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Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Spare Me This 'Bloody' Nonsense, Please! By Yoginder Sikand



Spare Me This 'Bloody' Nonsense, Please!
By Yoginder Sikand
'But I like animals better than the "best people," said the Doctor.
'You are ridiculous,' said his sister and walked out of the room.
So, as time went on, the Doctor got more and more animals, and the people who came to see him got less and less. Till at last he had no one left--except the cat's-meat man.
--Hugh Lofting, "The Story of Doctor Dolittle"
"Blood is thicker than water, after all. All said and done, your siblings are your siblings, and you simply have to be good to them," said my mother firmly to me just the other day. How I hoped she would have patiently heard me out and tried to understand why I couldn't force myself to be all so cuddly and sweet with my siblings as she insisted I should! Just as I was about to counter her she cut me short and angrily muttered, once again, that inane phrase about blood and water. And then she told me to shut up.
Now, I won't go into the details of why my relations with my siblings are not exactly hunky-dory, why we hardly meet or talk even though we live in the same city, why if I do--perhaps once or twice a year--say a few polite words to them if I can't manage to avoid bumping into them, it's really simply out of compulsion. It all has, you've probably figured it out, to do with bitter intensely childhood memories, our starkly different and conflicting ways of thinking and behaving, and a distinct lack of love in our family as we grew up, which was later reflected in serious problems that each of us faced in our own ways in relating to one or both of our parents. And then there were the terrible fights that we used to have--the biting and the scratching and the spitting, the abusing and the cursing--all of which remains fresh in my mind three decades later just as if it all had happened only yesterday.
So, that's how we siblings have grown so far apart that we've arrived at the point where we play no role whatsoever in each other's lives. Things are really so bad that we ache to avoid each other and do everything we possibly can never to have to meet. We simply cannot stand the very sight of each other's faces.
You can imagine the enormous toll that the bitterness we grew up to accept as the norm has taken on each of us. I can't speak for my siblings, of course, but it certainly shook me to the bones, and the wounds of that trauma still remain, fresh and deep. For years I nursed an irrepressible animosity for my siblings, so overpowering that it came to rule the way I looked at the rest of the world. It made me into such an intensely negative and fearful person that it was hardly surprising that I would often think I was better dead than alive. I would shut myself in the bathroom and spend hours crying to myself and to a god who I hoped was listening. "I don't want to live any more," I would entreat God, and then I would desperately ask Him, hoping, in vain, for an answer: "Why, God, did you make me take birth in this miserable family?"
Over the years, however, I managed to get over at least some of the bitterness about my siblings that had once so terribly haunted me. That was not really because of any conscious effort on my part but simply because once I left home, at the age of eighteen, I was on my own and didn't have to deal with them on a daily basis. Gradually, I came to realise that as long as I continued to permit my bitter memories about them to torment me I was being controlled by my siblings in a very fundamental way. Even hating them meant that they continued to exercise an enormous power over me, and that, I learned to understand, was something that I simply had to refuse to allow. As long as I nursed hatred against them, I realised, I couldn't ever get over them and they would continue to haunt me. And so, the animosity I had for them gradually came to be replaced by an almost complete indifference. It now made no difference to me at all if they were happy or sad, if they made a lot of money and lived in a mansion or were down in the dumps. Whether they flourished or floundered, or even lived or died, no longer made the slightest difference to me at all. They simply ceased to matter, as far as I was concerned. And that meant that I didn't hate them any longer, and was even able to forgive them in my heart for whatever they had, or I thought they had, done to me.
This is how I have come to a state where I simply don't think of my siblings any more. I certainly don't obsess, as I used to for several years, about all the bitter memories that they once evoked in me. But that doesn't mean that I feel any need to go out of my way to befriend them. I feel absolutely no need to at all. Now, that is something my mother refuses to understand. "Blood is thicker than water," she sanctimoniously repeats each time I tell her that my siblings' problems or triumphs don't interest me in the least, and why, while I am definitely going to stay out of their hair and not be bad to them, I'm certainly not going to put on an act either and force myself to cozy up to them, as she sometimes advises me to. They simply don't exist for me at all, and what that definitely means is that while I'm going to be civil if I do meet them I am certainly not going to be extra-goody-goody simply because they happened to share the same womb that I once occupied.
I can't really blame my mother for parrotting the empty rhetoric about blood being 'thicker' than water. She was brought up to think in that conventional way, although I dare say she didn't really bring that maxim into operation in her own life. She's hardly unique in that way, though, for most parents love to preach what they themselves have never practised. I've seen enough these last forty-odd years to see through the inanity of the institution of the family. I know, from my own painful experience, what a terrible farce it is, and I've also come to see it as the root of bigotry and narrow communalism the world over. How can I be made to have a special love for some people not because of their own inherent merit, and even if they've been awful to me, but simply because we happen to have been born, for no fault of our own, to the same parents? Conversely, how can I be expected to have lesser love for other people simply because, again for no fault of ours, we were born in different families, religions, castes, communities and nations? I really cannot bring myself to accept such silly nonsense. "No way, Mumma!, I have to tell you, yes, blood might be thicker than water, but it is certainly bloodier than water is!"
As I write these lines, I shudder to think of how much blood has been shed down the centuries by the bigotry generated by the inane belief in the 'thickness' of one's blood, in the name of defending the 'honour' of one's family--and, then, of one's 'caste', 'religion', 'community' and 'nation', too (all these being extensions, and grander versions of the family). The insistence that one simply has to love (or pretend to love) one's family above all the rest of humanity is really at the root of many of the bloody conflicts that have torn apart humankind since I don't know when. It is precisely the same logic that underlies caste, communal and national conflicts all over the world. In the same way as we are programmed to believe that we have to privilege our own families over everyone else, irrespective of whether or not we honestly love them and even if some among them may be really mean and despicable folks, we are also made to believe that we are duty-bound to love the caste we were born into over all other castes, our co-religionists over and against people of all other faiths, our nation over every other nation in the world, the human species over all other creatures: a sure recipe for unending strife and hatred on a truly global scale, you will agree.
As I write these lines, I think of the many people whom I dearly love: Subrot, a Dalit boy from Orissa, who works in my mother's house, whom I simply have to hug almost each time we meet; the nameless old Tamil lady, probably a Dalit, too, who pushes a vegetable cart down the lane where I live and who cheerfully greets me whenever we pass each other; Mushtaq, a Kashmiri Muslim boy who I really am fond of despite our diametrically opposite political views, for instance. Then, of course, I am overtaken by a feeling that cannot be called anything other than love each time I smile at a perfect stranger--a little child in the park, an elderly auto-driver, a manual scavenger sweeping the streets--and the way they look back at me tells me that they, too, have nothing but love for me. They're not even remotely related to me, of course--we've nothing in common even in terms of caste, religion or class--but that can't stop us from loving each other. And then, too, I simply can't help loving Kandan and Bhagirath Bhaiyya, who gave me a wonderful breakfast for me this morning, the cat that I can hear mewing outside the window as I write these lines, the birds that don't ever seem to stop chirping, the bushy-tailed dog that's waiting outside for a pat, and the frog that's cheerfully croaking away in the pond nearby.
Unlike my siblings, I've never squabbled with these wonderful folks, and some of them have been especially kind and loving to me, while others wouldn't ever dream of harming me in the least. Why, then, should I privilege my siblings over these delightful creatures in sharing my love just because we happened to share the same parents? Why should I be made to feel guilty if I really honestly do love them more than my siblings and many other members of the family that I was born into?
Now, I hate being preachy and I generally desist from using religious appeals, but this time I'll permit myself to be less principled in this regard. If God does really exist and if we all--humans and others--are truly are His/Her/Its children, as the religionists say, surely we're all members of one enormously large family. And that's enough reason for every little creature to be loved by me in exactly the same way, with no exceptions whatsoever. That's why I simply can't get to have that extra bit of love that Mumma wants me to for my siblings and other members of my family just because we happen to share the same parents. And the same rule applies, I have to insist, with regard to all the other members of the family I've been born into. I can't help not loving them more than everyone else simply because we happen to share the same family 'blood'. Nor, too, using the same logic, can I love some folks more than others simply because we happen to have share the same caste, religion, or nationality. Spare me this 'bloody' nonsense, please!