From (Lack of) Civility to (the Fullness) of Passion: Towards a Common Future

I’m going to start this paper with a story.  Like all stories it is more or less true.  And like all stories, it also has a moral, which each of us, Indians and Pakistanis who read it, is free to accept or reject.  This is a story not so much of an Indian lover and his Pakistani beloved, as in Veer-Zaara or, or to cite an earlier example, Heena, but of a sort of inversion of it.  The moral, though, is similar.  A handsome, gifted, famous Pakistani musician stumbles upon a tall, shy, Indian beauty at a party while on a tour of India.  The woman says little, in fact reacts somewhat coldly to his appreciative gestures.  She goes and sits quietly in a corner, away from the smoke, noise, and excitement.  As if by an irresistible magnetism, he finds himself walking across to her, this time without the airs of a famous musician or rock star.  He asks, very humbly, may I sit down here and talk to you?  She says, very simply, yes, you may.

So a friendship begins, tentative at first, struggling to find its foothold in the shifting sands that traverse the borders of these two uneasy neighbours, but soon it becomes passionate.  More from his side that hers.  He calls her from all parts of the world, visits whenever he can, sometimes flies in for a few hours just to see her.  She wonders at this strange attraction, then understands that it is not just about him and her.  Its really about one culture, one soul, split as it were into two.  What to do, how to mend the breach?  Through music, perhaps, or through love.  The love between a man and woman as a symbol of the love between two nations.  An old, hackneyed theme, perhaps, but still so relevant and real.  For him, wooing her is like wooing India herself.  India is his beloved, his jaan.  To conquer India, to be loved by India is the acme of his achievement, his ambition.  Without India, his world is truncated, incomplete.  Worse, without India, there’s not a moment of peace, no other solution—so he cries and wails, Beloved, O Beloved, chain ek pal nahin, aur koyi hal nahin. 

              The moral of the story is simple, even obvious.  It stares us in the face in all events, conversation, and reports of the Indo-Pak relationship:  there is something grossly, even obscenely wrong with this relationship.  The very pain, anger, and anguish we feel when we think of it confirm that it is deeply flawed the way it is.  Why it is so will take us into matters historical, political, religious, and so on, all of which constitute an impenetrable “hard” reality that we shall do well to avoid talking of here, at least momentarily.  Let me just say that even the title of the panel in which this paper was presented bears the marks of this flaw.  Consider the adverb “Towards” in the title “Towards a Common Future.”  It suggests that the “Common Future” is something to strive for, not present reality.  But actually the opposite is true.  The common future is not something we have to work for or walk towards.  The common future already exists not even as a hope but as sheer necessity, even reality.  Because we have a common past, and a common present, a common future is an inevitability, not a dream.  And yet it is odd that this “truth” is seems so strange, almost untrue to us.  Instead, we usually start at the opposite end, assuming that there is either something inevitable or solid about the uneasiness and hostility of the past and the present, the distrust between these two neighbours, these two nations who were one not so long ago.  So the obscene and hideous lies that are behind this separation, this partition, this alienation must be countenanced with calm faces and level voices.  We must pretend that we are and were separate but that we can now work towards a common future.

Let me confess that I have no use for such politeness. To me the question is somewhat different.  Neither are the common past or the common present matters of debate; consequently the common future is not a question, hope or supposition, but a certainty, a conviction, a fact.  In other words, whether we shall have a common future or not is not something that I think of or worry about.  I know that we shall have a common future, that there is no way out of it.  What I wonder, instead, is not whether we will have a common future but really what this future will be like?  How will we behave with one another?  How will we treat one another?  It is this that exercises me, that troubles me, that bothers and agonizes me.

I am exercised, troubled, bothered and agonized because if the common past, at least the immediate past, not to speak of the present is any indication, we have not behaved very well with each other.  In fact, we have behaved abominably, with suspicion, hostility, even enmity.  If we go back a bit earlier, to the bloody birth pangs of the two nations, then our behaviour with each other borders on the horrid, the insane, the ghoulish.  Why started it all, who behaved worse, who was really responsible—such issues seem rather irrelevant now.  There were, no doubt, two contrasting principles at war, but the war soon became not about principles but about escalating brutalities and competitive atrocities.  It became a war not between peoples or nations but between sanity and madness, humanity and bestiality, desire and repulsion.  This is our history, this is our past, this is who we are.  What kind of common future are we talking about?  Will it be one in which we bandy words and threats, brandishing nuclear warheads at each other, abetting cycles of terrorism and retaliation, talking peace and making war?  Such a future only spells mutually assured destruction, MAD-ness.  Fifty-seven years of suspicion, fear, hatred:  what have they given us?  An insecure environment, economic backwardness, and a politics of competition and loathing.  What else?  Poverty, inequality, the oppression of women and minorities, chaos, bad governance.  Even if everything cannot be blamed on the dreadful relationship between us, I am sure that a good deal of what ails us is connected, in one way or another, to it.

That is why I believe that any talk of a common future will have to take into account what it is that we mean by words like “common future.”  I have already suggested that the issue is not so much whether we will have a common future but what the quality of that commonality will be, how we will end up behaving with one another.  I have also mourned for the history of our recent behaviour.  Let me now try to explore what an alternate kind of sharing might mean to us.

By commonality we must quickly recognize that we don't mean uniformity or even unity.  The former is impossible to attain, the latter however desirable is but a distant dream right now.  But what commonality might suggest for us here and now is a shared space which allows for difference, even separation.  We have heard this analogy in the context of the Partition before, an analogy which I believe Mahatma Gandhi himself used, so I will recall it once again:  if from a joint family the younger son wishes to move out, demanding a share of the property, this should be acceptable to the elder brother.  I might add that between spouses and lovers, there are separations, even divorces.  All this is a part of reality, therefore unavoidable.  If we wish to face reality, we have to accept such differences and rifts.  What, however, is not acceptable is that parted friends, lovers, or family begin to kill each other, hate each other, go to war with each other.  That is not acceptable and must be repudiated.  Both together and apart, we need to be civil.  In other words, commonality is about civility, it is about how we treat each other on a day-to-day basis.  If not with love, we must at least try to treat each other with compassion and courtesy.  To me, that is the basis of not just any dialogue but for the condition, as the etymology of the word suggests, of being civilized.  From being civil, we can be friends again, and once we are friends what can limit the passion or zeal of our feelings for each other?

Let me return for a moment to the story with which I began.  It seems to me that the love of a Pakistani rock star for an Indian woman or vice-versa suggests a much more important process of mutual attraction, even passion than political moves by governments.  These real and every day love affairs represent a much more basic desire that exists between us, a desire that has the capacity to hold and heal the other in an embrace of mutual affirmation.  The story and its interpretation indicate, at least to me, that the common future that we are trying to discuss today is not to be constructed through treaties, or instituted through political action, though these sorts of efforts should go on, nor is our commonness some impossible utopian ideal.  Rather, this commonness already exists.  It exists in language, customs, song, dance, food, modes of address, ways of living and relating; it exists in prayer, in work, in life and death, in feasts and festivals; it exists in the earth, in the sky, in the wind that blows across man-made borders.  It is exists everywhere.  It is simply waiting to be discovered and acknowledged.

That is why by common past, present, and future I do not refer to political unification or identity.  I mean a sort of unity of culture and consciousness, unity of heart and spirit.  And who else but writers, poets, musicians, and artists are going to work in and for the spirit?  We need to stop giving the damn politicians, the damn military men, the damn bureaucrats, and the damn diplomats so much importance.  We must stop letting them run our lives or tell us what to do.  Simply speaking, we poets, writers, artists, and intellectuals, need only to do what we know best to, to touch hearts, to change minds, to move the spirit through our work as we reach out, communicate, and transform.  I am sure that Abida Parveen, Runa Laila and Lata Mangeshwar have done more for our common culture than any politician or bureaucrat has. 

Even as I minimise the role of politicians, I do not wish to negate the domain of politics altogether.  Every artist must have his or her own politics.  In fact, art and literature have a very important contribution to make in the overall political scenario of any society.  If so, what should our politics, the politics of creative people, be?   I would use Shrivatsa Goswami's words of personal communication to me: "The politics of embrace," he called it.  We must embrace each other.  In an embrace, there are no others.  Or rather, the otherness of the other becomes a part of ourselves.  That is what we as writers, musicians, artists, and intellectuals need to do--to embrace the other.

I believe that this politics, the politics of embrace, is much more powerful than that other politics, the politics of competition, one-up-man-ship, domination, or retaliation.  This politics also has its power as opposed to that power politics.  Soft power, the power of culture, is ultimately stronger than the hard power of guns and bullets.  The people of two countries, I am sure, will follow us, not them when it comes to making a choice.  But we must lead the way, allowing our politics to prevail or at least permeate the public domain.  Without that, how will the choices become clear?  So instead of blaming others, instead of exchanging many wise and well-intentioned speeches, instead of talking of what ought to be done, why not do what we know best to?  To sing, dance, write, and breathe our commonality?  Why not love, embrace, and celebrate?  Let others do what they will; let us do what we must.

Before I end, I want to dwell some more on this idea of commonness.  At the level of culture and consciousness, who are we?  The idea of "South Asia" is meaningless to me, a banal and inexpedient imposition of the Americans.  As a people, who are we?  Are we Arabs or Persians?  No, though we have been deeply influenced by them.  Are we Turks, Afghans, Tartars, Uzbeks, Khazaks, and so on?  No, though, once again, we have their blood running through our veins.  Are we Chinese, then, Burmese, or Thai, though once again, they are related to us both by culture and blood?  Are we European, American, or some other kind people?  Even less so, arguably, though their culture and languages have shaped us.  So who are we?  We are Indians.  Indian Bengalis and Punjabis, Indian Tamils and Telugus, Indian Marathis or Gujaratis, Indian Himachalis and Mizos, I would even go far as to say Indian Pakistanis, Indian Hindustanis, Indian Bangladeshis, Indian Nepalis, Indian Sri Lankans, and so on.  We are Indian or Indic people.  No matter what we do, this will not change.  As long as there are Himalayas to our North and the Indian ocean engirdling our beautiful peninsula, we will remain Indians.

I am not interested very much in issues of national or nationality, because these do not matter in the ultimate analysis.  Our commonality is not based on nationality or nationalism, not even on geographical features or boundaries, but on something else.  Our commonality is, to use an idea of Sri Aurobindo, one of spirit.  It is founded in the spirit and arises from it.  Each nation, according to Sri Aurobindo, has a soul:

Each nation is a Shakti or power of the evolving spirit of humanity and lives by the principle which it embodies.  India is Bharat Shakti, the living energy of a great spiritual conception, and fidelity to it is the very principle of her existence.                                                                                               (3)

Therefore, we all have one soul, even if we may be diverse and varied.  Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, and so on, we might be, but we can’t understand ourselves without reference to our common pasts in this sub-continent that has been called India for such a long time and before this name was given, there were others to suggest that we were one people culturally and spiritually.  Our oneness, however, is not something that is or can be imposed from above.  It is something that must be discovered, acknowledged, and allowed to flower.  In the long run, what else is the meaning and purpose of our differences and divisions, even our quarrels and wars but to enable us to rediscover our oneness and love for each other?  Literature, poetry, song, dance, art, and craft—all proclaim this unity even when politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats and such others are busy loudly proclaiming our differences or trying to negotiate how to overcome them.

I have been speaking of our oneness at the level of lived culture.  But at the level of the spirit even issues of culture cease to matter much.  Culture exits only to be included, so to speak, and then transcended.  Difference is necessary for the play; without difference there is no play.  But the real culmination or fruition of the play is the play’s dissolution, so if difference is necessary for the play, the transcendence of difference is also equally necessary.  The jouissance or what happens when the game reaches its climax can come only when the unity underlying the difference is found.

I began with a story so let me end with one.  This is a story of an unknown and unrecognised Hindi poet and thinker, Ram Narayan Swami.  Swami grew up in a lower-income family in Bhagalpur where he went on to do a masters in Hindi.  He also discovered that he had a prodigious talent with words and ideas.  The profession he learned was tailoring, but his heart aspired to the life of the mind in the big.  He came to Delhi, where a chance encounter with some soulful and well-to-do persons resulted in his being giving a stipend to do a book on Ghalib.  Swami believes that he has understood and interpreted Ghalib in a manner that is both lived and felt, not just intellectually learned or expressed.  His year-long tapsya resulted in a substantial book, which was launched by one of Hindi’s best known critics.  When I spoke to Swami he said that he considers himself a latter-day Ghalib, who has himself experienced the depths of degradation and the heights of ecstasy in this city of Delhi.  As a penniless but proud writer he has felt both humiliated and elated by turns pursuing his muse.  To me his as yet unrecognised poet in his own life and creative journey demonstrates our cultural oneness in an uncanny but irresistible way. 

Let me end with a few lines from his poem:


Ek duniya kho gayi sarhadon ki bheed mein,

Ek duniya aa rahi hai sarhadon ki bheed se

Chahe jitni bhi deewaren khichi jayein aangan mein

Is kone se uss kone tak aahi jayengi chidiyan


Aawaz aa rahi hai ki aaye koi aaya

In vaadiyon ka chain aman haath mein liye

Log aayin ke alfaaz bhi samajhte hain

Aur yeh bhi ki faza kaid se bahar hai


Naya sa khwab aankhon mein utre, juda sa jahen mein tassavur ho koi

Andhere ki chaadar se bahar nikalte ujale ki duniya ka manjar ho koi

Yeh aayin or yeh hukumat ki baatein, siyasat ke jalve, adaavat ki baaten

Munasib yehi hai ki ab yeh nahin hon, na sarhad ho koi na kishwar ho koi


Chale to mili raah, thehre to manjil mili bastiyan dil ne basana jo chaha

Yeh ehsaas hai uss jahan ka, jismein na raahon ka kaidi, na beghar ho koyi

Vakt aazadi ka hai, aur aadmi aazad hai

Kaid hai to aadmiyat, seekhcha-dar-seekhcha


Aao azaadi mein, ek naya khel khelen…




In English (rendered by Supreet Singh):


A whole world has been lost in the chaos of boundaries.

A whole world is emerging from the chaos of boundaries.

No matter how many walls are built in the courtyard,

from this corner to that, the birds will fly…


There is a voice that cries out for someone to arrive,

carrying the peace of these valleys in their hands.

We understand the words of the constitution,

and this too, that the reality is beyond it…


May our eyes see a new dream, our minds another ideal.

May the flame that arises from this shroud of darkness find a new reality.

Beyond the words of constitutions, politics, and enmity.

May we do away with the need for borders, the need for nations….


This is a time of freedom, and humans are free.

What is imprisoned is humanity, shackled behind rows of iron rods.

Upon starting we will find the way, the heart will find a home

In the realisation of a world in which no one is trapped, no one homeless…


Come, let us in this freedom, play a new game…




                                         Works Cited

Aurobindo, Sri.  Foundations of Indian Culture.  1959.  Pondicherry:  Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1985.


  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape