If walls could speak, you could hear them LOLing at the glittering men and women of Davos, at the vanities of globalisation. Donald Trump is not the only one urging one near the US-Mexico border; as it turns out, so is China. A second Great Wall is being decreed into being along the borders of Xinjiang, to prevent “infiltration of militants” in a region torn apart by clashes between Uighurs and the Han Chinese. That’s the wall as national muscle, to be flexed when the state decides it doesn’t need to talk, especially with its minorities.
The wall is now a political project, a metaphor for our times, also a multiplying meme. It sprouts between friends as much as it finds place on barren lands of discontent. Brexit showed us that one doesn’t need steel or stone to build one. You only need enough white folks so disgruntled that they would risk life without chicken tikka masala rather than trade in Euros with neighbours. In India, the barbed wire separates us from the neighbour. And within, the walls are being reinforced with hate and the wounds of history.
Once upon a time, though, breaking walls was in; iron curtains provoked righteous indignation and inspired spy novels. Indian school textbooks preached “unity in diversity”. Our cinema was held up by Amars, Akbars and Anthonys while it is now trapped in the long siege of Chittor. Now the forces that brought down the Berlin Wall seem remarkably naïve; the dream of a global village is much less credulous than the wildest WhatsApp forward. But walls age, a brick gets loose. From trade to science, human civilisation advances only when it follows through on curiosity, when it wants to know what’s on the other side. The wall, which faces both ways, knows there is not much of a difference.