Distrust and dialogueIn times of political polarisation, defining groups in opposition to each other can create further rift
Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian literary critic, in his work on the poetics of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels, tells us that the Russian author’s books do not have a single voice or a single logic in them. Bakhtin tells us that in autocratic Russia, Dostoyevsky’s novels did precisely what the political system of the time did not allow people to do. His novels allowed his characters, his people to speak in their own distinct voices and to tell their stories. His novels became spaces where different viewpoints, different ideas were expressed. In an autocratic world, Dostoyevsky’s works were democratic spaces.
While it may be particularly true of Dostoyevsky, any compelling literary work holds the possibility of sustaining the visions of a world not dominated by one single logic or a single way of seeing things within it. The politics of literary fiction stems from the way visions about the world are handled within it. It is in this sense that literary texts provide us with blueprints for our political lives. They make us think what it means to live in a world of competing viewpoints and great social differences.
Age of polarisation
The discourse of our times informs our reading of literary texts. Politics against exclusion and exploitation of Dalits, women, Janajatis and Madhesis has molded our consciousness. The dominant discourse on social justice in Nepal tells us, and rightly so, that to be critical is to be critical of the dominant class, the dominant caste. This is an important discourse. It makes one question the social and political structure of society, and our own place and complicity in it.
But in times of political polarisation, this critical discourse that relies on defining stable groups in opposition to each other can create further rift. It can create a simplistic notion of friends and enemies. In a recent gathering in New Delhi where matters of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) were discussed, a speaker claimed that it would be very easy to tell a person’s ideological position on the CA through their surname, and their caste. Such a claim saw very little possibility for someone to express a politics outside their caste position and their surname.
Boxing people into rigid categories happens on both sides, distrust occurs both ways. This is the way that polemical politics has always worked, along bifurcations, along sides, along divisions and along an identification of the ‘other’. This becomes the reason why groups formed in opposition to each other remain locked in long historical battles.
But literary texts force us to see the blurred lines between the self and the other. BP Koirala’s ‘Sumnima’, a controversial text burned by Kirati activists for the way it depicts Kirati communities, also sustains moments where we are able to see the blurred lines between the self and the other. The conversation between a young Kirat girl and a young Brahmin boy on the banks of the Koshi in the book is a real dialogue. It creates conflict and drama. The two characters interact and respond to each other. They listen to each other. It affects them; it changes them. We would imagine the powerful party to be all consuming, to be all-powerful but when Sumnima’s logic tugs at Somdutta’s reasoning and threatens to destroy it, we know that it is an authentic dialogue that BP gives us. Here, the logic of both the Brahmin and Kirat are ferocious. You cannot tell which party loses, which one wins but they are both shaped by each other.
Blindsighted by anger
Narratives have great power. Once, a Madhesi friend told me his story. He spoke of the unease he felt of being different growing up around Newars in the heart of Kathmandu. He said that he always felt uncomfortable for being the only one who celebrated Chhath. He expressed the pain of being a Nepali but never being recognised as one. He narrated, with anger and frustration, the sorrow of being denied something that was so dear to him. I could feel his pain, I could relate to him on the plane of emotions.
In the recent meeting in Delhi where I was told that my surname could define my ideological position, I listened. There was power in the anger of the journalist who spoke about the oppression of the Madhesis to shake me. There were points where I completely agreed with him. But anger can also be blinding. If I wanted to tell him my story, maybe an alternative narrative than what he had already assumed of me, I wonder if he would listen. I wonder if he would understand that I could have my stand without being on his side or that of his opponent. I wonder if he would be willing to see that maybe I could be more than my surname. But he had made it difficult on the outset for me to claim to be anything other than my caste. To speak and to listen are both processes of change. Sometimes, it is more productive to listen.
Sharma is pursuing an MPhil at the Jawaharlal University, New Delhi, India