A return to reality

Let’s reclaim a realism about nature and self that our frenzied pursuit of enmities and ends is obscuring.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: February 13, 2018 10:02:12 am
Nationalism is not always realism; it can also be a flight from the most human realities. (File Photo)

Thinking about the new year in these smoggy, uncertain and angry times, is risky business. Most new year writing is premised on the idea that the turning of the year might bring new resolve and new hope. An element of self-overcoming might be possible. At a personal level, there are the resolutions to overcome some past vice; at a social and political level, to think of new possibilities. The idea that we have choices to make that can make the world go one way or the other may not accurately describe the world, but it certainly reaffirms our freedom.

This is all with the deep recognition that even in yearning for change, we will settle into something familiar. This was the refrain of possibly the best-known new year poem in English, by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, The Year: “What can be said in new year rhymes/That’s not been said a thousand times.”

But the New Year is, very occasionally, welcomed in another register. Amrita Pritam’s Saal Mubarak rarely fails to move. It is one of the rare examples of poetry ushering in a new year with unflinching disappointment. It is hard to convey the cumulative power of her language, “jaise aastha ki aankhon mein ek tinka chubh gaya/ naya saal kuch aisa aaya (the eyes of faith were pierced by straw/the new year came thus).”

But then there are other sentiments about the new year that seem so apt, yet unrecoverable. I am thinking of Tagore’s essay ‘Naba Barsha’, read in 1903 at Shanti Niketan. The context was the Bengali new year, so the season itself was the renewal. In too many ways, Tagore’s message is a dated message: Our efficient, rationalised calendar no longer tracks rhythms of nature; the text is replete with now untenable contrasts between east and west, references to a Bharatvarsha that can only be read as aspirational, but sound delusional when treated as description.

But in these angry times, there is a radicalism to Tagore’s new year wishes. It is precisely their strangeness that makes them apt.

If Indian society has, over the last few years, been characterised by a trend, it might be described thus: Losing grip over reality. If there is a wish for 2018, it might be called a return to reality. This might be a strange description for a time that is characterised by so much action, practicality and desire for change. But what Tagore was hinting at is precisely our practicality, our frenzied pursuit of enmities and ends was obscuring reality. The most important one he had in mind was, of course, Nature itself, whose plenitude and rhythms were themselves a solace for acquisitive and angry times. Tagore can aestheticise nature like no one can. But what can be more a manifestation of our losing grip on reality than that there is no idea of “Nature” left anymore? Instead of being the source of plenitude, comfort and life, our air and water, our ecosystems have become new self-inflicted hazards. If an age that prides itself on its tough-minded realism cannot get a handle on this basic truth, it is a flight from reality.

The second theme in his message was his characteristic yearning for solitude. This might seem, as it did to many of Tagore’s contemporaries, a self-indulgent wish, particularly in an era where political mobilisation will be necessary to save the republic. Solitary gestures will not be enough; the art of combining will be important to create a new politics. But the spirit of Tagore’s yearning for solitude in the new year was also to get a grip on reality. There is one large truth Tagore understood: Often, collective identities lead us to lose a sense of reality in three ways. The more we identify ourselves with and through a collective identity — “Hindu” “Muslim”, “Indian” — to the exclusion of all else, the more abstract we become. Others also become an abstraction, their human hopes and wishes, joys and sorrows, quirks and interests, all get subsumed under the tyranny of a compulsory identity. Our public relationships are mediated too much through collective nouns and pronouns, not enough through individual human sympathies. Nationalism is not always realism; it can also be a flight from the most human realities.

But another aspect of solitude seems necessary to get a grip on reality. Tagore knew full well that a life which in every respect has to justify itself to others in a constant gaze will be a life lived under a shadow of tyranny. We have lost a sense of reality about ourselves in three ways. The erasure of the distinction between public and private, a necessary condition for solitude, excessively exposes us to a public gaze. On the other hand, the likelihood that we are shaped by the large echo chambers we are plugged into also increases. Tagore knew that an authentic conversation would not be possible if it was constantly plugged into a context of publicity and the need to justify oneself. And finally, solitude was a kind of antidote to “post-truth”, a flight from reality where the power to create false representations, or a simulacrum of reality, took us away from our own self. The demand for solitude was a demand in the name of realism: To rescue the self from the virtual worlds it inhabited, whether the abstraction of collective nouns, or the imagined public gaze.

And finally, there is Tagore’s non-instrumentalism. A sentence like “the real end of life is “to be”, and not “to do”, again might seem like a self-indulgent wish, in a society whose material deprivation is still unconscionable. But Tagore knew that excessive instrumentalism, where all aspects of life and society had to be justified on some altar of material purpose or the need to dominate, was destructive of life itself. It was that instrumentalism that unleashed the worst of what we were capable of, and makes us forget real virtues of “contentment, restraint, tranquillity, forgiveness, all these features of higher civilisation”.

“Jaise dharti ne aasman ka ek bada udass sa khat padha/ naya saal kuch aisa aaya (like the earth read a sad letter from the sky/ the new year came thus)”. Tagore’s impractical paean to nature, solitude and meaning, might not be the answer to the personal disappointment Amrita Pritam expressed in these lines. But they are a call that we will have to aim at a higher realism, about Nature and the self, that the purveyors of collective narcissism, brutal instrumentalism and propaganda are making us forget. Happy New Year.

The author is Vice-Chancellor, Ashoka University. Views are personal.

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