The house was in a crescent of private houses. Prabhakar was warmly greeted.
“I thought we should hear about the changes in Europe. It’s a time of critical changes, as it is here,” said the eminence, “so I’ve asked a few people who can enlighten us. Not officials or government representatives. They have to be careful what they say. These are men of influence whose opinions matter and are not afraid to speak out. There’s a film-maker and an art dealer, a jeweller and others as you will see.”
The doors of the spacious room opened outward to the verandah. A light rain sprinkled the garden and washed the dust off grass and trees. “Here we can relax and talk informally,” he continued, “From our side your contribution will be especially valuable. Your book has got to the heart of the question of change when you say that lasting societal change will need an altogether new mindset.’
The Master Mind’s name was Mirajkar and it was well known he was an eccentric who preferred to do things his own way, more or less invisibly, influence being most effective when least seen.
He was fifty and elegant, a political theorist reputed in his field and advisor to the regime in his spare time. Two of his invitees were standing on the verandah, others were arriving. Prabhakar heard French spoken, and German, and some other language.
They settled down. Sofas and armchairs had been drawn into a roomy circle for conversation. Cups of tea, pastries and sandwiches were served in a pleasant tea-time atmosphere. They were different nationalities, together here because never had Europe been so much of one mind. So said the Austrian, a publisher of children’s books, who obligingly spoke first only because someone had to start. This frame of mind, he clarified – and he was certain the others would agree – was concerned about the threat to European civilisation.
“As we are about the threat to ours,” put in Mirajkar like an amen, and asked him if they were taking measures to deal with the danger.
Prabhakar was acquainted with the changing mood in Europe and had acquainted his students with the return of the crooked swastika, the stiff-arm salutes, the goose-stepping and its other street corner manifestations, but he had never met the Mood. Here it was, uniting Europeans as they had never been united. This is how it is and what is being done about it, he heard them say. There is a passion now evident all over Europe for an end to intrusions, nay invasions by outsiders. We must seal our borders to keep outsiders out. Keep Europe secure, keep Europe pure, keep Europe Christian, in a word, keep Europe European rolled like a refrain around the room.
Prabhakar sat back in his chair, baffled and bemused. Europe had conquered the world. Europe had intruded, invaded, occupied, ruled and plundered the world. Could power and fury, power and glory, feel so besieged?
There was no accounting for history’s twists and turns but here was a twist of psychology. He was completely out of his depth in that realm. He listened to the action being taken by the Mood: graffiti and flyers and leaflets to warn the public of present danger, parades carrying the swastika to keep their presence in the public eye, and public meetings to rally the like-minded. The mood is ripe. There is a response. Results will not be long coming. Meanwhile enemies of the state within the state have to be identified and dealt with along with their friends and sympathisers.
Mirajkar interposed to say there could be no unity and no harmony without the removal of those who conspire against it. The Swede, or was he a German, wryly suggested putting muscular men in charge of that operation as had been done so successfully in the 1930s. There was no denying that muscled men left an indelible impression on people’s minds.
And on their bodies, thought Prabhakar. But judging by what he was hearing, all this street fervour was still in the street. It had not yet entered bedrooms and kitchens. The time had not yet come for today’s Europeans to talk in whispers, keep their curtains drawn and their doors locked. The time had not come to go into hiding or try in desperation to escape, as their parents had had to do. He hoped it never would.
He stared at the man who was starting to speak. His head was shaved up the sides and back of his scalp, leaving a half inch of bristly hair upright on top. In his halting English he was saying the Slovenska Pospolitost, the Togetherness Movement in Slovakia, had results to show. Fourteen of their members had been elected to Parliament. In Slovakia the hour of fascist revival is already here.
“Two hundred of we Slovaks went in procession to lay flowers at the grave of our wartime leader, Jozef Tiso, in Bratislava, him who the Allies hanged as a war criminal in 1947. This was the murder of our national hero. But now it is we who decide who is criminal, who is hero. Now we remind our people of the better times we had under him. At his statue we made a vow to him. We said – as you can see it is written below this picture what we said – ‘You are ours and we will forever be yours.’”
He passed around a photograph of the event. He and the other leaders of the procession were dressed alike in black suits, white shirts and red ties, and they all had the hairstyle. The silence in the room was impressive.
It was not possible for Prabhakar to get up and leave. Mirajkar was asking him to tell our European friends about his book, which they had not had an opportunity to read but they would be gifted copies of it. He pointed to the copies lying gift-wrapped in silver paper and red-ribboned on a table outside the circle. Prabhakar sat up. Telling them about the book was what, he supposed, he had been invited here to do.
His book, he said, had been a flight of imagination, not changes he was advocating. It was an intellectual fling of his own invention. It was the kind of fling he indulged in when he wanted, well, a holiday from the classroom and from the rigours of academic discipline. It had come about because he had wondered what it would take to bring a complete about-turn in a society’s ways of thinking – using his own society as an example, of course – and had reasoned that it would have to take the direct opposite of the ideas and images society had been taught to respect and revere: hallowed images like the Buddha deep in meditation, the Edicts of Ashoka preaching peace and righteousness, and in our own time the familiar figure of Gandhi, which was inseparable in people’s minds from non- violence.
These would have to be done away with, wiped out, dug out and destroyed wherever they were found, in books, paintings, sculptures and road names, on roadsides, in museums, wherever, so that they would be cast out of individual and collective memory. The virtues they now represent – renunciation, repentance, compassion – would be forgotten. These very words would disappear from vocabulary and any remaining rags of that inheritance would be despised as effeminate and degenerate. To excavate a society out of its age-old moorings and remake it, ruthless measures would have to be taken.
“Do go on,” Mirajkar urged, noting interest and absorption around the circle of listeners.
Prabhakar went on to say it could be done. In a manner of speaking Sparta had done it by abolishing childhood. Six- and seven-year-olds had been removed from home to barracks to be schooled in war till they were eighteen. It was a martial upbringing teaching them that defeat in war would not be tolerated. Come back with your shield or on it, they were taught. So in a way it was an end to the time long associated with mother love and mother care. The children were kept barefoot and barebodied in punishing conditions to harden them to pain and privation.
The result? Spartans had become the fiercest fighting force of their day. A little ripple of applause came from the circle. Mirajkar waited, then said gravely that the example of Sparta was a fascinating historical example. He was sure they would all agree it was now a time for bold initiatives, for strong men to take the lead, and forceful new images to replace tired old ones. Prabhakar’s book had shown the way. Prabhakar interrupted to correct that impression but the party was over and the Europeans were saying their goodbyes.
Mirajkar was at the door seeing them off. He detained Prabhakar to ask if he was related to the Prabhakar who was their late great founder and fountainhead of their thinking.
“No, I’m no relation.”
“Is that so? I was sure I was not mistaken. The originality and boldness of your argument – you don’t mince words and you are not afraid to shock – all this being so similar points to a familial way of thought. I was even sure I saw a facial resemblance.” He smiled, “Oh well, at any rate you are, as I myself am, from the same native earth as our revered founder.”
As Prabhakar was taking his leave, Mirajkar said, “I don’t know why a man of your intellectual calibre shouldn’t be one of our policy group.”
Prabhakar excused himself. His teaching and writing took all his time.
“I understand. And we need our best minds in the universities to purge them of Communist and other atheist teachings.”
Excerpted with permission from The Fate Of Butterflies, Nayantara Sahgal, Speaking Tiger.