Fascism

Of late, I have been seriously disturbed by the authoritarian trends displayed by the Hindu Right in India.

Contrary to the perception of the West, Hinduism is not essentially a peaceful and philosophical religion – though definitely it has that facet. Hinduism is a fascinating mix beliefs and practices ranging from the lofty heights of Upanishadic philosophy to the dark depths of sorcery involving child sacrifice. It is not a monolithic religion, rather a pot-pourri of beliefs cobbled together into a heterogeneous mix. However, it has one thing to recommend it – pluralism. It is a religion which contains atheism even its fold of legitimate belief.

The current wave of attacks on secular writers and minority communities spread across the length and breadth of India, combined with efforts to impose Hindu beliefs on the population at large (i.e. the ban on beef) have, however, damaged that tolerant visage a bit. Even though the government and its supporters dismiss these as stray incidents blown out of proportion by a desperate opposition, there is a cause for concern as the strident voices on the extreme right have risen in pitch and aggression ever since Narendra Modi took charge as the Prime Minister of India. It is as though they now feel that with “their” government in power, there can be no stopping of the Hindu juggernaut.

(The “stray incident” argument will no longer sustain.  With the current JNU imbroglio, the government has come out with its intention to impose its own brand of patriotism on the public.  This unquestioning allegiance to a mythical “motherland” is staple of all fascist ideologies.)

fascism3Ever since I read Hindutva by V.D. Savarkar – the book that is the cornerstone of the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the main Hindu Right Wing organisation in India – I have been struck by the similarity it bears to the Nazi philosophy. The basic premise is the identification of a people with a land, and making them the absolute custodians of the law pertaining to that land: then anybody who is deemed as a “foreigner” immediately becomes an enemy of the people. Coupled with this is the open admiration of Hitler espoused by many RSS members. Also, the takeover of cultural institutions with an aim to instil a fictitious “Hindu identity” on India also smacks of Nazi methodology.

So I decided it was time to understand fascism in general – to understand whether we are on the verge of repeating history we are too stupid to learn from.  And I found Fascism: a Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore a very clear and concise introduction to the subject.

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In the book , before defining fascism, Kevin Passmore makes it very clear that to do so is very difficult – for fascism is always ‘A and not A’, as Ortega y Gasset says. So after pages and pages of telling us what fascism is not, he gives the following definition:

Fascism is a set of ideologies and practices that seeks to place the nation, defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and/or historical terms, above all other sources of loyalty, and to create a mobilized national community. Fascist nationalism is reactionary in that it entails implacable hostility to socialism and feminism, for they are seen as prioritizing class or gender rather than nation. This is why fascism is a movement of the extreme right. Fascism is also a movement of the radical right because the defeat of socialism and feminism and the creation of the mobilized nation are held to depend upon the advent to power of a new elite acting in the name of the people, headed by a charismatic leader, and embodied in a mass, militarized party. Fascists are pushed towards conservatism by common hatred of socialism and feminism, but are prepared to override conservative interests – family, property, religion, the universities, the civil service – where the interests of the nation are considered to require it. Fascist radicalism also derives from a desire to assuage discontent by accepting specific demands of the labour and women’s movements, so long as these demands accord with the national priority. Fascists seek to ensure the harmonization of workers’ and women’s interests with those of the nation by mobilizing them within special sections of the party and/or within a corporate system. Access to these organizations and to the benefits they confer upon members depends on the individual’s national, political, and/or racial characteristics. All aspects of fascist policy are suffused with ultranationalism.

Quite a mouthful.

What Passmore is at pains do here, and throughout the rest of the book, is to distinguish fascism from other forms of authoritarian conservatisms. Authoritarian conservatives believed that the elites drove the society, and were supportive of traditional values like religion, family and civil society; and they left room for private enterprise. Fascists, in contrast, subjugated the individual totally to the nation, and worked for the total destruction off institutions other than the party. In this, they bear a lot of similarity towards authoritarian communism – only its concept of class struggle is discarded.
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About half of the book is about the history of fascism, about how it was spread across Europe but succeeded in coming to power in Italy and Germany, mainly due to post-war disillusionment. This was especially true of Germany where the people felt betrayed by the weak Weimar Republic. (To tell the truth, I found this part of the book rather weak – like a boring history lecture. However, it was necessary background for the analysis of the later chapters.)

After doing a whirlwind tour of fascism across Europe and America (it leaves out Asia, Africa and the Middle east – a serious lack, in my opinion), the author poses the pertinent question: Is fascism still alive among us? He begins with an intriguing quote from Umberto Eco:

Ur-Fascism [a term meaning ‘eternal fascism’] is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us, if there appeared on the scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares’. Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and point the finger at any of its new instances – every day and in every part of the world.

Stirring words: but Passmore does not agree fully. In today’s extreme right, he sees a slightly different shade of authoritarianism.

Whereas fascism sees the destruction of democracy as a precondition for the triumph of ultranationalism, the contemporary extreme right attempts to ethnically homogenize democracy and reserve its advantages for the dominant nationality. Their imagined society is perhaps closer to the South African Apartheid state or to the ideals of white separatists in the United States. I prefer to use the term ‘national-populist’ to describe this form of movement.

I have to say I agree with him – his words seem chillingly applicable to the Right in India.

Even today, fascism remains a term of abuse. So the extreme right has cleverly redefined ultranationalism, by translating xenophobia and intolerance into liberal democratic language. The rights given to minorities are called ‘preferential treatment’ and the claim to ‘equal rights’ is used to discriminate against them. In order to preserve the alleged distinctiveness of a given nation, the rights of those who are said to ‘threaten the identity of the nation’ are to be restricted. We can see this tendency all over the world, from the Tea Party activists in the USA to the Hindu Mahasabha in India.

Fascism is racist. All inhabitants of a territory are not treated as its citizens.

Citizenship and its benefits are accorded or denied on the basis of conformity to, or possession of, characteristics alleged to be ‘national’, be they biological, cultural, religious, or political. Nationalism and racism pervade all aspects of fascist practice, from welfare provision and family policy to diplomacy. Those deemed to be outside the nation face an uncertain future – extermination in the worst case.

Individual identity, distinct from the national identity, is not allowed. In case the difference is religious or political, the ‘others’ can be assimilated (perhaps to live as second class citizens). In case it’s biological or racial, expulsion or extermination is the only fate awaiting the unfortunates not falling under the fold of nationalism.

Fascism is against all other isms which tend to group people across nations under one umbrella, such as feminism and socialism. Women are accepted only so far as they conform to the interests of the nation state (or race) – usually as child-producing machines. Similarly, though class is denounced, equality is obtained only by total surrender to the nation-state.

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Is fascism in the danger of making a comeback in the modern age? We may believe it is impossible in this age of enlightenment, when democratic values have seeped into the bottommost layers of society. Against this kind of optimism, Passmore has this to say:

It would be complacent to assume that democracy is now so deeply rooted as to make it impossible for the extreme right to win power, for democracy itself is not free from discriminatory tendencies. Democracy is deeply rooted, but it is not always connected to a belief that all human beings deserve equal treatment. For many, it means simply the right of the majority to do as it wishes, and national-populism has successfully exploited this conviction.

Seeing the direction democratic India is proceeding in nowadays, his words take on a frighteningly prophetic tone. As an ardent believer in a secular democracy, I sincerely hope I am mistaken.

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The Magic of the Written Word

Library

Old houses tend to collect books, especially if the inhabitants are educated and cultured. My ancestral home in India is no exception: it is more than a hundred years old and is literally a refugee camp for books. You can see anything from the latest glossy paperback to a mildewed pamphlet from pre-Independence days; you can find bound volumes of Walt Disney comics sitting cheek-by-jowl with hardbacks of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. And they pop up in the most unlikely places, including the bathroom cupboard.

I still remember when I first discovered Wodehouse. I was in my second year of engineering. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and there was nothing read – for me, an intolerable situation. So I prowled around, searching for anything at all, and came upon a moth-eaten hardbound book, its dust jacket long gone: the cover showed a man in butler’s attire chasing a portly boy. The title was The Inimitable Jeeves. I opened the book, scanned the first page, and sat down to read – and got up when the sun was setting. Plum had obtained another diehard fan.

I was reminded of this incident when I read the following sentence from the Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill:

A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.

Yes indeed.
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Susan hill went on a search to locate a particular book – Howard’s End by E. M. Forester, which was ultimately discovered on the landing – but that search took her across her own library, and through countless read and unread books. So she took a decision to stop buying new books, stay away from the internet, and revisit her old favourites.

Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted. information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition.

The result is this wonderful tome, a memoir and a book of literary criticism rolled into one. It is a delightful enterprise to accompany this accomplished novelist on her wanderings around the house, meeting your own favourites and new authors along the way.

There was my childhood favourite, Enid Blyton;

Enid Blyton’s books did for my generation, and several generations since, what J.K. Rowling’s have done recently– broke that invisible barrier between children who are natural-born readers and children who are not.

I lived with those boys and girls, who were around my own age but lived far more interesting lives, with nicer houses, more fun parents, greater freedom to gallop about the countryside on horses, take out boats and bikes, and go hiking and mountain climbing. There were villains, there was danger, they got into scrapes, yet their world was essentially serene and safe and for the duration of the story I, like many thousands of other readers between the ages of seven and twelve or so, was wholly absorbed in it. These were my friends and companions, I was one of the Five and the Seven, I went to the Mountain of Adventure and Spooky Cottage, I was in the Fifth at Malory Towers.

The inimitable Charles Dickens;

A perfect, flawless Dickens would somehow be a shrunken, impoverished one. Yes, he is sentimental, yes, he has purple passages, yes, his plots sometimes have dropped stitches, yes, some of his characters are quite tiresome. But his literary imagination was the greatest ever, his world of teeming life is as real as has ever been invented, his conscience, his passion for the underdog, the poor, the cheated, the humiliated are godlike. He created an array of varied, vibrant, living, breathing men and women and children that is breathtaking in its scope.

Susan Hill has the same problem with Joyce that I have, and the same opinion!

Nor can I read Ulysses, though Stephen Fry, cleverer and better read than anyone I know, swears by it. He told me that it was just a question of diving in and swimming fast. Not for me it wasn’t, I drowned. But I will go to the gallows to uphold the right of Ulysses to be called a classic.

And this observation about one of my favourite authors was so spot on that I almost whooped in delight.

Dahl was one of those geniuses who happen along only very rarely in the world of children’s literature, someone who was totally in tune with the child’s way of thinking, and view of life, and with exactly what children needed from their stories. His language, like his characters, like his plots, is sometimes anarchic, a firework display of inventiveness. He gave permission to children to be true to their real selves, not the selves grown-ups were trying to turn them into, let alone those their parents fondly imagine them to be. That is why children respond to his books and probably always will. His stories are timeless in their appeal because the quality of insight is recognised by each new generation.


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Ms. Hill makes a lot of insightful observations about how literature works. The fact that these are expressed in simple words does not take anything away from the profundity of the insight.

Novelist’s stories sometimes wear a slight air of pointlessness, as if they were made out of leftovers – either that or the novelist has never quite found the short-story voice.

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Love is the most difficult thing to write about successfully. It is the litmus test of greatness in a novelist if a love story moves and convinces and never once makes the reader grimace, smirk or feel embarrassed. Modern novelists are bad at writing about love because they feel that it has to mean writing explicitly about sex.

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Slow reading is deeply satisfying. I read two or three chapters of To the Lighthouse, or Little Dorrit, or The Age of Innocence or Midnight’s Children, and stop, go back, look at how the sentences and paragraphs are put together, how the narrative works, how a character is brought to life. But I want to think about what I have read before I move on for only in this way will I appreciate the whole as being both the sum of, and more than the sum of, its parts.

Susan Hill is by no means a literary snob. She is a reader, first and foremost, who takes pleasure in the written word. Which is why she can say

However great a writer is – Proust, say, or James Joyce the fact that so very many wiling and intelligent readers find them difficult, even impenetrable, is surely a mark, albeit in pencil, against them.

and

But if the lives of children in Elizabethan England, or a magical country called Narnia, and stories about creatures called Moomins are a means of escape from the often dull and tiresome everyday world, as well as being good books, what is the argument against that? Computer games are escapist, going to football matches or the cinema, or watching soaps or costume drama on television, are al forms of escapism. We need some.

Reading, all said and done, is an escape: from a reality that would drive us mad if we look at it squarely in the face. It is a drug, but one with no after-effects. It is an addiction that one does not want to cure.

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As I climbed to the top of the house I came upon a book here on a stair, another book there on a window ledge, a small pile of books on the step outside a bedroom door, and saw that half of the books here lead a peripatetic life, never knowing where they will be expected to lay their heads next, while the rest sleep soundly for years in the same position, quite undisturbed. But as in the fairy tales, sooner or later someone wakes you, even from a sleep of a hundred years, and so I have woken books and taken them out, shaken them and slapped them on the back, opened them to the light and fresh air, sneezing as the dust has puffed up from their pages. It must have been a shock for them. Or perhaps it was a wonderful liberation, as they were brought back to life and fresh purpose like Lazarus, for a book which is closed and unread is not alive, it is only packed, like a foetus, with potential.

Was it a shock or a liberation for Jeeves as he was woken up from a decades-long sleep on a sleepy summer afternoon by a bored Indian teenager? Whatever it must have been, I am sure he would have raised the corner of his lip one-sixteenth of an inch and said: “I am glad to have given satisfaction, sir.”

This is a wonderful read.

A Review of “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway

“You have control over only your karma: never on its fruits. So because of [concern over] the fruits of your karma, never shirk from it.”

This is most probably the most quoted, used, misused, praised and maligned verse from the Bhagavad Gita, where Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna on the Karma-yoga. It has been praised as the epitome of virtue to do your duty regardless of the consequences: it has been severely criticised as the upper caste Hindu spiritual drug to force a person to follow his caste duties without contemplation. Both views have their merits: but what they ignore is that, spirituality aside, this is what keeps most of us sane – having very little control over where we are placed as a cog in this huge machine of the universe, the best thing is to bite the bullet and press ahead, and do the best you can.

Hemingway’s old fisherman, Santiago, would not have known the Gita. But he echoes its philosophy when he says:

Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.

Being born as a fisherman, his karma is to fish – it does not matter whether he manages to land anything. Everyday he keeps on returning to the sea, because

My big fish must be somewhere.

Yes, indeed.

old man and the sea
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This slim book is Hemingway’s testament to the eternal struggle of man against nature, a dance of life and death, enacted by Santiago and the marlin against the backdrop of the sea and the sky. Even while intent on killing one another, the contest is one of love as well as antagonism.

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

There is nothing personal in it, no pleasure or pain – just the inevitability of karma. And it does not matter whether one wins or loses, whether one has the catch to show for one’s victory – for the act of fishing is what is important, for a man who was born to be a fisherman.

Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.

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Something attempted, something done, has earned a night’s repose. Tomorrow is always another day.

One of the real gems of world literature.