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How to relinquish privilege, quietly

  • It is important to give up privilege so that those without privilege are harder for society to target
  • Giving up privilege doesn’t mean acquiring a pained expression and declaring yourself a martyr

My friend’s way of fasting was giving up bubblegum with a pop and a sigh.
My friend’s way of fasting was giving up bubblegum with a pop and a sigh. (Photo: Getty Images)

When I was 14, a close friend gave up bubblegum for a whole month, for “fasting". I was inclined to be giggly until she explained that the ritual required her to give up something that she truly loved, not just carry out a thoughtless eschewal. So my friend had searched her 14-year-old heart and given up bubblegum with a pop and a sigh. Since the festival haze descended on us some weeks ago, I have been thinking often about what we commit to consuming every year (fruit cake, glitter, fancy lehngas, fireworks) and what we commit to giving up every year (fruit cake, glitter, fancy lehngas, fireworks).

I thought of it again recently in unlikely circumstances. On 30 November, a male journalist reportedly broke into a female colleague’s home in Kerala with a small mob and assaulted her in the presence of her children, on the pretext that she was having an affair. The police has since arrested him, thanks to the protests of members of the Network of Women in Media, India. He was suspended by his employer but the Thiruvananthapuram Press Club for a while thought it was all right for him to remain an office-bearer. He was finally suspended from his post on 9 December, after continued protests by women journalists.

But before this, one senior journalist did a cool thing. B.R.P. Bhaskar politely relinquished his membership of the club “in solidarity with the women journalists who are fighting for healthy living and working environment". As acts of male solidarity go, Bhaskar’s action has gone high up in any list I may or may not have been maintaining. Partly because of the act itself and partly because his letter fully relinquishes any angry, self-congratulatory notes, a hard achievement even for the most well-intentioned people doing the right thing. His letter ends with his politely recording his “sincere thanks to the Club for all the kindness it has shown him". In his letter at least, Bhaskar has given up the rage part of moral outrage—the endorphin rush of very loudly doing the right thing. He found a way to signal virtue without becoming part of what my writer friend calls “an overwhelming culture of censoriousness".

There is nothing wrong with anger, and, certainly, in the depths of iniquity that we live in, there is no shortage of things to be enraged by. A friend told me that around Diwali her neighbours—mid-aarti in the dark basement parking—asked her whether she had already done puja to her car. She replied that she never does. Her mother scolded her when she heard about the incident. Concerned that her neighbours would feel vengeful, she said, “Why didn’t you lie and say that you had already finished?" As my friend recounted the whole incident, we paused for a moment to take in the situation where a perfectly sensible mother would feel this paranoid.

Two kinds of responses seem available to us in such situations of social and political anxiety.

One, as the anxious mother recommended, to lie—to go along to get along. And this is an option available to my friend as she is half-Brahmin, a privilege she is keenly aware of. This is not always available as an option. Another friend remembers that as a naïve teenager at a boarding school, he thought it would be smarter to pretend to be Rajput than admit he was Dalit. But when quizzed about gotras, he couldn’t “pass" as a savarna, and that is sometimes the point of rituals and beliefs—to leave people out and not let them “pass". He was badly beaten up that year.

When you feel like your heart is in chains and you can’t breathe, the second option seems like a joke. But you will find examples such as activist Harsh Mander and author Tony Joseph, who have declared they would rather go to detention camps than participate in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Or the small trickle of civil servants like Kannan Gopinathan and Sasikanth Senthil, who have quit the service in protest. This leads us to the second option that appears every now and then across the skies of human history, like a star for the everyday pilgrim. It is to give up privilege to make it harder for those who can’t “pass" to be identified. When my friends were young social workers, acquiring a mangalsutra to be treated a certain way was a common practice. But later we heard of older feminists who had given up the mangalsutra so that the unmarried among them would not be picked on—at a time when this marker mattered. This anecdote illustrated a particular action of solidarity in a way in which a dozen bad school productions of Spartacus had never made clear to me.

This is not to say that we should all acquire pained expressions and furrowed brows about our own sacrifices. A Kashmiri journalist once taught me the sardonic phrase “ungli kaatke shaheed ban jaana", which translates roughly to nicking your finger and declaring yourself a martyr, and I have never forgotten it. It is a talisman that kills any impulse to pat yourself on the back for doing anything like the right thing.

Let us all wish each other real and metaphorical cake, the big and little pleasures without which life would be unbearable. But let us all also wish each other the ability to quietly give up cake.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

Twitter - @chasingiamb

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