From two World Wars and Partition to 9/11 and India’s Modi, the search for stories that help find our way out of the dark
December 30, 2016
Early on November 8, I cast my vote for Hillary Clinton at my son’s school. The school was closed for the day and my children were at home. Then the wait began.
That evening, the writer Chang-rae Lee was doing a reading on my campus. It was a pleasant night and as the two of us walked to the venue, Chang-rae expressed some disquiet. He feared that Trump might win. I tried to calm him down, telling him that it was unthinkable. We will raise a toast when Florida is called for Hillary tonight, I said.
There was no toast that night, only tears. But the morning after felt even worse.
Truth be told, I thought back to the French soldiers during World War I who bleated like sheep as they marched past the generals.
I had read about the soldiers in an essay by Geoff Dyer. The event described took place during the early months of 1917. The French regiments had borne the brunt of the destruction: thousands mowed down each day by German machine-guns; poor food and unremitting war without leave for three years. The French replacements marching to the front were baa-ing because they were being led like lambs to the slaughter.
But we weren’t there yet—although, hadn’t we acted like sheep in choosing Trump?
Below is my response to Trump’s election in clippings and photos from my notebook.
But first, as we have just mentioned war, here is our serial-harasser-proudly-bigoted-President-elect, front, in his military school cadet uniform during his younger days—when he got four student deferments from the Vietnam War before joining his father in his real estate business:
Over the years I have maintained a habit of pasting—in small notebooks stacked on my bookshelf—cuttings from newspapers. These cuttings offer small stories that emerge in the margins of large events. Here’s one from the Washington Post; it appeared two days after the September 11 attacks. The report quoted a “forensic suicide expert” who was attempting to explain why some people had chosen to leap out of the burning buildings.
In a class I was teaching on the day the election results told us that Trump had been thrust down our throats, I discussed this cutting. What was my point?
My students were very young when the September 11 attacks took place, but I was trying to tell them that, yes, 11/9 felt very much like 9/11.
As in the days after the September 11 attacks, there was only a sense of benumbed confusion and loss on the day after the election. Many of the students cried when they spoke in class. I was reminded of Joan Didion’s words: “We tell stories in order to live… we look for sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five.”
Did I think that many of the voters in white America had committed suicide and that we should understand and empathize with their reasons? I don’t think my thoughts extended that far. No, at that time, in that place of plain, incomprehensible grief, I was asking my students to search for the stories that would help them find their way out of the dark.
Here’s another cutting from even earlier, December 1999: a book review of a memoir written by a gay Holocaust survivor. I had forgotten about it and found it while looking for a different cutting, one about the inhabitants of a particular village in France who forgot the hangings and killings that occurred at the hands of the SS commandos. (The villagers now remember instead, with the sort of logic that dreams impose on us, the Germans stealing all the cherries from the town’s trees.) I didn’t find that cutting but discovered the one below, and it spoke to me.
This cutting made me wonder, with half of the voters rejecting our idea of America in favor of the one touted by a racist and misogynist demagogue, whether we were now going to grow up and what it would mean to do so.
On Instagram, on November 9, the writer Hanya Yanagihara posted a photograph from World War II. It showed people in tears but we didn’t immediately know the source of their suffering. I liked this element of uncertainty about the image.
The photograph has often been misattributed, but searching for the source of those tears isn’t the real point. As Yanagihara saw it, and I did too most poignantly on that day, the true power of that image was that it showed the faces of people who had “realized that their country was forever changed.”
As I looked again at the picture that Yanagihara had posted, I remember thinking of India, the country of my birth. Even as India gained independence from the British just a few years after the above picture was taken, it was partitioned in two. Twelve to fourteen million people were displaced, leading to the largest migration in recorded history. These refugees were those who had quite literally lost their country. I thought of the images we had from that terrible time. For instance, Margaret Bourke-White had taken pictures of the columns of migrants streaming across the new border or huddled in camps. I posted one of those pictures on Twitter and then on Instagram.
I was thinking of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was elected by a landslide in 2014. Earlier, under Modi’s rule as Chief Minister of Gujarat state, more than two thousand Muslims had been slaughtered in riots led by right-wing Hindu cadres. Muslim women had been raped, and children, even infants, killed. Did those who had opposed the violence and the killings—and these couldn’t have been Muslims alone—feel that they had lost their country when they heard the news of Modi’s election?
At 11:29 AM on November 9, the American Civil Liberties Union sent out the following tweet:
“Should President-elect Donald Trump attempt to implement his unconstitutional campaign promises, we’ll see him in court.”
A couple days later, the ACLU placed a fiery full-page ad in the New York Times addressed to Trump. It promised that if Trump didn’t “reverse course” he would have to contend with “the full firepower of the ACLU.” In the week following the election the organization received an unprecedented $7.2 million from 120,000 individual donations.
On November 16, at the National Book Foundation’s award ceremony, the poet Toi Derricotte provided a mantra for creative existence in this moment when she told the audience, “Joy is a sign of resistance.” Yes, and what I’ve especially appreciated is when there has also been joy in resistance. Here’s an example: I was happy to learn of all the people who have donated to Planned Parenthood on behalf of Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Planned Parenthood will be sending a lot of thank-you notes to Pence for all the donations made in his honor.
When I get news of actions like this one, it is as if I have caught the sight of a rose blooming in the prison yard. Yes, I’m being melodramatic, but only just. Because the truth is that it is a war out there.
Let me cite just one incident which you, dear reader, can then multiply a thousand-fold. A man in Columbus, Ohio approached a Muslim woman and her family while their car was stopped at a red light. According to the New York Times, the man banged on the car, shouted obscenities, took photographs of the children, and told the woman that she didn’t belong in this country. Against the propaganda that results in such acts of bigotry, what can we say or do?
In Pearl, Mississipi and other places in the country an activist group named For Freedoms has put up a billboard that radically reframes Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again. The photograph used on the billboard, for which the slogan reads like a caption, is a famous civil rights-era photo of armed state troopers stopping—before brutally assaulting—nonviolent protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965—a day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Can we return for a minute to Modi? His latest move in India has been the introduction of a “demonestisation” plan: stopping the circulation of large currency bills (Rupees 500 and 1000) in an effort to stop money laundering. This is a populist measure, hasty and ill-conceived, with the Prime Minister openly gloating about the chaos this had caused. The poor and the illiterate who have little access to banks and with certainly no access to credit cards are the ones who are most suffering from this surprise move of Modi’s. The sudden absence of cash has sent the rural economy into cardiac arrest. One of the most moving stories I read about the aftermath was filed from a village in Telegana by Rahul M.
The story is about a debt-ridden farmer, Varda Balayya, who wanted to sell his land to repay his debts. But with demonetization, the potential buyer backed off and Balayya felt his chances closing. His debts were accumulating, he had met with failure, money was needed for his daughter’s marriage and education.
One week after Modi’s demonetization scheme was put into effect, Balayya went to his farm and sprayed pesticide over the soya bean he had planted and then sacrificed a chicken in his field. He cooked the chicken that night—a rare, festive meal, unaffordable on ordinary days—and fed his family. You see his family in Rahul M’s picture above. Everyone who ate the meat died because, unknown to them, Balayya had mixed pesticide pellets in the food. Balayya’s father was the first to show the symptoms, and before long, Balayya, his wife, and their son were all sick. Balayya and his father died; Balayya’s wife and son are in the hospital. The two who didn’t suffer from the poisoned food were Balayya’s daughter and the aged grandmother. They are vegetarian.
When I was in school in India, one of the writers we read was Munshi Premchand. He was a great Hindi and Urdu writer, and his stories about debt-ridden farmers in a caste-based society made a deep impact on me. When I read Rahul M’s story, I felt that if Premchand were alive today, he would be writing stories about the likes of Balayya.
The stories that have been coming out of India in the wake of Modi’s demonetization have been endless—and heartbreaking. People have collapsed and died while waiting in the lines outside banks. I read recently of a daily-wage laborer named Razia who set herself on fire after she was unable to exchange her six notes of 500 rupees that were now useless in the market. She had gone from one bank to another in the old section of Delhi and still not been able to get money. Before dying, she told journalists that she felt helpless. She had been unable to feed her four children for days.
Nevertheless, there is good news for the dead woman’s children. The head of the Delhi unit of Modi’s party, the BJP, recently announced that each household in the city will get one laddu (a sweet) to thank them for showing patience while waiting in the queue outside banks.
One final cutting. This one is from about a decade ago, from the New York Times, a tribute to photographer Jerome Liebling, mentor to younger documentarians like Ken Burns. I include it here so that we know what we are to look for: “go figure out where the pain was, to show things that people wouldn’t see unless I was showing them.”
In the days after the election, various people have rightly stressed that we must be kind to each other. We must be loving. We must be caring. I agree, but I also know that one of the best ways to go about doing this is to go into places one ordinarily wouldn’t go and ask a simple question: “What’s your story?”
An earlier version of this piece was published on Scroll.in.