Religion and Violence in The Shadow Lines and Midnight’s Children

Violence – its genealogical and archaeological analysis and its open or hidden incitement – happens to be an important part of both TSL and MNC. So does the challenges it poses to the internal world and its anchorage in an externally verifiable and absolute reality. 1964 and 1971 in East Pakistan provide the centres for the set of events that lead to violence and a challenge to what the narrators see as real in the two novels. Religion as the rallying point for propaganda happens to be the common strategy in both the cases. MNC is directly linked to TLC at two crucial points of ’64 and ’71. Dr. Aadam Aziz, insinuates Saleem in MNC, was the person responsible for the disappearance of Mu-i-Mubarak that lead to the widespread riots of 1964, one that took Tridib’s life at the climax of TSL.

1971 was definitely a turning point in Saleem’s internal life. It was the year of his return to his own old self. It was the year that completed his war experience and that of his life. By the end of that year they’d witnessed with their own eyes “many things which were [simply] not true … not possible” (191). How could they see what wasn’t true? Or, how could they witness that which was impossible? But they did. He was destined to meet the magicians and Picture Singhji, the people “whose hold on reality was so absolute … they never forgot what it was” (203). The very people who performed them did not believe in the reality of magic tricks. That’s why Parvati – the real witch – never reveals her true secret to them; as her powers do not fit in with the things of everyday reality, just as Snotnose’s revelation of his hearing (before left was equal to the right one) the voices of the angels. The clever witch lived but the naïve boy preferred truth unknowingly and instinctively. Did he learn from his experiences and start mixing plausible lies with possible truths, substituting the impossible truths? Did he learn that truth is, what’s taken as truth, and there’s nothing like truth per se. Eloquence and craft as necessities for survival in the real world must have shown their strength to him. Or, did they just fail to register their importance in his mind? Because he continued revealing all the impossible truth – or lies that were probable, who knows? Wisdom came with a lot of experience. Thus he explains the boy soldiers of buddha’s team falling victims to “the influence of legends and gossips” (178). The world is understood through a process of continuous reimagining that connects one’s past memory with the grasp of one’s present and projection of the future.

 

The question asked in MNC is answered in TSL as “people … who have no home but in memory, learn to be very skilled in the art of recollection” (TSL 124). It is recollection that infuses life into the life that they had lost to the past – where they want to return but can’t, ever. The recollection of an idealized past is the only salve available to them that they apply on the wounds of separation at the points of severance from the nucleus of their identity. Of course, they can’t remember every detail related to every thing or person of their past. It’s neither needed nor desirable. Too many details about too many things will just clutter the memory. They have very strong and vivid recollection of few things and persons deemed fit for such a remembrance. They reconstruct their homes and people, years after both have been lost, just to be able to live their moments of happiness that they’d thought to be eternal and had lost due to a cruel joke of those in power, that sent them to a permanent nightmare on the very night the rest of India was celebrating as its biggest festival. Thus they also reconstruct reality and the root cause behind all happens to be the violence that violently uprooted them from their home in reality and transplanted them across the shadow lines to some other realm where everything had a new face, a new definition.

Independence too was invested with some new shades of meaning. What kind of independence was it? Independence to hate “them” whose identity had been fixed recently by the accident of their lying on the other side of the mirror/border/shadow lines? It was not the first time that theory was preceding practice, that preplanned, concerted action was undertaken for a kind of psychological warfare whose only objective was to create mass paranoia and hysteria due to intensified and purely induced fear psychosis. They need to recollect, as they had lost what they had valued so highly. They had lost because of their being powerless and because the powerful had chosen to first divide and then rule their separate, newly acquired domains. The task of division on paper was left to the “civilized” men but the task of actual drawing away of the mask from the face of separation, dark blood red in colour because it was filled with the blood of millions of innocents, was left to those who wanted blood of their newly established enemies. The chain of murders did not stop there. The bloodlust had entered the lives of “normal” people. It was there to stay, as one permissible, nay, desirable kind of violence in the collective subconscious, only to lay dormant until the time came for its rise. The time did come, again and again, in the subcontinent of hatred. The very normal people, the inhabitants of Dhanmundi, killed Robi’s brother and other two innocent persons before going back to normal, quotidian, even boring existence of theirs, or like the people who first chased the narrator’s bus and then stood smiling at its escape: the blood shedding machines. The two nations theory, famously revived and reinvented by the Muslim and Hindu extremists of the subcontinent in the first half of the twentieth century, so ingenious and so insidious in taking hold of both the communities, had gained its final end by galvanizing masses into action. Blood was shed again and again, proving Pygmalion like, that the two nations theory was finally proven right.

January 1964 saw communal riots on both sides of the border of India and East Pakistan. It had all started with an incident that had taken place thousands of kilometres away in Kashmir. Curiously, there was no blood shedding in the valley itself. Propaganda had created ripples that had travelled to Khulna and from there to Kolkata, and from there, spread throughout Bengal as days of madness filled with blood. There was nothing curious or new about it. That very process keeps on repeating itself to the present date in the Indian subcontinent. People kill for the arbitrary and absurdly rigidly essentialized categories imposed on them from the outside. They find it adequate as an explanation that “they” have to be pre-emptively or reactively butchered before they are able to do any more damage to the body of persons that belong to “I and us”. There are various voices against such madness, but who listens while the blood lust is working on their mind? It is a writer’s duty, penance and acceptance of powerlessness on face of such an opposition that he chooses (only) to portray, with his own stand written all over, at times, the violence he fears or hates so much; as is believed. It may also be because he is fascinated by it so much: the primal blood lust rising its hundred heads somewhere deep in the recesses of the unconscious. Probably he does it in hope of raising the voice of sanity – belated, or as a very small step towards accepting his helplessness as a representative of reason against the powers of the lower parts of the human nature. Maybe it’s just a voyeur’s way of getting sadistic pleasure out of a vivid portrayal of violence and cruelty; unconsciously programmed of course. After all, writers are human too. The novels that portray communal violence have this feature in common. The violence is not there to aesthetically embellish the plot, although it does perform that function. It is there primarily because it has been the seed from which the very novel has sprouted. Or, rather, not the actual bloodshed, but the fear of danger to one’s own life, “that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the spaces that surround one… can become suddenly and without warning as hostile as a desert in a flash flood” (TSL 131). Once one’s moorings are lost, there’s no surety of anything. The fundamental needs of physiological and psychological security are impossible to maintain or guarantee when madness enters the collective consciousness, pushing the doors of the unconscious forcibly open. The private spaces merge with the public ones and the private identities become one with the public ones to create an ugly blob of congealed (in)humanity that feeds on life to grow in size and power to kill more. One’s life is in danger even in the once safe house of theirs. So, the private space and identity have to be relinquished, with reason, for some time. It is essential before one adopts the identity and goals of a mass on rampage. No rational and fully functional mind can agree to bloodshed with such a scant consideration and with a complete lack of any respect for life. Reason must be relinquished sine die to do so. The absence of normalcy acts as a catalyst to this process and perpetuates both itself and its products in a manner analogous to the chain reaction in nuclear fission. Although there are many who never participate in the actual violence, and there are some who are against it – they generally remain inert. Thus they support their mad brethren indirectly. In rare cases, when one finds courage or madness enough to risk one’s life, following the diktats of reason and standing against communal bloodshed, one doesn’t find support, either from people or the government.

But then, how can a “sovereign, secular, democratic republic”, as the preamble of our constitution claims India is, allow riots rage in pockets of hatred and violence, year after year, death after death? Theory comes in handy here. It was assumed by the makers of the Imperial Administrative System that the members of the elite, chosen to rule in the name of the Queen, would act as machines programmed by the codes printed/instilled by training, i.e. purely theory based action with little room for an individual’s personal judgement and initiative. It suited the imperial machinery as the Raj had to be uniformly structured, firmly established and continuously asserted through the system. The external colonizers went away but they handed over the reins to the elite that they had constructed right out of the plans of Macauley. The new elite was free to colonize and exploit those who had been marginalized since the Raj era. The new colonizers perpetuated the efficient old colonial system of IAS and its state wise replicas. Therefore, the administration and policing of India depends on one assumption that’s very impractical and naïve in nature that the rulers, the holders of power over millions, will remain uncorrupted, because they are incorruptible even under all kinds of personal, institutional and social pressures.

Well, it is simply not happening. The parts that make the whole administrative system belong to the sea of humanity and they remain stubbornly like those they govern. No utopian class of administrator-philosophers are created here, as Plato had envisioned in his Republic. Instead, those who secure certain position in tests of certain mental skills are given the power to rule in India. Power only intensifies their natural (un)civilized traits and their paranoia and confirmed prejudices finally lead them towards a whole spectrum of violent actions that may even be indirect, at times, but is always dangerous and toxic. Their violence carries their authority and is used to support their “us” against their “them”. The mechanism has been seen in action time and again in India. The involvement of politicians and administrators in planning, executing and intensifying, at least, many of the communal riots that India has seen, has been proven beyond even a modicum of doubt. In the Varanasi riots, that I had been a witness to myself, and had followed the later developments first in the form of rumours, and then newspaper reports on the events in Varanasi and also in other cities in India, PAC and home guards, along with the police, to a large extent, acted en masse against “them” of their (and my) own community of birth: Hinduism. Thus, they clearly broke down the periphery of theory to enter the boundless arena of chaotic action that hadn’t one but several centres in those days of fear and blood lust. The very in(f/t)ernal mechanism of how it all starts and then goes on is shown in the Hazratbal incidence in TSLthat resulted into riots in India and Bangladesh through a kind of reflecting surface: their borders. Religion and violence, although not linked inherently, are linked with demagogues whose vested interests make it imperative for them. Be it communal riots of TSL or wars of MNC, violence is linked with religion in both the novels, not because of any conscious plan of the authors, but because of the reality of the Indian subcontinent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

 

Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [MNC in the text.]

 

 

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