Reading Morrison in Shivpuri

Will it be the moment when we as a nation stop brutality and turn from a country to a civilisation?

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 8th Oct 2019   12:05 am Updated: 8th Oct 2019   1:40 am

What does one say to the parents of Avinash and Roshni, killed for defecating in an open space? How does one mourn not just their deaths but the contexts that enabled men (supposedly advised by ‘god’ to kill these ‘demons’) to do this? Or perhaps the question should be: how does one speak to the dead and those they leave behind, dealing with not just loss, but a part of their world ripped out?

Naturally, there is the public outrage, there is the legal dimension, there is the identity politics playing out. There are the social commentators — some angry and others measured in their commentaries — who discern patterns of behaviour and community politics.


Solace in Poetry
In the face of intense mourning and unfathomable melancholia, would poetry suffice? We have explored this and tangential questions before, with Auden and Heaney, among others. So let us return to poetry. This time, Toni Morrison, Nobel laureate, iconic African-American writer. Her poem, ‘The Dead of September 11’, which is about the language in which we speak of, about, the dead.

Morrison begins with ‘Some have God’s words; others have songs of comfort for the bereaved’. Her own desire is to ‘speak directly to the dead’. But this is a thorny issue: can one speak of the dead minus anger, hatred, bias, paranoia and suspicion directed at real and suspected perpetrators, blame-games and such? Morrison says:

First I would freshen
my tongue, abandon sentences crafted to know evil — wanton
or studied; explosive or quietly sinister; whether born of
a sated appetite or hunger; of vengeance or the simplei
compulsion to stand up before falling down. I would purge
my language of hyperbole; of its eagerness to analyze
the levels of wickedness; ranking them; calculating their
higher or lower status among others of its kind.

Kneejerk Fury
There is forgiveness, and while there is anger, she cautions herself against the kneejerk fury that delivers the hate speech known to launch wars, vigilante justice or paranoia. But she does something else too. To not rank the perpetrator’s levels of wickedness is a refusal to upgrade them into a metaphysical plane of evil, or reduce it to the banal. Morrison retains, then, the very human act of outrage, of massacre and killing.

The wickedness was committed by humans against humans: let us not ascribe a degree of superior evil or trivialise it by calling it banal, Morrison appears to say. Avinash and Roshni would agree, if they could: their killers were not demons or aliens from outer space, nor were they minor cogs and insignificant functionaries not responsible for their actions. Their killers were human, like you and me, and they took young lives….

Morrison argues that one needs to respect the dead by refusing to speak the language of hate and retribution:

Speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for a mouth full of blood. Too holy an act for impure thoughts.

Mourning the Dead
Mourning cannot lapse or evolve into acts of vandalism and revenge (recall students burnt to death in a bus because the mob was deeply saddened by the conviction, for corruption, of their beloved Chief Minister?), or calls for war and revenge. Justice is not revenge, Morrison seems to say, because revenge defiles those in whose name it is extracted. So how to speak?

I must be steady and I must be clear,
knowing all the time that I have nothing to say — no words
stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture
older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you have become.

The reference is clearly to the steel that melted when the Towers fell, and crushed lives into itself. But Morrison is also referring to the ease with which one cites the scriptures to mourn the dead, or to explain away death, justify it, whether these are cited by terrorists and vigilante groups in the name of god or those who declare war on nations for a ‘holy cause’.

The atoms that make up the human are more ancient than any scripture, argues Morrison, thus suggesting that there is no doctrine more important or meaningful than life itself. Morrison does not specify the scriptural tradition, and at one stroke reduces them to a status lower than that of life itself. What price, she implies, a scripture that can be cited to maim and kill?

All there is to do, she says, is to ‘throw’ a thread between the humanity of the dead and herself, and to hold the dead in her arms.

I want to hold you in my arms and as your soul got shot of its box of flesh to understand, as you have done, the wit of eternity: its gift of unhinged release tearing through the darkness of its knell.

Aware of the fact that there are no dead to hold in the ruins of the Towers: there is little left. She would like to understand the prospect of eternity and the soul escaping, albeit in tortured conditions, to the backdrop of the ‘knell’. But it is, she admits, an ‘unhinged release’, which could mean several things.

Respecting the Dead
It is an unregulated, maniacal and feverish release. But, it could also mean that the escape or release through death is itself a hinge, an event on which several events turn (etymologically, ‘hinge’ signified the ‘axis of the earth’ and meant ‘hook’ or ‘handle’).

Morrison underscores that the events of 9/11 and the deaths – in which souls were released from their shells constitute a hinge, an event of gigantic proportions around which several other events may turn. We now know Morrison was prophetic: she published the poem two days after 9/11, and anticipated the gargantuan American response to the events.

Morrison refuses the language of blame or hate. She offers respect to the dead, does not dismiss or venerate them. They are nor martyrs, in her language, not sacrifice. The deaths of the children can easily be amplified into a revenge tragedy, of course. But that would not be respectful.

Yet what Morrison would want us to see is that events are often hinges, on which more calamitous and dangerous future events turn. The axis on which the earth tilts. Would we then, like in Morrison’s elegant elegy for the dead, see Shivpuri as a moment in history when we as a nation call a halt to this brand of brutality? Would it be a hinge on which, finally, we turn from being a country to a civilisation?

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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