“And in the naked light, I saw
Ten thousand bigots, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.”
Paul Simon wrote the original in the 1960s in the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the growing hysteria against communism. It is an allegory on people’s inability or even unwillingness to communicate with each other, leading to a breakdown in love and trust.
Had it been written today; it could have been about bigotry. For bigotry, like a cancer, grows.
Many of us have been steadily losing friends to bigotry, week after week, over the last few years. It has been traumatic. Friends of decades, many from childhood, brought up with the same upbringing, seem like complete strangers. Their hearty willingness to take joy, even pride at times, in the oppression of other people, numbs the soul. Their complete “ease” with the “othering” of an entire community makes one’s heart sink. Some even go to the extent of keeping a dual profile. One portrays their progressive nature to the world, and the real other brings out their violent, bigoted side, in the presence of other like-minded bigots.
The mask, however, slips, from time to time.
But there are many telltale signs even when the masks are on. Common ones include:
“But you are not at all like them” – when the closeted bigot encounters a member of the “other species” and is pleasantly surprised at how he is not an imagined stereotype.
“But, what’s the option?” – when the carefully masked bigot is faced with this question, “Why don’t you resist, or speak out?” This implies that plurality, co-existence, peace, and harmony are no longer preferred options. They have normalised living with hatred, divisiveness, othering another, robbing another of his dignity, unbridled violence and breakdown of everyday law and order.
“Can we keep politics and religion out of our conversation?,” implores another masked bigot. He loves to exchange pictures of sunsets, wildlife, hikes, picnics, and shares boys’ locker-room jokes, because, otherwise, the mask may fall, and the bile will spill out.
“I am apolitical,” says another. Well, because if he does show his political side, all hell will break loose. So, he will lead his life in the Sensex bubble and focus on insane wealth creation. His contact with the real world will be through his driver, maid and watchman, through whom he will feel confident that he is in touch with grass root reality and will occasionally help them to assuage his guilt.
“But I have so many friends from that community, and we have biryani regularly.” But he will hesitate to help them when they get targeted… because of some historic wrong done by unconnected people.
“Our nation must be run decisively, with an iron hand, otherwise, we will be left far behind” – implying that pogroms, hate crimes, discriminatory laws are acceptable collateral in that process.
“But it has always been happening” – implying, that hate, discrimination and oppression is in our DNA, and that we really can’t help being bigots, because that’s who we really are.
How does one reclaim a friend or a loved one from bigotry? Is it a curable disease? Are there secret potions that can help? Or therapy?
How do bigots deal with their conscience? Is it switched off? Or is it permanently dead? How do their kids or parents deal with them? Is this condition hereditary? Does it get passed on from one generation to another?
And how do we deal with the loss of our friends and loved ones, who we can’t recognise anymore? Do we hang on to the pleasant memories with them? Knowing what we now know about them? Do we silently bid them goodbye? Do we wait for them to turn into their old selves? Do we move on?
As The Beatles sang in “In My Life”,
“There are places I’ll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain”
Chandru Chawla is a freelance writer and satirist, who writes at night to keep his insanity intact.