Portrait

There are a number of things that have changed within me in the last 5 years. One was, of course, my break with religion and my slow reach towards agnosticism. I thank Joyce for that. ‘Portrait’ was the one thing that empowered me to destroy my old beliefs and build new ones – it is a thing because it is not simply a book to me – it strengthened me paradoxically like some weaker strain of religious conviction. I gave up on the god idea for humanist aesthetics at 21. And I thought I would be like that forever. That I had concretized my being into some definite enduring form.

But that was not true. Even my aesthetics, and my love of it, were subservient to something else – a politics. Re-learning, or perhaps unlearning this as well was another step. To relearn is something beautiful. To re-see, to revisit your old convictions and be embarrassed that you once held them so firmly, that you once thought that way, is precious. Quite often, we think we can define people analytically but we do not understand that people change and that change is absolutely natural and essential. Change is deep too and it isn’t explained in a few terse lines or a disposition. One must know why they’ve changed and defend it.

More than a year ago, I was casually Left, or Liberal-Left, if it suits illustration. Somehow I think I owe Noam Chomsky and Noami Klein for that. They were essential reading at the university. I also have to thank those traditionalist Eurocentric aesthetics, beamed into me since I was a small boy, for keeping me firm.  These made me such that I couldn’t stand materialism and “contemporary corporate art” (I still can’t, often enough). In that way, I suppose I came to the political through the aesthetic. My scepticism about the merits of certain aesthetics kept me from subscribing to the overall political framework which engendered it. I am very glad.

Perhaps my anti-materialism was a remnant of my orthodox Christian beliefs. If so, I am very grateful to have known it. As I write this, I think of all the Christians who busy themselves chasing after shoes, looking up dresses and trying new cars and touching phones and who do not look on Christ the Cynic except for ceremony. Like many other followers, they practice and are satisfied without the theory. They are devoted to the floating symbol of their faith, not its message.

Anyway, another chapter has begun now. Re-discovering Marxism has been a spiritual journey, or rather a journey of the Spirit. Many people ask me how I can say that about something so cold, mechanical and exacting. They don’t seem to understand the basis of it. It is a way to help people; it is a way to help my people. It lays emphasis on the local and contextual and not some abstract globalism. New Marxism undermines prejudice and ancient manacles. It is the only system which gets down close to the “lowest of the low”; it is about justice – which for me – is emotional and spiritual.

Now I am re-discovering all the great art works and songs and poems and films by Marxians and I keep asking myself – where were they hiding all this while? It is me, of course, who like many others never gave due credit to these giants nor even knew about them because they were crowded out by the more self-loving and flamboyant (and thus marketable) heroes of the (mostly) Anglo-American pantheon. Actually, even many heroes I had from the old days were extremely political people but these are never things we should talk about. We should simply read and wonder about the word-smithy, about the narrative and the character development and should forget about their many-a-times Leftist politics.

Right now, this change is there, it will add another layer to my life further. It will deepen it. Having not learned my lesson, I think this is how I will remain for the rest of my life.

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Winter|Hope

How I waited all November for December to come.
How we struggled through that last exam with
Early morning revision and numb hands and cold faces –
Shivering but knowing that it would be over soon enough –
How we trained ourselves to hope back then.
Then, time to bring out the tops and strings and dares;
Time to roll about in dirt until cheeks cracked and

Noses ran when the sun was out; and if not, we crammed
Around the fireplace waiting for the small flame to ignite the coals and wood.

And we played dar-dar among the woods of the adjoining Juniorate – hiding in the strangest nooks.
We crowed at the sun like Lost Boys, we danced in a ring like Lost Boys –
Though we had no idea who they were nor were we boys only.

Nor was it always easy – winter – the neighbourhood
Always reminded me which family I belonged to.
I resented it bitterly but there I was –
Khasi stuck in my throat, wearing clean clothes everyday –
But when the games were in motion, we forgot all about that.
Under earth and leaves, I was like everyone else by the end of the day.

When they turned 16, some discovered cigarettes, sex and beer.
I didn’t – it frightened me then – winter – waiting for friends to go home.
And in the neighbourhood, no one was playing dar-dar anymore.

Khasis First

And as children, elders told us never to disturb the stones –
That is, the flat dolmen and the upright monoliths around it.
So we revered the stones, gave thanks to them, remembered.
We were Christians, but Khasis first.

In Mawphlang, we always feared the spirits of the Sacred Forest,
On Lum Kyllang, we remembered never to swear atop the dome,
To Lum Sohpetbneng, we made our pilgrimage like the faithful.
We were Christians, but Khasis first.

******************************************

In Jowai, I sunned myself, on the terrace of a rich man’s house,
Smiling at how frightened his sisters were of a new grave nearby.
Money has not changed them. Yet. They still fear the old fears.
They are Christians, but Khasis first.

Now the sacred stones are strewn aside, waiting to be ground;
Sacred woods are now in the way of progress and bulldozers.
Now we can explain away the fears, the tales of magical events
We are hardly Christians and no longer Khasis.

College Brats

We talk about power. Simply talk, nothing substantiated. No real idea about where and what shape and an unwillingness to place it solidly in their own hands. We drink tea. My old friends talk about new gadgets and compare new salaries in a shifty way – tokens of prestige. I have never seen this side of them before. After tea, we walk with accompanying hush over new roles as government tools – chest beating and filling papa’s shoes or mother’s.

After all this, I look and recall a car filled with friends driving around Police Bazaar, gnarling at people, looking for a high at midnight, howling, clawing, wild swinging animals in a motorised menagerie. Angry, younger, yes but filled with hope.

Now, are you the same ones in that classroom who debated ethics and society? Are we the same ones who wanted revolution? After all that praise and promise, I always thought we’d be here together. After that rebelliousness out of reading rebels, the avant-garde rebels parading in our hearts, the rebels whom we wept for: where are you now, beloveds? What has happened to those classroom brats who spat at cash, who pissed on prestige, who swore only by high beliefs. Beliefs without office, without church, only spirit.

Khwad

Yesterday, I accompanied my pastor friend to a small War village for a programme he had to preside over. Khwad falls within the Mawkynrew constituency and, it meant for us, a 35 minute trek down a cliff with a friendly guide and his son. There had been thick fog all around, making driving there a slow and frustrating task. When we reached the village, we were greeted with curiosity and smiles like coming back home after a long holiday. Water and bananas greeted us as well, for which we were very thankful. Our host was a 25 year old church elder whose speech was slow but well-paced.

When the sermon started, I suddenly realised I had not attended one in 6 years. In the city, I felt tired and sad going to church, I felt like it was merely one van to beat the air with but there I felt comforted. It was comforting to hear the villagers poking fun at pastor, to see them come to church in dirty clothes, to see children think of church as a big room to play in, to hear chicken fighting outside and pigs oinking their disapproval. Where is this in Shillong? We talked more about the land, the plants and animals, the distance from “civilisation” than about God, because as my friend said it correctly, that is where God truly resides, in what the people love, what they care about, what they tend to, what their children are ensconced in.

It took us an hour to make it back to the road where the car was parked. Sweat drenching our clothes, thoughts running wild within us, we reached the summit and looked back down at Khwad so far below, feeling both pride, and disbelief at those people who settled there so long ago. The sun was out by then -brighter, it looked, than ever before – the clouds had been dispersed.

Polo

There is the dump where the chicken bits would rot in the open air. Nearby, a wine shop and a wall where men line up to piss into the drain. Across the road, the women stand, waiting for cars, in front of the butchers’ shops. For some reason, I hated this place as a child, inheriting bias for the squalor and the smells. I always said it was a place for mutants because of the old woman whose back was so crooked she walked with her face downwards. She frightened me in her white sari then – which now is pure and poor in the mind, now a symbol of resilience. Polo was also where I saw the man in tattered clothes with one enlarged ear lobe that hung like an earring on the side of his face. He was always coughing and I would make a face whenever I saw him, unable to stomach the sight. I do not see him anymore. Here too, I would see the woman with the asymmetrical face, her left side slightly drooping. I do not see these people anymore and I want to, now. Now I think about them and, of course, I think about myself then. Then, I wanted to see Polo mowed down and yes, they have tried so many times to do that. Polo, after all, is unsightly and lumbering and diseased and its people pollute the river that runs alongside the length of it. Yet somehow the crazy people, the poor rag-pickers, the broken men and the bad women manage to roil every time under the boot. Every time the debris crumbles into a familiar position, these people find their place again; every year there is flooding and the moment it subsides they are out again- just a matter of shoveling out the slime, I suppose. Polo seems to have a place for everyone in the way a Church is supposed to be.