Standing in the Middle of Life (with My Pants Behind Me)

is a line that, for many years, I heard as “I’m standing in the middle of life with my pants behind me.” It made more sense that way. Whether a thirty-three-year-old woman can credibly claim to be “standing in the middle of life” is a reasonable question, but in fairness to Chrissie Hynde, she grew very convincingly into the song. (Part of being middle-aged, for me, is the startling realization that CH is now in her sixties.) But even at the outset, I was able to grasp that when Ms. Hynde described leaving her pants behind she had just joined the ranks of the procreationally disposed, and that parental nakedness was a ritual of snarlingly meditative middle age.

By and by, other songwriters offered further suggestions about the meaning of middle age. Moving to the east coast, for instance, was nicely foreshadowed by an annoying Irishman who wrote one of the finest songs ever recorded about New York City:

Hit an iceberg in my life / but I’m still afloat
Lose your balance / lose your wife
In the queue for the lifeboat...
Just got a place in New York.

Having got a place in New York under more or less the above-mentioned circumstances, I went whole hog and knocked up the first woman who insisted. The results are, on the one hand, a heart-warming affirmation of life, renewal, magic, innocence, and so on. On the other hand, it is a chastening discovery of what lies beyond the pants one leaves behind.

The social side of having reproduced, which I had dreaded, has turned out to be quite bearable. Some of it is indeed as bad as I had expected: there have been the inevitable "Now you see how instantly, wonderfully and irrevocably your life has changed, don’t you? Well, don’t you?" congratulations from assorted parents, indifferently pleased at the sight of a parent-basher biting the dust. Anything short of a sheepish admission of reformed foolishness marks you as a Nazi. The smug admonishment is often accompanied by effusive praise, as if I – or they, who joined "the club" earlier and apparently with less ambivalence – had performed something other than a fairly commonplace biological function. But with a few exceptions, even my relatives have been reasonable and restrained. They merely urge me to acknowledge that the baby is cute, which I am happy to do. They also declare earnestly that it looks like me. (The wife and the pediatrician did the same.) I stand reassured, although it looks like a baby to me.

I also stand extended in both directions, albeit ambiguously. In the new monkey-baby, I cannot help seeing the fossils of old family trees. There are residues here of a dead father, dead grandparents, faces known and unknown: schoolteachers and bookworms from Dhaka and Pabna, an orphan girl from Benaras tormented by reluctant caretakers, a young foreman (once similarly tormented) in the Kidderpore docks, shadowy priests from UP and pioneers from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and even further back, almost unimaginable shapes that crossed the Hindu Kush in rags or the Arabian Sea in rafts. There are Slovak and German peasants, and possibly a Native American tree in Algonquian country that French fur-trappers had climbed. There is (my mother was told by a gossipy in-law) a similar rumor of an amorous Portuguese pirate in the Ganges delta. I have now done my bit, given them all a slightly longer lease on a sort of life, kicked the football down the field, pushed the fossils and chromosomes a few years further into the future. And in the process, I have bought insurance for my own fossil: the creeping sense of mortality that marks the beginning of middle age, the panicky fear of one’s own approaching death that sets in as each year passes a little faster than the one before, has been assuaged somewhat. Such self-extension by diaper-changing is the satisfaction of an embarrassingly animal urge, but the acceptance of one’s bestial-democratic instincts is quite appropriate for those who have dutifully read their Subaltern Studies.  

But mostly I stand humbled. Not by the ‘miracle of life’ or any of that rubbish, but by the inadequacy of middle-aged manhood. When my daughter is asleep in my arms and I look at her face, I realize that nothing that I can do will protect her adequately, or at all, from what lies ahead: the cruelty of strangers, the callousness of boyfriends, frat parties, failed marriages, ungrateful children, old age, irremediable mistakes, loneliness, death. When I look at the two-weeks-old baby, I cannot help imagining her at seventy. (Not for nothing the Bengali tendency to call little girls buri.) So I printed out Kahlil Gibran’s On Children and taped it to the fridge. This too is embarrassing; On Children nearly took on the status of a greeting-card when Gibran, along with Spock, became one half of the gay couple that raised the Baby Boomers. But whereas the Boomers embraced the poem as a manifesto of the liberation of the child, I love it for liberating the parent. To be resigned to being unable to protect and preserve what you love: that may very well be the trick to standing in the middle of life, with or without your pants.

November 16, 2011

A Denied Visa and a Girl on a Pole

Just over a month ago, the Canadian government made headlines by refusing entry visas to a handful of Indian applicants. The disappointed individuals were nondescript enough, including a bureaucrat in the Intelligence Bureau and officers in the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a paramilitary organization used most frequently to deal with ‘internal disturbances.’ The Canadian High Commission provided a forthright explanation: membership in these organizations was incompatible with Canadian principles of human rights. The government in New Delhi was enraged, made loud noises of protest, and Ottawa quickly backed down and apologized. The embarrassing episode was blamed on overzealous staff in the High Commission, and Indian democracy and human rights were pronounced to be adequately Canadian in their benevolence. The would-be tourists presumably got their visas. K.P. Nayar, writing in The Telegraph, praised the Canadian bureaucracy for its transparency and simultaneously sneered at it for having given in so often to bleeding-heart human-rights activists that it was practically ungovernmental.

Let me begin by noting that there is nothing Canadian about being hung up on human rights. The country has a historical record – and a recent record – of racism and racial thuggery that may fall short of American standards, but not by much. So the high commission officials who initially denied the Indians their visas do not have a particularly high moral ground to stand on. At the same time, it must be conceded that the Canadian government does, at least occasionally, demonstrate some sensitivity to issues of human rights, and that its response to the Indian visa applicants was consistent with that sensitivity. Two questions that remain are whether the Canucks violated Indian sovereignty by raising the issue of human rights in such an undiplomatic and hypocritical way, and whether such violations are to be countenanced. The answer to both, I suggest, is an unequivocal yes.

Where I lived in India, there was a CRPF barrack not far from my home. In the cool of the early mornings, I would sometimes see the CRPF men running on the road that connected my home and my school. The jawans in their shorts and singlets did not look particularly menacing. They carried no guns, they never approached us; like Indian soldiers in general, they existed in their own enclave, separate from and only occasionally visible from the world of middle-class civilians. There was nothing about them that might suggest the barbaric. Yet this barbarity, too, is the face of the Indian state, and of the modern nation-state in general.

How are we to explain that the Canadian state occasionally makes a fuss about barbarism, and that not only does the Indian state not make a fuss, its defenders scoff about such fussiness? Part of the answer might be found in a split that the historian Partha Chatterjee has identified within the nature of the Indian state: the coexistence of a ‘discourse of rights’ and a ‘discourse of policy.’ The Indian nation-state is not identically a state of all its citizens. Its inventors and investors are an elite which longs for certain things that appear to be universally desirable: middle-class comforts, geopolitical status, military power, clean straight roads and shiny airports. They also care about democracy and constitutional liberties, about judicial procedure, about limits on police power and about the invisibility of soldiers in civilian society. Chatterjee calls them ‘proper citizens.’ Proper citizens in India are not necessarily cynical people, but like every elite in the vanguard of a state that anticipates the modernity of its people, they live with an inescapable dilemma, which has to do with those other Indians: the ‘improper’ citizens whose slums that encroach upon roads and runways, who stubbornly reject the notion that the countryside is a collection of minerals and national parks, who remain indifferent to the need to compete with China and to the ‘national interest.’ They are at best a nuisance and at worse a threat like the ‘Maoists.’

The Indian state approaches the former category of citizens with a model of governance that emphasizes rights, but regards the latter as the objects of policy: as problems to be solved, ideally by absorption into the circle of proper citizens, but more commonly by displacement and arbitrary police action, and sometimes by torture and murder. This inevitably produces various levels of dehumanization, among which the image of a dead woman casually slung from a pole is by no means the most extreme. Such dehumanization is a basic reality of life in unevenly modern societies. North Americans might need to go some distance to discover them – to Bagram, Abu Ghraib, My Lai, the inner city, the past – but there are Abu Ghraibs in India every day. The arbitrary, extra-legal, dehumanizing deployment of violence been a part of the project of nation-building since Nehru winced at the thought of his soldiers burning Naga villages and raping Mizo women but could advance no real alternative. It can be argued that this is precisely why the CRPF exists: it allows the regular military to distance itself somewhat from the dirty work of policy-implementation.  The CRPF is no more a terrorist organization than the Mounties are a terrorist organization, but the former supports an ongoing project of social transformation that necessarily relies on extralegal violence. Police torture is ubiquitous in India and the middle class does not bat an eye. It is seen – or more accurately, not seen and only tacitly acknowledged, because proper citizens do not want to see such things – as an unavoidable aspect of governance. It is only when the police go too far and begin targeting the children of the middle class, as they did during the Naxalite movement in the early 1970s, that there are murmurs of alarm, calls for restraint, literary outpourings, and so on.

K.P. Nayar’s reaction to the Canadian visa incident makes very good sense in this light. Canadians no longer have to deal with rebellious peasants (except in Afghanistan), so they can inhabit a modern state in which everybody is a proper citizen, enveloped by a discourse of rights. They are not engaged in the aggressive pursuit of superpower status or overly prickly about their sovereignty, partly because they are already at or close to the center of things, and partly because they suffer from neither the pretentions nor the insecurities with which the ex-colonial Indian bourgeoisie is infused. They can, thus, ‘give in’ to liberal activists at every turn, conciliate international forums, and coddle their Quebecois separatists instead of ‘disappearing’ them in the manner of Siddhartha Shankar Ray and K.P.S. Gill. In denying visas to Indian policemen they are deeply hypocritical, but it is not their hypocrisy that bothers Nayar. It is an effeteness – the effeteness of those comfortably ensconced in a society in which rights and policy are not mutually hostile concepts – of which the Indian enthusiast of a hard state and shiny modernity is simultaneously contemptuous and envious.

What can be done for the victims of their enthusiasm? It is impractical to ask for a radical ideological shift in which middle-class Indians suddenly become Gandhians. As long as the nation-state – a middle-class fetish – persists alongside a large population that is marginal to nationhood, we will see more dead women being carried by soldiers like hunting trophies in an operation appropriately named Green Hunt, the continued normalization of police brutality, and the effective existence of two states within the same society. It is equally silly to imagine that the nationalist classes can be ejected from the offices in which policy is made. The ‘Maoists’ can win a few skirmishes and carry out the occasional act of terrorism, but they don't have a ghost of a chance against the power of the state, which has already begun to withdraw its military helicopters from UN peacekeeping missions so that they can be deployed closer to home. The riff-raff may eventually cease to embarrass the proper citizens, but I suspect that will happen only after India, like Canada, has achieved a measure of evenness by ruthlessly flattening its more uneven Indians.

In the meantime, however, the best thing that can happen is for Canada and other countries to keep rejecting visa applications. The problem cannot be solved but it can be mitigated. Let the Indian government reject some visa applications too, and not just those of Pakistanis. Let boycotts fly and sanctions ring. Hypocritical and inconsistent it might be, but it would not be meaningless or ineffective. George W. Bush was responsible for astronomical violence and misery, but no amount of praise is too high for his State Department for denying a visa to Narendra Modi. These things don’t always stop the barbarians, but it gives them pause. (There are, I'm told, several countries that Henry Kissinger did not dare to visit after the 1970s, and Israeli generals have learned to stay on the plane when in Britain. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is still alive in Iran.) The defenders of national sovereignty – like Nayar – may find this unpalatable, but national sovereignty is usually the enemy of the rights of the individual citizen, who needs all the friends he or she can find, regardless of where those friends are located.

July 5, 2010