Postmodern Pilgrims

 Published in: The Daily Star on March 17, 2014
Postmodern Pilgrims

While describing 1965-66 massacres in Indonesia, The Economist, a few weeks ago referred to Bangladesh and Cambodia being the comparable, contemporary killing fields. There’s regular discussion on how democracy has been failing in our land. Discussion on the law and order situation keeps on attracting constant criticism. And of course, Rana Plaza last April added another dimension and attention that been drawn to gross safety lacking in the readymade garment sector and how dehumanized the trade is.  In times like this, the nation needs to stand unfalteringly tall and together and align and identify ourselves with who we are and who we would like to be.

So, what really happened when the entire crowd danced to A.R.Rahman’s performance and forgot to clap when our bands and artists performed? Why did the social media record substantial controversy referring to the discord and dissatisfaction of not having experienced enough of our own, of not having held our own ground, of not having being at ‘home’? What is this ‘own’ that we are talking about? What really constitutes ‘us’?

In order to respond to the questions above, one would need to define the current positioning of our identities. A nation, in its journey, does go through a phase of structuring national identities. The stadium, our workplace and our home today do truly represent a particular cultural terrain.  It won’t be an exaggeration to say that we are caught up in a limbo, trying to stand ground on separating cultural lines that define our nationalism. This is evident when children in our country look at cartoon channels with dubbed Hindi episodes picking up finer Hindi dialect that we ourselves are unfamiliar with. Housewives stay glued to Hindi serials. Even house help often try and speak a word or two of the dialect to prove their skills in the second language. Are we simply revisiting our identities? Or have we formed a new one? Or are we reconstructing and redefining our current identities? How do we position our postmodern, South Asian identities?

While modernism was built on photographic papers, post modernism was based on erasable, recyclable, bio-degradable plastic. In the postmodern world, questions on Identity sprung up from the desire to escape from uncertainty. Hence for postmodern pilgrims like us, the truth is elsewhere. The crowd in the stadium that celebrated A.R.Rahman’s concert and cheered many Indian artists and also Acon and danced the evening away, identity lay in the land away from our own. These pilgrims on the ground were all leaving home without being homeless. For these postmodern pilgrims, the space without contours is where they want to rest their head on. It is a land of not-yet. Yet little do they know that even in the postmodern world, the pilgrim has to settle and choose successors. Would today’s pilgrims, the ones who dance to the next- door culture alone be leaving their successors with the same taste of ab nihilo?

The ICC World Cup Twenty20, which finishes off on the 6th of April with 16 teams participating. The tune has been set: “Char Chokka Hoi Hoi, Bol ghuraiya gelo koi?” I don’t think there’s even one person who wouldn’t want to hum that tune or dance to that one. There is definitely a magic that stirs up strange exhilarating emotions when we see our wooden balls cross a boundary. There is definitely an elation that defines pride in that red in the middle of the map, the small label stitched to the garment reading “Made in Bangladesh”, and in the pace of the tiny wooden ball that make us go down our prayer mats and clasp our hands in submission. If that is the magic that defies the sensibilities of the postmodern pilgrims, so be it. In all fairness, these postmodern pilgrims of ours are likely to leave behind a few deadly categories of successors: the Stroller, the Vagabond, the Tourist or the  the Player. Let’s examine all the categories one by one.

The Stroller, or the Flaneur is a one who strolls through the crowd without engaging with the others, at a surface level. Life-as-strolling is the mood. The Stroller mocks playfully and shops for his interest in an open mall packed for consumers. Similarly, the Stroller also engages in our organized and promoted, market glitzy “telecities”. Henning Bech, a Danish sociologist describes telecities as having screen-mediated worlds that exist only by way of surfaces and where ultimate freedom is screen directed, and lived in the company of peripheries and is called zapping.

The next category also smells of risqué.  These postmodern Pilgrims also breed vagabonds. A vagabond has no planned itinerary. The trajectory is stitched together, bit by bit, one at a time. A vagabond is never a native. Other places beckon the vagabond and a vagabond likes benefitting from out-of-placeness.  Options are open for the vagabond and he or she does not need to mortgage their future. With choices and time, the settled places are being outnumbered by untested travels that give ‘until-further-notice’ flavors. The movement of the vagabond is unpredictable as one does not know where he will move next as he has no set destination.  A vagabond is wayward and erratic.

The Tourist, another possible successor of the Pilgrim, is always on the move. The Tourist moves on purpose and systematically seeks new experience. A Tourist is never scared of the strange as the ‘strange’ is always tamed and never shocking. Reality is always kneaded by the desire of the tourists. The Tourist knows what to buy, pays for it and demands it to be delivered. The Tourist also has a home where he or she takes off the armor and unpacks. A Tourist’s home is unsullied and unstained. Home for the Tourist is a mixture of rest and imprisonment. Therefore the Tourist needs more space, which is the last thing he or she would ever find at home.

The most dangerous category that a Pilgrim may give birth to is a Player who has no accidents to address and no inevitability to confront. For this category of successors, the world is itself a play and the world-as-play would be divided into a succession of games. Unfortunately for this category of successors, even a war becomes a game that absolves the conscience for its lack of scruples.

As postmodern Pilgrims in a crowd-packed stadium, who do we want to breed? Strollers, Vagabonds, Tourists or Players? Since sounds must reflect people, we must be on guard. If the nation is to celebrate hosting an event as huge as the World Cup T20 2014, we might as well remember that the last thing this country can today afford is a cultural genocide in the name of globalization. This is the month of March and a month that sings of freedom. In March, the last thing this country needs is for its own artists to go unclapped and uncheered. . The dancing and the singing done in body suits, which pledge aesthetics, are far from the reality that we fought for. Let us not forget that even in postmodernism, there is a difference between Philip Glass and Madonna. And come what may, we should not stroll, tour or play in our own cultural terrain. Identities are assets, which should not be tampered or negotiated with.  And every time we dance to an A.R.Rahman tune or an Akon number, let the chokka roll in our own cultural favor as well. Let Bangla win first. We can go global later.

The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.

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