Many years ago, I was playing with a then 6-year old cousin of mine when for reasons I cannot remember, the second World War came up. What I do remember, however, is having to sit him down and as gently as possible explain some of the human costs of that era. I remember him quietly and seriously absorbing what I was telling him, wrapping his understanding of the world around this difficult, new information.
You already know this difficult information. You encountered it in your textbooks, as my cousin did eventually, because your textbooks included it. Textbooks do not include everything. And while it is easy to look at streamlined history in hindsight, it is not easy to watch it unfold or to prod at silences and erasures. So we look away, convinced we are not a part of what proceeds. And by doing so, we become complicit.
Recently, I’ve found myself doing for adults what I had to do for my cousin as a child. I’ve had to ask them to join the dots and consider how their personal experiences of gender, caste, language, race and other defining barriers are connected to the way power is structured, formally and informally. And to ask them what they mean, when they repeat what they’ve heard elsewhere. I’ve even had to ask them a question that makes me feel ashamed to have to put to any person who has gone to school: do you read before forming opinions; and what do you read?
In doing so, I’ve laid my own principles open to interrogation. I’ve laid myself open to hostility. I am tired, I am frightened, but my conscience demands that I engage. What motivates me to have these dialogues is not the need to impose my perspective, but the bleak awareness that alternate perspectives are rarely provided with compassion, without resorting to belittling. This is true for all sides.
Which is why, as much as possible, what I try to do is ask.
If you are worried about fundamental freedoms, you probably feel cornered of late. You don’t have to march at a protest or be active on social media to feel the corrosion even in your personal interactions. ‘Are we really so few – those of us who care?’ you wonder. Maybe. But couldn’t it be that people don’t care mainly because they don’t know?
The resistance is not to an open mind, but to that profoundly scary step of leaving a comfort zone of distraction and denial.
How did you develop your views? For instance, for myself, I know that having felt like, and been, an outsider from childhood is probably why I gravitate toward the underdog. Let’s think about how people come to social consciousness, and make it easier for them, rather than simply attacking their ignorance.
It is true that propaganda is, sadly, more effective than conversation. Fear and laziness allow for that. But my belief is this: instead of shouting back at structures from an ivory tower of our own, let’s talk. If it’s people we’re fighting for, it is people we must talk to.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 25th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.