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  • Ahimsa in the City of the Mind
  • Alok Bhalla (bio)

"You have killed a lot of people—that's about all. Anybody can do that for a while, and then be killed."

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

There are those, I think, who view languages as being arranged in a hierarchical structure—at the top of the hierarchy are languages assumed to be original, holy, classical, sophisticated, and learned; and at the bottom are languages assumed to be mistakes (which even the gods can make at times), low, vernacular tongues which are late arrivals in the human habitat, distortions in "gender mirrors,"1 and irritating murmurs at the borders of culture. There is a close relationship between those who hold this hierarchic view and those who see languages in terms of myths of holiness and purity, upon which their politics of ethnic and national identities are based.

The danger in the case of the latter is that thinking about language and identity within grids of power is ethically graceless, for it turns others into hostile strangers. Moreover, such thinking transforms our politics into a delirium in which the stranger is always a monster.2 It's this notion of language creating an exceptional identity—one that bestows upon ethnic and religious mythmakers the right to debase everyone who is different—that makes such a point of view similar to assumptions of hierarchical languages of privilege, available only to the few and likewise creating exceptional identities: both bestow the right upon certain groups to inflict humiliations on others, based on proscribed languages. And for those who embrace either view, the fury of their humiliations and debasements, as we know, can never be sated.3

Those groups who see languages in either of these ways fail to acknowledge that the ability to cultivate a language and to craft a life—any language and any life—gives to each of us equally enormous rights and responsibilities, and thus demands from each of us courtesy and respect.4 Needless to say, groups who embrace either of these views of languages would also dismiss with a contemptuous shrug and an impatient snarl any suggestion that the strangeness of human words and of human footfalls upon the earth are always and already mingled with the infinite variety of the languages of animals, birds, trees, and other sentient beings, who share the earthly habitat [End Page 115] with them. In short, they would regard such ideas as romantic nonsense confined to the powerless realms of poets, dream-sodden shamans, and madmen.5

And so, unfortunately, groups who hold each point of view continue to mark out their spaces with such fanatical singularity that one begins to hear, beneath the word "territory," fearful echoes of words that have come so frequently to define our experience in the world at present—"terror," "tear apart," "terrier," "tears"—establishing, thereby, our kinship more with the ferocity of animals than with our ideals of reason; making us not artificers and seers of grandiose things imaged by the muses,6 but hard-bristled, sharp-fanged, knife-clawed creatures with merciless fires in our eyes.

I want to narrate two fragmentary stories as examples of annihilatory thinking about languages and identities from two modern partitions—of India and of the Balkans—whose horrors erase the line separating self-regard and cynicism, fanatically held ethical convictions and cruelty. The first, by the Urdu writer Manto, is from a collage of laments, entitled "Dekh Kabira Roya" (Kabir Saw and Wept). In the story, the great saint-poet Kabir watches with sorrow the ruins of language, religion, and society left behind by the Partition of India in 1947. As Kabir wanders through Lahore, he weeps over the vandalism of language and the corruption of the religious identities.7 In the visionary poems of the historical Kabir, Sanskrit and the vernacular sing together; the words of city streets and village fields, the rhythms of ordinary speech and wandering bards, weave songs that are ecstatic dialogues with other men and God. In Manto's fictional text, however, the people Kabir meets in Lahore after the genocidal days of the Partition obscure the distinction between words and daggers...


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pp. 115-124
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