“What I noticed Most was that I had become a Poet": Renewing the Language of Politics

Lata Mani

Image credit here. 

Image credit here

I begin with two prose poems by Syria-born Palestinian Ghayath Almadhoun here & here

How I became…

Her grief fell from the balcony and broke into pieces, so she needed a new grief. When I went with her to the market the prices were unreal, so I advised her to buy a used grief. We found one in excellent condition although it was a bit big. As the vendor told us, it belonged to a young poet who had killed himself the previous summer. She liked this grief so we decided to take it. We argued with the vendor over the price and he said he’d give us an angst dating from the sixties as a free gift if we bought the grief. We agreed, and I was happy with this unexpected angst. She sensed this and said ‘It’s yours’. I took it and put it in my bag and we went off. In the evening, I remembered it and took it out of the bag and examined it closely. It was high quality and in excellent condition despite half a century of use. The vendor must have been unaware of its value otherwise he wouldn’t have given it to us in exchange for buying a young poet’s low quality grief. The thing that pleased me most about it was that it was existentialist angst, meticulously crafted and containing details of extraordinary subtlety and beauty. It must have belonged to an intellectual with encyclopedic knowledge or a former prisoner. I began to use it and insomnia became my constant companion. I became an enthusiastic supporter of peace negotiations and stopped visiting relatives. There were increasing numbers of memoirs in my bookshelves and I no longer voiced my opinion except on rare occasions. Human beings became more precious to me than nations and I began to feel a general ennui, but what I noticed most was that I had become a poet.

*****

Massacre

Massacre is a dead metaphor that is eating my friends, eating them without salt. They were poets and have become Reporters With Borders; they were already tired and now they’re even more tired. ‘They cross the bridge at daybreak fleet of foot’ and die with no phone coverage. I see them through night vision goggles and follow the heat of their bodies in the darkness; there they are, fleeing from it even as they run towards it, surrendering to this huge massage. Massacre is their true mother, while genocide is no more than a classical poem written by intellectual pensioned-off generals. Genocide isn’t appropriate for my friends, as it’s an organised collective action and organised collective actions remind them of the Left that let them down.

Massacre wakes up early, bathes my friends in cold water and blood, washes their underclothes and makes them bread and tea, then teaches them a little about the hunt. Massacre is more compassionate to my friends than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Massacre opened the door to them when other doors were closed, and called them by their names when news reports were looking for numbers. Massacre is the only one to grant them asylum regardless of their backgrounds; their economic circumstances don’t bother Massacre, nor does Massacre care whether they are intellectuals or poets, Massacre looks at things from a neutral angle; Massacre has the same dead features as them, the same names as their widowed wives, passes like them through the countryside and the suburbs and appears suddenly like them in breaking news. Massacre resembles my friends, but always arrives before them in faraway villages and children’s schools.

Massacre is a dead metaphor that comes out of the television and eats my friends without a single pinch of salt.

******

A threshold is a sill, boundary or limit point. It points to a within and a without or at least to an either side of; a point beyond which something is true or a given effect is discernible or becomes intolerable, as in pain. Language is a kind of threshold. The two poems speak complexly to its double-ness: its capacity to extend meaning and texture experience and equally to its potential to constrain and deaden it. And both can be, indeed often are, simultaneously in play. Hence the irony, wit and unsettling clarity of these poems. One cannot stand apart from them. We are thrust head-first into the gravitational force of their epistemological challenge. The poems achieve something quite marvelous. They conjure a shared space in which refugee, activist, uninvolved reader & literary analyst can recognize themselves; and simultaneously each other in themselves.

I read these poems to bring to our conversation the question of language. The disciplines that tend toward documenting – history, the social sciences, journalism -  have dominated political and intellectual discourses in India. They are crucial of course. I trained as a historian. But our discourses have also been hobbled by them. Politics is the imaginative discipline of living together artfully. And social movements ideally function as creative laboratories that incubate these futures. But for too long we have tended to practice politics as if it were primarily an agonistic battle between communities and those institutions that deny them their rights. Hard and long as this battle is proving to be, it pales in comparison with what it would require for us to unlearn/relearn in order to live together without prejudice; without recourse to law to ensure kindness and decency. For this deeper transformation, we need to rethink the way we have hitherto construed - or failed to construe - our interrelatedness, that which links, separates and unites us. We would need to rethink the dance of specificity, commonality and difference within us and as well between us.

To relate is also to narrate. The question of language is thus inseparable from the fact of our mutuality. A mutuality we have resisted and distorted by means a number of violent stratagems of othering, among them caste, gender, sexuality (in other contexts, race). To point to our intricate webbing with each other is not to deny the distortions of prevailing social norms. It is to recall the importance of continually marking the fictional nature of socially produced divisions like caste or gender even as we map the devastating consequences of casteism and patriarchy. Caste is a myth but casteism a reality; claims about gender inferiority are dubious but gender-based discrimination real.

The vehement opposition and hostility that meets a challenge to existing hierarchies like caste has often led to a flattening of complexity; to a failure to distinguish sharply enough between the real effects of a fiction and the nonreality of that fiction. As a result, our rhetoric can paradoxically re-inscribe as real what we ourselves claim to be socially invented differences. The challenge of repairing what caste ideology has self-interestedly taken apart is in this process forfeited. Reductionism serves short-term polemics. But a sustained struggle for transformation depends on finding language that captures the full range of the specificities, similarities, commonalities and differences that intersect to shape human experience in “societies structured in dominance” (Stuart Hall).

What I love about these Ghayath Almadhoun prose poems is the way they address multiple subject positions in challenging us to rethink grief and massacre, turning them inside out on the page before us. We learn as much about ourselves as we do about these terms. Our political rhetoric needs to do the same.  We need language supple enough to accommodate difference as distinction, difference as specificity, difference as the effect of ideology, difference as a species of the diversity of nature, and difference as evidence of the varieties of human expression. Otherwise we will have failed to heed the problem so achingly expressed by Rohith Vemula in his suicide note when he bemoans how the “value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” here.

Language as a forensic tool may have reached its limit point. Simply describing “things as they are” seems no longer to suffice. This is not to deny the power or importance of speaking truths as-yet-unspoken or documenting facts as yet unacknowledged. It is to say that we also need to reclaim the prophetic and poetic dimension of language, to integrate into our political inquiry and praxis broader questions of the meaning, value, purpose and significance of human life and action. This task assumes urgency in context of neoliberalism which has even more thoroughly hollowed out what it means to be human. In a context in which connectivity and isolation have been heightened in equal measure the potential for self-doubt is magnified and the sense of one’s efficacy in the world is correspondingly diminished. The question of meaning becomes poignant - even a matter of life and death.

In its expansive sense politics is not a set of prescriptions for tactical moves against an external enemy, but a dynamic, open-ended personal and collective inquiry into human potential. We are far more than the categories that describe our social experience. And far more intimately interconnected with each other and the rest of the phenomenal world than recognized by the fissures and divides of prevailing frameworks. Politics can only renew itself if its discourse is open to integrating these facts. Not as slogans. But as its very raison d'être and promise.

Remarks at “Speaking Peace in Times of War,” Panel at Beyond Thresholds of Conflict Film Festival, Bangalore, February 12, 2017.