How India lost and got her words back
We seemed to have been struggling with the absence of a common vocabulary. But the ever-expanding anti-NRC, anti-CAA protests have ensured the return of shared words: nation, happiness, complexity, kindness, home
In 1990, a funk metal band called Extreme took a major musical detour and wrote the minimalist, romantic ballad More Than Words. Then, for the next 10 years, every band at every college festival in Bengaluru sang it. I had to graduate and leave town to get away from people with soulful expressions looking variously at their feet and at the sky while singing, More than words is all you have to do to make it real/ Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me/ Cause I’d already know. Don’t get me wrong. I loved that song. But I was also annoyed with it because I wanted words. I believed in words. Learning the right words to describe the situation, no matter how terrible, made me feel like Archimedes—a word lever and a word fulcrum; I could move the world.
In late 2019, an acquaintance and I were arguing about one of those unknowable things—will the Bharatiya Janata Party retain its popularity? Part of the confusion of the last decade has been less about electoral outcomes and more about the continuous extra-electoral outcomes and extra-electoral trash-talking. It’s like you lost at football one weekend and then the opposing team followed you home, sat outside your window for the next month and stole your gear and told you that you should have never been allowed to play because you are mud. Between propaganda on social media and all our family bigots behaving like they had got a double promotion, plus ice cream, it has all been very disorienting.
I was struggling to hold on to a reality in which I could expect a simple change of government. Because that’s what they are supposed to do. Governments come and go and I had grown up feeling that the cobbled-together political coalitions of our cobbled-together nation rightly represented the difficulties of our lives. But lately, it seemed like we had elected that boyfriend who didn’t understand what a break-up meant.
My gung-ho acquaintance felt that this government’s desire to centralize everything would backfire in this deeply heterogeneous and unequal country and that resistance was already afoot. I suppose, I said with some scepticism. I wondered aloud, “If our dissatisfactions are also heterogenous, how will each pocket of resistance recognize and take heart from each other?" The boyfriend who would break your nose rather than break up had also taken your phone away, it felt. “Yeah, it’s not going to look like Kurukshetra with opposing armies," said my acquaintance and I laughed, agreeing.
B.R. Ambedkar had warned in his final, prescient speech to the constituent assembly, “It is quite possible for this newborn democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact." It’s a pattern we now see around the world and that has in common its ability to delegitimize dissent with contempt and loneliness as much as it uses brute force. The Russian-American writer Masha Gessen, an outspoken critic of both Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, once said: “Hundreds of millions of Soviet citizens had an experience of the thing that could not be described, but I would argue that they did not share that experience, because they had no language for doing so. At the same time, an experience that could be accurately described as, say, an ‘election,’ or ‘free,’ had been pre-emptively discredited because those words had been used to denote something entirely different." Russian repression and Trumpian lies both manage to leach meaning out of words. As Gessen says, “When something cannot be described, it does not become a fact of shared reality." You see no words on the blackboard, just a hovering piece of chalk ready to launch itself at your head.
Or as that Extreme song goes, What would you say if I took those words away/ Then you couldn’t make things new/ Just by saying I love you?.
In India too, we seemed to have been struggling with the absence of a common vocabulary. For years, we have lived with the befuddling effects of our politicians and mainstream media. If you have only ever heard secular pronounced “sickular" or with “pseudo", what did the words mean, really? Why were all the good words now bad words? To paraphrase author Toni Morrison, you keep trying to explain, over and over again, your reason for being and are unable to.
A month after that ain’t-no-Kurukshetra conversation, the unforeseen arrived—the ever-expanding anti-NRC, anti-CAA (a proposed register of citizens and a new citizenship law) protests across the land. And with it came the return of the words. Nation, happiness, complexity, kindness, home, belonging, alliance, agitation, education.
Now it is not as if the words mean the same thing and everyone knows everything that everyone else is saying. Take the understandably startled responses that Kashmiris have to the sanitized mainstreaming of the word azaadi. Or the head-clutching involved when folks in Assam and elsewhere in the North-East have to explain why they support the national protests but are for NRC in their states. Mass readings of the Preamble and waving the national flag also cause some worry about where this uncritical deployment of nationalist symbols is headed. As the former Indian Administrative Service officer Kannan Gopinathan joked in Bengaluru recently, “Soon Preamble reading will be made compulsory in movie halls."
Still, there is a cathartic release in these highly emotional demonstrations where people are claiming the right to be hopeful and to be unafraid of accusations of ulterior motives. It is the flamboyance of hope, like artist N.S. Harsha’s giant murals of mass singing, dancing, eating and waiting. The hope lies in looking at strangers and feeling confident you have things in common. As the 1980s Kannada film song Jotayeli goes, “Entha maatadide indu nee entha matadide/Nanna manasina bhaavane neene heLide joteyali", which translates to “What did you say, today what did you say, you just said aloud, felt aloud with me what I was feeling".
Or as 1980s kids used to say with greater brevity: same pinch.
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.