Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Azaan Javaid: The Atheist And His God

29 January, 2013

I have always found train journeys a very good space for me to read books or ponder over ideas. Even though journeys in India are not exactly soothing and silent but one can navigate through the noise, reading and escaping simultaneously. That was precisely what I was doing when I heard a stranger who was sitting right opposite to me, say

“Revolutions are always verbose.”

“Pardon” I replied with a visible surprise.

“You’re reading Leon Trotsky, I assumed you might know of his quote” he said.

“Oh, Well I haven’t read much of Trotsky’s works, so I wouldn’t know.”

“No offence to you, but I have read more than you can ever read, but I often wonder whether or not I know anything at all.”

“I believe Marxists are generally well read and know better than many people around here.”

“Will it help their case if I told you that I am a professor in Political science? He asked with an undertone of sarcasm.”

“Depends, I guess.”

This was followed by an exchange of pleasantries and introductions.

“So a Kashmiri Muslim, if being a Muslim was not difficult enough these days, you have the extra baggage of being from Kashmir.”

“Well it isn’t exactly smooth to be a Marxist” I responded sharply. “And I don’t mean the pseudo Marxists, not the Eduard Bernstein version of Marxism. I am talking about the real thing” I added.

He repeated after me ‘The real thing’ and became silent for a moment while looking outside the window.

“Did I offend you by any means” I inquired rather worriedly, fearing I might have sabotaged what could have been a very interesting conversation.

“No not at all, but yes, two years back if you would have said the same thing I would have been on the defensive.”

“So, what brings about the change?”

Have you watched the Che by Steven Soderbergh?

“Ofcourse” I replied.

Soderbergh incorporates Guevara’s paraphrasing of Tolstoy’s War and Peace; Che is heard in the film saying;

‘Military science assumes that the bigger the army the stronger it is. But strategists sometimes fail to factor in the unknown X, which is the spirit of the troops and their desire to confront danger’.

“I totally agree, it is a power which cannot be defeated”

The stranger started talking again; “Even after having a reasonable grip of my area of study I always used to wonder what really was the ‘Unknown X’ that Che was referring to. What was it that made Men and Women fight relentlessly for those who can’t defend their rights, conquering over their own individualist tendencies.”

“Ideally, being human is sufficient reason for people to fight for greater social justice.”

“Is it” He asked with a certain amount of disbelief. And I knew at the moment that it wasn’t a question.

“Let me tell you a story which shook the very foundations of my belief system, my so called ideology and ever since I am in sort of a limbo. Ever since this incident I ask myself; what had changed.”

He continued “I had with immense difficulty availed a book by Jonathan Rabb named Rosa. Not that it was too expensive, but it was nevertheless my most prized possession. I remember how bad I used to feel when I thought about the day when I finish the book, thus ending my curiosity. One Friday couple of my friends thought of having lunch together after they had attended their ‘Jummah Namaz’(Friday prayers). With my friend being inside the mosque I took the liberty to visit the Mosque premises. I was never fond of visiting places of religious importance.”

He paused to check my reaction and continued with his story, “So when I was back at the place where I had started I saw groups of people in ragged and tattered clothes lining in the most orderly way, to beg. I noticed that there were some arguments on who would get the ‘best spots’ but finally when the payers were about to get over everyone settled. I remember how sad it made me to see the pathetic conditions that these people are subjected to. While I pondered over these thoughts, a sea of people came out of the main entrance of the mosque throwing me out of my balance for a moment or two. I noticed my friend had come out and now was digging his hand into his pocket. He took out a handful of one and two rupee coins; gave half of them to me and told me to distribute among the people who had lined up. As we reached towards the end, I reached over to the last person in the line to give him the last remaining coins. The man sitting with no limbs was accompanied by a young boy, who wasn’t begging. The boy might have been hardly five, holding on tightly to the clutches of the beggar who probably was his father. Just as I bend over to hand the man said something to me which would change me forever.”

“As the world around me took a spin, I could not believe what I was hearing. For a man whose whole existence depends on how much is given to him, for someone who is considered as a liability, can have the integrity of such amount which cannot be found in the tallest standing skyscrapers of the world. I walked away- broken. I will never forget the look on the face of the boy, which clearly said, no matter how many great people I meet, you will always be my hero. I wondered if this was the ‘Unknown X that Che had been talking about or was it Che himself had not discovered what it really is, thus the doubt in one of his followers; me”

He took a few moments to gather himself, visibly the event had not left him even to the present day and continued “On our way to the closest Dhaba, I noticed that I had lost my book. It was strange because I no longer felt attached to the book or what was written in it”

“Can you guess what he had said” the stranger asked me, and I replied immediately, ‘No’.

The beggar said “Sahab aapnay day diye. Mein pahlay line kay aagey behtha hua tha”

(Sir you have already given me the money, I was initially sitting in front of the line)

The train moved through the Indian Plains, he unfolded his blanket, spread his legs and a minute he was fast asleep.

I could not sleep the whole night; neither did I read my book.

Azaan Javaid is a Kashmiri Journalist and the author of Social Media in Kashmir- A Case Study of Free Faizan Campaign 2011.

Comment: This retelling is so good that I decided to repost it here in its entirety.  This is simply the best article I have read in a very long time.

In a literary sense, I am drawn by the imagery of a conversation about ideas on a train between two random strangers. 

Like the Professor I too find myself lost and unsure whereas before I was merely somewhat uncertain but intent on finding the answer(s) or perfect idea(s).

I think the disabled man gave more that day than the few coins he received.  How can he even be considered a beggar?  After all, his gift by virtue of this retelling continues even though he is unlikely to know.

In the last week or so I have been mulling over a passage I read in the Tao Te Ching.

The passage speaks to the over-inflated expectation that knowledge (ideas) is a path toward securing meaning or even the array of expectations we create in life.  It simply reads:

In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped. 
(Tao Te Ching: Te, 48)

The striking juxtaposition of this passage is not that it posits an either/or scenario.  In other words it does not advocate a life of not acquiring knowledge (even material stuff) but rather it strikes the principle of balance by 'dropping' things.

In the article both Javaid and the Professor have no use for their books.  The Professor loses a book he considered a literary gem and Javaid ends up not reading his book by Trotsky.  This experience may be seen as a metaphor - if you will - for 'dropping' knowledge/ideas about what is virtue, justice, and freedom.

Perhaps the answer to Che's question about the "Unknown X" is that it can't be known.  And perhaps it is not necessary to know.

So not knowing is knowing or as the Tao Te Ching alternatively puts it: Seeing into darkness is clarity. (52)

It is 1:05am as I write here and like Javaid I cannot read (or write) myself to sleep.


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