Posts Tagged ‘identity’
In heart of the city of Budapest, a ten minute walk from the iconic basilica of King Saint Stephen of Hungary, near the Arany Janos metro station at Szabadsag square, lies a monument ostensibly commemorating the victims of the occupation of Hungary by Nazi Germany in 1944. The monument is aesthetically garish, depicting a Hungarian ‘angel’ under attack from a German eagle, its talons outstretched. It is located in between two streets, on the edge of a park that already commemorates the Soviets for their role in liberating Hungary in 1945 and a statute of US president Ronald Reagan for the American role in bringing the cold war to an end.
The memorial statute, erected by the conservative nationalist government of Viktor Orban in 2014, has come under much criticism since its unveiling. Critics claim that the statue is an attempt to rewrite history and portray Hungary as a victim when it was allied with Nazi Germany during the Second World War as an Axis power. They say the monument glosses over Hungary’s active role in the deportation of thousands of its Jewish population to Nazi concentration camps. The majority never returned.
However, ever since the day work began on the monument, a counter-monument has sprung up. Directly facing the garish angel, photographs and documents have been strung along a line, below which are stones with Hebrew writing and the artefacts of every life. This ‘living memorial’ is an attempt to challenge nationalist rewriting of history with the bare facts of lived experiences and memories passed down. The photographs are of Hungarian Jews that the then government deported willingly; the documents are copies of papers that these Jews were handed before being forced to leave; the stones are symbols of every person of Jewish heritage murdered.
These two conflicting monuments are part of an ongoing conversation in Budapest over the city’s, and the country, identity. After being freed from the yoke of the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian empire, after shaking off Communism and since being branded as a post-socialist city, Budapest has had to navigate treacherous terrain, picking and choosing what constitute its identity in the present. Nationalist governments, like those of Orban and now increasingly across the globe, tend to look at the past with blinkers on. Either the past is a hypothetical ideal, a time when all was well, or it was a past of victimhood and martyrdom, a time that the present must now avenge.
Kathmandu was once the jewel of the Newars, that beautiful shining entrepot. When it fell into Gorkha hands, it became capital of a kingdom that spread far to the west and east but the Shah kings of yore were in thrall to Newar architecture, even while instituting linguistic and cultural hegemony. It was the Ranas who wreaked havoc, constructing garish monuments that protrude like hideous pimples. The Gaddi Baithak in Basantpur is but one example, so incongruous and so ugly. Since then, modern times have ravaged the Valley’s urban landscape, hollowing it out. Neoliberalism, crony capitalism and the land mafia have all run amok. Tall rectangular monstrosities with glass-fronted facades have risen where green spaces used to be. Office buildings and residential housing complexes are all gated with uniformed guards to keep the rabble out. There is no space to breathe free in Kathmandu. It was in the 90s: we woke to the harsh fluorescent light of modernity and discovered that Kathmandu had been parcelled and sold off, driven by neoliberalism and an unmitigated desire to ape the Indians in their ‘opening up’ of the economy.
We never got to contest Kathmandu, like those in Budapest currently do. There is no living memorial to a Kathmandu that is true. The earthquake destroyed the last vestiges of whatever identity Kathmandu had left and what comes next will be rebuilt by the lowest bidder. Only the Dharahara will rise again, reconstructed by a corporation, a giant middle-finger to the rest of the city.
In Lalitpur, gentrification has begun, in areas like Patan and Sanepa, driven by expatriates and wealthy hipsters. Newars have learned to capitalise on their identity and while Patan is still home to bhattis where a meal can still be had for Rs 100, it is also host to restaurants where a meal will cost you no less than Rs 1,000. Eventually, the proliferation of renovated Newari bed-and-breakfasts and high-end restaurants catering to the INGO salary may drive out locals and businesses that have existed for decades. But then again, Patan is fiercely protective of itself (maybe not so much as Bhaktapur but certainly more so than Kathmandu). There is still hope.
The renovation of old homes into cosy motels and bed-and-breakfasts have brought in fairly well-to-do visitors. The Patan Museum has hosted numerous events and exhibitions and Photo Kathmandu did its part in turning Patan into a veritable art gallery. Such spectacles have brought Patan to the world and the world to Patan. Even in presenting itself to the outside, Patan somehow managed to keep its deepest embers alive and burning. Patan has put up a fight; it is not going quiet into that dark night.
Most of us who grew up in Kathmandu have a conflicted relationship with the city. The city was our first love and it held our heart in the palm of its hands. And now, even though its ever-expanding CBD and its lust for shopfronts and commercial space squeezes that fragile heart till it bleeds, we hold on. But there can only be oh-so-many malls, each a bewildering facsimile of the other, with the same brands, the same stores and the same theatres.
Even now, as we watch, the roads get wider and the pavements get smaller. All the hills and green spaces have been sold off. There are no parks anymore and the air in Chabahil chokes you with two hands around your throat. We lost Kathmandu, before we even got to ask whose city it was.
[Published on The Kathmandu Post, 1 April 2017]
Selected quotations from Kamal P Malla’s collection of essays, The Road to Nowhere:
Three Years of the Rising Nepal
The editorial staff [of The Rising Nepal] are overworked; they naturally do not have time to read through them, edit them, or assess their comparative values. The life of a professional journalist is hectic, indeed; the machines must be fed in time; ‘the formidable deadline’ should not be crossed; so few hands, so much to do. We the consumers have, therefore, to be satisfied if for days there is nothing readable except the weather of the day we had lived through and console ourselves with an incomparable tailpiece or two.
Education: The Road to Nowhere
At least, in seminars on the examination system in committees on higher education, or in sore little opinionate essaysin our periodicals, we are ineffectually brandishing our mediocre ideas pleading for ‘change’ in the present educational system in Nepal…At times of reformistic euphoria we even decide for ‘the change.’ Yet when we come to implement our decisions for the change, we drift exactly to the opposite, by succumbing to a failure of nerves.
…education in Nepal has become something like Frankenstein’s mechanical monster. The master has lost control over the machine. The master, therefore, is no longer able to tell what the monster is going to do next. It is now the toy that plays with the master or masters.
The rich confusion and profusion of authority or educational matters, this intersection of the academic, the administrative and the political interests is an incomprehensible make-believe in Nepal.
Our graduates’ problem, however, is not that they are unemployed but that they are not employable. Their education is pathetically out of tune with the society in which they have to survive. Their education is totally divorced from the agonies of a society in transition where the pressing needs are not just of MAs in English or MScs in Physics, not just of the white collared workers, but also of the drainage experts, the plumbers, the masons, the pipe-layers, the skilled electricians, the mechanics and so on.
…the simple naked truth about our situation: we are confused about our educational aims. What do we aim at in education, and through education, in the rest of our society? Particularly through the liberal education on a mass, debased and commercialised scale?
If cancer is just a name for the wrongly multiplying cells, I imagine, it is no morbid psychology to describe our educational establishment as a malicious form of cancer with which our body-polity is increasingly threatened.
…I have a creepy feeling that education in Nepal is a lost cause: education is no longer education; it is either a political game between the authorities and the students or a commercial enterprise conspired by the academics and the degree-hunters.
The teaching profession as such is ‘permeated with upper-caste traditions’. The authors observe that especially strong is ‘the attitude towards manual effort, physical exertion—these are for the lower castes and it is self-denigrating to lift, carry, or otherwise work with the physical world’. This upper class prejudice is reflected in the curriculum of Nepal’s schools as well as in teaching methods. It is not for nothing that the courses taught in Nepal are highly abstract, with very little consideration of possible applications of the material learnt.
In a social structure like ours where education is accessible mainly to the upper-class child, where caste distinctions and tribal affiliation are still effective, where under the yoke of a strong joint-family system the women have less opportunities than men, the achievement of modern educational goals are fraught with powerful and crippling constraints.
The Importance of Being Critical
In Nepal the educational authorities have always believed in the sheer excellence of the old and the ossified. Here promotions are guaranteed and automatic. Naturally men grow old and prosper involuntarily. A youthful effort is neither a qualification nor an obligation. The only thing one should expect, if expect one must, from the Establishment is a grudging condescension which is already a great favour.
Mr Verma seems to think that literary criticism is an esoteric activity and that the literary critic is an equally scheduled class. The truth, however, is that every reader is a critic and every ‘conclusion drawn from study’ is literary criticism. If the ideal critic, as Dr F P Leavis put it, is an ideal reader, every discriminating student of literature is a critic who has a rightful place in the chain of critical being.
A critical essay is not a loose sally of the mind. Moreover, the literary critic differs from, say, the music critic or the art critic in that the literary critic has to use the medium of words, which is also the medium of the art he is responding to. So his claim to the title is closely related to the nature of the language he himself uses. The validity of a literary critic’s judgement always stands exposed by his own use of the medium.
Mr Verma’s exemplary case shows us that it is not enough to write or publish a book. The importance is not just in writing or publishing a book; the importance is, however, in doing it critically, consistently and thoroughly. The importance is in doing at least as well as one could do it.
YG Krishnamurti or MBB Shah?
At the end of the book I was left precisely where I was before I began the book. It did not make me any better reader of Shree Shah’s poems than I was before.
He steams the windowpanes and asks us to look at the world outside only to conclude on his own that the world is steamy.
Language in Nepal
During the last fifty years Nepali has taken great strides to raise itself to the status of a national language. Although nobody has ever made any objective field tests regarding the comprehension of Nepali by non-Nepali speakers, or on its use as a second language, necessity—sheer expediency—seems to have driven more and more non Nepali speakers to understand and use it in their day-to-day transactions, their inter-tribal communication and the communication with the channels of local and national administration.
The rise of Nepali, first as a lingua franca in the wake of the Gorkha military campaigns, then its continuous use as the language of authority and administration—the total ousting of all other languages from the courts and the final triumph of instituting Nepali as the national language of Nepal—completed a long and historical process that has been going on as a centripetal tendency consequent upon the political unification of Nepal.
Nepali, as an indigenous language, has no resources other than Sanskritised forms for handling an intellectual, abstract or technical discourse of any kind. More than 85 per cent of its vocabulary is similar to Hindi from which it has borrowed more words in the last 20 years than from all the rest of Nepalese languages put together in the whole history of modern Nepal. S the paradox of Nepali linguistic nationalism is that the broader the scope of Nepali, the less it sounds like a language of Nepal. Nationalism, in Nepal, in so far as it is manifestly anti-Indian in orientation, is a self-defeating aspiration, particularly when one of its major foundations is Nepali, which is bound to be increasingly Sanskritised.
Language is so much a part of one’s way of life, a code through which a people’s culture is transmitted from one generation to another. The first language policy equates nationalism with uniformity, the second language policy equates it with tolerance (positively) or indifference (negatively) while the last alternative equates nationalism with the unity based on cultural pluralism and diversity…what Nepal does with her minorities and their languages will the best test of the maturity of her democracy. To ignore them is convenient, but not necessarily the most effective way to national integration.
The Precis of Right Philosophy: A critique
A didactic and derivative frame of mind is what we have inherited from our past and it is still entrenched in our habits of thinking and feeling. This is the legacy of our abdication of the intellect to priesthood.
Words have deep roots, and precision of phrasing is possible only where there is precision in thinking.
The Intellectual in Nepalese Society
This is an essay in enquiry into the poverty of intellect in Nepal.
The tradition here is the tradition of transmission of the sacred text, the tradition of conservation or ritualistic continuity rather that of creativity, nonconformism, questioning and criticism. The preponderance of the textual over the critical, of the spiritual over the material, of the abstract over the concrete, of the magical over the empirical, of the didactic over the creative—more than anything else, characterises the tradition of Nepalese scholarship.
They [the Nepalese intelligentsia] are also a displaced stratum of society, because by their training and education (as against their upbringing and origins) they have suddenly been compelled to live in the latter half of the twentieth century without due ceremony. They woke up one fine morning from the sleep of the Middle Ages and found themselves exposed to the neon lights of an electronic age.
One plain, but primary, reason for the poverty of intellect in Nepal is the poverty of the intellectual.
The role of the intellectuals is primarily to evaluate the realities of their society. In Nepal, this is where, because of the economic poverty and bondage of the intellectual, they seem to have failed society and betrayed their ‘class obligations’—if they feel they have any. An intellectual is not just a latter-day variation on the ancient Brahmin priest: his function in society is not ritualistic…What we have in Nepal, however, is not an articulate class of intellectuals who are willing to fill in the critical-evaluative role; what we have is only a class of white-collared proletariat who work, not for wages, but for salaries of different scales.
In Nepal, however, the literate section of the population shows, not only a great dearth of idealism, or a universal paucity of effort, application and dedication, but also an endemic infection with the virus of plain materialistic success. Success—measurable material success by hook or by crook—this is the law, and for the poverty-stricken Nepalese ‘making money’ is the only visible end for which life seems to be worth living. To him the eternal choice is between ‘making oneself’ and ‘remaking society’ and making oneself is invariably synonymous in Nepal with making money.
Kathmandu Your Kathmandu
The Ranas imported everything except probably boiled rice. Of all things, they imported Western architecture and built brick and mortar labyrinths to house their harems and prodigious households. With a redeeming touch of taste, generosity and sensibility each othese Rana mansions would have been founded in an entirely different tradition. For instance, in England, ‘the great houses’ that punctuate the English landscape were built by the nobility and the gentry who were in organic touch with the rest of English society. In Kathmandu the Ranas, on the contrary, refuse even to communicate with the rest of society except for money and cheap labour. They turned their backs upon the traditional Nepalese arts, crafts and architecture. There is not a single building which shows the regime’s patronage of the homespun style.
A Rana palace is not only a depressive monument to the Western mimicry: it is also convincing evidence of a collective schizophrenia. After all, the Ranas were the rulers; they ought to feel different from the ruled; they must live differently in dream-castles inaccessible to the vulgar herd. But is not all mimicry vulgar, particularly the mimicry of a culture only imperfectly understood?
Kathmandu is not the whole Nepal. Its metaphysical absurdity lies precisely in its pretensions that it is.
In Kathmandu, Hinduism has survived, not as a creative force, but as a fabric of fossilised rites and rituals, feasts and festivals to which both the believers and the non-believers subscribe, not as an act of conscious faith, but as a matter of inherited habits.
Summer 2010 Film Series
Number 2: Cure (Kyua, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 110 mins, 1997, Japanese)
Number 3: Suicide Club (Jisatsu Sakuru, dir. Sion Sino, 99 mins, 2002, Japanese)
The Japanese seems to have a way of saying a whole lot without actually saying much. Take the haiku, for example, a few words, a casual observation, but coded within the simplicity is a complexity of texture, dissonance, and emotion. Or take the films of Yasujiro Ozu, arguably one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers, where a couple’s casual, simple dinner of green tea over rice suggests a great understanding between them. Maybe this obsession with not saying much comes from Zen Buddhism, where cryptic aphorisms and anecdotes confer great knowledge upon those who take the time to ponder them.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure and Sion Sino’s Suicide Club are successors of that very tradition. Both films disguise themselves as straightforward and typical mysteries that both hinge on a “hook” to draw the viewer in. In Cure, there have been a spate of random killings, where the victim is slashes across the neck in an “X” pattern. The perpetrator is always found nearby, and is always different. Although the culprits confess to the murder, they are unable to explain adequately their motives for the brutal, bizarre murders. Sino’s Suicide Club has a similar strange premise: gangs of schoolchildren, a lot of them girls, take to committing mass suicide. In the opening scene, close to 50 schoolgirls hold hands and leap in front of a speeding bullet train, seemingly for no apparent reason. What follows is an investigation into this phenomenon as more and more teenagers take to committing mass suicide.
In both Cure and Suicide Club, the initial premise is eventually abandoned. In Cure, a strange man named Mamiya appears to be the link between all the murders. Mamiya is an enigmatic young man, seemingly without memory and identity, and he always asks his victims, “Who are you?” “Tell me about you.” The culprit is no mystery, the detective and protagonist, encounters him early and the film progresses from there on as a battle of wills between the two. Mamiya is found out to be a master hypnotist while the detective is seemingly invulnerable to the hypnotism. As the police psychiatrist says, even under hypnotism, no one can be made to do what they would normally not do in real life. So the question then becomes, are we all killers? These ‘normal’ people commit acts of brutal slaughter and yet, after the event, they seem to think that it needed to be done, that it was even natural. Mamiya’s power lies not just in his skill at hypnotism, but the blank slate that he presents himself as. A man without a past, without a history, he is connected to no one and nothing. In conversation, he has nothing to offer, only everything to take. His easy questions force his victims to consider themselves against this blank slate, who really are they? What defines their existence? Although we never really find out, why or how Mamiya exactly convinces them to commit murder, the question becomes unimportant. Kurosawa’s direction, and masterful editing, brings together a mechanised, indifferent world with that of the individual. The film, then, acts as a comment on Japanese society, and on our own globalised society too. There is no more room for the individual, everything is generic, everything is mass-marketed, even identity. To figure out who you are, something as drastic, as brutal as murder is needed to dislodge one from the banality of what society has become. Through the incongruency of image and sound, Kurosawa creates a world where everything is at odds, everything seems out of balance and strange. Mamiya merely facilitates the transformation, he doesn’t seem to bring it about, for no one can be forced to do anything, even under hypnotism. There is no violence to Mamiya, he appears harmless and free-floating, an enigma of a man. The film leaves us with the troubling hypothesis that in a society like ours, where individual identity is subsumed by the collective, it is not difficult to understand the lengths that people will go to in order to rediscover, for themselves, who they really are.
As Suicide Club progresses, the plot becomes increasingly murkier. More and more levels are added, to the point of distraction. Suicide Club is not as polished as Cure, it is rough and often loses its point. But the central theme, that of dislocation, makes itself felt as well. There is a strange boy who often calls the detectives, a boy with a cough that becomes more and more irritating as he talks. This is probably deliberate, the director wishes for us to feel irritation. It is meant to dislodge us, just like the boy is dislodging teenagers from their own lives. He too asks a question, “Are you connected to yourself?” To the detectives he poses this question, “I know you are connected to your family, to your children, to your wife, but are you connected to yourself?” Once again, the question becomes one of identity. While Cure seems to blame society, in Suicide Club, it is pop culture and television that seems to be at fault. There are many subplots that don’t serve much purpose, except distraction, but the theme of connection is threaded into each of them. The detectives find a long roll of skin at the scene of the suicides, the roll composed of squares of skin from different people, most of them the ones who just died. In death, this is their connection to each other. Even as they leap off buildings and in front of trains, the teenagers hold hands, it is an act of a group, not an individual. In this way, Suicide Club is often at odds with Cure. While Cure desires an individual, Suicide Club wishes for a group identity, a connection to each other that is often lost in the mindless drone of the television and the mass-marketed media.
Both films end on inconclusive notes, there is no neat wrapping up of the plot. There are plot holes, loops and subplots that are wholly abandoned, more in the case of Suicide Club than Cure. While Cure might be a technically and philosophically superior film, Suicide Club holds its own, despite often being dismissed as mindless gore-fest. I am certain that these films will make much more sense to a Japanese, for they seem to tackle very distinctly Japanese topics. It would be a sin to compare these films to the work of Ozu, for Ozu is in a class of his own, and there will never be another like Ozu, but in terms to Japan-ness, they appear similar.
In these times of self-effacement, identity becomes a more and more elusive thing. Our identity is often dictated, through society, through television. This is who you are. This is what you are. Introspection is no longer available to the mass of people, as they hurry from job to job, from house to house, car to car, furniture to furniture. In this era of mass consumption, there is barely any time to wonder who one is. The question has become moot. No one cares. No one cares because it is easy to pick and choose. The internet provides a convenient facade, anyone can become anyone else, a man can pretend to be a woman, a woman can pretend to be a little boy, there is no limit. And in case we are too lazy to even pick and choose on the internet, there is always the television. Buy a Mac and you gain membership into an exclusive club of Apple users. Wear skinny jeans and you are a hipster. Wear this and you become that, wear that and you become this. Identity comes in packages now. It is more and more difficult to figure out who you really are. Who’s to say who is really who.
i have a confession to make. this is something that i have struggled with, both consciously and unconsciously, for a large part of my life. when i was younger, and uneducated in the ways of life and the world, i suppressed this problem, believing it to be a part of my own teenage angst. as i grew older, into the person that i am today, wiser than i was then, i have come to realise that my problem is one faced by many. it is not unique to me, rather it is common to almost everyone, but often, it escapes notice, simply because we are too busy to even consider the existence of such a problem. so here it is, my problem, my confession: i do not know who i am.
i am a different person everyday, i change roles like i change clothes. i am a different person with my friends, with my family, with my other friends, with my girlfriend, with myself. this is not a conscious decision on my part. it is not my desire to present different faces to different people. i do not choose the mask i wear, only it chooses me.
identity is not static. i am not one thing, no one is. each person changes with time, with place, with people. it is as natural as the changing of the seasons, as the passing of day into night. when i say i am pranaya rana, i do not know what that means.
consider this exchange from week end, a godard film:
“what is your name?”
“no, that is your husband’s name, what is your name?”
“no, that is your father’s name. you do not even have a name.”
identity is tied to markers like language, societal roles and appearance. i am a son, a brother, a student, a man, a boy, a rana, a pranaya, a nepali. but even these are inadequate. even together, they cannot touch the essence of what i am. i am like that swirling vortex where everything is everything else and nothing is static. to name me is to name another, to see me is to see another. when i think, i think of something else, when i speak, i speak of something else. it is like that raymond carver story “what we talk about when we talk about love.” it is only a signifier, a marker that holds a place where something metaphysical, something elusive and ephemeral stands.
for most people, this problem of identity is not a major one. like most philosophical problems, it is dismissed as something inconsequential and not “real.” people are dying, there is no food, there is no money, who cares if you don’t know who you are? but deep down inside, i feel we all do. we struggle with it in obscure, oblique ways. on gray tuesdays, we sit by windows and reflect, deep down, what is in there? what makes me who i am? who am i? what am i?
maybe i will have an answer on my death bed.