Monday, July 28, 2014

Immigration and Punjabi Youth, an essay by Gurbachan

(translated from Punjabi, the original is at pages 25 and 35 of Amritsar Times, July 23 edition.)

Young laborers from Punjab are trapped in Iraq.  Their families are pleading to the state and central government for their escape.  Efforts are being made to bring them back.  Everybody is behaving as if this is an isolated, one-of-a-kind incident.

Hundreds of Punjabi youth are rotting in the jails of Greece, Spain, Turkey, Cyprus, Italy, and the nations once part of the Soviet Union.  Under a false identity, they wanted to reach Europe or North America.  Young men and women from Punjab go to England or Australia to study.  What they do there, or what happens to them there, cannot be described.  Does the Punjab government not know all this?

It is necessary to reflect deeply about the situation.  Today, the youth of Punjab have become psychologically estranged from their motherland.  Their life-energy is finding no channel to anything worthwhile.  When we reflect on the means of work and livelihood, the schism between the city and the village  has become irredeemably large.  In this age of information technology and business management, a young Punjabi from a humble background, who already feels humiliated, finds himself even more limited.  This young man is restless in his village, alienated in the city, and feels like a refugee in a metropolis.  But even so, he cannot but face the city.  He has to make efforts for his schooling, going to college, getting educated in IT, some kind of vocational training, preparing for a competition, etc.  After getting a half-baked education, he has to then try and find someone who can put in a “good word” for him.  He, like a lost wanderer, seeks after political leaders to get them to “recommend” him.  In his day-to-day life, as he starts to observe rampant bribery, unfair influences, cronyism, and the dreaded police, he finds himself constantly on his guard.  It gets etched in his soul that the system is evil, that talk of moral values is senseless.  That every man is out for himself, and there is little possibility of human sympathy and affection.  Before his life has even taken off, he gets to realize the darkness that is all around him.  This state of affairs is quite brutal.  Brutality is effected not just with guns.  Sociopolitical brutality is usually more devastating.  And economic brutality is perhaps the most dangerous.

The mental horizons and limits of such Punjabi youth have become narrowed.  His limited gaze necessitates a well-lit path.  He has no critical thinking left, and in its place there is frustration and anger towards the powerful.  He can fall into crime, or get involved in violent movements.  If he joins the police, he ends up becoming a torturer himself.  If he joins politics, he indulges in corruption.  This state of affairs pushes a young man, who is hopeful of leading a life of dignity, towards alienation.

The youth of today do not have even the tools which can transform their anger into political rebellion.  Without an intellectual foundation and strategy, rebellion remains stuck at an explosive, disruptive stage.  The young man of Punjab is not capable of a “dialogue”.  He does not consider intellect as a useful weapon.  All through, he has collided with the power of the state only to be beaten.  For decades that has been the story of Punjab’s youth.  Completely defeated, they either turn to drugs, or wish to escape to a foreign land.  When we look back on the “terrorism” indulged in by the young men of Punjab, we never reflect on how the terror and brutality of such a sociopolitical state of affairs might have been a factor in all this, and who was responsible for creating that explosive situation.  The State, with the ostensible aim to eradicate  this “terrorism” indulged in by these young men in the region, has tried to beat down and suppress that individual who has already been suffering and facing a system of brutality and violence.  The State does not try to reflect if the political process, in the guise of democracy, might be brutal to begin with.  Consider the youth of Punjab, or those even elsewhere in India, those who have creative energy, who wish to remain connected to their land, and who wish to live a life of dignity.  When they observe the daily grind of injustice, or when they face a corrupt system day after day, when they are left behind by the urban classes, they either feel a red-hot stream of anger within them, or become resigned and cynical.  This resignation, cynicism, alienation is what makes them risk their lives to go abroad.

This desire and this race to go abroad gives birth to a world that is full of immorality and falsehood.    Fake documents, high-interest-loans, duplicitous travel agents, the thirst to reach UK, Canada or US by fair or foul means… In the human context, it is unlikely that anything good can come out of all this.  A young man who goes through all this cannot look forward to a happy life abroad.  His days and nights are spent in a whirlpool of fear and dread.  When he indulges in liaisons or forms relationships with foreigners, his behavior no longer remains moral.  It is these men who, when they become “legal”, try to dupe and marry a woman from back home.  The fact is that they themselves have been duped at every turn in their journey.  For years, they have endured the silent torture of having a false identity.

Immigration from Punjab is no longer what it used to be.  In the past, a Punjabi, despite facing financial hardship, never felt hopeless about his land and tried to escape.  And he never felt helpless about the whole situation and therefore didn’t risk his life to go abroad.  He used to go abroad with the intent to make money and then return.  It never occurred to him that he had become estranged from his motherland, or that he had been expelled from it.   In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the disenfranchised classes of Punjab were justifiably anxious due to economic hardships.  But, by remaining rooted to the land, they remained spiritually resilent and strong.  They longed to be free, they hoped that in future they would be able to make their homeland a better place, and to celebrate its history and its culture.  The immigration of the “Gadar” movement had this theme.

Today if you tell a young man that he won’t find anything in a foreign country, he retorts: “And what is here?”  If you tell him that there is spiritual and psychological degradation there, he snaps: “And is that any less here?”  He would perhaps consider the spiritual question at a later time, but for now his direct queries are: “Is hard work valued here?”, “Do you get a job on merit?”, “Can an honest man lead an honorable life here?”, “Is it not humiliating to get even the little things done?”, “Does police behave like human beings?”, “Have the politicians amassed their billions honestly?”

In the past, the youth of Punjab, wanting to find a way out of their frustration and anger, took to violence.  During the Naxalite years, and the years of terrorism, he picked up assault rifles to try and channel this anger.  But state repression has now extinguished that possibility.  The result: the cauldron of anger has now turned inward and that anger is being doused with drugs.  Or, there is this stubborn desire to go abroad even if it means risking one’s life.

The Punjabi youth gambles with all he has when trying to settle abroad.  Even after his gambles pay off, he remains disenchanted and broken in his personal and family life.  He doesn’t experience periods of joy.  He continues to long to once again breathe the air of his land.  But the uncertainty and brutality of his homeland scares him, and so he rejects his longing.  His alienation becomes even more extreme.

What is the way out for a powerless Punjabi who is afflicted with scarcity and chaos?  The vision of his homeland that was once painted by Prof Puran Singh has now been blown to smithereens.  The politics of Punjab regards tall promises, flyovers and frantic construction projects as development.  When Punjab is no longer Punjab, who is all this development for?  It is for those who continue to play colonial politics in a post-colonial world.  For those who consider Punjab as a means to their economic power.  These people confirm only those conclusions which are to their benefit.  Chandigarh was taken away from Punjab – they stayed quiet.  The Punjabi language has lost its value – these people remains satisfied.  The Blue Star operation broke Punjab’s back – these people call it freedom from terrorism.

It is evident that these people live in cities or are rich agriculturalists and are represented by Badal senior, Badal junior, and their cohorts.  They have laid a siege to Punjab’s economy.  For a person of humble background, progress has therefore become synonymous with going abroad and settling there.  In other words, the kind of space that is available to him in his own land is no longer in keeping with the times.  To have the energy of such an individual dedicated to Punjab has not been the focus of anyone, and neither has Punjab’s education system been village-centric.  Today the situation in education and in the job market is such that a village-boy of humble background is incapable of competing with the city-dwellers.  Everybody knows what goes on in government institutions: how teachers while away their time, how students are made to waste their days, how copying is encouraged to clear exams, how boys and girls in colleges spend years and years without any definite resolve.  In universities, people with such backgrounds continue to remain behind.  And this has been continuing for decades.  Forced to dwell in such a suffocating and hopeless environment, the young take to drugs.  Or they want to fly abroad.

Our political class considers Punjabi immigration very superficially.  They present immigration as a proof of the enterprising and crusading spirit of the Punjabi people.  They do not see that immigration that is caused by helplessness diminishes not just the Punjabi individual, but also the future of Punjab and its soil.  The son of its soil, estranged, no longer wishes to be here.  When its young men are busy servicing foreigners, how can Punjab’s regional character remain strong?

When one meets Punjabi boys in Italy, Spain or elsewhere, one finds that not all of them are from economically distressed families.  A while ago, I met some young Punjabis in Milan, Italy.  One of them had even been employed in Punjab Police and he owned quite a bit of land in his native village.  It was his second time in Italy, but he was deeply depressed.  He was so sad that he was almost crying.  He started to speak: “I don’t feel I belong here, but the situation back home is even worse.”  He said: “Punjab has gone down the drain.”  Such utterances are common whenever you meet and talk to our people anywhere in the world.  A great number of these people work in construction, drive taxis, are employed by courier services.  Some have their own stores, some have taken over a post office.  Some are IT people, some are doctors.  Some publish newsletters or papers.  And all of them are good citizens and family men.  But when they discuss politics in Punjab, their anger boils over.  Their common refrain is: “All are corrupt.  They have looted it all.”  One can talk to any Punjabi, he starts spouting against the Badal family.

These are the people who did not want to leave their Punjab, but were helpless.

There are also many among these who are quite content.  The contented ones continue to talk of Punjab: “Can one ever forget one’s motherland?”

They want to return, but become quiet when they think of their past.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Three Generals

There was going to be war.  The king had to choose a commander from his three generals to lead his army.

The first general was the queen's sister's son.  He had grown with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, had never spent a day outside the palace, and only engaged in training only with carefully selected pansy soldiers.  His idea to inspire the army was to whimper about how much his family had "given" to the nation by ruling it for so long.  He was somewhat handsome though, and women liked him for the adult baby that he was.  The ministers liked him because they felt they could influence him.  Many in the city were of the opinion that to be effective, the commander needed to be a blue-blooded person who had leadership in his genes.  This general had never made a mistake, because he had never truly made a decision.  The army too was somewhat mystified by his charisma, as long as he kept his mouth shut.

The second general was a clever infantryman who had risen from the ranks to become a general over many decades of careful image-making, politicking and manipulation.  His role in a particular army assault against a rebel city within the country was suspect, but his culpability was never proved.  Many felt that the circumstantial evidence was strong against him, and he was known to exaggerate the achievements of his regiment.  His regiment was indeed quite happy with him, interestingly because they believed the suspicion about his culpability was true.  Many felt that only a somewhat ruthless manipulator could win this war.  He was known to be a skilled orator who could win over an audience with his witty barbs.  But it could be true that his oratory was a sham, and that the audience in his speeches was already smitten and identified with him.

The third general had been a bureaucrat.  He had protested for years for what he saw as the wasteful and corrupt way in which the army had been managed.  He was known to be quite self-righteous, with archaic ideas about using only spears and clay shields in battle.  He had chosen his seconds-in-command carefully, and did not tolerate dissent that well.  When he had transitioned to the army from his ministry, he was very idealistic and captured the imagination of the army-men.  But over the years, his charisma had dwindled, due both to an intense scrutiny of him, and to some ill-advised populist decisions that he taken while on a campaign.  Though he was reputed to be honest and forthright, he was fond of promising great victories quickly without struggle.  This made many thoughtful people doubt whether the army could win under him.

There was going to be war, and the time to choose was coming.  The cacophony of each general's supporters was growing by the day.

What the supporters never, ever would be able to guess, was that the enemy was within the city, within themselves.  That the generals could only bring about a large victory if each of them won small victories every day against the enemy within.  That the blackness that had engulfed the nation-city had emanated from the dark hearts of its own manipulative citizens.  That the blame for the enemy's infiltration lay with each of them.  Yes, the more powerful had their inner light completely extinguished.  But whenever someone weak was given power in that city, it did not take long for him to also succumb to darkness.  That the fight against darkness was never going to be complete but a battle which lay ahead till eternity.

That the generals would never be able to win the war if the soldiers were not willing to fight.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stream of Consciousness

For what if man was doomed.  The aliveness that is, is its own journey and destination.  So the nihilist believes.

To be free is to have no contradiction inside.  The discontent of civilization is its force within oneself which prevents total freedom.  Civilization is within.  Total freedom can exist only in death.

To be torn is simply the fact of being alive to others.

To collect seeds and see them blown away by the wind.  To see one's offspring devoured by a predator.  Who says birds don't suffer.

In the midst of all this incoherence and chaos, there is absolute stillness.  To center oneself and to be still while the storms, including in one's own mind, rage, is what man is capable of.  And this stillness can be felt in great joy as well as in great suffering.

The self might be a construct, a useful mechanism built by eons of strange twirls of evolution.  The essential suffering of the self is that of feeling that there are vistas of experience which it has not experienced.  To be aware of inexperience and simultaneously, of mortality, is the tragic sense.

"Life is to be lived" is not a meaningless statement, but aliveness can be lost in the cacophony of everyday life.  One of the authentic depictions of death is white noise.  Michael Haneke knew that when he showed the television playing "The Power of Love" and then to meaningless pixel-snow in Der Siebente Kontinent.

The feeling of direction can keep alive those who are trudging through inhospitable terrains.  But a vision of absurdity, of the futility of it all, can strike at times of elevation.  At lower elevations, everything is going somewhere.  At higher ones, there is no destination and no movement.  What shall you fix as the journey's end if you have gone around the world?

Chain gangs still exist in this world.  To respect the chains requires that one admits the larger goodness and worth of the roads, the homes, the fields, the children, the cycle of life.

"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed." (Terence McKenna)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

To say "just listen" is bad manners

To hear is one thing, to listen another. To hear is to understand the words, to listen is to understand the feeling behind the words.

To listen to someone is to be silent inside, and to not construct a story, or an ongoing commentary track. To first understand what is sought to be communicated, and then to understand where it comes from, and then, to respond.

It is important and part of politesse to not interrupt when someone is in the middle of a monologue. But an inward interruption - an imputation of motive, a disagreement before the monologue is finished, a revulsion born of labeling - though not rude, is as disastrous for understanding as an overt intrusion.

To listen requires passivity as well as effort. Passivity in that no imaginary narrative should form in the listener's mind. Effort in that one needs to be alert, watchful of the body, the expressions, the tonality, the vibes. To fully listen can therefore be exhausting.

To listen is obviously useful, when the other person wants to lighten their heart and talk about something that is bothering them. It is important to let the speaker continue without interruption and to let them complete. Especially if the conversation is about one's relationship with the speaker!

Sometimes, to make someone listen is to share one's pain. Just the fact that now another human being knows and understands what is going on inside oneself is a relief.

Mostly however, to make someone listen is to seek validation for one's feelings or one's point of view. It is to feel good about oneself or to rationalize an act or a plan that is irking oneself.

It is unfair, but all too common, for the speaker to ask for agreement in the middle of their monologue: "Do you agree?" or "Am I right?" Till now only to listen attentively was involved, now even agreement is being asked for. The only correct response to this is: "I am trying to understand your point of view." If the speaker persists with "But do you agree with me?, " then just as one considers some people as bad listeners, one must conclude that the speaker is a bad speaker. One can continue to emphasize agnosticism, till the speaker leaves infuriated or till they understand that agreement doesn't come cheap.

More often than not, an injunction or request to "just listen" is to take the other person's time, and feel good after having vented. It is a veiled way of saying: "You listen to me, but I don't want to listen to your comments or evaluation or judgment or suggestions about what I am talking about."

A communication is an interaction. If you are subjecting someone to "just listen" to your monologue full of problems, then you are also thereby obligated to "just listen" to their response to you. To ask the other to "just listen" and then to refuse to listen when it is one's turn is to take something of value and to give nothing in return.

When one expects the other to spend some effort to understand oneself or a problem, it behooves one to also then spend some effort at listening to their advice to fix the problem. And ideally, if the advice makes sense, to sincerely put it in effect. If you expect the other to be a good listener, then after they have listened, be a good listener yourself.

To say "just listen" is bad manners.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Three Safe Cities

In New York, people don't like to make eye contact with strangers.  There are supposedly, and perhaps not without justification, lots of "weirdos" around.  One can hear police sirens all over, and at all times of the day.  Marked police cars are never out of sight.  All this has some effect: violent crime is almost non-existent in the Big Apple.  There is plenty of graffiti and trash, though, and people regard each other with suspicion.

In Irvine CA, considered one of the safest cities in the US, criminal activity is limited to illegally being in the carpool lane.  There is no graffiti or trash anywhere in sight.  This is a posh, white-collar suburb of Orange County.  But janitors, construction workers and restaurant staff come to this city from less posh cities.  One wouldn't find anyone napping on a street or park bench though, and homeless people are quickly transported out of this town.  Despite the environment of safety, people are quite careful to not take unnecessary risks.  Conversing with someone not at one's own level of affluence is quite rare.

In Baker NV, near the Great Basin National Park, I once gave a ride to two kids in the back-seat of my car.  I was on a solitary road-trip.  I was as strange as they come in that little town, what with my with long hair and my obviously non-Caucasian looks.  The kids were not more than ten years old.  After the ride, they muttered politely, "Much obliged, Sir."  There wasn't a cop for miles and miles.  The road was mostly empty too.  But there was safety in the air, somehow.