Exploring the oft-used term “bearing witness”. Proactive. As in seeking the “atrocity” and recording the circumstance and effects of “it”. Immediately – as in while the events unfold and the mind has had no time to adjust, cope, begin to understand that which it is experiencing – and over time – say, 21 years later; 40 years later; 75 years later the partition is still being mis-un-der-stood. Journalists do this. Writers. Poets. Painters. Photographers. Citizens who see themselves as “ordinary” folks and who are thrust “into history” as it unfolds do it. They have no choice, this last category. Involuntary bearing. The weight of this unfolding. Being witness to it. And yes. Historians. Do it. You know all of this already.

When I take photographs (or write my poems) I am engaging with the possibility of giving “vocabulary” to that which I witness. I may be using the word within quotes the way you would use “evidence”. Your discipline teaches you to study the traces. The ones that are all around us. Sometimes hard to decipher. At other times bristling with restlessness to be imbued with voice. In my case “restlessness” is key. My urge to create through my practice of photography, images and text, some kind of a “response” to what happened in Gujarat for example, post-Godhra. Not to find answers. But to help me deal with this moment of personal and national shame. An urge to do-cu-ment. Without fully understanding the weight of an overwhelming tragedy. There is no game plan at the time of execution. Nor time. Just urgency.


There is thought.

That which allows me to “think”. Maybe even reflect? To borrow, rephrase, ruminate in an Arendt-like manner where she suggests that to think is vital, essential, necessarily more important than to “reason”. Particularly in these times when those who lead teach us to reason to be convinced about their reasonable-reasonings and blindly follow the unreasonable. Or to put it bluntly, the unethical. To create an enemy within. As so many “histories” have done over the last seven decades. Here. And over there where it all began.

The lessons our “masters” imbibed from that “Architect of the Other”. The one that made evil look ordinary. Banal as Arendt would go on to say. The unethical made ethics. Made belief. Made crusade. Made that which needed to be eradicated. My only grouse with the word “banal” is that it is no longer adequate in the way it describes evil. In the Cannibal Times evil is deliberate malice because it is in the hands of a powerful government legally elected. And therefore battling it with reason as most tend to do is just no longer an option.

So back to thinking in the dark times? Or the need to move beyond thinking: reflecting. Heart and soul. The knowledge that thinking can only take us thus far. Let go perhaps of “thought” or its plural that holds us back. Makes us hesitate. To reflect the intuitive is to listen to your inner voice. That which recognises the “ethical” without necessarily having to debate it. That which makes us stand up and simply say “no”. No longer will we accept this. Socrates. The good life must have a reflection as a part of its goodness: the unexamined life is not worth living.

The role of “innocence” is another problem. An innocent bystander is no longer acceptable. You cannot remain in a state of innocence any longer. Again previous cannibal times have seen these very same problems for the “recorders”, the “bearers” of histories.

The ethics of innocence. What does it mean to be an “innocent bystander” in the presence of atrocity. To actively choose not to risk limb. Even life. Not mere incarceration – as in being sent to jail but also the fear that your lack of “innocence”, as in your intuitive action in the face of injustice, may cause you physical harm makes people stay in a constant state of the “inactive”. You are afraid to act-live. To resist actively regardless of “what may”.

Struck me that often we are “on the outside looking out” while the permutations and combinations of what we have come to recognise as circumstance extend themselves into an indecipherable math – as in the numbers failing to match. This “matchlessness” in itself may not be of consequence as our lives continue to sway and bend and work out ways of “resisting” the vagaries of the “which way do the winds of time blow”.

The surprises that an unfolding history, as it records itself, has in store for us are nothing compared to the shocks we get from each other. Each. Human. Other. How just or ethical is it for those in power in the majority in greater numbers to “create” the imagined fear of the Other? The Other as vermin. To be hounded and crushed. Cockroaches of History.

Again, we know about this from other genocides. The pettiness. The aggressive tendency towards violence. The ensuing melancholy, the despair, fear and the, yes, again that word “matchlessness” or “misfitnesses” of human nature at its mean best. Manipur. A reminder of how history is thrust upon us turning us all into mute witnesses. Eventually, we will justify. Explain. Rationalise. Accept this “cleaner” version of history. But is there ever something called a just Genocide?

In one of our exchanges dear [poet] Ranjit Hoskote said:

“In continuation of our questions on the presence of justice in the face of recognised injustice, and the predicament of ecological and political refugees, we could perhaps reflect – in a somewhat Levinasian mode – on our responsibility to the Other, on how an ethical responsibility towards another does not always arise from a ground of conventions that is shared and common, but must sometimes be the bridge across unaccountable and sometimes radical difference.”

This “be the bridge” is the key. And yet none of us see this. Or if we do we leave it to “some others” to bear the burden of “doing”. We are too busy burning the very bridges we need to protect.

On that dark and moonless night
a restless and invisible moon flitted from one tree to another.
Seeking absolution.

That same night. Under a cloak of darkness.
The angel shed the weight of his wings.
Decided to run barefoot. Make a hurried escape.

Elsewhere. A man punished for something he had not done.
Condemned to a life of imprisonment.
No longer wishing to count the days.

The woman sat patiently. Waiting at the window.
Staring at where the moon had once resided.
Where all that now remained was a black hole in the sky.

The only time one is allowed to cry, halt is when there is injustice. And one does. The thing is that our sense of Self – the one that is capital and is capital too – is of a thinking being that is capable of analysis on many plains simultaneously; a philosophical “re-inventor” of one’s own positions so as not to be frozen in time and become a willing slave to circumstance or “philosophy”. On the contrary, philosophy teaches us fluidity.

I never subscribed to labels, they are all temporary phenomena. Nor did I ever have faith in one “grand order” imposing itself on our world. So, yes, when all that we grew up believing in slipped into a “fluid” state and turned into something else, the philosophies we espoused also needed to be packed away and replaced by fresh thinking. We fall back on the intuitive. Not just in the way we traverse learning and acquired knowledge but also in what and how we experience. This is not a position of defeat.

The cynicism we so easily accuse ourselves of is actually a virtue. The cynic questions. Often, inadvertently. Sometimes out of mistrust. But always from a position of the humane. I speak of the cynical as a challenge to the status quo. One often rues the fact that the science – or if you will, the art of questioning – is no longer in vogue. It is in danger of dying out. In this “nameless” time, the time we inhabit is the time that in turn devours us, reduces us to a state of “loss”. Strips us of our ability to question.

There are many that remain stuck in a past that comforts them. What will happen now that our stories are being erased? Denied even as we bear witness? What of the future that is being aggressively appropriated? What may lie beyond this unfolding of events that may one day be labelled history? The rewriting of our textbooks for example. The act of erasure when it is a unilateral act, lacks ethics. It must be clarified that this is an unethical act if it is not the decision of all who are responsible for creating the textbook. Erasure must be the joint action of those affected by it.

We are already seeing a dwindling desire to learn, study history among our young. Helpless as those other bystanders at another cannibal time. These very same “among-us” who now this moment connect with what was. Or what ought to have been? Not what is. For what comes with the burden of a shifting enquiring evolving set of thoughts positions ideologies of the time and yes philosophy in its unadulterated form. It also comes with having to re-orient yourself constantly. Re-examine the “self” every time there is something of a crisis. Philosophy does not teach us to play safe. The chair that is no longer the same chair that it was a moment ago, and so forth.

Our friend [historian] Romila Thapar once said this to me:

“An emergency in which all one’s loudly spoken sentences are reduced to utter silence. There is no communication. I wonder if it would not be more effective to set aside activities of resistance and of demanding that everyone should do so, and instead focus on being oneself – as a form of resistance – if you will. Not living a competitive life but rather, a gentle one, with a concern that values ethics and compassion and such like. Could this be an alternative way of life that gives one some inner courage at least?”

To which I replied:

“In many ways Gandhi were he alive would have arrived at this life of compassion. Beyond non-violence as resistance. Or even alongside? Valuing the ethical is an act of extreme courage. And your suggestion about ‘inner courage’ in itself suggests the clandestine. I choose to equate ‘inner’ with “hidden”. As in deliberately so. Not just outwardly courageous but also full of this inner-hidden-resisting-strength that makes it that much more tactical for us in our battle against fascism.

“What you say resonates with the question of the nature of the Just in this brittle world. What is just? And what makes it so? What is the relationship between the just act and one that is its opposite. The un just. I am not engaging in wordplay here. I am specifically seeking a new definition specific to what I call this ‘brittle’ time. This time of the no-logic. This time of lawlessness that is not just the breakdown of law as we know/knew it but a deliberate attempt to use the law to suit our current masters.

“The Idea of Justice is under attack. What can we as individuals do to defend this breach of what philosophers and historians have called a ‘just’ society?”

Also read:

Naveen Kishore: What the ‘idea of culture’ means to a publisher