Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Earth, part 2

We were watching the Deepa Mehtha film Earth in my History of Modern India class today. As I ran out of class right at the moment the film stops being lighthearted and starts being incredibly depressing, I wondered at the story I was running away from. Having seen the film once and been deeply impacted by it, I had no need to see it again to relive the horrors of Partition. Since watching the film, these horrors have become very real to me and have stayed in my head, able to be replayed a moment's trigger. Here I am, a year and a half after my first view of the film, a seasoned traveler of Mother India, with much more hands on and historical context than the first time I watched it. I heard Partition stories from North Indian Muslim families while in India, have learned and read so much more about India's history, her people, her cultures, her realities.

So what am I running away from? Partition happened, and as Lenny-baby puts it in the film, changes the subcontinent forever. The violence that is unleashed on the people, by the people is apocalyptic- the earth is forever stained with the communal blood of countless victims. The story up until the point I left is of a Parsi family and their charmed, peaceful life in Lahore in pre-Partition India. You hear background noise of Independence at first, like static on the radio dial as you're trying to listen to your favorite regularly scheduled programming. As the days pass and the story moves forward, the radio show is completely eclipsed by the all encompassing chaos of the static. This story is essentially an every person, every family story, of a regular life, horribly altered by the workings of the world.

There is a poignant moment before the madness of Partition begins when Lenny's beautiful upper class Parsi mother, dressed immaculately in a silk sari, is giving her young daughter (a pampered young girl with a leg brace) a dance lesson on the Waltz. She remarks that in her opinion, the best thing the British gave India was not the steamship, but the waltz. They dance quietly, sharing a mother-daughter moment interrupted by Lenny's question about the position of Parsis in British-controlled Lahore. Lenny repeats a statement she's heard that "Parsis are British bum-lickers." Lenny's mother tries to explain to her that Parsis have always been like chameleons to survive, taking on the culture of the land they were living in. Then she relates a parable about a wise old Parsi man who sends a gift to the Indian prince that didn't want to allow Parsis to find refuge in India after fleeing persecution in Persia. The wise man sends the prince a bowl of milk with sugar. He tells the prince, "We Parsis will be like the sugar in this milk. Sweet, but invisible." "Understand?" she asks her daughter hopefully. "Yes," she answers. "Parsis are not bum-lickers, we're invisible."

To me- to me- this moment hits so hard. The daughter's sharp sense of the world she is living in combined with the innocence to ask her mother for answers...that mother can never know what lies ahead; that the identity that she is trying to impart to her daughter is going to be what determines who lives or dies in their city, in their country, even their own household, in a few short days.

This might be what I'm running from. Identity is such a personal thing, especially my own; it is so close to me, to my essence, the questions of my identity, of what grows from the roots that tie me to a civilization beyond these shores, to names, faces, arms and hearts across many oceans, to a religion whose community is of every color, geographic location and culture, whose center lays in the most contested region in the world, to my life, which began and has happened on these shores, full of spacious skies and mountains majesty, side by side the constitution, history of activism and systems of oppression that I can call my own- to the identity that I forge in the fire of my own experiences- the abuse, discrimination, xenophobia, misogyny, marginalization, invisibility; the joys of validation, of discovery, of wonder, of love of people, of human beings, of culture, of nature, of everything!; of self actualization, of education, of learning critical analysis as tool for change, a means of exacting a penetrating, magnifying gaze on our American society and hegemony, of interpersonal relationships with radical overtones b/c we're different, so different, yet love each other while learning from each other-

My identity, informed by centuries of tradition, immigration, conquest, suppression, oppression, faith, expression, assimilation, education, freedom fighting, co-opting, reclaiming, diaspora moving - how can that be something a person can be judged on? killed for? My deep seated anguish over the communal violence and attitudes that bedevil human kind- I bear witness, I record it in the pages of my deepest self, and I want to run. Sometimes, like today, I do run, too terrified to see the pain and the sheer ugliness of that place in the human pysche and human history that sanctions and condones these terrible abuses against our fellow selves.

And it all continues...