Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for August 6th, 2010

(Karin writing again. This is reinforcing the thoughts of my early posts Slumdog Millionaire and The View From Below).

In October the Commonwealth Games are to be held in Delhi. The chief minister  Sheila Dixit is anxious to make Delhi a “world class” city so that the “shining India” image of a dynamic, booming economy is maintained. Billions are being spent on new constructions, from much-needed Metro stations to luxury apartments to house the foreign athletes. But, in the process, millions of urban poor are being  forced out of the city with no compensation. Not only homes but schools and small businesses set up in slum areas are being bulldozed by city officials.

The poor should be invisible. They are an embarrassing contradiction to the stories we like to tell of ourselves and to ourselves. Did you know that in just one year 400 Indian farmers committed suicide as a result of failed crops, import competition, and crippling interest payments? They all lived in Maharashtra – the richest state of India – and it was very easy to miss the stamp-sized news article about this enormous tragedy posted in a few newspapers in December 2005.

Indian photographer Arko Datta won the World Press Photo of the year in 2004 portraying a woman prostrate in grief before her dead relative’s body, killed in the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Datta’s subject has no name, but this nameless woman served to make him famous.

The pain of invisibility is emotional and spiritual. Humans who are treated constantly as mere objects internalize a view of their shame, inferiority and uselessness.

Tehelka Crusade – an Indian paper – tell about sewage cleaner Urmila as follows: “Urmila… involuntarily hides her face every time she sees an outsider…why? Because Urmila, quite plainly, is ashamed of her existence, her private and social being. ‘I am nothing, meaningless, like the filth I carry,’ she says”.

Some Christmas cards are trite and meaningless, but one year I got a season’s greeting from a Kenyan friend in the form of a poem written by Hana Ananda. Hana had known “invisibility” before justice was done to her through someone who acknowledged her humanity.

She writes:

“I was nothing but a piece of rubbish

I lay there desperate, I cried, no one stopped

Passing by some looked with scorn and disgust

I know I was not worth picking up

I was nothing but a piece of garbage…”

The opening words of Ralph Ellison’s searing 1947 novel Invisible Man are:

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook….I am a man of substance…and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…”; and he goes on: “you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world.”

At one point in Ellison’s story Mr. Norton – a rich, white man who donates money to a university exclusively for blacks – is confronted: “To you, he [the black young narrator of the novel] is a mark on the score-card or your achievement, a thing and not a man…” and Mr. Norton in his own confession says just about the same thing speaking directly to the narrator: “…You are important because if you fail I have failed by one individual, one defective cog…”

Towards the end of the book the narrator says: “If only we had some true friends, some who saw us as more than convenient tools for shaping their own desires!”

The Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth says something similar about the colonizer:

“The settler makes history; his life is an epoch, an Odyssey. He is the absolute beginning: ‘This land was created by us’; he is the unceasing cause: ‘If we leave, all is lost, and the country will go back to the Middle Ages.’ Over against him torpid creatures, wasted by fevers, obsessed by ancestral customs, form an almost inorganic background for the innovating dynamism of colonial mercantilism…the history which he writes is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skims off, all that she violates and starves.”

Are we any better? Are we neo-colonially engaged in making history using other people, their labour and country’s riches as our raw material? Do we make our “careers” and “security” on the backs of the invisible poor? These are questions any privileged person with a conscience, whatever our colour and nationality, must face.



August 2010