A Halloween Offering

Jack-o'-Lantern_2003-10-31

Jack-o’-Lantern: picture by Toby Ord from Wikipedia

Halloween is the quintessential European celebration (now, North American too by extension). Christians in India and the East do not celebrate it – maybe because the origin is from pagan roots. But during my childhood, when the most popular writer was Enid Blyton, almost all children with reading habits were familiar with Halloween. And as a lover of the creepy, I was sad that we did not have it in India and that I could not go trick-or-treating.

Halloween, celebrated today (October 31) in many parts of the world, occurs as the year is slowly dying, autumn fading into winter. It is an in-between time, sort of like what twilight is for the day. The nights are getting longer; the days shorter: the earth is folding in on itself under a white blanket. No wonder primitive man shivered with fear at the thought of the denizens of the twilight world stalking the lonely copses – but I believed that, coupled with dread there was a secret delight. For it is no secret that mankind loves to frighten itself: the lure of delicious nightmare is what sells horror stories.

Stories around the campfire are also another Halloween tradition that must have come into existence during those days when primitive humans huddled around the magic entity that saved them from very real dangers. The stories must have helped them keep their mind off the real denizens of the night who prowled, crawled and lay in wait in search of prey. It would have been natural that the stories talked of fears which could be easily externalised and could be rounded off at the end (though not necessarily neatly). I think the horror story was born around the campfire.

So, as a tribute to the season, let me share three tales which epitomise for me the creeping horror that does not leave you once the story is finished. They will haunt you, and want you to return to the story again and again – even though you are afraid to. It’s the equivalent of a frightening picture in a book which the child wants to avoid, but helplessly keeps on peeking back at.

This here is my virtual campfire. Gather around, friends, and let us begin.

Casting the Runes by M. R. James

Montague Rhodes James is a past master at the art of writing a horror story that is peculiarly English. His language is akin to reportage: there is no build-up of atmosphere, and the ghosts are actually matter-of-fact, and so is the way they attack. Sounds pretty dull when it is described that way – but it’s anything but. And James’ in-depth knowledge of cathedral history allows him to situate the horrors squarely in the English countryside: in the woods, the dales, the churches and the sepulchres. “Ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night” come to you not in isolated Transylvanian graveyards on lonely, stormy nights – but they visit your drawing room during teatime.

Bewickthief_big“Casting the Runes” is a story which is built on the premise of the evil magic spell. Runes are letters from a Germanic writing system, in existence before Latin came into force, rumoured to possess magical powers. Runes are cast upon a person (by getting him to accept a spell written in the runic alphabet) either to gain their affection or eliminate them. The scholar Edward Dunning invites the latter fate when he angers Karswell, a man of dubious reputation, by rejecting a paper written by him.

In true James style, the story starts off with three letters, written by the secretary of an unnamed association rejecting Karswell’s paper: by the third letter, we know that Karswell is angry, and wants to locate the person responsible. The secretary does not reveal the name, and he does well to do so, because Karswell is not a nice man at all. In evidence, the story of the “treat” he gave to schoolchildren by showing them some magic lantern slides is quoted by one of the secretary’s friends. Karswell, angry with the kids for trespassing on his property, had decided to frighten them out of their wits in lieu of entertainment – and the slideshow, as it progressed, became a genuine horrorfest.

Well the show went on, and the stories kept on becoming a little more terrifying each time, and the children were mesmerised into complete silence. At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered and what it must have meant to the children doesn’t bear thinking of.

This incident is mentioned as a part of the conversation during a casual lunch between friends; in the same casual manner, we come to know that John Harrington, a reviewer who trashed one of Karswell’s books on witchcraft, met a freak accidental death by falling off a tree – which he had apparently been chased up, though no dogs or other animals were seen. Thus in a couple of pages, the stage is set, and the reader sees the doom building up for Dunning, should Karswell ever come to know that he was the person who rejected his paper – which he finds out, of course. The remaining part of the story is Dunning’s ordeal, which grows more and more gruelling as the tale moves towards its climax.

The passage quoted above is illustrative of James’ technique. The horror is stated matter-of-factly; however, it grows like the “horrible hopping creature in white” which slowly comes more and more into view… yet never fully. We know that Karswell has set a demon after Dunning – the sequence of activities is clear to the reader while the protagonist is clueless, a sure recipe for Hitchcockian suspense.

I cannot describe further without spoilers – so go ahead and read it. The story is not covered by copyright, I think – anyway, it’s available on the web.

How Love Came to Professor Guildea by Robert Hichens

how-love-came-to-professor-guildea-dodo-press-The second Halloween offering, though as frightening as the first, is totally different in theme and presentation. Here, atmosphere is everything: that, and the curious nature of the boogeyman. For it is love which scares the hell out of us in this story – the cloying, mindless, drooling love of an idiot.

Father Murchison, the naïve pastor with love in his heart for the whole of humanity and Professor Frederic Guildea, the ultimate sceptic with probably no human qualities at all, are the most intimate of friends. One day, Father Murchison makes the statement that the people who don’t want something is usually given a surfeit; and Guildea replies that then he should be smothered with affection, because he simply hates it.

And he gets precisely that – a presence which enters the house, which loves Guildea mindlessly.

It is the professor’s objectivity which provides the story with its strength. He is not impressionable – but he is too much of a man of science to dismiss the evidence of his senses: and he trusts his mental faculties too much to believe that he might be going mad. He objectively experiments, and succeeds in proving the evidence of his incorporeal visitor (at least to Murchison) through the imitative capabilities of his parrot.

…Pulling itself up by the bars it climbed again upon its perch, sidled to the left side of the cage, and began apparently to watch something with profound interest. It bowed its head oddly, paused for a moment, then bowed its head again. Father Murchison found himself conceiving — from this elaborate movement of the head — a distinct idea of a personality. The bird’s proceedings suggested extreme sentimentality combined with that sort of weak determination which is often the most persistent. Such weak determination is a very common attribute of persons who are partially idiotic. Father Murchison was moved to think of these poor creatures who will often, so strangely and unreasonably, attach themselves with persistence to those who love them least…

…The parrot paused, listened, opened his beak, and again said something in the same dove-like, amorous voice, full of sickly suggestion and yet hard, even dangerous, in its intonation. A loathsome voice, the Father thought it. But this time, although he heard the voice more distinctly than before, he could not make up his mind whether it was like a woman’s voice or a man’s — or perhaps a child’s. It seemed to be a human voice, and yet oddly sexless. In order to resolve his doubt he withdrew into the darkness of the curtains, ceased to watch Napoleon and simply listened with keen attention, striving to forget that he was listening to a bird, and to imagine that he was overhearing a human being in conversation. After two or three minutes’ silence the voice spoke again, and at some length, apparently repeating several times an affectionate series of ejaculations with a cooing emphasis that was unutterably mawkish and offensive. The sickliness of the voice, its falling intonations and its strange indelicacy, combined with a die-away softness and meretricious refinement, made the Father’s flesh creep. Yet he could not distinguish any words, nor could he decide on the voice’s sex or age. One thing alone he was certain of as he stood still in the darkness — that such a sound could only proceed from something peculiarly loathsome, could only express a personality unendurably abominable to him, if not to everybody. The voice presently failed, in a sort of husky gasp, and there was a prolonged silence.

Here is love, removed from its lofty perch, and divorced of sex even. A love which distinguishes itself only by its voracity, by its need to totally engulf the loved object. A love which is more frightening than hate ever can be. A love which will ultimately destroy.

This is one of those stories where the horror really begins once you finish the story. A worthy read, to be enjoyed again and again.

The Janissaries of Emilion by Basil Copper

Time and space are distorted in dreams. Sometimes they are compressed – we spend a whole lifetime in a matter of few seconds, or traverse half the world. In other instances, they get stretched; we keep on running but stay in the same place – especially if there is a monster coming after you. The frightening thing is that the monster is always on the verge of catching you – but never does so and put you out of your misery. But thankfully, we wake up.

What if we didn’t? Or we woke up, and returned to the same dream?

This is the premise of this truly weird story by Basil Copper. Farlow, a scientist, is having a weird dream: he is struggling out of the sea on to the beach, somewhere in the orient. Far away, he can see the glittering minarets of a beautiful city – this is Emilion, where he knows his lady love lives. However, as he proceeds towards it, he notices a something like a dust cloud in the distance, between him and his destination. And this scares the hell out of him… even though, in his waking life he does not know what it is.

The dream proceeds in increments: each night adds a bit more. Initially the dreams come infrequently, then the frequency increases, until he is having them every night. And in each dream, the dust cloud gets bigger (so does the sense of dread) – and the wind keeps on whispering in his ear: “The janissaries of Emilion!”

Battle_of_Vienna.SultanMurads_with_janissariesOf the three stories I have selected, this is the most suspenseful. Copper has paced the story beautifully – the reader will be turning the pages in a frenzy, but the tale reveals its secrets in a phased manner (including the origin of the dust cloud) and the end, when it comes, is a real shocker.

This one anticipates A Nightmare on Elm Street by a decade – and is much more terrifying.

***

So there you are – my Halloween offering. If you are a horror fan and have not read these stories (almost impossible… but still…), rectify the lacuna immediately! Close the curtain, turn down the lights, and get started. I wish you, like Hitchcock, a bad evening and an even worse night.

The Other Side of Development

In 1991, a new government came to power in India under P. V. Narasimha Rao. Rao was not really a career politician: he was catapulted into the chair following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the PM-elect of the Congress party during campaigning. It was the first time that a non-member of the Nehru dynasty was heading the Congress and India; and Rao made the even more revolutionary step of appointing the internationally acclaimed economist, Dr. Manmohan Singh, as his finance minister.

Dr. Singh set about dismantling the economic framework of India in a revolutionary manner. The Nehruvian socialist framework, modelled loosely on Soviet Russia’s system (Nehru was a leftist and a fan of Stalin) was demolished and capitalism was ushered in on a red carpet. India’s ponderous bureaucracy withered away, the country took to privatisation in a big way, the foreign exchange started pouring in… and India was off, like a rocket. The country has not looked back, since then.

But there was a small minority who bemoaned the destruction of socialism and the rise of corpocracy. They provided dire predictions of economic collapse and subsequent World Bank intervention which would turn India into a vassal state. Manmohan Singh pooh-poohed such fears, saying famously that “there is no way to stop an idea whose time has come”. He also said that capitalism would now be different: this would be capitalism with a “human face”.

Well, it seemed that Dr. Singh had been proven right, the way India has surged ahead economically and politically. Not a single government since then had gone back on the reforms; the left has slowly eroded in India so that now, we are left with only two alternatives – the centre-right Congress or the far right BJP. It seems that India is indeed shining, and capitalism has finally overcome its traditional enemy socialism.

At least, that is what I thought until I read Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from the Poorest Districts of India by P. Sainath.

***

SainathSainath, as a reporter for The Times of India, toured ten of India’s poorest districts from May 1993 to June 1995. His aim was to cover poverty in terms of processes, i. e. how it comes into being; as opposed to the coverage of poverty as events, which is the usual style of the press, as disasters make good copy. He makes the point forcefully while covering drought in Nuapada, Orissa:

But at the best of times, the press has viewed drought and scarcity as events. And the belief that only events make news, not processes, distorts understanding. Some of the best reports on poverty suffer from trying to dramatise it as an event. The real drama is in the process. In the causes.

Deforestation has much to do with drought. But being a process, it becomes a ‘feature’. And then disappears into the newspaper ghetto called ‘ecology’—presumed to be of interest only to rabid ‘Greens’.

The reality? The combined investment in all development projects in Orissa since independence is eclipsed by the commercial value of renewable timber and forests lost in making way for them.

Sainath’s study of the processes has left me seriously shaken. India’s tremendous surge of the recent years has been at the cost of the continued (sometimes increased) misery of the masses at the bottom of the social pyramid – the multitude who have been deprived of even their base humanity since Vedic times.

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Poor woman…every third human being in the world without safe and adequate water supply is an Indian. Every fourth child on the globe who dies of diarrhoea is an Indian. Every third person in the world with leprosy is an Indian. Every fourth being on the planet dying of water-borne or water-related diseases is an Indian. Of the over sixteen million tuberculosis cases that exist at any time world-wide, 12.7 million are in India. Tens of millions of Indians suffer from malnutrition. It lays their systems open to an array of fatal ailments. Yet, official expenditure on nutrition is less than one per cent of GNP.

Empty public health centres and tribals who still apply to the local witch doctor for curing their ills.

Empty schools and colleges (in one case inhabited by goats!).

People bonded for life to work for free for usurers.

Girls sold off to pay debts.

“Development” which displaces people on massive scales and permanently damages the environment.

I could go on and on. Sainath reports on such instances by the dozen, with passion and sincerity, and also with a certain sarcastic dry wit which would have made reading him a pleasure had not the subject been so disturbing.

Always, the affected people are one at the lowest rung of the social ladder: the Dalits and the Adivasis. These people are officially taken care of by the government: they have reservation quotas in educational institutions and government jobs: a multitude of rural welfare schemes are there for their benefit… but unless old power structures change, these benefits shall stay on paper. The upper classes in India still use the ignorance and lack of education of those at the bottom to hold on to their privileged position in society.

Denying the poor access to knowledge goes back a long way. The ancient Smriti political and legal system drew up vicious punishments for sudras seeking learning. (In those days, that meant learning the Vedas.) If a sudra listens to the Vedas, said one of these laws, ‘his ears are to be filled with molten tin or lac. If he dares to recite the Vedic texts, his body is to be split’. That was the fate of the ‘base-born’. The ancients restricted learning on the basis of birth.

In a modern polity, where the base-born have votes, the elite act differently. Say all the right things. But deny access. Sometimes, mass pressures force concessions. Bend a little. After a while, it’s back to business as usual. As one writer has put it: When the poor get literate and educated, the rich lose their palanquin bearers.

Yes, indeed.

childrenThe share of education in our five year plan outlays has been falling. Those who led the country to freedom had a different vision. They wanted that a free India spend no less than 10 per cent of plan outlay on education. Free India honoured that vision only in its breach.

The first five year plan gave education 7.86 per cent of its total outlay. The second plan lowered it to 5.83 per cent. By the fifth plan, education was making do with 3.27 per cent of the outlay. In the seventh plan, the figure was 3.5 per cent. As the problems of her children’s education grew more, India spent less and less on them.

As India pushes more and more towards consumer-oriented development, corporates start to rule the roost. The old feudal system where the landed gentry lorded it over the peasants is replaced by the corporate lackeys exploiting the workers. Only the hats have changed – the people underneath, and their roles, are the same.

Development is the strategy of evasion. When you can’t give people land reform, give them hybrid cows. When you can’t send the children to school, try non-formal education. When you can’t provide basic health to people, talk of health insurance. Can’t give them jobs? Not to worry. Just redefine the words ‘employment opportunities’. Don’t want to do away with using children as a form of slave labour? Never mind. Talk of ‘improving the conditions of child labour’. It sounds good. You can even make money out of it.

This has been true of development, Indian style, for over four decades now.

Central to its philosophy is the idea that we can somehow avoid the big moves, the painful ones, the reforms that Indian society really needs. Is there some way we can improve people’s lives without getting into annoying things like land reform? There isn’t, but there are powerful people who’d like to believe there is.

The same illusion runs through what we call our ‘globalisation’. It has the Indian elite excited. ‘We must globalise. There is no choice. Everybody else is doing it. Look at Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea.’

Of course, ‘everyone’ who is doing it, did a lot of other things. All those countries—if you must take authoritarian states as a model—went through land reform. They gave their people literacy and education, as also some standards of health, shelter, nutrition. Point this out—and the Indian elite discover our ‘cultural uniqueness’. The same is true of child labour. Dozens of other societies got rid of it. But ‘India is different’. So India’s uniqueness does not stand in the way of globalisation. It stands in the way of land reform, education, health. It does not prevent external agencies making policies for India on a wide range of subjects. It does stand in the way of doing away with child labour.

The Indian development experience reeks of this sort of hypocrisy across its four and a half decades. Ignore the big issues long enough, and you can finally dismiss them as ‘outdated’. Nobody will really bother.

***
Drought

Why does everyone love a good drought?

Well, it brings in money from the government, so the local authorities benefit. The district gets its moment in the limelight; the locals get some goodies, which is like manna from heaven for these piss-poor people. The corrupt officials get money to siphon away, so they are happy. With money in the hands of people, the moneylenders get new victims. And the press positively drools with the possibility of all those photographs of emaciated children which they can splash across their front pages.

In the event, the reasons for the disaster often gets ignored.

I will let Sainath speak.

Drought is, beyond question, among the more serious problems this country faces. Drought relief, almost equally beyond question, is rural India’s biggest growth industry. Often, there is little relation between the two. Relief can go to regions that get lots of rainfall. Even where it goes to scarcity areas, those most in need seldom benefit from it. The poor in such regions understand this. That’s why some of them call drought relief teesra fasl (the third crop). Only, they are not the ones who harvest it…

…Simply put, we have several districts in India that have an abundance of rainfall—but where one section, the poor, can suffer acute drought. That happens when available water resources are colonised by the powerful. Further, the poor are never consulted or asked to participate in designing the ‘programmes’ the anti-drought funds bring…

…Conflicts arising from man-made drought are on the rise. Deforestation does enormous damage. Villagers are increasingly losing control over common water resources. The destruction of traditional irrigation systems is gaining speed. A process of privatisation of water resources is apparent in most of the real drought areas (take the water lords of Ramnad, for instance). There are now two kinds of drought: the real and the rigged. Both can be underway at the same time, in the same place…

…Things haven’t changed too much in some ways. Quite a few journals still freely interchange the words ‘drought’ and ‘famine’. Obviously, these two mean very different things. But the word ‘famine’ is more alarmist and makes better copy. In 1986, one editor argued that the difference between the two was merely ‘semantic’. Present-day efforts at covering poverty still insist on the events approach. Poverty gets covered in breathless tones of horror and shock that suggest something new has happened, even when it hasn’t.

Apparently, crisis merits attention only when it results in catastrophe, not earlier. It takes years for a food surplus district like Kalahandi to arrive at where it has. But that is a process. It does not make news. Maybe it is still worth writing about, though?…

In fact, in many places, drought is called teesra fasl – the “third crop”!

***

We have been brought up on the concept of the “Poverty Line” in India – below this line are the dismally poor who needs government support to survive; above it, they are still poor, but the conditions get better as people move away from it in the upward direction. The aim of our democracy is to bring all of its citizens above this line, then slowly refine its definition as the populace get more and more well-off.

A fine concept – but without a clear idea of how to draw this line, it moves into the realm of conjecture.

The poverty line provides the conceptual rationalisation for looking at the poor as a ‘category’ to be taken care of through targeted ameliorative programmes, ignoring structural inequalities and other factors which generate, sustain, and reproduce poverty.

It does not ‘take into account items of social consumption such as basic education and health, drinking water supply, sanitation, environmental standards, etc., in terms of normative requirements or effective access’.

The poverty line, quantified as a number, is reductionist. It does not capture important aspects of poverty—ill health, low educational attainments, geographical isolation, ineffective access to law, powerlessness in civil society, caste and/or gender based disadvantages.

The head-count ratio based on the poverty line ‘does not capture the severity of poverty in terms of the poverty deficit (total shortfall from the poverty line) or additionally the distribution of consumption expenditure among the poor’. In a country of India’s size and diversity, a poverty line based on aggregation at an all-India level ignores state-specific variations in consumption patterns and/or prices.

The notion of ‘absolute poverty’ is inadequate because ‘relative poverty’ is also an equally important aspect of poverty and is, in fact, a determinant of absolute poverty at a given level of national income. More generally, the concepts of inequality and poverty, although distinct, need to be constantly viewed together as closely associated concepts.

Plagued by so many inconsistencies, the Poverty Line becomes something for the politicians to play around with – to quote to their own advantage and to the detriment of opponents. Since the general public does not understand it, it has lost its meaning even as a metaphor.

***

This fantastic piece of journalism gives us a taste of the real India, the India of the villages extolled by the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. This India has been forgotten in the loud celebrations of a capitalist India, an India which is military power and a space research pioneer in South Asia. But it is good for us to remember our brothers out in the wilds, at least once in a while.

Who constitutes the nation? Only the elite? Or do the hundreds of millions of poor in India also make up the nation? Are their interests never identified with national interest?
Or is there more than one nation?

That is a question you often run up against in some of India’s poorest areas. Areas where extremely poor people go into destitution making way for firing ranges, jet fighter plants, coal mines, power projects, dams, sanctuaries, prawn and shrimp farms, even poultry farms. If the costs they bear are the ‘price’ of development, then the rest of the ‘nation’ is having one endless free lunch.

However, the destitute are fighting back. In the last part of the book, Sainath recounts some stories where people have banded together to resist the might of the authorities and the machinations of the moneyed. And they have scored small but significant victories.

Of the battles these stories record, some might end in failure. Mainly because of the lack of sustained and organised democratic politics in those areas. Yet, they also argue hope. People are not quite so passive. They revolt in many ways. And as long as that is the case, there is hope.

Yes, there is always hope in a democracy. Sainath has made a not insignificant contribution to this fight, through this book. And if I can persuade someone to read it – and think more about those at the bottom of the heap – through this blog post, I believe I too would have contributed my mite.

The Hated “Other”

On the night of 28 September 2015, a mob of Hindus attacked a Muslim family in Bisara Village, near Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. The middle-aged head of the family, Mohammed Akhlaq was beaten to death: his son was critically injured.

dadri_8a9b1f94-6cc3-11e5-9358-ce0f694bc37c

Photo courtesy: The Hindustan Times

Instead of condemning the event immediately, the Prime Minister kept his silence. Encouraged by this kind of tacit acquiescence, leaders within the BJP began to make provocative statements.

Six Outrageous Things BJP Leaders Have Said About Dadri Murder Over Beef

Ever since the BJP government of Narendra Modi took office at the centre, Hindu fundamentalists of all sorts had been rattling their sabres with increasing ferocity, always finding some issue or the other to keep communal tensions alive. This murder seems have acted as a rallying point for them. Understandably, the other side – mostly left-wingers of varying colour from light pink to deep red, and the Indian National Congress – condemned the incident vehemently, accusing the BJP of direct complicity. The country went into emotional overdrive.

Confession: yours truly also reacted, dashing off angry posts on Facebook, and as usual drawing the ire of the conservatives. Over a period of days, however, after the initial heat has cooled down, I have started noticing a disturbing trend.

In olden days, such a dastardly act in India would have drawn universal condemnation from most Indians. But today, no BJP supporter is coming out to condemn the murder unconditionally. They always qualify it with statements about the sacredness of cows or how this is all a conspiracy to malign the BJP. Even the Prime Minister has made a roundabout speech, urging both Hindus and Muslims to preserve peace, as if both sides were equally faulty. On Facebook, even people from Kerala (where beef is eaten by the majority of Hindus) seem to take it as an “Us vs. Them” religious issue, with a pound of beef at the centre, rather than a straightforward question of the murder of an innocent man.

The polarisation of India on religious lines, which gained momentum during the 2002 Gujarat riots, seems to have attained new heights. The “otherness” of Muslims has been established.

Now, it only remains to eliminate them.

We have seen this happening on a grand scale once in history – in Germany and the countries it conquered, during the Third Reich. Traditional anti-Semitic sentiments in Europe were inflamed by Hitler to dangerous levels which led to the torture and extermination of six million Jews. Hitler did not do this alone: many people abetted him while the world stood by and watched. Why? Because in the minds of most Europeans, the Jews were the hated “other”.

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220px-HumanzoodesIn this context, I recalled The Human Zoo, a book by the anthropologist Dr. Desmond Morris that I had read in the early eighties. In it, Dr. Morris says that the human species has grown too fast so that he “does not fit his primate boots” any more: anthropologically, he is still a tribe member, but his tribe has grown to a “super-tribe” – humanity – a huge entity he cannot identify with.

So what does he do? Create “in-groups” and “out-groups” – tribes within the super-tribe. These groups may be divided on national, religious or linguistic lines. The common factor is that we are part of one group, competing with the members of the other group in the bloody game of survival. It is “us” versus “them”. In Dr. Morris’s words:

What is it that makes a human individual one of ‘them’, to be destroyed like a verminous pest, rather than one of ‘us’, to be defended like a dearly beloved brother? What is it that puts him into an outgroup and keeps us in the in-group? How do we recognize ‘them’? It is easiest, of course, if they belong to an entirely separate super-tribe, with strange customs, a strange appearance and a strange language. Everything about them is so different from ‘us’ that it is a simple matter to make the gross over-simplification that they are all evil villains. The cohesive forces that helped to hold their group together as a clearly defined and efficiently organized society also serve to set them apart from us and to make them frightening by virtue of their unfamiliarity.  Like the Shakespearean dragon, they are ‘more often feared than seen’.

Such groups are the most obvious targets for the hostility of our group. But supposing we have attacked them and defeated them, what then? Supposing we dare not attack them? Supposing we are, for whatever reason, at peace with other super-tribes for the time being: what happens to our in-group aggression now? We may, if we are very lucky, remain at peace and continue to operate efficiently and constructively within our group. The internal cohesive forces, even without the assistance of an out-group threat, may be sufficiently strong to hold us together. But the pressures and stresses of the super-tribe will still be working on us, and if the internal dominance battle is fought too ruthlessly, with extreme subordinates experiencing too much suppression or poverty, then cracks will soon begin to show. If severe inequalities exist between the sub-groups that inevitably develop within the super-tribe, their normally healthy competition will erupt into violence. Pent-up sub-group aggression, if it cannot combine with the pent-up aggression of other sub-groups to attack a common, foreign enemy, will vent itself in the form of riots, persecutions and rebellions.

groom applying sindoor in hair parting d5500abb6c1fb82e485462035a217c9b

In times of intense group rivalry, the subgroups start wearing their tribal colours aggressively, to mark them out from the others (think of our religious symbols or even, football club logos!). Usually, these groupings are temporary and artificial, and are taken off once the populace settles back into peace. However:

An entirely different situation exists, however, when a sub-group possesses distinctive physical characteristics. If it happens to exhibit, say, dark skin or yellow skin, fuzzy hair or slant eyes, then these are badges that cannot be taken off, no matter how peaceful their owners. If they are in a minority in a super-tribe they are automatically looked upon as a sub-group behaving as an active ‘them’. Even if they are a passive ‘them’ it seems to make no difference. Countless hair-straightening sessions and countless eye-skin-fold operations fail to get the message across, the message that says, ‘We are not deliberately, aggressively setting ourselves apart.’ There are too many conspicuous physical clues left.

Rationally, the rest of the super-tribe knows perfectly well that these physical ‘badges’ have not been put there on purpose, but the response is not a rational one. It is a deep-seated in-group reaction, and when pent-up aggression seeks a target, the physical badge-wearers are there, literally ready-made to take the scapegoat role.

The author is here talking about racial prejudice. But it is my contention that it can be religious too, especially in India – because in a caste-ridden society like ours, it is difficult to separate the individual from the faith which he or she was born into. For a religious minority, this provides a permanent sense of insecurity. What to do – disown the badges of religion and risk losing oneself in the mainstream, or wear them proudly and be the object of suspicion and hatred? It seems that the Muslim minority in India, for the major part, has taken the second route.

Unfortunately, this has pushed Hindus more and more into aggressive tribal displays. In the past few years, the Hindu religion which had been relatively private and individualised has moved into the public sphere. The symbols of religion (the vermillion spot on the forehead, the rakhee on the wrist) are brandished as objects of pride.

Maybe it’s only natural that, with the increased conviction of their religious identity, Hindus have started regarding Muslims as hostile to their very existence – aided by selected readings of history, carefully orchestrated by unscrupulous political ideologues. In such a situation,

A vicious circle soon develops. If the physical badge-wearers are treated, through no fault of their own, as a hostile sub-group, they will all too soon begin to behave like one. Sociologists have called this a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

It is at this point in the book that Dr. Morris sets out the fictitious example of the “Green-haired Man” who is racially profiled and targeted. This example has stayed with me for more than three decades now, so vivid was it: it was this which made me remember this book in the current situation.

Let me illustrate what happens, using an imaginary example. These are the stages:

  1. Look at that green-haired man hitting a child. That green-haired man is vicious.
  2. All green-haired men are vicious.
  3. Green-haired men will attack anyone.
  4. There’s another green-haired man – hit him before he hits you.
  5. (The green-haired man, who has done nothing to provoke aggression,
  6. hits back to defend himself.)
  7. There you arc – that proves it: green-haired men are vicious.
  8. Hit all green-haired men.

This progression of violence sounds ridiculous when expressed in such an elementary manner. It is, of course, ridiculous, but nevertheless it represents a very real way of thinking.  Even a dimwit can spot the fallacies in the seven deadly stages of mounting group prejudice that I have listed, but this does not stop them becoming a reality.

After the green-haired men have been hit for no reason for long enough, they do, rather naturally, become vicious. The original false prophecy has fulfilled itself and become a true prophecy.

Just meditate on the above passage, and think about the demonisation of Islam in today’s world – does anything ring a bell?

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A Review of “The Lottery and Other Stories” by Shirley Jackson

Very rarely does one find a short story collection where all stories are above average. Kudos to Ms. Jackson for producing a collection where all are excellent, and some really outstanding. I wonder whether it is possible to fall in love with a lady who passed away when one was scarcely two years old? If so, I’m in love with Shirley.

The title story needs no introduction: in fact, this is the one which first led me to Shirley Jackson (and The Haunting of Hill House, which so far I’ve not been able to read). It must be one of the most discussed stories in American literature, and one of the most devastating.

It can be called a horror story, in the true “shocker” tradition of E C Comics stories – the last panel hits you like a sledgehammer. But it’s much more than that. In its apparently nonsensical setting and unrealistic storyline, a great historical truth is encapsulated: once you are past the shock of the first reading, if you read it once again, you will get it.

Also, I loved the way the story was crafted. The horrible ending is foreshadowed very early – but you won’t get it until you have gone past the final revelation. Then, many of the apparently innocent actions and statements by the characters suddenly take on sinister meanings. And the banality of the whole thing – the casual attitude of the people to finish a task and get back to their lives – is the most chilling aspect of the story.A true classic.

However, The Lottery is an exception in this collection – none of the other stories are actual shockers, though the suggestion of violence in some of them is really disturbing. In The Renegade, various methods to “cure” a dog of her chicken-killing tendencies are discussed, some of them right out of a medieval torturer’s manual. In The Witch, a casual story told to a boy by a stranger takes an ugly turn. Always, the humdrum suddenly metamorphoses into the bizarre – never quite letting go of strong undercurrent of black humour.

Shirley never lets us forget that behind the mask of civilisation, the caveman is still very much present – even though the mask is removed fully only in The Lottery. However, it leads to a permanent undercurrent of tension which would be unbearable had it also not been so humorous. People are always at loggerheads, arms akimbo, ready to draw and shoot – though they never actually do. We can see this tension among social situations most palpably in Trial by Combat, Afternoon in Linen, Like Mother Used to Make, Men with Their Big Shoes and The Intoxicated, and also in stories where the antagonism is not so evident. In some stories, this results in the total emotional domination of one human being by another, leading to virtual slavery (Like Mother Used to Make, Men with Their Big Shoes). Perhaps not surprisingly, children in Ms. Jackson’s fictional universe take it in their stride.

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In Kerala, we have a movement called “Pennezhuthu” (Woman-writing). It is coined by feminists to indicate the deconstructed language they use to subvert traditional masculine bias in literature. I have never been able to understand what they mean by this, but it cannot be denied that talented women bring a certain individual touch to language, themes and narrative. Shirley’s female protagonists, lost in the labyrinthine city jungles, are a case in point.

In Pillar of Salt, New York becomes a virtual trap for a country woman who is reduced to a wreck who cannot cross the street by the end of the tale. In Flower Garden, the younger Mrs. Winning of Vermont Manor House becomes a prisoner of her own snobbish values. In Elizabeth, a lonely woman stuck in a stagnating business dreams of a demon lover in a sunlit garden and waits for him. In the The Tooth, a woman in the grip of a bad tooth has a dreamlike bus trip with a mysterious stranger.

But it is in The Daemon Lover that this mysterious male, a representation of the female animus perhaps, is taken to its logical extreme. A woman on the search for her lover who has stood her up on her wedding morning, runs him to earth in an apartment where he is apparently holed up. However, all her efforts to smoke him out are vain.

She knew there was someone inside the other apartment, because she was sure she could hear low voices and sometimes laughter. She came back many times, every day for the first week. She came on her way to work, in the mornings; in the evenings, on her way to dinner alone, but no matter how often or how firmly she knocked, no one ever came to the door.

It is not coincidence that all these elusive men are named Jim Harris. James Harris is the daemon lover of Scottish ballad, the Devil himself in the guise of a man who comes to seduce a carpenter’s wife and ultimately lures her to her death in a burning ship: the ballad is quoted as epilogue to this collection. However, it seems that Jackson’s heroines go to their devils willingly – like the cow-maid who sees death as Lord Krishna in Sugathakumari’s famous Malayalam poem, Abhisarika (“The Wanton”).  Maybe this was a form of liebestod they craved unknowingly all their lives.

BAL25133 Storm in the North Sea, with Smack & Barque by Andrews, George Henry (1816-98) Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK English, out of copyright

A Review of “The Sundial” by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson writes seriously weird fiction.  I used to think of her as a horror writer, after reading the short story The Lottery and reading about The Haunting of Hill House umpteen number of times (I have still not been able to lay my hands on the book).  However, We Have Always Lived in the Castle convinced me that her literary talents were much above that of the run-of-the-mill horror writer: the book under discussion has strengthened that belief.  Shirley Jackson is a genius of the level of Franz Kafka – a genuine purveyor of nightmares.  In The Sundial, we have Kafka meeting P. G. Wodehouse in an American manor house.

As with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the opening is abrupt and horrifying and hits us with the power of a sledgehammer.  The Halloran family has just returned from the funeral of young Lionel Halloran, who has been killed by his mother by being pushed down the stairs.  Orianna Halloran killed her only son so that the house would belong to her – at least, until young Fancy, Lionel’s daughter, comes of age.  Fancy is already dreaming of pushing her Grandma down the stairs, like she did her daddy.

And all this is mentioned in the first two pages: it’s only a prelude to the story proper.

The Hallorans are a dysfunctional family.  Apart from the murderess Orianna, there is Maryjane, the weak wife of Lionel: Orianna’s husband Richard who’s paralysed from waist down and slowly sliding down the slippery slope of dementia: Fancy, who we shall see, is as psychopathic as her grandmother: the governess Miss Ogilvie: Essex, a young gigolo who has attached himself to Orianna – and last but not least, Richard’s sister Fanny (“Aunt Fanny”), who is skirting the thin line between eccentricity and insanity.

In fact, vintage Shirley.

The Halloran house, constructed by Fanny’s father, is situated near a village which is a tourist attraction in its own right, due to a notorious murder where a young girl wiped off her whole family with a hammer.  The house is huge and laid out symmetrically: as is the grounds and garden.  Only the sundial stands off-centre, striking a jarring note, with the curious inscription: WHAT IS THIS WORLD? written on it.

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Immediately after Lionel’s death, Aunt Fanny loses her way during a morning ramble in the garden and apparently meets her long-dead father, who gives her the message of doom: the world is going to be destroyed.

“From the sky and from the ground and from the sea there is danger; tell them in the house.  There will be black fire and red water and the earth turning and screaming; this will come.”

“Father-Father-when?”

“The father comes to his children and tells them there is danger.  There is danger.  Within the father there is no fear; the father comes to his children.  Tell them in the house.”

“Please-”

“When the sky is fair again the children will be safe; the father comes to his children who will be saved.  Tell them in the house that they will be saved.  Do not let them leave the house; say to them: Do not fear, the father will guard the children.  Go into your father’s house and say these things.  Tell them there is danger.”

Fanny relays the message, and (here is where the novel starts to become pure Kafka) apparently the whole household buys into it – initially in a spirit of indulgence, but getting more serious as time goes on.  The Halloran family picks up a few guests who become their fellow travellers on the road to Armageddon – Mrs. Willow and her daughters, Gloria, a cousin whose father is away on a game-hunting trip in Africa, and “the captain” – a young visitor to the village picked by Mrs. Halloran to add to her coterie.  Together, they await the destruction of the old world and the birth of the new, and story moves slowly and surely to its destructive climax.

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Shirley Jackson’s writing is pure delight.  I have always felt that humour and horror straddled a thin line: many horror scenes could become sources of belly-laughter if not managed properly, and many jokes would make good horror stories.  Shirley does the tightrope act splendidly.  Her characters are unpleasant and serious enough to inspire unease, but they show their ridiculous side (especially in the dialogue which is very Wodehousian in this novel) often enough to make us laugh.

One cannot miss out the religious undertones.  The only son who is sacrificed: the father who plans to destroy the world and save only one family: The burning of the books: The matriarch who wears a crown (which looks “just like a substitute for a hat”, to put in the ridiculous touch): Gloria, the seer who can see the future in a mirror and Ritual regicide (after a fashion) … the story could have slipped all the way into religious allegory, had not the author reined it in every time with expert hands.

The climactic party on the grounds of the Halloran house is a masterpiece of scene-setting.  What starts as a rather formal affair slowly slides down into an orgy of eating, drinking, bawdy talk and sex.  I was reminded of the painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch.
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After this Armageddon is only to be expected.

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The sundial, actually does not have much of a role in the story.  (There is one scene where Maryjane and Arabella [one of Mrs. Willow’s daughters] discover Fancy’s grandmother doll, stuck full of pins as in a voodoo ritual, left on it.  In hindsight, we can see this foreshadows the climax.)  But we feel its sinister presence throughout.  By being off-centre in a symmetric world, the sundial is questioning the reality of this world: this comfortable day-to-day world we are accustomed to.

Like Shirley Jackson’s novels.