“I don’t agree with the uproar against the Tanishq advertisement,” my mother said, much to my surprise. “I have the right to do what I want. If I want to celebrate a certain occasion, I can. It’s not Hindu to control who gets to celebrate which festival. Like when I make biryani, it doesn’t make me Muslim.” My mother loves making biryani. Her Durga puja plan this year is to make biryani and get drunk.
Yet, she is also the kind of person who will say, that we should have a Hindu nation because “Muslims have oppressed us in the past.” If “they” can have multiple Muslim nations, why shouldn’t “we” have a place where we come first? Mind you, she loves the British and has a bigger colonial hangover than the Big Ben in Kolkata.
Talking to my mother about politics is hard. She is a complex woman, and in an age where increasing political polarisation is making everything look black and white, she reminds me that some people are grey. She was the first woman in our huge family who fought to go to work. She fought to send my sister and me abroad for studies, the first in our family to do so. She took out a gold loan on her jewellery so that my sister could travel around Europe with her friends in college. However when we were little, she taught my sister to not accept food from Muslim kids because “they” eat beef. Thankfully, I escaped much of this conditioning as I was sent to boarding school where I slept and ate with kids from multiple religious and cultural backgrounds.
In December last year, working as a reporter in Delhi I’d be out until 2am, hovering around hospitals during the CAA and NRC protests. Then I’d come home emotionally and physically drained, and have to argue with my visiting mother about the twin policies. She’d say that NRC was important to root out illegal immigrants. Then what about CAA? “Hindus should be protected, this is our country,” would come the reply, along with the argument that the protesting students are not really students and deserved the violence meted out to them.
Black & white… & grey
Still, as I said, she is a complex person. She loved my Arab ex-girlfriend who grew up in a Muslim home and was even okay with the idea of us getting married abroad. When my ex visited me in India, our help asked my mother about her religion before agreeing to do her dishes, and was gently schooled by my mother.
I am aware enough to know that my mother’s grey will be a less privileged person’s black.
I am aware enough to know that my mother’s grey will be a less privileged person’s black. And it is privilege that protects me – I’d be betraying the guy who is afraid to disclose his name to an Uber driver, or the person who has to worry about her family landing up in a detention centre, if I don’t talk to my mother about politics. That’s the least those of us with privilege can do. I’d be a hypocrite if I were “woke” online and then avoided talking to my mom.
The Social Dilemma on Netflix explores how in the age of social media, fake news travels much faster than the truth because the truth is not as masaledar. You are now not only entitled to your own opinion, but to your own facts. The interviewees on the show – most of whom helped engineer social media sites and search engines – say that its short term impact could be civil war. I could easily see a civil war erupting in my home.
Lockdown has given me time to do the important things in life. Besides watching The Social Dilemma, I read The Annihilation of Caste for the first time. I also watch psychologist Dr Ramani’s YouTube videos. In her video about cultural narcissism, she talks about how nations with histories of trauma (like colonialism and Partition for example) tend to foster and value narcissism. It is seen as a positive quality in a dog-eat-dog world where some are able to rise the ranks against all odds by pushing others down.
Trauma runs in the veins of the women in my family. So it is not completely surprising that my mother supports political parties like people support sports teams, feeling empowered by their wins even when at the cost of others.
I have been talking to people about socio-politics for a long time. I was astounded when the boys in my high school didn’t become less sexist when I pointed out their sexism. They continued to do the same things with a “sorry, Suryatapa” for my benefit.
Patience wins the day
I learned how to talk to people in a way that creates space to question things, rather than just telling them what to think. But you are a fool if you expect me to practice such patience at home. My mother’s conversations with me devolved to us taking jabs at each other. I started believing that she is a right-wing stereotype and vice versa. But we are not stereotypes. So even the jabs stopped landing.
Patience, and lots of patience, is the only thing that can save us.
A few days ago, I tried a different approach. I tried talk to her as family – tried to bring her over to my viewpoint rather than a high-octane correction campaign. I told her about the new things I am learning in the lockdown. That there is no such thing as a Hindu identity, for example. She herself sees other Hindus in terms of their language, caste and class. She will argue against reservation. She will praise her union leader for protecting her from bullies with the disclaimer “but he is from Uttar Pradesh.”
A clear Hindu identity only becomes visible when pitted against other religious identities, especially during communal riots – a political ploy as old as time. The point is to keep the “enemy” around or keep widening the category of “enemy”, to mobilise the majority voter base. As I kept talking, she went quiet. I sensed something shift. After a while, I heard her faintly say to herself, “Yes, it’s true. The idea of a unified Hindu identity is a political ploy.”
I don’t know what worked, okay? Maybe it was the fact that I wanted to talk to my mom about ideas that excite me, like her child. Maybe that’s why she listened and something got through. Pretending that we are guests on those horrible “news” “debates” is not fun forever.
And that’s what I am going to tell my friends to do – talk to your family like family. Remember the things that you enjoy about them as people, and dance in those spaces. I’m not saying that now her politics are changed forever. But I have managed to tie a thread from my world to hers. That is all we can hope for. Patience, and lots of patience, is the only thing that can save us. Because, my glorious champions of equality, our numbers seem to be dwindling every day. We won’t win if we don’t talk to them.