I am writing this letter to you when you are just three months old, when you have just learned to smile – a smile that lights up the world of your mom and dad. I write this letter so that when you find it many years from now, you don’t call your parents educated cowards.
When I think about your future, I also think about what you will think about us. Your parents, like everyone else, have grown up in a state of uncertainty. I won’t talk about it in detail here because by the time you are able to understand the meaning behind these words, you will yourself be a victim of this uncertainty. I can bottle up several experiences that have seriously hurt me through this uncertainty, but I can’t prevent this uncertainty slowly unfolding itself to you.
Our consciousness is a kind of sedimentation of this uncertainty. Consciousness is not an individual choice. When you were born, the rules that will imperceptibly shape your consciousness had been already enforced. And mostly, what I have observed over the years, new generations are either forced or convinced through deception to submit to the same old rules in different new ways.
My dear, what I am trying to say is that one day you will find yourself in a similar situation. You will feel stifled. And then you may rummage through the books in my small reading closet. I am afraid you may take great exception to your dad’s cowardice. I know these words will irritate you in the beginning because I am being a little ambiguous. Or maybe my style of expression can’t be any more limpid than this. There is a special reason for that.
I have only two options – either to be silent or ambiguous. Ambiguity, I doubt, is just another form of silence. Well, I was talking about the books in the closet you may flip through someday and think of your dad as a defaulter, an escapist or a solipsistic person. I am afraid you will find me totally ill-disposed and antagonistic to my reading choices. Some eye-popping titles and some books very recondite on subject-matter may tempt you and also stop you to reconsider the perception of your dad.
Books like Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Noam Chomsky’s On Anarchism, Slavoj Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology and many other books on historical fiction may even push to the extreme of calling your dad a cowardly braggart or, to use the proper Japanese term, a ‘tsundoku’.
My dear, you may even write back to me some day as to why I had been oblivious to my own condition when my choice of reading constantly reminds one of the immediate existential factors that shape up one’s condition or consciousness.
My dear little Mahirah, as they finally named you after a pretty long time of irresolution and indecision, here I try to answer this question through this letter. However, I can’t be as straightforward as you would have liked. Still, I believe you won’t stumble on interpretation, for the language – no matter how ambiguous – mostly reflects your consciousness within a structured cultural setting. Since you would grow up as the part of this setting, much of the terminology would be self-explanatory.
My dear, we live in a blighted land. When I learned the art of reading, the complexities of my own existence slowly started to dawn upon me. The instinct of rebellion spread like a fog over my imagination. The sadistic treatment of people filled me with a seething hatred. At this stage, the contents of the above books only added fuel to the fire. I thought I would at least write if nothing else was possible to my capacity, for their grand ideas only instilled a sense of fearlessness in me. I would perspire in the heat of my ideas. It was now so natural to me to wake up in the middle of a night and write a few lines about the storm brewing inside my mind. It was like a passion. It was inevitable. It was contagious. It appeared to me as if all the good books I read were written to inspire me, and infuse me with some energy to write about this blighted land. Most of the good books almost teach the same values because good ideas are the same across cultures.
My dear, everybody knew why our land was blighted and how it could be saved but all the warring parties actually never developed a consensus. They only complicated its obviousness. And now as you see, it only looks uglier. Its obviousness was changed due to a scary obscurity through a subtle yet systematic process of suppression. Foucault taught me a good deal about this normalising of suppression. Indeed, it is enforced through an advanced, apparently sophisticated, governing mechanism. This growing obscurity about the fate of our blighted land got only darker by every passing day. Those good ideas, inspired by those good books, that I wanted to put in my writing now stuck like a lump in the throat.
Meanwhile, on a cloudy curfew day, my father passed away. Devastated, a large family was left to the mercy of god. I left my home and the blighted land one day to continue my studies and secure a job. I knew I had to take care of the family. While I studied, it only pumiced the tongue of my heart. I wanted to bleed ideas; the ideas that thundered in the dark void of my imagination, the ideas that writhed under the weight of this repressive scheme. In this really difficult situation, I was faced with only two options; either to silently submit myself to their rule and do my bit for the grieved family or take a step back from everything and pursue these ideas no matter where they would lead me.
My little darling, I hope you are not bored. I finally chose the former yet it never subdued my passion for the later. One day, I got a job and it filled an otherwise disconsolate family with joie de vivre. Sometimes, expectations and associations make your life miserable. No matter how grand you are on ideas, you can’t disown these associations. My family, a desire to move out of this vortex of despair and a feeling to write and brace for the consequences; these conflicting choices pulled at me with equal force. There was confusion, restlessness and an overwhelming sense of ennui slowly seeping into our lives. Our life was like that Schopenhauer’s pendulum – swinging backward and forward between pain and boredom.
My dear, a job is indeed a security. However, the perils are greater. When you have a job, you are actually serving an institution. And every institution works in the form of a set of rules. After years of systematic consumption, a worker only ends up as an embodiment of these rules. You don’t know, there is one more thing called surveillance. Apparently absent, yet its presence is enormous in a system. It is like a trap.
Sometimes, when a sad news would stir up latent emotion, I would walk outside my workplace with my colleagues and sit behind a big rock and talk about several things. To our shock, one day a camera was installed at the top of the rock. It was a new entry into the long list of rules of the institution. I slowly developed a strange habit – before talking to anyone, I would desperately look around in search of a camera. Thank god, they didn’t install them in the small toilet rooms.
Notwithstanding the fact that the impact of these rules on individual behaviour is enormous and unavoidable, I consciously chose to be on the side of those who worked hard for several reasons and dreamed to live peacefully in the middle of this chaos. My dear, you may doubt the integrity of your dad here. But I had no other choice, besides I also wanted to live peacefully outside this unpleasant noise and confusion; these streets that groan with bustle and commotion of commercial activity one day, and roar with slogans and stone battles another. And it is all so familiar that people have slowly adjusted their lifestyle to this.
With the money I have earned now, I have helped my large family build a new house. It was a great feeling because I got a separate room to sleep in for the first time. Moreover, it brought back a smile on the barren cheeks of my doddering mother. What can you do to such associations? Unlike others, many sensitive people are vulnerable to lose themselves to a sense of undecidability amidst this maze of associations. And this state of undecidability is such torture; it is a continuous reminder of what you are and what you have become. It is like a recurring sense of self-recrimination. My dear, it went on like this. Forced to an ignominious capitulation, the people were left confused.
Meanwhile, I travelled several places to explore my blighted land. I met a number of people, picked up wonderful conversations and surprisingly found one thing common everywhere; people unconsciously closing almost every utterance with a familiar expression ‘wen kya karo?’ (What to do now?). They were absolutely unconscious to the fact that this little phrase actually expressed their collective despair and a nagging sense of undecidability.
With the advent of COVID-19, it only got worse. The silence grew deeper. In the midst of all this, I got married to your mom on a bright day in late October. I am skipping a lot. Actually nothing special happened all this time. Every day is not a new day in this blighted land.
My dear, whatever I chose for myself, I was really blessed to find you down the road. The beauty of life is truly hidden in small things. And it takes time when these small things develop into a big whole. It may not complete you but it sometimes causes that pendulum of life to swing backward and forward between hope and happiness.
My dear, when I come back from work in the evening, your mom puts you in my lap. You look at me for a while before you burst forth into a smile. It is a moment that temporarily disconnects me from the external world, when all my associations dissolve into oblivion and when I feel life is not all too meaningless. What can you do to such associations? And then, as a routine, after dinner, when you are asleep, your mom reads me a sad bit of news from her phone and the whole night becomes hell. You drown into the darkness of pain. Then your associations pull you back. Sometimes, these associations are really so necessary.
Life here is hung in uncertainty between these two extremes. I don’t exactly know where I belong and whether what I have chosen is right or wrong. My dear, I leave it to you to decide only after reading this letter. I write this because I think I owe you this explanation.
Ghulam Mohammad Khan was born and raised in Sonawari, Bandipora, an outlying town located on the wide shores of the beautiful Wullar Lake. He believes that literature is the most original and long-lasting repository of human memory.
Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty