Retribution and reconciliation
We can demonize each other and re-enact the horrors of the medieval past. Or we can choose to reconcile with our past
Andy Weir’s new book, Artemis, doesn’t quite match up to The Martian, his debut sci-fi novel that went on to become a smash hit both on the page and on the big screen. It is, nonetheless, very good fun. It contains all the elements that made The Martian so enjoyable—an endearing, foul-mouthed, too smart by half narrator, a plausible setting in the near future, lots of science, and lots of buckles that are satisfyingly swashed, as spacewomen and moon rovers tumble across the lunar surface.
Other writers have wondered, and interrogated Weir, about the political content of the book. The protagonist in this novel about mysterious goings-on on Artemis, the first Moon colony, is Jasmine Bashara, a spunky Saudi woman who welds, smuggles and sabotages machinery on Artemis for a living.
There are at least two aspects of the book that this reader found most interesting. Two aspects, I daresay, I read with smug satisfaction.
First, Artemis, the Moon colony that serves as the setting for the book, is owned and run not by the National Aeronautics And Space Administration (Nasa), or the European Space Agency (ESA) or any of the other major space agencies, but by a Kenyan space corporation. Hurrah for the developing world, said a small voice in my head as I read that. Perhaps it is too late for Earth, but at least Weir seems to think that the meek will inherit the moon.
Second, and it is not exactly explained why, the welding business on Artemis seems to be run by a group of Saudi migrants. For a Malayalee who grew up in the Gulf, and witnessed the plight of migrant labour welding and building and painting under the harsh sun, this was tremendously satisfying comeuppance. A Saudi migrant trying to make ends meet welding and smuggling and doing odd jobs? More of that, thank you very much.
After all, what are the chances that in my lifetime, I will get to see Emiratis, Saudis, Omanis, Qataris and Bahrainis lining up in front of gruff customs officers at Kozhikode airport, holding up their Indian work permits?
Of course, this is all hopelessly irrational, romantic, misplaced nonsense. Things don’t work that way. One of history’s many lessons is the fact that nations and societies rarely get the comeuppance they seem to deserve.
Karma, it appears, somehow seems to fail in the longue durée of human history.
It is perhaps because of this frustrating lack of “historical comeuppance” that human societies hold on to grievances for so long. Especially societies with long memories, thin skins and deep scars.
Why do erstwhile empires still enjoy so much wealth when the nations and people they bled dry for centuries still live in abject misery? Why, in other words, do good things keep happening to bad societies? And why do the victims never catch a break? It is thinking like this that makes Shashi Tharoor’s rhetoric about British reparations to India such an enticing prospect for so many Indians. And also why there is always such glee in some Indian circles when some kind of humiliation befalls the British, an all-too-common affair these days.
At one level, these historical grievances seem quaint. Even comedic.
But when those grievances run through nations and societies, and those wounds fester, the essential social act of remembering turns into criminal retribution. To some, this might seem like historical justice. It is anything but. It is insanity.
Earlier this week marked yet another anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Other, better, writers have written about this event from various angles—the political, the social, and the electoral.
I merely wish to point out that while history is many things, the one thing it is definitely not is reversible. Nothing you do in 2017 can undo the historical truth that is India’s past. This is not some sort of penetrating insight. But far too many times I have seen people celebrate the demolition as some sort of rightful retribution for the crimes of Muslim invaders.
This is ludicrous. It goes against every precept of a law-abiding nation and society. History is not some kind of infinite ledger of triumphs and tragedies that can be endlessly balanced in some way through the periodic vigilante settlement of grievance. The people of a nation cannot be engaged in a blood feud with themselves.
Of course, India has been the subject of countless invasions. And without a doubt, its culture and society have been ravaged by invasions and imperialism. And to cap it all, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote this week, is the common sense that biased historical scholarship in India has aggravated the sense of injustice. Grievances have crystallized into victimhood. Victimhood has empowered retribution. And innocent people die.
Make no mistake. As far as historical victimhood is concerned, India has just two options. Retribution or reconciliation. We can either demonize each other, re-enact the horrors of the medieval past with fresh vim and vigour, and keep chipping away at our collective humanity and trust. Or we can choose to reconcile with our past. Reconciliation is hard. It entails compromise, it means permanent scarring, it means forgetting what we are reminded of every day. It also means trusting each other, and making compromises, and a shared belief that our future is more important than our past.
What other option do we have? To paraphrase the great Tacitus, do we want to create a desolation of a broken nation and broken people and call it historical justice?
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns here.
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