tira-bakhti nahin jaati dil-e-sozan ki 'firaq'
shamma ke sar pe vahi aaj dhuan hai ki jo tha – Firaq Gorakhpuri
The dark clouds continue to hover over the heart-smitten
The smoke that floats over the candle refuses to go away.
In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Friedrich Hegel used the phrase der Geist seiner Zeit (the spirit of his time), implying thereby that no one can surpass his own time, and, also, that the spirit of one’s time willy-nilly becomes one’s guiding spirit. In due course, the underlying concept gave rise to the phrase Zeitgeist i.e., spirit of the age, or spirit of the time, signifying that something which, quintessentially, sums ups and influences that constitute the culture of that particular period. (The nearest equilent of Zeitgeist is the Sanskrit term Yuga Dharma, which doesn’t lend itself to easy translation on account of the semantic complexities of the all-inclusive term Dharma.)
Unquestioning conformism to the Christian dogma in the Middle Ages, for instance, and the spirit of inquiry in the Renaissance era are oft-quoted examples of Zeitgeist. Similarly, free love and progressive thinking of the 1960s emerged as the zeitgeist of our time first in United States and, later, in other parts of the world.
Take, for instance, the much-discussed Age of Enlightenment – known in French as the Siècle des Lumières, and in German as the Aufklärung. It was an intellectual and scientific movement of the 18th century Europe which was characterized by a rational and scientific approach to most spheres of life – religious, social, political, and even economic. Its underlying message influenced both the American Revolution and French Revolution and significantly impacted even the Industrial Revolution.
I don’t think the Zeitgeist of an era has a precise beginning and a fixed end. Dates assigned by historian are arbitrary – even though indicative. For instance, French historians traditionally place the Enlightenment between 1715, the year that Louis XIV died, and 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution.
Historically, perhaps the most influential among all of them was the Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment. It embraced a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and became the bulwark of ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government and ending the abuses of the powers of both the Church and the State.
In France, in particular, the central doctrines of the Lumières were individual liberty and religious tolerance, in opposition to the principle of absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. The Enlightenment was marked by increasing empiricism, scientific rigor, and reductionism, along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy.
It was preceded by and closely associated with the scientific revolution. Earlier philosophers whose work influenced the Enlightenment included Francis Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and Spinoza. The major figures of the Enlightenment included Cesare Beccaria, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant. Some European rulers, including Catherine II of Russia, Joseph II of Austria and Frederick II of Prussia, tried to apply Enlightenment thought on religious and political tolerance, which became known as enlightened absolutism.
Two renowned Americans, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson came to Europe during this period and contributed actively to the scientific and political debate, and, through them and their writings, the ideals of the Enlightenment were incorporated into the United States Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution.
Diagnosed and dissected or just taken for granted every period of history has its characteristics that distinguish it from what precedes and what follows it. Is there, I’ve often wondered, one word or phrase that represents the Zeitgeist of the time that I and my contemporaries have lived through since India’s independence.
By nature, I’m an incorrigible optimist. Nonetheless, the goings-on of the polity in the last seven decades persuade me to accept that if one word that sums up the mode of my generation’s thinking, it is acquiescence. Of course my choice of the word is unflattering – perhaps facetious – and will be unpalatable to sensitive minds since the word acquiescence implies the reluctant acceptance of something intrinsically not worth acceptance. It also underscores the fact that ours is, all said, a quiescent society. And that is borne out by our day-to-day experience of what we see around.
May I refer here, as an illustration of my thesis, to that much-acclaimed 1980 Govind Nihalani experimental Hindi movie, Akrosh, scripted by renowned Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar. Its English title, incidentally, was tellingly superior, “Cry of the Wounded”. That remarkably powerful Om Puri-Naseeruddin-Amrish Puri film garnered all national and international awards, including the ‘Golden Peacock’ for the Best Film. It was based on an actual happening reported in vernacular press. It was a scathing satire on the corruption in the judicial system and the victimization of the underprivileged by the mighty and the powerful.
Here the victim is shown so traumatized by excessive oppression and violation of his humanity, so much so he does not utter a single word almost all through the film and just wears a stunned look, though later he uses the same violence as a tool to express his own sense of violation and rage.
It is the story is of a peasant who is oppressed by landowner and his muscleman while trying to eke out a meager living as a daily laborer. His comely wife, played by that superb actress Smita Patil, is raped by the landlord’s muscleman who then has him arrested to hide his own crime. His wife commits suicide out of shame. The police bring him to the funeral grounds in manacles and shackles to complete the last rites of his dead father by lighting the funeral pyre.
Standing beside the burning pyre, he sees the landlord’s muscleman looking at his pre-pubescent sister with lustful eyes. Divining the fate that is inevitably in store for his sister, he grabs an axe and chops off his sister’s head to forestall her dire future as perpetual victim, as he sees it. Upon completion of this hapless act of a desperate and downtrodden man, he raises his face towards the unresponsive heavens and screams, and screams and screams - the only second time that we hear his voice in the movie (the first is in a flashback, as he vainly attempts to rescue his wife).
The heart-rending cry pierces your heart and stays with you for days and days. Is it the cry of frustration and helplessness of a hapless being or of the accumulated burst of a long-suppressed exploited order?
However, the question that I want you, dear readers, to ponder over is why did he axe his sister, and not the real villain, the muscleman? Wasn’t he self-convinced that what happened to his wife will, inevitably, happen, to his sister as well? That is the in ineluctable demand of the system he lived in. The social order in which he lived never changes. Hence, the utter futility of challenging it! Therefore, just accept it, acquiesce into it as hundreds of thousands before have and hundreds of thousands to come will be forced to.
Not for him Thomas Dylan’s “Do not go gentle into that good night”. Nor for him
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” No, none of it. Just suffer and suffer and accept.
This is confirmed and reconfirmed day after day by what we see around. How transient and therefore futile are our outcries of protests and how philosophically we accept sooner or later all the injustices heaped on us. Let me illustrate it by how we behave collectively to public outrages.
Haven’t recent instances of Indian public ire revealed the unfailingly transient, ephemeral nature of – what may be called as – our smartphone-driven outrages? The anger that looks so natural to begin with withers away in a few weeks. The feeling of outrage inside the bubble appears to dissolve as rapidly as it gathered.
Let’s wind back to the Indian anti-corruption movement of 2011. It was a series of demonstrations and protests across India intended to establish strong legislation and strict enforcement against perceived endemic political corruption. The movement, incidentally, was named among the Top 10 News Stories of 2011 by Time magazine.
It gathered momentum from April 5, 2011, when anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare began a hunger strike at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. The chief demand was to to alleviate corruption in the country through introduction of the Jan Lokpal bill.
It resembled for a while the so-called “second freedom movement.” Thousands poured into the streets as Anna, like Gandhi, fasted to draw public attention. Everyone wanted to excise corruption while no one had a clue how? The Congress-led UPA Government half-heartedly acceded to the idea of a Lokpal, a national anti-corruption ombudsman. It was a vague idea, which it still is after five years. The Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi rode that wave of emotion to displace the Congress. Recently, the Supreme Court asked Modi’s government why there was still no Lokpal as yet. It does not matter. The mob got the Congress’ head. That thoroughbred opportunist, Arvind Kejriwal was the lone gainer, who trained the limelight on him to emerge as a leader. As for corruption, it’s deeply entrenched in the system. The hydra-headed monster knows how to manifest itself in new incarnations.
Also, recall the nationwide rage after the 2012 gang rape of the physiotherapy student in Delhi? That anger was substantive and stayed for a couple of years. Thereafter, the number of rapists and rape-victims have tripled.
Nonetheless, the smartphone outrage is real in the sense that it gets inside television’s talking heads and on to front pages of the print media. Politicians cannot but react, often mirroring the loutish language of twitter. So you hear the once cautious Manohar Parrikar threatening, as India’s defense minister, to “gouge the eyes out” of enemies. Once you get an online gallery, you have to play to it. Action or retribution, or the appearance thereof, has to be swift and visible. That is why the “surgical strikes” against Pakistani terror camps were a resounding public-relations success. The facts, however, are unflattering. 28 Indian Army and Border Security Force troopers have died since the strikes, meant to avenge the deaths of the 18 soldiers killed in Uri.
And this is how it has always been in our history. Would it continue forever? Or, would it change?
To be continued…