.  Many Indian Americans similarly believe themselves to be not merely fortunate and hard-working but as the vanguard of what may be described as a post-industrial Vedic civilization.  To understand what it is that enables Indian Americans, and mainly the Hindus among them, to think of themselves both as immensely spiritually gifted, as the true inheritors of a Vedic civilization, and as the ideal representatives of the world’s most advanced material culture, certain aspects of the history of Indian Americans must be revisited.  Though they are today the most educated and affluent of any ethnic group in the United States, they have long bemoaned their fate as an ‘invisible minority’.  Five decades ago, the Punjabi American farmer Dilip Singh Saund served three terms (1957-63) in the House of Representatives.   Until very recently, however, Indian Americans have scarcely made any other dent in politics.  But it is other forms of invisibility that touch a raw nerve:  as the savvy and yet aggressive young professionals who form part of the comparatively new Hindu American Foundation often point out, Hinduism is barely understood in the US and is, from their standpoint, unjustly maligned as a bizarre religion of false gods, demi-gods, demons, and such strange figures as Hanuman and Kali.

 

Hindus everywhere are inclined to believe that their religion, characterized by the notion of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (‘the earth is one family’), uniquely fosters tolerance, but Hindus in the United States see themselves as especially blessed and charged with the dual mission of rejuvenating India and helping America fulfill its destiny as the mecca of multicultural democracy.  The formal dedication of many Hindu temples in the US, such as the Rama Shrine of the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, has taken place on July 4th, which marks the anniversary of American independence.  Hindus thus signify their acceptance of the idea that they share in the blessings of American “freedom”, while at the same time conveying to Americans that Hinduism permits a richer and more spiritual conception of freedom centered on the notion of self-realization.  The secular American formula, E Pluribus Unum, ‘From Many, One’, is countered by, and complemented with, the Vedic affirmation of idea that ‘Truth is One; Sages Name It Variously’ (‘Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti’; Rig Veda 1.164.46).

 

Now A Rock Star:  The New York Times was one among many newspapers that described the reception Narendra Modi received at Madison Square Garden as befitting a rock star

Now A Rock Star: The New York Times was one among many newspapers that described the reception Narendra Modi received at Madison Square Garden as befitting a rock star

Indian American Hindus are exceedingly astute in their understanding of how discourses of multiculturalism might be deployed in the US to their advantage.  Several years ago, a number of Hindu organizations rallied together in a concerted attempt to force alterations in history textbooks used in California schools.  They objected, for example, to the fact that such textbooks characterized Hinduism as a polytheistic rather than monotheistic faith, or that women in ancient India were described as having fewer rights than men.  American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) almost serves as a vigilante group, observing a hawk-like look-out for those who offend against Hindu sentiments.   However, their support of “multiculturalism” in India, where the religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity dwarfs anything seen in the US, is remarkably muted.  Apparently, on their world view, multiculturalism is much to be admired in the US even as it may safely be ignored in India.  Indeed, many Hindus in the US adhere to the view that the practice of their faith is not hobbled by the constraints that a pseudo-secular Indian state has imposed upon Hindus in their homeland.

 

There is a remarkable convergence in the worldview of the NRI—and the model of the successful NRI is the Indian American—and Narendra Modi.  The political ascendancy of a former tea vendor reminds Indian Americans of the opportunities made available to them in the supposed land of milk and honey, though such a narrative obscures the fact that many of the immigrant Indians who have done exceedingly well in the US already came from advantaged backgrounds.   NRIs and Modi alike crave to see a new, resplendent India that can take its place as a great power, but India in its present state is an embarrassment to them.  Its faults—the appalling poverty, the ramshackle appearance of every town, the indescribable filth in public spaces, widespread evidence of malnutrition and open defecation, and much else—need not be rehearsed at length, and Modi has signaled his attempt to meet such objections by launching the Swachch Bharat Mission.  But there are more compelling parts of the story and the anxiety of influence extends much further.  The Indian middle classes and the non-resident Indians have long agonized over the fact that India, as a friend once remarked to me, is ‘the largest most unimportant country in the world’, and that the same Indians who flounder in their homeland yet make something significant of themselves outside India.

 

Modi at Madison Square Garden:  A Who's Who of Indian American corporate types

Modi at Madison Square Garden: A Who’s Who of Indian American corporate types

It is under these circumstances that Modi has appeared, to the Indian middle classes and to NRIs, as the appointed one.  The well-to-do physicians, software engineers, scientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and other professionals in the Indian American community have long hankered for an Indian leader who would be imposing and decisive, and they are convinced that India requires a strong dose of authoritarian leadership if it is to prosper.  They are much more hospitable to the idea of a prosperous authoritarian state than they are to the idea of an India that is flaunted as a democracy but registers poor growth and continues to be an insignificant player in world politics.  Modi’s concentration of power is calculated to furnish, from their standpoint, some of the advantages found in the Presidential system of government.  Yet Modi also stands for what they view as ‘spiritual India’, a land synonymous with great yogis, teachers of spiritual renown, and sacred rivers that are personified as goddesses.  Thus, in the figure of Narendra Modi, Indian Americans see the possibilities of a prosperous yet spiritual India which they believe is already embodied in their own life histories.

 

(First published in OUTLOOK [Print and Web editions], 20 October 2014, as ‘The Prophet of Boom Times’].

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Gandhi and Hilter:  In Close Proximity, at the Om Bookshop, Gurgaon

Gandhi and Hilter: In Close Proximity, at the Om Bookshop, Gurgaon

A Strange Case of Doppelgangers?

A Strange Case of Doppelgangers?

Mein Kampf, which by law cannot be sold in Germany, has much more than a respectable market in India. In a country where the sale of 5,000 copies is enough to warrant a title’s inclusion in the best-seller list, it is notable that a reprint of Mein Kampf by the Indian publisher Jaico had, as of June 2010, sold over 100,000 copies in ten years. When we consider that the book is also sold on the pavement in various pirated editions, the real sales figures are bound to be much higher. London’s Daily Telegraph, in an article published on 20 April 2009, first drew attention to this phenomenon with a striking headline: “Indian business students snap up copies of Mein Kampf”. Notwithstanding anything that Sir William Jones might have said in the late 18th century on the common Aryan links between Indians and Germans, or the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg’s views on India as the ancestral home of the Aryans, Indian students appeared to have eschewed the grand historical narratives that have animated so many intellectuals for something seemingly much more pragmatic. The same articles informs its readers that sales of Mein Kampf have been soaring in India as Hitler is regarded as a “management guru”, an opinion apparently derived from conversations with several booksellers and students. The owner of Mumbai’s Embassy Books, who reprints Mein Kampf “every quarter”, explained that Indians read in the book “a kind of a success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it”. A related BBC article, which appeared a year later, quotes a 19-year old Gujarati student, “I have idolised Hitler ever since I have had a sense of history. I admire his leadership qualities and his discipline.”

Hitler’s popularity in India arises from a conjuncture of circumstances and certainly shows no sign of diminishing; indeed, I wonder if the political ascendancy of Narendra Modi, who is similarly admired, especially by the Indian middle classes, for his “leadership qualities” and authoritarian style of governance, might not make Hitler an even more attractive figure. The evening before last, on a visit to the Om Bookshop at the Ambience Mall on the Delhi-Gurgaon border, where my friend Darius Cooper was launching his collection of short stories, I was struck by the extraordinary proximity of Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Gandhi’s Autobiography on the shelves and in the display area. On one shelf, the two books were placed next to each other; closer to the cash counter, the two books were again arrayed next to each other in a display bound to catch the attention of most visitors. The salesman was luckily inclined to answer my queries: in the four years since the bookstore was established, Mein Kampf and Gandhi’s Autobiography had each sold something in the vicinity of around 500 copies at that store alone. I can’t say if I breathed a sigh of relief at being told that Gandhi had just marginally edged out Hitler—as well that he should have, considering Gandhi’s bania origins—though, as the reader shall find out shortly, this is far from being the case all over the country.

In India, and in much of the rest of the world, it has become commonplace to view Hitler as the supreme embodiment of evil in the twentieth century, just as Mohandas Gandhi is likely to be seen as the greatest instantiation of good. There are, of course, some exceedingly enlightened voices, so we are told, who would rather speak of Hitler and Gandhi as representing a strange case of doppelgangers. Slavoj Zizek, we might recall, gave it as his considered opinion that Gandhi was more evil than Hitler, and Gandhi has been much more than a source of irritation to one who extols the Gandhians with guns walking the Indian countryside and apparently creating revolution. But let us turn to the more conventional view: the cover of a fairly recent issue of Time (3 December 2007) sums up this opposition quite well: on the left side of a large sketch of the brain is a hologram showing Gandhi, and on the right side is a hologram featuring Hitler. The cover story is entitled, “What Makes Us Good/Evil”, and the caption accompanying the story states: “Humans are the planet’s most noble creatures––and its most savage. Science is discovering why.” In the land of his own birth, nevertheless, Gandhi appears to have been eclipsed by Hitler, and the comparative sales of Mein Kampf and Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, with the former outselling the latter by a margin of nearly two to one at the Crossword chain of bookstores, is only one of the telltale signs of the diminishing place of Gandhi in the country’s public life. The young who idolize Hitler’s life as a model of ‘leadership qualities’ and ‘discipline’ evidently have little knowledge of the manner in which Gandhi left his huge impress upon the anti-colonial struggle, forging a mass movement of nonviolent resistance that at times displayed an extraordinarily high level of discipline, and transforming the principal nationalist organization, the Indian National Congress, from a party of elites into a body of mass politics. Yet, if there were misgivings about Gandhi in his own lifetime, many of those have become aggravated in an India which views Gandhi as a backward-looking luddite who emasculated India and would have set the country hopelessly adrift in a nation-state system where national interest and violence reign supreme. In such a setting, Hitler’s idea of a virile nation set on a course of domination appears as an attractive alternative, even if it left Germany smoldering in ruins.

One might also suppose that it is but natural that Hitler should have a constituency in Mumbai, large chunks of which over the last few decades have been under the control of Shiv Sena, a political party comprised in good part of hoodlums who appear to have learned something about both terror tactics and racial ideologies of hate from the Nazis. However, as empirical and anecdotal experience alike suggest, copies of Mein Kampf have sold well in other parts of India, and as the BBC article noted, the more pertinent fact is perhaps that “the more well-heeled the area, the higher the sales.” The Indian middle class has been strongly inclined to view admirably countries such as Germany and Japan, the success of which, most particularly after the end of World War II left them in ruins, is held up as an example of what discipline, efficiency, and strenuous devotion to work can accomplish. Of Japan’s atrocities in the war very little is known in India, and the middle class gaze has seldom traveled beyond what is signified by the names of Sony, Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, and the like; as for Hitler, the same middle class Indians marvel at his ability to command millions, forge an extraordinary war machine, and nearly take a country humiliated at the end of World War I to the brink of victory over India’s own colonial master. I heard from more than one person, in the weeks leading up to the World Cup final, that Germany deserved to win because it had the most “efficient” machinery of football domination. Yes, there is little doubt that Hitler, too, was supremely efficient.

There is, however, an equal measure of truth and falsity in the Daily Telegraph’s assessment of “the mutual influence of India and Hitler’s Nazis on one another. Mahatma Gandhi corresponded with the Fuhrer, pro-Independence leader Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army allied with Hitler’s Germany and Japan during the Second World War, and the Nazis drew on Hindu symbolism for their Swastika motif and ideas of Aryan supremacy.” Gandhi addressed two brief letters to Hitler, urging the German leader to renounce war and take advantage of his unparalleled sway over the masses to usher in a new era of nonviolence. But by no means can this be described as a ‘correspondence’ with the Fuhrer: exercising its wartime prerogatives of censorship, the British Government of India ensured that neither letter reached the addressee. Hitler never wrote to Gandhi: under these circumstances, ‘correspondence’ seems an extraordinarily extravagant description of what transpired. On the other hand, the invocation of Subhas Chandra Bose, who commenced his political career in awe of Gandhi but came to a parting of ways with the Mahatma, may perhaps go some ways in explaining the attraction felt for Hitler among India’s youth. Bose is revered nearly as much as Gandhi, and certainly has fewer critics; lionized for his relentless opposition to British rule, which eventually led him to an opportunistic alliance with the fascists, Bose is remembered most of all for the creation of the Indian National Army. In a daring escape while he was under house arrest in Calcutta, Bose eventually made his way to Berlin where he founded the Indian Legion, comprised of Indian POWs captured in North Africa and attached initially to the Wehrmacht. Its members, significantly, were bound to an oath of allegiance which clearly establishes the nexus between Hitler and Bose: “I swear by God this holy oath that I will obey the leader of the German race and state, Adolf Hitler, as the commander of the German armed forces in the fight for India, whose leader is Subhas Chandra Bose.” It is an equally telling fact that Hitler had little interest in granting Bose an audience, only agreeing to a short meeting more than a year after Bose’s arrival in Berlin—a meeting at which Hitler refused to issue a statement in support of India’s independence. Fooled perhaps by the esteem in which India was held by the supreme figures of the German enlightenment, from F. Schlegel, August Wilhelm Schlegel and Goethe to W. von Humboldt and Herder, and fooled too perhaps by his own personal affinity to Germans, one curiously shared by other supposed ‘radicals’, Bose seems to have been unable to fathom that, from the standpoint of Nazi ideologues, India was a living testament to the degeneracy to which the eastern branch of the Aryans had fallen when they failed to preserve their purity.

If the troubled relationship of a nationalist hero with the Nazis is insufficient to explain Hitler’s privileged place in the middle class Indian imagination, we may turn with greater success to the writings of Hindutva’s principal ideologues. At the annual session in 1940 of the Hindu Mahasabha, a political party founded to promote the political interests of the Hindus and advance the idea of a Hindu rashtra (nation), Savarkar, in his Presidential Address, described Nazism as “undeniably the saviour of Germany under the circumstances in which Germany was placed”. Though Savarkar’s admirers describe him as a man of great intellectual acumen, it is remarkable that his only riposte to Jawaharlal Nehru, who throughout remained a vigorous critic of both Nazism and fascism, was to argue that “Hitler knows better than Pandit Nehru what suits Germany best”: “The very fact that Germany or Italy has so wonderfully recovered and grown so powerful as never before at the touch of Nazi or Fascist magical wand is enough to prove that those political ‘isms’ were the most congenial tonics their health demanded.” M. S. Golwalkar, who presided over the RSS from 1940 to 1973 and became the chief spokesperson for the idea of a Hindu nation, was similarly moved to argue that “the other nation [besides Italy] most in the eye of the world today is Germany. The nation affords a very striking example.” That spirit which had enabled ancient German tribes to overrun Europe was once again alive in modern Germany which, building on the “traditions left by its depredatory ancestors”, had taken possession of the territory that was its by right but had, “as a result of political disputes’, been “portioned off as different countries under different states.”

Nazism was built, however, on the twin foundations of expansion and contraction: if the idea of lebensraum became the pretext for the bold acquisition of territories, Germany itself was to be purified of its noxious elements, principally the Jews but other undesirables as well, among them gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and mental retards. The treatment meted out to Jews was, from the standpoint of those desirous of forging a glorious Hindu nation, an object lesson on how Hindu India might handle its own Muslims. Much ink has been spilled on just who all were the advocates of the two-nation theory in India, though Savarkar is clearly implicated. “India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation,” he told his audience while delivering the Presidential Address to the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937; rather, “on the contrary, there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and the Moslems, in India.” These two nations, moreover, did not stand on the same footing, as the Hindu alone recognized Hindusthan as his or her pitribhu (fatherland), matribhu (motherland), and punyabhu (holyland); the Muslim, his eyes always looking beyond Hindusthan, was a rank outsider. The fate of Indian Muslims was sealed: as Golwalkar put it unequivocally, “the foreign elements in Hindusthan” had but “two courses” of action open to them, entertaining “no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race,” or they were to live “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights.” In all this, Golwalkar held up Germany as a country that might usefully be emulated by India: “Germany has also shown how impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.”

How long will we, in India, continue to place Gandhi and Hitler alongside each other?

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"Martyrs of Humanity", cartoon by D. R. Fitzpatrick in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 February 1948

“Martyrs of Humanity”, cartoon by D. R. Fitzpatrick in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 February 1948

[On the occasion of the anniversary of the death of Mohandas K. Gandhi (January 30)]

There is but no question that Mohandas Gandhi remains, more than six decades after his assassination, the most iconic figure of modern India. He was one of the most widely photographed men of his time; an entire industry of nationalist prints extolled his life; and statues of his abound throughout India and, increasingly, the rest of the world.  Gandhi has been a blessing to cartoonists, ever since he signalled his arrival on the political scene in South Africa; and most Indian artists of consequence over the course of the last half-century, from M. F. Husain and Ramkinkar Baij to Ghulam Muhammad Sheikh and Atul Dodiya, have engaged with Gandhi in their work.  What is equally striking is that this immensely rich visual archive, which encompasses such unusual items as caricatures of Gandhi in Fascist publications, anti-Gandhi Soviet propaganda posters, and lewd comics of Gandhi from Tijuana, Mexico, has altogether escaped critical scrutiny –– barring some recent scholarly work on nationalist prints, and an occasional article on Gandhi and photography.

A distinct iconography began to develop around Gandhi’s figure in his own lifetime.  Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that, deities, the great bhaktas, and the founders of religion such as the Buddha aside, there is no figure in the history of India who could be so readily signified, whether by Gandhi’s trademark spectacles, his walking stick, the sandals he himself made, or the time-piece tucked into a corner of his dhoti.  Cartoonists delighted in those large ears that prompted Sarojini Naidu to dub him ‘Mickey Mouse’, and some of the most striking photographs are those where, in the midst of men dressed in overcoats, silk suits, or other formal wear, Gandhi appears singular in the shining armor of his nakedness.  One cartoonist had the good sense to represent the battle between Gandhi and the forces of violence as the struggle between ‘the shirtless’ and ‘the shirted’.

However, the various representations of Gandhi cannot be interpreted as offering a seamless narrative on his unique place in the national imaginary or as a figure of global protest.  What we do not see is just as important as what we do see.  Printmakers, photographers, painters, and sculptors are alert to different considerations.  The photographers of Gandhi, for instance, were naturally sensitive to the play of light and shadows, while printmakers drew on mythic material that they construed as the grounding of Indian civilization. The interpretation of public statuary leads us to a different set of questions:  where are statues of Gandhi placed, with what effect and consequences, and to what end?  The vast archive can also be viewed in the light of other interpretive strategies.  We can speak, for example, of ‘the seated Gandhi’, ‘the walking Gandhi’, ‘the spectral Gandhi’, and so on.  A consideration of ‘the sartorial Gandhi’ would enable us to gauge his life from the clothes that he wore at different stages of his awakening, and arrive at an assessment of how, after he had made a decision to reduce his clothing to the bare minimum, he came to embody, in the most profound ways, the idea of nakedness in its fullness.

It is, as we approach the anniversary of the Gandhi’s assassination on January 30th, of ‘the martyred Gandhi’ that I shall now speak.  Many have argued that Gandhi had a premonition of his death.  There had been several assassination attempts on his life in the preceding fifteen years.  What is unequivocally clear is that he spoke often, especially in the aftermath of Indian independence and the country’s vivisection, of wanting to die –– as he told his grand-niece Manu after the failed attempt on his life at Birla House at January 20th, ‘On this occasion I have shown no bravery.  If somebody fired at me point-blank and I faced his bullet with a smile, repeating the name of Rama in my heart, I should indeed be deserving of congratulations.’  On January 27th, Gandhi, still recovering from the fast that brought peace to Delhi and conviction to Nathuram Godse that the old man no longer deserved to live, told the visiting American journalist Vincent Sheean, ‘It might be that it would be more valuable to humanity for me to die.’  Yet, at other times Gandhi had, with equal assurance, declared that he wished to live for 125 years.

Some still dispute whether Gandhi died with the name of Rama on his lips.  The front cover of the 25 January 1970 issue of Illustrated Weekly of India echoes the confusion and shock experienced by all those around him; unusually, the revolver seems almost suspended between the assassin’s hands, though by all accounts Godse executed the task with firm and efficient resolve.  Indian printmakers went to work almost immediately after Gandhi’s death, likening him to Christ and Buddha:  though Gandhi was no founder of a religion, he seemed to some of his contemporaries to have had a similar impact on those who encountered him or had some awareness of his teachings.  These printmakers borrowed effortlessly, recognizing no cultural boundaries.  Gandhi adored Michelangelo’s Pieta and would have been humbled by the comparison.

Gandhi was also a world historical figure and his death was registered across the globe.  In the United States, the eminent cartoonist D. R. Fitzpatrick, long associated with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was reminded of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  His cartoon, ‘Martyrs of Humanity’, points to the place that Gandhi had come to occupy in the American imagination.  One doubts very much that the nation-state meant to Gandhi what it meant to Lincoln, but the image provokes precisely such questions.  Two decades later, another assassination would shake the world.  More so perhaps than any other cartoonist, Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times captured the poignancy of the killing of another architect of non-violent resistance.  In his famous cartoon, published in April 1968, an avuncular-looking Gandhi stretches out his hands towards Martin Luther King in a show of solidarity and says, ‘The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.’  Men such as Gandhi, who knew better than most the art of dying, have to be assassinated repeatedly.

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(First published under the same title in Sunday Times of India, 27 January 2013, p. 9)

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