On Serpents, Inevitability and the South Asian Imagination
P ` The devastatingly beautiful Esme is innocent. But in Yashar Kemal’s brilliant novel, ` To Crush The Serpent` , she is accused of collaborating with her former suitor in the murder of her husband, Halil (1). Everyone known that Esme is guilty; and the villagers, led by Halil’s family, are ebullient about revenge. Esme must be killed. Again and again, Halil’s old and embittered mother urges his brothers to save the family’s honour. But no one could aim a weapon at such a beautiful woman; such a marvel of God’s handiwork. So Halil’s soul refuses to rest; it comes back as a ghost to haunt the village; the ghost becomes a communal dream urging everyone to avenge his blood so that his soul could be released, so he could rest in peace. The task is finally placed on the shoulders of Hassan, Esme’s son. Much of the novel is concerned about the state of Hassan’s mind: how the boy grows up with his `responsibility’, how he repeatedly tries to seek solace in the outside modern world, and how finally he is overpowered by it.
The tragic narrative of ` To Crush the Serpent` – and it is of Greek proportion in that it is both predictable and inevitable – parallels the tragedy of the Indian subcontinent. Like young Hassan, South Asia is trapped between an oppressive historic tradition and an active, instrumental modernity. And like Kemal’s protagonist, it does not know which way to turn: all roads to the future, it appears, pass through the valley of death. And like Hassan’s beautiful and innocent mother, the Indian Subcontinent is in the imminent danger of being killed by its own progeny.
If both Pakistan and India now appear to be in political and social turmoil, immersed in ethnic strife and violence, with balkanisation on the horizon, it is not because the ideals of the founding fathers were at fault but largely because the ideas that they were working with, were applied to the wrong group of people. In Pakistan, the notions of the worldview of Islam were married to the modernist idea of a nation state and the creation of an `Islamic state’ was heralded. The tragedy of Pakistan is the contradiction inherent in the juxtaposition of an uncompromisingly universal worldview with the modern, secular notion of instrumental nationalism. India took a much faster root: the `scularism’ and `socialism’ that its founders, particularly jawalarlal Nehru, embraced was as alien to the vast majority of devout Hindus and Muslims in India, as was the notion of an ideological `Islamic state’ for the Muslims of Pakistan. This vision of importing parliamentary democracy based on first-past-the-post electoral system from England, and turning India into a federation with a strong central government, placed conflict in the womb of the newly created, ethnically plural, nation: it was unwittingly designed to increase and inflame ethnic conflicts. Neither the traditional Hindu nor Muslim societies has any notion of a secular law – imitative legal systems in both countries ensured that conflict between tradition and secular modernism was written into the national equation right from the start. P ` State and Identity P ` The western concept of state has its origins in the city-states of Greece. The modern western state is a direct descendant of the Socratic theory of a `just state’. For Socrates, and the Greek philosophers who followed him, an ideal state is organised into three types of citizens. First, there were the common people, artisans and merchants, who provide the material wealth for the state’s existence. Next, is the military who have the responsibility of protecting the state and keeping internal law and order. Finally, there is the class of rulers and guardians, who govern and legislate. To ensure the stability of the state, the three orders are kept separate. To make everyone feel content with his role in society, the `rule of and by the people’, or democracy, was introduced. However, in the Greek states, the `people’ and the `citizens’ were synonymous: democracy for Greeks implied a strictly oligarchic form of government. The `people’ were the free-born inhabitants of the state, who were rarely more than one-tenth of the total population. The majority, for whom democracy had little meaning, were the serfs and slaves who actually oiled the wheels of the state – the working class in Marxist terms.
The modern nation-state contains all the trappings of its Greek counterpart. Both India and Pakistan have adopted the model well. India is a genuine Greek `democracy’ in that it has limited power to less then the ten percent of its people – indeed some would argue, a single family - for the vast majority of its people, democracy has as much meaning as the barbarian non-citizens of the Greek states. The ideology of the Indian nation-state is popped up by the army. It is commonly assumed that the Indian army has played no role in politics; this assertion is correct in that the Indian army has not directly taken power. However, the army has been quick to act whenever the ruling oligarchy or the state ideology have been threatened. How else could one justify the endless rounds of wars with Pakistan?
In Pakistan, the military has actually become a integral part of the ruling oligarchy. The founding fathers envisaged the Muslims of India as a `separate nation’. In the early period of Pakistani history, this `nation’ was said to embrace the `ideology of Islam’. Later, the `ideology of Islam’ became synonymous with the `ideology of Pakistan’. In either case, this ideology was not seen as a system of ideas and concepts, but as a catalogue of do’s and dont’s whose only binding force was emotion. However, with Pakistan standing for Islam, it was only natural for some people to confuse national emotions with Islamic sentiments. Almost every Pakistani leader has used `Pakistan’s ideology’ as an excuse to transform Pakistan into an oligarchic, instrumental nation-state.
Thus, as constructed and devised in the fateful closing years of the fifties, the modern nation-states of India and Pakistan ensure their survival by producing a three-tier society – as originally envisaged by the Greek philosophers. Within this framework, subcontinent politics has come to mean the appropriation of scarce resources by a ruling oligarchy and isolation and marginalisation of the vast majority from the centres of power. In between, is the buffer zone of priestly classes which function as the guardians of custom and tradition. When Tatu Vanhanen suggests that `politics is for us a species-specific form of struggle’ and the `simple and disgusting’ rationale for the nepotism and corruption of the South Asian politics is that `we are bound to struggle for survival for the same reason as all forms of life’, he is not, as he mistakenly thinks, offering an explanation for politics – he is ` describing` how politics is conceived in the West (2). Like the founding fathers of South Asian nation states, Vanhanen accepts the underlying secular assumption for politics and the existence of the nation state: assumptions which naturally lead him to offer a chilling social Darwinian explanation of ethnic conflict, nepotism and the dominant, and accepted practice of politics:
It seems to me that the socio-biological theory of kin selection provides a satisfactory explanation for the origins of the behavioral predisposition. Because the struggle for existence, according to the contemporary Darwinian theory of evolution, ultimately concerns the survivals of our genes, those who tended to favour kin over non-kin were more successful than those who did not discriminate between kin and non-kin. (3)
This `behavioral predisposition to nepotism’, argues Vanhanen, provides the `ultimate evolutionary explanation for the ubiquity of ethnic conflicts’. Thus, the problems of India, and by a natural corollary, Pakistan, are all connected to the `extreme heterogeneity of its society’. Vanhanen’s solution is to do away with `heterogeneity’: `Biological nature of ethnic conflicts led me to conclude that biological amalgamation of different ethnic groups would be the most effective way to solve these problems permanently’. This aim is to be achieved by `political engineering’.
Vanhanen provides a good illustration of the banality and the poverty of secularistic thinking. Early leaders of South Asia were influenced by Western experts like Vanhanen; they too sought the amalgamation of different ethnic group and the instrument of `political engineering’ they relied on was called nationalism. The formation of a modern national identity was to be aided by such factors – as Daniel Lerner (4) amongst so many others informed the leadership of the new states – as urbanisation and media participation. Urbanisation, in fact, eroded the social and material foundations that existed in the Subcontinent, and that had even survived the onslaught of British colonialism, for the harmonious existence of plural identities. In semi-literate societies of India and Pakistan, cinema, rather than writing, became the instrument for the creation of a national identity. Cinema is the first language of the rural and urban masses eager, indeed avidly hungry, to make themselves socially visible. Both Indian and Pakistani films have placed the images of the people as a nation at the lowest common level, simultaneously elevating and degrading the people. Thus the national identity forced by the cinema became a product of song and dance, fetish loyalty to custom, ritualistic humiliation of women, glorification of western norms and fashion. Ironically, all attempts at forging national identities actually produced a whole range of identity crisis.
Both India and Pakistan are imagined states. Indian and Pakistani nationalism is an artefact; a fabrication that is treated and enforced as though a part of the natural universe. In fact, it is little more that a contingency created by historical circumstances at best, and a virulent implant at worse. Even though it is considered to be a necessity and repeatedly justified through history and tradition, and presented as eternal and immutable, it is actually a product of the total failure of creative imagination. However, the imagined and forever `emerging’ national identities suppressed and destroyed what is essential for traditional and ethnic societies to survive: a sense of community. The concept of nation-state imagines that a community exist, that it has fixed boundaries; it does not see community as an aspiration to strive for, to be constantly worked at, a permanent state of becoming. When India and Pakistan became nations they ceased to be communities – and therein lies the essence of the South Asian turmoil.
The Subcontinent resembles the village of young Hassan: restless, insecure, suppressed by false tradition, haunted by the ghosts of murdered patriarchs, victimising the innocent, forever locked in ancient blood-feuds. There are no communities in the village called Indian Subcontinent, only victims and those who victimise.
By far the most pathetic victim in the historic drama that is unfolding itself in South Asia is the idea of tradition. Much blood has been spilled both in the defence as well as demolition of tradition. Both Muslim and Hindu societies are traditional societies: without their respective traditions they have no past, no identity and therefore cannot be conceived as historic societies. But what worth is a tradition that has lost its humanity?
The construction of religious `tradition’ always involves a selection from the past: who makes this selection and for what reason are the necessary questions one has to answer regarding all tradition. Both the Hindu and Muslim traditions have been forged by a particular class of people for their own ends. In the case of Hinduism, upper caste or Brahmanical beliefs and rituals have came to constitute the core of the tradition. In the case of Islam, this tradition has been formed by the ulama – religious scholars – to maintain their power and control over a territory called ` fiqh` or jurisprudence. Apart from their theological base, there is hardly anything between the two traditions to differentiate them. The `Sanskritization’ of Hindu tradition parallels the narrow, ` fiqhi` legalisation of Islamic tradition. Both traditions are static and false: in ` To Crush the Serpent` , this tradition is personified by Halil whose murder is placed on the shoulders of Esme, his beautiful wife.
Esme is South Asia. And like the vast majority of Indians and Pakistanis, she is not just beautiful, but also virtuous, dedicated and selfless. But how did Esme come to be married to Halil, the personification of perverted tradition? As we later discover in the novel, Esme was abducted from her father’s house by Halil and his henchmen. He tried to rape her by binding her hands and feet – but she fought back. Eventually, Halil achieved his ends
by drugging her with an opium sherbet. When Esme came to and realised what had befallen her, she was seized with vertigo and started to vomit. She was bleeding too. Her shame was more than she could bear. Halil fetched a doctor who stopped her bleeding. Then he took her to his house, summoned an Imam who married them before God. That very same day the civil ceremony was performed. (5)
Esme then has been doubly victimised. She has been violated and married by force; and she has been wrongly accused of the murder of the man who performed the deed. The parallels between the perversion of tradition and Esme’s tragedy are uncanny. Like Esme, the entire Subcontinent has been abducted by an elitest group of religious clergy; and who, like Esme, have been duped against their will and better judgement into taking the reformulated tradition to be the real thing. And like Esme they have been married to this falsely constructed tradition: they defend it selflessly and virtueously.
Both Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism are a product of the false tradition as promoted by the religious classes. As Achin Vanaik tells us, `since independence the most important social force behind the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and Hindu nationalism has been the intermediate castes’. But are they motivated by lack of economic opportunity and exploitation? `Hindu fundamentalism’, Vaniak shows, `is not a reaction to economic failure. On the contrary, it is the consciously chosen cultural expression of a social force which has enhanced its authority and which is upwardly mobile on the economic and political fronts’(6). One can say the same about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. It is the political and economic success that the ulama, and religious parties like Jamaat-e-Islami, have enjoyed in the history of Pakistan that has led to the emergence of a mindless Islamic fundamentalism – where a return to an idealised, utopian (and as such, historically non-existent) Islamic state suppose to be a panacea for all contemporary ills. However, it is the ruralization of both Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism that has become a major factor in shaping the future of South Asia. It is unquestioning loyalty of the rural and urban poor to ` religious tradition’ that has given urgency to the fundamentalist demands for a theocratic state – a demand that was originally conceived by economically and politically upwardly mobile religious elite.
Like the two varieties of fundamentalism, the notion of an utopian `Islamic state’ and the idea of an India ruled by Brahamin clergy are also the creation of a false tradition – it is false not only in terms of its history and true Self, it is also false in that it is an amalgam of Western secularist notions of power and territory and a static view of tradition -
and are deliberately and consciously based on an artificially created consciousness. `Who is it that’s left his father’s blood unavenged, forced him to haunt the world till doomsday, to burn in Hell forever?’, Hassan imagines his father’s ghost interrogating him. `How can you live without honour? Like a beast? Feeding on the hand that murdered your father?’ How can, the Hindu fundamentalists asks the simple followers of tradition, you allow a mosque to exist where Lord Khrisna once resided? How can you allow freedom to your women, the religious authorities demand, in clear violation of the Prophet’s examples? In both cases the moral dictates of a humane history is transformed into a tradition that leaves the human out of the social and political equation. Like Hassan, the ordinary believer is trapped in a `circle of fire’ – a circle of `tall flames, the height of five men atop of each other’ that is growing smaller and smaller.
One of the most frightening consequences of the emergence of Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as the idealisation of an instrumental nation state, is possible clash between the two ideologies. India and Pakistan have fought three wars already – another one cannot be written off in the near future. Another round of military engagement between the two country can be justified by a number of reasons: the desire for new territory on the part of India determined to become a regional superpower, an effort on the part of India to reflect attention from an ever increasing spiral of internal problems – a strategy much favoured by the late Mrs Indra Ghandhi, Pakistan’s insistence on recovering the lost territory of Kashmir, and Pakistan’s support of the Sikh movement fighting for the creation of Khalistan, the perceived independent Sikh state. But the real essence of mutual, and dare one say perpetual, hostility between India and Pakistan is to be found in the distorted self-perception of the respective societies. All Muslims were, some where in the past, actually hindus; or, at best, hybrid hindu having one parent who was hindu. The Muslim hatred of hindus is actually the hatred of what they have rejected in their personal, genealogical history. The hindu hatred of Muslims is a direct result of this betrayal – a betrayal reinforced by the partition of India and creation of Pakistan. The hatred of two `nations’ towards each other is infect the inferiority complex of their own self projected on each other. Each country has constructed the character of the other out of its own inner material. This is why the hatred andX antagonism is so deep: India and Pakistan despise each other for what they recognise in each other to be an integral part of their own Self. P ` Ideology and Imitation P ` That Self has been constantly battered and repeatedly shattered by transformation of tradition, religion, national identity, `modernity’, even democracy, into instruments of oppression; or to put it another way, all that matters to people of South Asia has been turned into ideologies: ideologies to be fought over and defended at all cost. Pakistan is said to be an ideological state. The ruling Congress Party was – at least until quite recently – ideologically socialist. `Islam is our ideology’ goes a popular slogan. The preservation of the unity of the nation state called India is an ideological struggles. Conservatives and traditionalists are ideologues. Communists and leftists – the few who are left after the fall of the Soviet Union – are forever `unmasking’ and `exposing’ ideology. What this means is that a specific logic and grammar is applied to all issues, problems and social and intellectual concerns right across the political spectrum.
Ideology, of course, like `nations’, are a western, secular construction. As originally conceived by the French philosopher Destutt de Tracy, ideology was meant to denote a `science of ideas’ which revealed one’s biases and prejudices. De Tracy believed only in sense perception and was an empiricist. Thus ideology for him was a kind of secular religion. The concept soon gained currency signifying not a science of ideas but a set of beliefs, ideas, values and emotions. Marx and Mannheim gave the concept their individual colour. In Marx’s hand, ideology became associated with the vested interests of a ruling class or the aspirations of a petty bourgeoisie. Mannheim used the term to represent all thought distorted by passion to conserve the status quo or restore the past. In the context of Indian subcontinent, ideology has a more specific meaning. It involves the sanctification of a particular territory by appeal to some sacred notion (religion, tradition, secularism, modernity) followed by the declaration that this territory will be defended at all costs. The territory in question is either plucked out-of-context from history or borrowed from Western thought or intellectual tradition. The whole exercise produces two byproducts. It leads to an inversion of reality – the territory that is being defended and sanctified is either irrelevant to contemporary situation or an artificially created myth – and unleashes a process of imitation and emotional and political freebooting.
The ideologisation of religion and tradition, nation and identity, modernity and secularism, has trapped the South Asian imagination in an imitative mould. Imitation has become the ` sine qua non` of Indian and Pakistani society. As artificial creations, both states are based on borrowed ideas: either from the West or from some dim and distant history whose only significance is its total irrelevance. Of course, a certain amount of imitation is to be found in all societies, indeed it is even necessary; that is, after all, one way we learn. But imitation has acquired a sacred status in the South Asian imagination: ` taqlid` , or imitation, is a major – nay, the only – source of law and behaviour in Indian and Pakistani Islam. And imitation of the West, is a spiritual necessity for secularists of both Right and Left. The question is: where is all this imitation and mimicry going to end? Where does it leave the South Asian imagination? If imitation is the norm, what hope is there for improvement? The perpetual and ceaseless imitation has shattered the South Asian society into a wilderness of mirrors and created the identity crisis of which fundamentalism is but one symptom.
Like Hassan, the people of the Subcontinent are haunted by the twin-headed serpent of ideologies – religious, traditional, secular, western – and imitation. It is perpetually on their tail. It resides where imagination used to be; it is a constant source of physical sorrow and distress of the mind:
A serpent was chasing him all the time, asleep, awake, a huge rattlesnake was on his track. He could not shake it off. It crossed his path on the mountain, among the crags, crept up to the top of the pinetrees after him, followed him into the very room he slept, made him scream out in anguish in the night. (7)
Unless this serpent is crushed, and imagination released from its stranglehold, South Asia would not have a future worthy of its history and status. But I am not using imagination in the postmodern sense – unrestrained, uncontrolled, and an end into itself (8). That would not only be self-defeating but would amount to yet another exercise in imitation! I am arguing for the liberation of the imagination that is anchored in the true Self of the Subcontinent and that moves, from infinity to infinity, within the matrix of its sacred territory and tradition. This imagination is stronger than reason: it is the key that releases `tradition’ from its bondage to time, separates tyrannical, suffocating history from living history and recomposes the shattered Self by promoting confidence in one’s identity. Only this imagination can furnish an authentic bond between individuals and communities that inhabit South Asia and carry them beyond the selfish confines of recent history and artificially created tradition and identity into mutual solidarity.
The future survival of South Asia is dependent on its ability to move forward to its true Self, to release the imaginative energies that lie buried deep in its subconscious Self. Such a leap of imagination would, for example, require South Asia to return to autonomous traditional communities – religious and ethnic – that it always was and always will be. It would require seeing that fundamentalism is an attempt at an assertion of identity, a cry – on part of the rural and urban poor – for a return to the principles of community. It would require acceptance of the fact that a totalistic moral order like Islam can easily be secularised into a totalitarian world order (9). It would require an acknowledgement that Indian secularity, to use Vanaik’s word `does not favour the development of a progressively non-religious state’. And that overcoming the mutual hatred of India and Pakistan requires transcending recent history.
The rediscovery of the South Asian Self and the release of its creative imagination does not mean a return to tradition of history, but a forward journey towards a tradition of humanity and wisdom that draws lessons from history and forges new identities as it evolves and matures. In ` To Crush the Serpent` , this living history, this life-enhancing tradition, is personified by neglected village wise man, `Old Dursan’. He is as old as can be: `so old that he can hardly walk’, his neck so `deeply furrowed that bits of straw and chaff stuck in the folds of skin’. His eyes may be failing but he can see with unusual sharpness. He loves Esme and weeps at her victimization. And he has the imagination and wisdom to stand against the community. `Your mother’, he tells Hassan, `is a beautiful woman. I’ve lived all these years and never came across such beauty as hers. And when a person is so beautiful, and what’s more, sweet and kind as an angel, people can’t bear it and won’t rest until they’ve killed off this beautiful thing’.
In Islam, that tradition of humanity and liberalism is to be found in the pre-Abbaid period, before the construction of an obscurantist jurisprudence as an immovable object between its sacred texts and its rank and file believers. In Hinduism, it is found in flexible religious sects which constituted the polymorphousness of what is designated `classical Hinduism’. It is the imagination that resides in the `classical’ domain that needs to be freed from the subjugation to ideology and imitation. Like the invisible man, this inner subconscious force, this sublime imagination of the original Islamic and Hindu tradition, has to be clothed in images before it can become visible and its beauty, like that of Esme, can be recognised and appreciated.
Esme has a strange effect on her son, Hassan. He loves her and cannot live without her; yet he fears her – its a fear of what may happen to her through his own hands: `Near his mother, he was seized with terror, trembling of all his limbs, beside himself. Far from her he was bereft of life, utterly drained.’ The enlightened intellectuals and thinkers of South Asia have a similar relationship with their countries. They fear the linearly projected future; and they are terrorised by perverted tradition and imitative ideologies. In India, as Vanaik tell us, `there are powerful objective forces at work promoting Hindu nationalism; political parties are inevitably tempted to pander to it and consciously adopt it as part of their ideological appeal.’ In Pakistan, similar forces are taking the country towards a fundamentalist stance: a return to obscurantist jurisprudence and a state ruled, directly or indirectly, by narrow minded religious scholars and `ideological councils’. Democracy in both states is a superannuated joke; and fragile at that. Both states are being pulled in different directions by different ethnic minorities: India could easily divide into Khalistan, Nagaland, Kashmir and other smaller states; Pakistan is forever on the verge of disintegrating into separate homelands for Sindis, Punjabis and Pathans. Yet, no intellectual, no thinker, either from Pakistan or India, worth its salt can turn away from this turmoil and disintegration: that would amount to abandoning life, deserting the future. Yet, like Hassan, they - ` we` – do not know which way to turn.
The conclusion of ` To Crush the Serpent` is inevitable. Yet, it also reveals the failure of imagination of its luminous author. Hassan’s will is crushed by the villagers – for whom it has become a matter of faith to continuously and constantly remind him to avenge the murder of his father – and the constant presence of Halil’s ghost in his mind. One day he calmly aims a gun at Esme, as she lights the earth-oven in the yard, shoots, and watches her fall in the burning oven. For the first time Hassan notices that the `orange flowers smelled so good in the spring’. Yashar Kemal can liberate his protagonist from the bondage of a patently false tradition only by killing the beautiful, the innocent, the virtuous. This is the natural outcome of the secularist imagination.
The task before the concerned and enlightened intellectuals and thinkers of the South Asia is to save the future by crushing the two-headed serpent of ideologies and imitation but without killing Esme – the source of their identity and the abode of their terrestrial journey. To explain what South Asian nationalism is and how it works: to destroy the illusion that sustains it. To demonstrate that tradition is a human product – and renovate it with this self-knowledge. And to take the first step towards the imaginative endeavors needed to save the South Asian future: come together.
1. Yashar Kemal, ` To Crush the Serpent` , translated by Thilda Kemal (London, Harvill, 1991). Kemal is telling a Turkish story; but it is equally applicable to the South Asian situation.
2. Tatu Vanhanen, ` Politics of Ethnic Nepotism: India as an Example` (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1992).
3. ` ibid` . p179-180.
4. Daniel Lerner, ` The Passing of the Traditional Society` (New York: The Free Press, 1958).
5. Kemal, ` op cit.` , p20.
6. Achin Vanik, ` The Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India` (London: Verso, 1990) p144.
7. Kemal, ` op cit.` , p52.
8. For the postmodern treatment of imagination see Ziauddin Sardar, `Total> Recall: aliens, `others’ and Amnesia in postmodern thought’, ` Futures` 23 (2) March 1991 189-203.
9. For a discussion of this transformation takes place see S Parvez Manzoor, `The Future of Muslim Politics: critique of the `fundamentalist’ theory of Islamic state’, ` Futures` 23 (3) April 1991 289
This essay appeared in Futures 24 (9) 942-949 (November 1992)