“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.
Independence – The word has a mermerising quality to it. It implies the ability and the opportunity to choose – so necessary for healthy survival.
We’re close to Indian Indpendence Day which falls on 15th August. It is always an emotional time for me because it is a reminder of the distances between me and my symbolic mother. It also reminds me of times when I was not independent, when I had no ability to choose, of times when I was able but was denied the right to choose.
So what does it mean to have been independent for 65 years ?
A few days ago I stood at the express checkout line of a grocery shop with my 13 year old. There were the usual less than 15 items in my cart, and four people ahead of me. I was getting terribly late, I had to be across town within 20 minutes, and the lady at the counter was taking her own sweet time. I schooled myself into “this is my fault, I should have started a little earlier!” and stood quietly waiting. The woman behind me was getting late. She had two items less than I had, and she breezed ahead of me, saying “you don’t mind if I go before you – I have only 3 items!” By the time I could say anything she had laid her stuff on the counter ahead of me, bypassed me, and now stood ahead of me, looking away. There was not much to say, so I did not say anything. I was almost at the check in counter when another woman from behind me walked past me and put her water bottle on the counter ahead of me. “You dont’ mind me going ahead, I have only one bottle!” Excuse me? I do mind, but I held my temper. My 13 year old idealises me. He thinks I am the coolest, most powerful and intelligent mom in the world. He quietly watched. I let it go without bringing it up with him.
Yesterday I was at a tire shop. I had a simple question to ask of the guy at the counter: “how long will he take to change my tires if I were to bring my car in?” Thats all. I went into the shop. The hispanic man at the counter was busy with a caucasian customer. I stood patiently next to the counter, waiting with my 13 year old, waiting for him to be done.
The man ahead of me was handsome, he was well built man of around 35-40 against my fragile frame that had seen better days. He was there to buy tires, of course. He asked questions, was shown around, joked about office, home, wife, kids, told tire related tales about his college days, appeared to contemplate which tire to buy, asked more questions, was shown around some more, appeared to choose a set of tires, told more jokes, received a phone call from wife, talked to her, took out his wallet, started paying, changed his mind, went back to look at the tires again, asked questions again, expressed doubts about the durability of the tires he had previously selected, said “this is for my wife, I’m concerned,” the guy at the counter talked about tread, about heat resistance, about longitivity, and grip. “You’re safer with this one,” he pointed at the $600 tires. The customer called his wife again, explained the situation, the little child came on line “how was school” etc, then “daddy will be back shortly,” and so on and on and on…
I looked at the clock. We had been there 40 minutes. The guy was absolutely unconcerned about the fact that I stood behind him, waiting for the mexican at the counter. The mexican at the counter was absolutely unconcerned that I may have something trivial to ask. It never occured to him to intervene.
“This is a narcissistic personality disorder,” I quietly whispered in my son’s ear, smiling.
He felt uncomfortable “what if the guy hears it?” he said.
“Perhaps he will come to know himself more,” I responded, still smiling.
The Caucasian saw us whispering, turned around to look at me, and muttered “sorry.” Nothing in his demeanor showed that he was sorry. He probably remembered his Kindergarten teacher‘s instructions to use that word when he felt he was in the wrong. I wish she had taught him not to do wrong, instead, but that hadn’t been in her job description perhaps. Lip service doesn’t cut it with me.
We waited for another 25 minutes before I interrupted and demanded to be attended to, anger rising within me. The Mexican took some time off from the handsome customer and looked at me as if I had committed a crime. I asked my question. “2-4 hours,” he said, thru pursed lips, disapproval dripping like honey. He avoided looking at me, choosing to fiddle with his cash register instead. I was summarily dismissed, unless I had more questions, in which case I could wait for another hour. Or I could interrupt – which everyone knows is rude. These stupd, backward Indians. They talk over each other – I could almost hear them think. The Mexican reminded me of Paul Fereiro’s book The pedogogy of the oppressed – The son who idealises me, quietly looked on.
Once outside, I felt I had to address this. I asked him what he felt about the exchange.
“He was distracted,” he offered. He was too young to have a clue.
“How about color of my skin, or age, or gender ?” I asked. He was uncomfortable and quiet.
“We are taught not think in terms of racism, or sexism” I said, “but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” I said.
He stayed quiet. It was beyond his comprehension that people could alter their behavior based on color of his mother’s skin, or her age, or her appearance. It flew against everything he was taught at school. He was used to waiting outside his school for me to pick him up. He was used to waiting outside his classroom until the teacher was ready for him. He was used to waiting because he was a child. He had limited rights. For him, there was nothing wrong with waiting. And in this country, he would cross the threshold of adescence not knowing that decent adults do not keep other adults waiting. That such behavior was wrong. I needed to do something.
“Somewhere along the way, you don’t have to be subservient to adults.” I said. I already treated him as an equal for most part and brought it to his attention. He acknowledged that. “The world has to treat you at par ! You must refuse to be marginalized! ” I said. He knew I was particular that he learn to be assertive. We had several jokes around it, to take away the awkwardness of discussing his emergent masculinity……
We talked some more in the car. It was time he was introduced to the real world. This was an initiation ceremony of sorts – the idealism that he believed in, had to give way to reveal the opposites, to be able to see things as they are, not as he wanted them to be. It wasn’t ok for him to close his eyes and join the delusional bandwagon of “there isn’t any racism in US.” Racism, and many other isms, are an omnipotent, pulsating parts of every aspect of life lived by the minorities – here or anywhere. Only in the whiteness of the country clubs do they not exist perhaps – I wouldn’t know even that for sure. My son had to remain open, aware, to be able to recognize it for what it is, label it, and fight it at every opportunity.
Racism isn’t something that happened to those Black people that lived in poor housing, back then. It is part and parcel of how we are forced to mold ourselves to fit in. How we eat, what we eat, how we talk, what we talk about etc etc etc. All minorities are forced to learn the American ways, all of us know that if we don’t become like “them” our surival may be threatened. Its sad. What is so wrong with how a Hmong lives his life, for example? What is so wrong with an Arab’s way of life ? Why would it need to be changed? Why should anyone demand change ? Because it is a struggle for survival for the minorities.
“If I learn English, may be they will let me survive! If I learn to eat with a fork and a knife, or listen to hip hop, that may increase my chances of survival , I wont be a butt of jokes” etc etc …how sad, indeed !…….how pathetically limited in its imagination, and its consciousness must that psyche be which seeks to conquer so desperately, that which doesn’t appreciate, and applaud diversity, or the right of the other to live the way that they choose to live…that which demands conformity and conquest.
Only those who cannot accept themselves as they are, can find faults with others…..
…….what has changed in the last 100 years, really? Not much, except the way we camaflouge racism, sexism, agism, narcissism and colonialism….we have more sophisticated ways now…
In the car we discussed this some more. “What is racism, I mean really ?” he asked. Good question. Great question.
“It is a innate desire within humans to choose the less disadvantaged, less weak, to choose that which is more perfect, less flawed.” He digested this some more.
He disliked parts of himself that were weak and fragile, he said. Did that come from the same place? Yes it did. Just a different flavor of the innate impulse. He tried to go inward to experience the impulse.
“So then everyone is a little racist?!” he concluded.
“Yes, its only the question of degree, and texture,” I replied, “but if we acknowledge that it is an inherentquality within every human being, we can do something about it because we are conscious of its possibilities. If we keep denying we are racist, then we act it out unconsciously, and thats not ok!”
“Why do people want to be perfect?”
“Because that ensures survival. If I am better than the rest, the world will not gobble me up!” I said.
“Then you can gobble the world up!” he added. Bono’s song you become a monster so that monster will not break you floated in my mind. How do you explain this to a 13 year old ?
“Yes,” I said, simply.
“Is that why people are racist, so they can have better chances of survival?” he asked.
Yes, it is. In every human being there is a tendency to discount the weak, the unloved, the fragile, vulnerable parts of themselves, to suppress them, to ridicule them, to make attempts to master them, and improve on them. That inability to accept the less perfect parts of oneself is what inspires, motivates, challenges us and propels us forward in life. In the financial language, it is an asset. But too much of it is toxic. When that inability becomes too intense, when the mind cannot handle it internally, it projects it outwards. The outwards projection of this inability to accept the weak, fragile, vulnerable parts of oneself becomes racism, agism, sexism. In financial language, it becomes a liability. I like to think that which is within, is always an asset, and that which is externalized, is always a liability. There may be exceptions to that, but such exceptions only prove the rule. The external projection of the internal need to excel is also called narcissism. Hitler was a prime example of an externalised need for inner perfection. And any and all of these -isms impinges on the soverignity of the individual. It leaves the other disabled, and wounded because in not so many words he is being told – consciously or unconsciously – that he is less perfect. And to be less perfect means to be less capable of surviving. The thought of being less fit for survival, must create primitive annhilation anxiety internally – and hence the reaction to such a situation is anger. Anger expresses inner violence. Violence is brute force. What else would the psyche summon when thrust with doubts pertaining to its ability to survice? Annhilation anxiety is the most perverse of all fears.
The word independence, then, is the symbolic representation of the absence of the threat of annhilation. It is representive of survival, of continuity of life, of an assurance that one will continue to exist.
Why do I get emotional on the Independence Day? Because it brings with it the promise of survival, a promise of being able to choose less perfect parts of myself, the promise that I will be allowed such choices without the threats of dire consequences. I like who I am. I don’t want to become like the “other.” Independence and freedom gives me an opportunity to like myself as I am. As I envisage myself. I dont’ have to carry the burden of another’s expectations of me….
“Why did those women get ahead of you at the grocery stores?” he asked at length. He was used to being respectful and law abiding.
“Because they were taught to be bullies – naricissistic – by their parents!”
“…..because their need to survive was greater?” he questioned.
“Perhaps, or perhaps their fear of death was greater than mine.” He took that possibility in.
“So they want to oppress others so they can live?” It couldn’t be as simple as that.
“Why do you fight with your brother?” I tried to make him experience the survival impulse that sustained him and his brother as much as it had sustained those women, or the men at the tire store. The emotion, now personalised, made sense to him.
“And why do you tolerate standing in line? Why didn’t you get mad until it was too late at the tire store?” he asked.
“You know, I don’t exactly know the answer to this question. Perhaps that is because I cannot understand why those men and women would be so afraid of my otherness, so afraid of death?” I said, “in my world, people are nice, and considerate. I assume that every person has an internal moral compass that will enable him, and guide him in his behaviors. Some people just don’t have it, and they need external prompts and reminders” I said. “Perhaps that is why I didn’t lose my temper.”
We were quiet for a while. He was perhaps trying to imagione a world where people were not respectful and considerate to each other. Both of us had limited experience of being around disrespectful people in personal lives, except with random strangers.
I thought about it some more. My answer was not enough. There must be more to why I – and those like me – accept behaviors like that from others.
” I accept such behaviors because this is how they are. I would be fighting with people all day if I tried to make them aware of their inner fears, and their wrongdoing!” I continued, “sometimes its just not worth fighting for. It is not my job to refine them into becoming more decent human beings. I am not interested in them.”
He was silent. I was silent. Contemplative. It was a profound question. There was more to it.
“But,” I continued after a while. “it may also be because I want to live! I grew up in an environment which was oppressive to women, and to Indians in general. My psyche was taught to accept whatever came its way – through parental control, through colonization by Britishers etc etc. I just learnt to wait because there probably is an unconscious inner delimma – do I deserve to be treated well? Or, perhaps I unconsciously feel if I am good, perhaps the other person – or race, or country – will allow me to live?” I wondered. I hoped he would understand. My halo slipped some. His invincible, godlike mother now appeared vulnerable. How would he take that? Being a child dependent on adults at home and at school, he probably understand that kind of oppression well.
“Also, the British did not treat us well.” I added. He had sat thru the movie Gandhi with me several times, and understood what I was talking about. “And it is perhaps ingrained in the Indian psyche – at least in my generation. It takes me a while to realize what is going on, before I consciously choose to react to it. I keep thinking the other person will realize his mistake. And even then, it doesn’t irk as much as it should, or as much as it would irk, say, a Caucasian who is born free” I said, “or perhaps we’re just more tolerant of other people aggression. Perhaps that is why we were conquered and re-conquered, and re-conquered by alien invaders. We’re just too soft and gentle. I like it that way. I’d rather be soft and gentle than dismissive, cruel and oppressive.”
“But you,” I continued after a while, “I don’t want you to tolerate even an iota of it. No one should use the color of your skin to keep you waiting in line! You are the face, and hope, of the emergent India ! ” I concluded.
We were home at last.
Happy Independence Day India. You have survived. You have arrived.
Durlabhe bharate janam : Tujh pe dil qurbaan : Tu hai meri jaan.