Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Reading of Asad Zaidi’s Poem ‘1857 : Saman Ki Talash’

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(This is a revised version of the previous post. It appears along with Hindi translation in the August issue of the bilingual bimonthly journal Pratilipi at http://www.pratilipi.in/)


Asad Zaidi’s disturbingly powerful poem opens with a complex telescoping: 1857 has returned, with an immediacy that it did not have in 1857.

The battles that seemed far away are now right here. At the door.

You could put off the fight then. You cannot now.

You could probably say then, “It is for them to take care of freedom.” Now it must be taken care of by you.

Delhi was a long way away then. It is everywhere now. One can think of two Delhis. The symbol of freedom to be won. And the symbol of a kind of power that is a menace to freedom.

There is guilt and a sense of wrong. Can we evade the burden of responsibility for all that has gone wrong? But then a generalized sense of universal responsibility may hide a pathological condition also.

The narrative voice is ambivalent: are ‘we’ the people or the writers, or both?

The soundscape, too, seems to be ambivalent. But in reality it could be marked by a sharp, brewing conflict. For there is the restive, loud, carnivalesque India of people and the whispering India of agents, touts and political opportunists.

But the fears about the conflict could just be illusory, a product of our popular culture. Perhaps the very reality of contemporary India is a product of fiction and commercial cinema. An unreal reality.

But such a suspicion could also mean an ironic shifting of the blame for our sordid reality on to fiction and cinema. A guilt-induced aporia of representation. Our popular cultural representations have probably keenly followed the reality we have produced, but it is such a sordid, fantastical reality that we would just not acknowledge its existence and admit our concomitant responsibility in its making. The better option: blame the popular culture for all that has gone wrong.

The metaphor of noise again changes – to become (before being promptly disowned) the tinkle-tinkle of money. The poem takes aim and fires at a Prime Minister’s magisterial faux pas. And then it returns to telescoping: freedom has become only a name for the quest for a convenient unfreedom. Obviously, this is a pointed assault on the neoliberal avatar of colonialism that conceals itself behind the mask of a freedom won on such and such a date and hence an ‘indisputable empirical fact’.

The rumble – the noise – of the battle-drums of 1857 knocks on the heart, to bring back the memories that the canonical national writing has long kept locked in silence (except for Subhadra Kumari Chauhan who remembered to remember 1857). The writers of the canon may not have exactly aspired for a more convenient slavery, but their taking for granted the freedom arguably made them complicit in the subversion of freedom.

Freedom is not something you download once and for all, and then forget all about it. It must be continually updated and protected.

Freedom is a condition of being.

1857 was not just those people’s case who arose and marched and fought and died then. It remained the case of those too who came afterwards. And it remains the case for us too.

1857 just cannot be ‘othered’, consigned to ‘them’. It must be ‘owned’.

The rumble is a reminder of the history that did not end in 1857 (or for that matter in 1947 either), but that continues to repeat itself even after a century and a half in the suicides of farmers, weavers and others. The worst irony of the history of/as the present is that these people cannot afford even the dignity that history would confer on them if they could be called rioters or protesters. They are like shadow-people, exiled from their lands swallowed up in Special Economic Zones, dragging themselves to an unsung, general death as the fodder of national statistics of development . . . and starvation.

Yes, we have moved on. History more than repeats itself. An unclean, squalid look was, back in 1857, mere destiny. Today it is a grave crime. Destiny is excusable. Crimes are not.

But then there are several other ways in which history may repeat itself. An unfinished battle may be resumed across decades or centuries. Even the dead may rise to fight, albeit with archaic, obsolete weapons. Indeed they must, when the living are deader than themselves.

The dead may have been dead and seemingly asleep, but they have –in the poem’s universe– learnt their lessons. They now know that their leaders may not have always fought for them or their freedom but only for their own feudal properties. Equipped with such dangerous wisdom, they today mockingly ask the ‘enlightened’ living whether they do not fight any longer because there is nothing to fight for and no one to fight against . . . whether injustice has vanished from the world . . . or whether they have just given up.


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1 comment:

vadapalli rama rao said...

A poem sparking a quick introspection turning the searchlight inward.
All of us should share the blame for things going painfully out of hand.
Good work my dear Rajesh
Rama Rao