This Awful Silence

O Alibi of Chronology, in what script
in your ledger will this narrative be lost?

This week I published an essay that was sparked into premature life by the JNU protests. Umar Khalid gave his speech on the anniversary of Malcolm X’s murder—the two links showed up nearly simultaneously on my TL—and I remembered, instantaneously, Malcolm X’s prophecy, made two days before he was assassinated: “it is a time for martyrs now.” No, my brain revolted, we have had enough martyrs. Pondering that on the subway, I looked up, and the six train’s “Heaven” caught my eye. It will be the past. We’ll all go back together.  That reminded me, as ever, of my very favorite poem in motion, Mary Ruefle’s “Voyager.” Memory, what can I make of it now that might please you—this life, already wasted and still strewn with miracles? 

From that constellation of strange associations was this essay made.

Roerich, Star of the Hero.

A Map of Lost Longings was argued on the basis of an intuition that I’ve nurtured for a long while—that the crisis on the left is primarily epistemological. The ways in which we produce knowledge in the western academy make it incredibly difficult to theorize a politics of solidarity. That intuition is why I resigned myself to graduate school, and I haven’t gotten very far in thinking through what I want to say or how to say it. This brief essay was my first attempt to begin a public conversation, and the proposal I make for transversal history both terrifies and exhilarates me. The potential for violent erasure and cheap homologies inherent to the method I suggest is almost limitless; there is a reason fascism is so fond of mythology. Can I, with my big brahmin brain, rescue myth-making? Almost certainly not. Can I try? I certainly intend to, because there is also a reason that fascism so often wins. Is it contradictory to deploy failure and demand success? It is, but no more so than turning a theory of abstract labour against political economy. The paradox of good theory worked then, and fuck, it might again. (I know, I know, I’m not Marx, but Marx wasn’t Marx either, you know, until he was. He was just a broke bro in exile.)

I probably sound fairly incoherent in the essay. That’s because I am. I don’t usually comment on contemporary politics, and I don’t usually publish half-baked analysis (for pretty much the same reasons). But this theory will take a decade to bake (if I’m lucky) and with the protests at JNU I was compelled, by my own intense identification, into an either/or dialectic. I had to take sides, and I had to speak up. I had a professional obligation to PB, a private one to my cosmopolitan friends, and a personal one to myself and my need to feel connected. I wrote mostly with my friends in mind: my bubble of leftie New York, in which everyone thinks deeply and well about a different corner of a claustrophobic and catastrophic world. When I list social movements at the end of my essay, it isn’t a notional list: I have friends and classmates who were involved in every single one of those insurrections (and many others that didn’t make the list because they never achieved global legibility). That’s why the list didn’t include any current movements besides Black Lives Matter: we are here, and thus not there, and we feel fucking guilty.

Nainsukh, “By the Fire”


To get to the question of identification, then. I am a brown brahmin woman who works within the imperial academy. I possess all the symbolic and material capital that entails. I get to choose melancholy over anger, civilized despair over barbaric rage, and exile over execution. I am that incredibly lucky product of postmodernity: an expat at home in many countries, a person for whom borders translate into visas and adventures. I have spent my life being trained, meticulously, for the hypocrisy and the indifference of power. I spent my childhood in a world where caste didn’t matter because we could afford to assume that everyone we interacted with, everyone who counted, was always already brahmin (or at least brahmanical). I grew up blind to caste as an enacted reality— I still can’t identify surnames or maintain a taxonomy in my head— even as I was taught that my thoughts and opinions and happiness were more important than those of other people, because I am smarter, better read, more fair-skinned, and my thinking occurs in English. It is people like me who disingenuously insist, to everyone’s exasperation, that “caste really isn’t an issue anymore, no, not in the cities.” Then I went to NLS, which made the whole mess infinitely worse.

It takes longer than seven years to unlearn such hardwired privilege. I’m uncertain I ever can. Living in NY, where I’m (relatively) broke and brown, is far less exhausting than the daily business of resenting and protecting myself at home. I can’t solve problems in India, I am the problem. I know that, and I also know that playing the privilege-game is something of a hobby on the left. I won’t apologize for the privilege I don’t deserve; I strive to be aware of it, a process necessarily incomplete, and I know that it drastically limits my authority to speak even as it amplifies my voice when I do speak. That is why I wrote an essay about JNU when I didn’t write one about HCU. JNU marked, for me, the moment where silence was no longer an option. It hit me where it hurt; more pertinently, it hit me. I have more class privilege than a lot of JNU students, but we are, by and large, of a milieu. If people like me are now a threat in the eyes of the Indian state, then we live in terrifying times— not because we’re more important than other people, but precisely because we are so fucking hegemonic

Sadequain, “Sarmad Shahid”

My essay, so far, has seen two interesting critiques (and a really hilarious one in the comments). One is by Amba_Azaad on twitter, who graciously agreed to consider expanding her response when I confessed to being bewildered by its initial phrasing. I look forward to our conversation. The other was by an offline friend (let’s call her Q), who told me that I reproduced the discourse I’m arguing against by relying on European history. Q was accusing me of a variety of liberal complacency, the sacrifice of nuance implicit in translating between dissonant publics. Yet Europe is the legacy we share; all post-colonies were once colonies. To speak to each other, for now, we must needs talk through Europe. I have little interest in the conversation between the “west” and “the rest” beyond a conversation about how to operationalize the west so the rest can talk. To understand Fanon, after all, you have to understand Marx, and decolonizing thought is much, much, much harder than unlearning privilege. We can provincialize Europe, we can’t abandon it.

The argument of liberal complacency reverberates more strongly with my “free speech” narrative, though Q (being Bolivian) didn’t point that out. In valorizing JNU’s dissent I ignored the multiple voices criticizing its hegemony, and I expect that is part of Amba’s critique as well—that I ignored the vicious casteism elite Indian universities perpetuate, as well as the thousands of Dalit students across India currently mobilizing, whose struggles have been forgotten during the intense focus on JNU. All I can offer in response to that is that it’s one of several deliberate silences. There is the silence about the valence of a call for azaadi that nonetheless marginalizes movements that desire freedom from the Indian state altogether. There is the silence about hindutva, which meant evading the truth that the assault on JNU is an obvious feint, intended to distract liberal India while the rest of the country—Bastar, Aligarh, Agra, Haryana, Kashmir—burns and starves. The government ran an audacious game last month and it won, despite all the tumult in their own ranks. It might seem like a petty victory to ignore that, but it felt like one anyway, to write an essay for a transnational audience that didn’t include the words “authoritarian,” “rightwing,” “economy,” or “development.”

My silence about dalit politics was a more fraught decision. Insofar as I can parse my own motives, I see four reasons. One, I write to clarify, not educate. This essay, especially, was written in the context of both a roundtable on Indian writers and Anupama Rao’s essay on Rohith Vemula (both are linked in-text). Two, my goal was to include India liberalism within a global discourse, and I didn’t feel adequate to the task of contextualizing caste politics. There were a few sentences about it in my original draft that were ultimately omitted because they said too little and assumed too much. I had a hell of a time convincing my editors to let me refer to the emergency, for instance, without explaining it. Even more context was a weight this essay couldn’t bear. Three, at no point in the essay do I claim to know what anyone in India should do and I avoid anticipating what will happen. I have hunches that I desperately hope will be proven false, but in a very real way my point is simply that such predictions detract from the wonder of what is happening. It is a paradox of my hyper-privileged existence—one of many—that I always have both too much distance and too little distance from any situation I confront in my political life. From my perch high in the media sky, all I see are brilliant, fearless students entirely capable of inventing luxuriant futures that none of the rest of us can imagine.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I tried to honor Rohith and Umar’s requests not to be reduced to their immediate realities—which meant also obscuring their structural realities. Of course Umar Khalid is being persecuted for being born muslim, but it’s hard to say that without saying he’s muslim. It’s equally impossible to talk about Rohith Vemula being murdered by a hostile system that oppresses dalits without calling him one. My essay, insulated from the demands of being representative, strategic, or even relevant, could afford them that freedom from imposed identity, if only for the time it takes for a dozen people to read 1200 words. And so, forgive me, it did.

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