Indian Song Of Sorrow

2021, May 12    

The song for this post is Indiánská Píseň Hrůzy by Master’s Hammer. I only knew of the original because of the (always excellent) cover by Drudkh.

I was featured in the BBC recently. It has filled me with - to no one’s surprise - a lot of feelings.

Expressing my thoughts, even in the form of a blog, was a form of taking-up-space I had talked myself out of for many years. Now, in the midst of a medical apocalypse for India, I am taking up space in a Western newspaper to talk about myself and my campaign of donation. That said, there are few other reasons for which I would like to be featured in a newspaper. Maybe even no other reasons. It is nice to be recognized for your generosity. I spent much of a decade hiding it.

My most recent challenge was confronting how deep my patriotism for India really ran. I don’t fully understand it myself. Something deeply compelled me to give. I have explained it to others as paying forward a gift that was given to me - a continuation of the anonymous donors funding my education at Brown to the tune of $40,000+ a year. Other times, I framed it as returning to India what so many had taken from it.

There is a certain persistent story in my head: that India has given a lot to the world and the world has taken a lot from India. The story continues: India has given a lot to its next generation. Very little of it has returned and made something meaningful for the place India and the people Indians. Perhaps this is a bit of tricky propaganda of the Gandhian kind that is so deeply-rooted in my thinking that I can’t imagine myself without it. I don’t know, it doesn’t help to introspect on these things after a while.

Yale University was founded by Elihu Yale, a man like many who took their wealth from India, spent it lavishly on unnecessarily ornate weddings while hiding the skeletons that made it possible. “Venality unrestrained” followed by a public indulgence-by-way-of-donation. This is the trajectory of most of those who came to or from India to leave behind a “legacy” in the country.

If you haven’t watched Thor: Ragnarok, I highly, highly recommend it.

Spoilers follow.

The older sister of Thor returns from her banishment!

She wants to Make Asgard Great Again.

The movie, directed by the part-Maori Taika Waititi, is not subtle about its anti-nativist, anti-imperialist sentiment. The nativist, imperialist Hela is a comical but very competent, bad #girlboss. The movie ends with the nativist imperialist defeated (duh). But only by destroying the very physical land from which she draws her power (literally).

A little (geographically) further away from both Asgard and India, things have been heating up in Israel/Palestine lately. A chilling-seeming video of Israelis dancing, celebrating Jerusalem Day, while a tree on the Temple of the Mount burns in the background made the rounds. It seems bad, but might not be intended that way. It does seem to represent a spirit of the moment. I found this exchange between an Israeli man (with an oddly American accent) stealing a Palestinian woman’s house to be heartbreaking and much more disturbing. It’s her house! She’s a literal person! Right in front of you! How can you claim “Someone else will do it if I don’t”?

These are snapshots of something incomprehensible but not unpredictable.

I’ve been learning music lately. I always pursued music in an ad hoc fashion, without care for structure. I deliberately eschewed the idea of learning about chords and scales and tempo and verse/chorus. Music is supposed to be about freedom, man. It’s supposed to be about letting things within you just…come out. The obvious irony there being that the things within you that want to come out…will have a much easier time doing so with a metronome and some basic theory. Musically speaking, I suppose I was an ingredient purist (music must contain notes) and a structural rebel (any series of notes put together is music). I would think a clogged gutter is a tea.

For a song to be recognizable as a song though, it has to use a few common elements - a chord progression, a chorus, a verse or two.

I’ve been obsessed with Korobeiniki - a Russian folk song you’ve almost certainly heard before if you’ve played Tetris. When improvising, you’re supposed to lead the melody from one chord to another, and it can be hard to improvise on Korobeiniki because it plays with the transitions of its chords so well. You can insert nearly any phrase in between and it will still be very recognizably Korobeiniki. Or at least, that was my experience of trying to improvise on the song. There’s something kind of powerfully immortal about its structure, no matter how much I try to get away from it I keep getting pulled back.

There’s something I can’t quite understand about its structure, but it’s predictable in a surprising way. In a way that leaves just enough room for a bit of freedom.

Songs, happy or sad, have to have a structure. It’s important to note that it is not the structure that makess the difference between sad songs and happy songs.

India is experiencing an incomprehensible tragedy right now. It is hard to see when looking out the window or out onto the street. The tragedy unfolds on Twitter and news stories and sometimes through late night phone calls with your dad. My family is among the fortunate who have lost only a few during the past year to the pandemic. There are now organizations set up to help children orphaned during the pandemic. Conservative estimates say that somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people are dying every day in India from the new variants. A famous 36-year-old YouTuber died recently while pleading for help on his Facebook page. Incomprehensible but not unpredictable.

There’s something darkly comforting about Pankaj Mishra’s writing and worldview. He sees the violence in Europe of World War I and II as the inevitable backlash of the creation of the European engines of death - capitalism and the military. Ultimately, these demons we summon will turn on us. That is what demons do. It is folly to expect that a demon will be yours forever.

In 1971, the Pakistani military’s crimes against Bengali people in East Pakistan, specifically against Bengali Hindus was detailed in the appropriately named Blood Telegram. The world’s relative silence on the human rights issues, the subsequent cover-up by Western powers eager to seek inroads into China via Pakistan to counter Soviet power left fertile ground for Hindu nationalists. The survivors of the genocide in Bangladesh were not first in line to be welcomed back into society for many different reasons - not the least of which is their Hindu minority status in a Muslim country. All of this fed the communal beast within neighboring India, transmitting slowly from community to community, re-awakening slumbering traumas until we arrived in the early 2000s with a resurgent Hindu nationalist party.

This demon, the one that wreaked havoc in Bengal, caused more than its fair share of pain within Pakistan itself. It targeted the very folks it originally sought to defend in 1971 via mass murder. This is what demons do - they solve problems through murder. They are indifferent to the value of life. And these demons are not yours forever. But we summon them anyway. Here are a few spells to do so.

“The world doesn’t care for us.”

“We are under attack.”

“We have to fight back with a nation based around our religion.”

“We have been invaded, oppressed, brutalized for centuries.”

Trauma left unhealed drives us mad, makes (us into) demons.

What comes back to hurt us is the original trauma, but now shaped like us. Israelis, like many of the Indians who are posting support for them, are replaying their trauma with themselves as victimizer, rather than victim. It is an all too familiar song, and is ultimately one of grief and sorrow, whether Indian or not. I’ve seen the structure - there’s a chorus, a progression, yes but most importantly, there is room enough to improvise. We don’t have to play the same thing every time.

We will get through the current reprise of India’s sorrow. But I cannot see a better future for the country until we have leaders who can heal rifts. Leaders who can talk about the pain and humiliation and vulnerability of how much we have lost as a country, as Hindus, as Muslims, as Indians. Leaders who don’t see life as instrumental. Ones who weren’t forged out of a deep sense of fear and hatred. I’ve been that type of person. They don’t know what to do in moments where compassion is required, and compassion is the need of the hour.