Let me begin with an interesting quotation that I found a couple days ago, and then move on to something completely different.
A few days ago, at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), where I was awaiting a meeting with Ravi Sundaram, I was browsing through their impressive library, which subscribes to some very critical academic journals. Among them is Public Culture, which was started by Homi Bhabha and Carol Breckenridge. It is from this journal that the quotation comes, from an article entitled “Critique of Popular Culture,” by Partha Chatterjee (Spring ’08). Partha quotes Antonio Gramsci in order to develop an analytic frame for critiquing objects of mass consumption and popular culture in contemporary India:
I liked the quote because for me it leads to a politics of everyday life that can only be critiqued from within a particular culture of politics itself, through immersion into the everyday. This is indeed what I am trying to do here in Gurgaon and Delhi.
Ironically, it was by leaving Delhi, which just yesterday was the site of several simultaneous bomb blasts in luxury-end shopping areas and market places spread out across the city, claiming over twenty lives and injuring hundreds, that I could begin to understand critically the culture of politics that surrounds urban terrorism in contemporary India.
Rubal and I left the city early Saturday morning to head to our grandparents’ farm house three hours north of Delhi, where now only my grandmother remains, along with several of our mosis (maternal aunts). This farm house (or simply, the farm, as we call it) was where my mother grew up. It is located in the holy city of Kurukshetra, the town in which, according to our legends, the Bhagavat Gita took place, and Lord Krishna recited his inspirational battle-sermon to Arjuna. This is in the deeply rural state of Haryana.
I have many happy childhood memories at the farm: playing in the cow pins with Shanna mosi, who even let me choose one little calf to name and call my own; leaping from the roofs of the cow pins onto huge mounds of hay with my brother; visiting all the Hindu temples in the area, most of which are devoted to Lord Krishna (star of the Gita); riding in tractors in the rice fields, and countless other adventures that got us into trouble but remain etched in the eternity of memory. It is to here that Rubal and I journeyed for the weekend, to see mosis and cousins that I had not seen in five years.
We were only there for one night, and that was the night of the bomb blasts in Delhi. Rubal received a call on his cell phone from a friend who informed him of the incident. We were all sitting in a room together, cousins and mosis and my grandmother, catching up on lost time, and chatting endlessly on topics that ranged from politics to Bollywood, which are never really disconnected in India. After we heard about the news of the blast, there was a sort of tense silence that lasted no more than a few seconds. My mother called from the states to see if I had been in Delhi during the blasts (how fast the news travels!). We called a few relatives that lived in the city to inquire about their well being.
And here’s the crazy part: we discussed the matter for no more than a few minutes after that and then moved on effortlessly to other topics. The bomb blasts, which happened in the closest major city to us, elicited no major rants against Muslims (other than the typical “what is it that these crazy terrorists want?”), no diatribes against the lack of effectiveness on the part of the state in securing against terrorism (though these would inevitably come in the newspaper articles to follow), no despair at the fact that India experienced the third most number of terrorist attacks in the past year (third only to Iraq and Afghanistan), nor any explicit mourning for the loss of innocent life. Instead, they quickly moved on to topics such as a recent murder mystery in the town of Noida, where a 15 year old daughter was murdered in the middle of the night, along with a servant, while the parents slept through the whole thing (not unlike the case of Jon Bonet Ramsey in the U.S.). Before long, it was as if everyone forgot about the bomb blasts altogether.
On our way back to Delhi the next day, I expressed to Rubal my shock at the utter lack of concern on my family’s part. “They didn’t even give us a warning about returning to Delhi, or try to convince us to stay in Kurukshetra for a few more days. They didn’t even say as little as ‘good luck,’ ‘stay safe.’” Indeed, my relatives’ only suggestion was the following: “stay away from crowded bazaars,” and it wasn’t even directed towards me or Rubal in particular, but was just a general sort of statement that seemed to carry little weight. Such a statement is a pretty useless and futile piece of advice in a place like India. Telling someone to avoid crowded bazaars in India is kind of like telling someone to avoid the long lines at Disney World.
Here was Rubal’s response to my shock: “Well, when you live in a country that has 13 or 14 major bomb blasts a year, they stop having such a significance.”
And its true. I mean, the U.S. experienced one pretty horrific incident and it changed its whole foreign policy, or at least its government used that incident as an excuse to do so. It is not clear that there is any official pronouncement in reaction to 9/13 in Delhi, other than the usual condemnations of extremism and inhumane violence against civilians.
But I would push Rubal’s point a little further and say that, in a country where the most ubiquitous thing is people and large crowds of people, and where there is the constant anxiety of being in an overpopulated society, especially amongst the middle and upper classes (S. Krishna has written pretty astutely on this anxiety amongst this milieu), such events like the random killing of innocent civilians is not treated with the same horror. It is not necessarily that people desire widespread death on the population. But this antipathy is also not unrelated to the idea that even if 50 or 100 or 200 people die in an explosion, even in one particular city, that this cannot but represent the smallest of proportions vis-à-vis the overall population. This cynicism is made even stranger in light of the fact that, because the attacks themselves were carried out in rich areas, where high-end consumers do their shopping, the victims themselves probably belonged to the middle and upper classes.
And this adds an interesting twist to the whole scenario. As of yet, no group has claimed responsibility over the attacks (and I have not had the chance to sit down with a decent paper or watch the news since the blasts), but whoever it was, whether Islamist or Maoist, radical environmentalist or Tamil Tiger, Sikh or Hindu fundamentalist, it is clear that the target was the city itself. And not just any part of the city, but a particular (privileged) milieu. Almost as if to say, the rich are seceding and separating themselves from the rest of this overpopulated and (largely) poor city, and this is the language with which to address such economic apartheid.
Of course, such a claim is highly tenuous at this point. More needs to be found out. But looking at it from within a particular culture of politics, I cannot help but draw connections to The Battle of Algiers, and the birth of anti-colonial terrorism in Algeria, where colonial rule was contested first of all through a violent and radical politics of aesthetics that directly confronted the technologies of apartheid itself (European vs. native attire and style, civilized vs. uncivilized space and architecture).
I am positioned ambiguously within this political and cultural matrix. I must continue to go into Delhi in order to do my research. I will use the Delhi Metro and walk around the streets everyday and probably go shopping from time to time. I am wealthy here in a very poor country. And everywhere you go, the bazaars are crowded and full of people of different religions and cultures and classes.
But sitting with my relatives in rural India, in the farm house that stored countless treasured memories for me, not discussing the very thing that I could not help but think about now, there was a bit of comfort in realizing that the chaos that terrorism expresses in India is perceived differently here than in the U.S., for complicated reasons, reasons that continue to be unclear to me.