South Asian Theatre of the Absurd

Like any feeling that is nurtured for too long, antipathy can assume an involuntary behaviour pattern.

Among Homo sapiens, who now number 5.7 billion, about one-fifth are South Asians. They share many characteristics with other Homo sapiens elsewhere. But, unlike other humans, South Asians have no special liking for their own variety. In fact they strongly disapprove of them. To this extent, they are an unusual breed, and of much interest to the scientific community.

Antipathy, even as a temporary aberration, tends to enhance the incipient human aggressiveness and erode objectivity. For South Asians, the feeling of antipathy for other South Asians is not even an aberration. They have lived with it for centuries. It has been bequeathed from one generation to the next as if it were part of folklore. But antipathy, or any feeling nurtured for so long, can assume an involuntary behaviour pattern. It would, then, cross the frontiers of conscious and rational control. This seems to have happened in South Asia, divided as it is by language, religion, caste and culture. South Asians have degenerated into jaded and polarised peoples forever immersed in innumerable old and new conflicts that keep them busy on the streets or at the frontiers.

How and why South Asians were led into this theatre of the absurd is a long and complex chronicle. It would take us far into the past where we are more likely to get lost than redeemed. Also, the purpose here and now is not to discover the causes so much as to recognise and accept the antipathetic and subjective mind-set of the South Asian, as reflected in actual events. Let us, therefore, look at the recent past and the contemporary scene.

First Among Equals

Since Indians are the first among equals in this region, we could begin with them. The ´dawn´ of Indian independence broke precisely at midnight, as worked out by astrologers, with the famous invocation by Pandit Nehru: "When the world sleeps, India will awake". No one had the courage to tell Panditji that the world, passing through morning or evening or high noon elsewhere, was not asleep! It was, in fact, the Indians who remained asleep while Rajen Babu, the future President, did his bit to awaken them by making a frightful din through that ancient mollusc trumpet, the ´sankh´. In a symbolic way it was an expression of that charming flair for the use of metaphor and simulation to circumvent or dispose of reality. Within months of that midnight dawn, the Indians plunged, heart and soul, into disputes over Kashmir, Hyderabad, Junagarh and Goa.

After some respite, and old disputes notwithstanding, the Indians began exploring other possibilities. They quarrelled with China over rocks and boulders, with Pakistan over glaciers, with Bangladesh over water, and with Sri Lanka and Nepal over matters that are yet to be identified as solid or liquid. We have not yet seen the last of these disputes, though we could well see the last of some of the disputants.

But we must concede that what the Indians do to themselves is more than what they do to their neighbours. Among themselves, they quarrel endlessly over mosques, temples, language, religion, caste, births, deaths and even marriages! Their army, when not fighting in Sri Lanka or with China or Pakistan, is usually deployed to prevent them from fighting each other. (Indian readers need not fume, we will get to Pakistan momentarily.) One cannot blame the Indians if they don´t know whether they are coming or going. And where could they be going, anyway? Where, for instance, is their blue-water Navy supposed to steam up to? The Australians have asked this question, not me.

So much for the Indians. Now, we, in Pakistan, are not willing to accept Indian hegemony even over quarrelsomeness. As an independent and sovereign nation, with a separate identity, we like to have our own separate quarrels. We continue, therefore, to quarrel with Afghans over Afghanistan, with the U.S. over enrichment, and among ourselves over impoverishment. Unfortunately, the world has yet to appreciate that we do all this, and will do more, despite our own domestic quarrels with, over, between and about Shias, Sunnis, Deobandis, Barelvis, Ahle-hadith, Punjabis, Pathans, Sindhis, Balochs, Mohajirs and Saraikis…

Time, I think, to look at the other end of South Asia: Bangladesh, a creation of the mother of quarrels between West Pakistanis, East Pakistanis and, of course, Indians. Well, Bangladesh too has its quarrels—with India, over the water that must come in, with Pakistan over the Biharis who must go out, and again, with India over the Bangladeshis in Assam who must stay.

The Bangladeshis also made a tentative gesture to pick a quarrel with the Burmese over some kindred souls in Arakan.

Now, how about Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives? The reader would recall reference to the problems the Indians have with these mountain and sea-borne shrews, but one has not heard of any quarrel among them. Maybe geography has intervened. Even for us South Asians, it is a bit difficult to rake up quarrels regarding international frontiers, riparian rights, or trade routes between, say, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, or Nepal and the Maldives. However, we can expect quarrels in those countries if not among them, soon, if it is not already happening. Sri Lanka, certainly, has been in a squabble domestically for more than a decade.

Spinning Spiral

This, then, is what the contemporary South Asian scene looks like. Now, the question: Can this quarrelsomeness and the erosion of objectivity be corrected before it becomes a genetic defect? Well, not in the foreseeable future. The all-pervasive antipathetic feeling and atavistic compulsions, expressed in so many ways and for so long, remain woven into our psycho-social fabric. The future is, thus, preempted and change reduced to mere intrusion.

Watching the seemingly bustling South Asia is like trying to follow a spinning spiral. The grooves and curves appear to travel up and out at great speed. But it is an illusion. The grooves and curves remain exactly where they are. It is the observer who would, ultimately, be no more. This is the great enigma and, for some, the charm and triumph of South Asia. All sorts of observers— the Hun, the Parthian, the Persian, the Greek, the Kushan, the Arab, the Afghan, the Turk, the French, the British—have come and vanished like rabbits in the magician´s hat, but South Asia stays where it has always been. And it does so with vengeance.

The soul of South Asia is awe-inspiring. It has the stillness of the primordial deep, though storms rage on the surface. And we know the storms will pass, the stillness will remain. Sardar Pannikar noted with pride, in 1948, that "Indian society is essentially the same as depicted in the Mahabharata". This statement, even if debatable, explains the South Asian psyche—an inner compulsion to reach for the past; a yearning for the womb of history. Those in India would be happy with a regression of 3000 years or more. We, in Pakistan, are willing to settle for less— 1400 years.

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