The Price of Goodwill

One of the things that I read while writing the last post on “Miyah poetry” is this article by Dr. Hiren Gohain. Dr. Gohain is one of the stalwarts of the Assamese intelligentsia and while one has to pay attention to his views (he is far too important in that context), a few things that he mentioned deserves a more discussion in its own space. Furthermore, given the stature he holds in that arena, it is important to discuss this article in this context.

Let me paraphrase his article before getting any further. The most important points that he makes are:

  1. He has done a lot for Muslim villages and, hence, the trust that they bestow upon him is not a fluke.
  2. In Assam, things were becoming “normal” after a long phase of ethnic violence.
  3. The “sane and wise” Muslim leaders asked for dialogue and understanding at the time and supported the Assam Accord.
  4. The newer educated class is playing into the hands of Hindutva by writing a “powerful narrative” of Muslim victimhood and that these poets do not really want a reconciliation between the indigenous people of Assam and the descendants of immigrant Muslims”.
  5. They are writing for a different (read: Un-Assamese) audience and ignore an Assamese audience at their own peril.

There are many things that must be taken into account. However, a few lines and phrases need to be pointed out before I go any further. For instance, the phrase he uses while talking about what is at stake is a haunting line:

It is unfortunate that an episode like ‘Miyah poetry’ should be allowed to cloud this goodwill that came at such a huge price.

There is an assumption that Dr. Gohain begins the article with which is a historical timeline – one he uses to contrast with the “abstract rights” that these poets seem to be writing about. The timeline – to mention/remind briefly – is this : Assam Agitation which led to ethnic violence was quelled by the sanity and wisdom of Muslim leaders who did not answer violence with violence and that has slowly become led to a “normal” peaceful phase in the years that followed. I think there is another element in that history that has to be pointed out as well. In the post-Assam Agitation era, most of the ethnic minorities that carried out acts of violence were – in some way or another – pacified by state appeasement. Whether it was Advani coming to Bodoland and giving Hagrama Mohilary the keys to the kingdom or otherwise, the point to be made here is that what Dr. Gohain is calling the “normal” has come after quite a few leaders of those communities were given territorial governance powers.

The result of which – and one must point this out – has been a slow but subtle change in the demography of many cities in Assam. Bongaigaon – for instance – has seen a large influx of urban migrants because there is always a lot of development work that demands cheap labour in both Bongaigaon district and Chirang district. This very often brought in the cheap labour of Muslims from the char area (Dhubri and Goalpara) to both Bongaigaon and Chirang. Of course, as Dr. Gohain mentions, the post-1991 Liberalization of the economy also saw upward mobility of a lot of people and many of them were Muslim in Lower Assam. However, this has to be seen alongside the rise of “Territorial Councils” of Assam that the state negotiated and then the benefits of the economy opening up in India.

This also saw – and I saw this in Bongaigaon for a long time – a resentment towards the Muslim community. What Dr. Gohain calls “some resentment among a few of them [Muslims] against the insinuations, snide remarks and mistreatment at the hands of Assamese chauvinists at workplaces or elsewhere” is a gross understatement given the daily microaggressions against urban migrants in Lower Assam; an example would be this story of a score of Hindi-speaking people in Assam from 2012 and one only needs to take a cursory glance at the number of Bengali-speaking Muslims who have been also killed in similar fashion.

Therefore, what Dr. Gohain is calling a narrative of victimhood orchestrated by someone behind the scenes is – in effect – the result of the gradual “normalizing” of ethno-nationalism in Assam. The kind of which, one can only assume, has boiled over to the point that the disenfranchising of many from that community is not a problem at all.

Instead, what Dr. Gohain tells us, is that the “indigenous” Assamese, whose “national existence” survives on language, “believe, rightly too, that they have never had a real chance to put their house in order”. There is a dangerous conflation here that needs to be pointed out: the “indigenous” Assamese is a homogenization of a population whose language politics is simply too complex to be thought of as something that is contrary to Bengali. In fact, the lower one goes in Assam, the more the language bridges the gap between “Axomiya” and “Bengali”. On the other hand, I would really like to know who would put the house in order and how.

The last point in his article is a haunting one. In concluding his article, he writes of the “indigenous” Assamese, the sense of “goodwill” that Muslim and Assamese share and how “Miyah poetry” ignores Assamese at its own peril. In writing the difference between the two communities, Dr. Gohain himself is creating vague communities which are seemingly at odds. The “other” created in his own article portrays the Assamese Muslim as someone who must be tolerated, not accepted, as Assamese. On three occasions in this article, he very clearly uses the distinctions between Assamese (irrespective of how he defines the term) and the Assamese Muslims; as though the distinction itself does not hint at daily microaggression. The use of the word “goodwill” hints at the “peril” that he picks up later. Like, a host, he charges his Muslim guests of Bengali origin “goodwill” to accept the occasional snide remark and not dare use the language (s)he uses at home to create poetry. The peril – he says – is that of Hindutva. The fear, perhaps, is that Hindutva will do better what Assamese ethno-nationalism has not been able to do so well over the last decades. We live in troubled times indeed.

The Seduction of Narratives, or why I chose to delete my 19000 tweets

The strangeness of the entire thing is something I am still coming to terms with.

I deleted my Twitter. Almost.

With the recent #deletefacebook drive which has now conveniently become the #deletewhatsapp race, I started to dive deep into my own habits. Full disclosure here: I work for an internet company. Well. I used to work for them. A few days ago my boss told me that the product they were working on has gone into “maintenance” and that my services are no longer required. I am not terribly emotional as a person and I am very certain that I possibly took the entire thing better than anyone thought I would. I became aware of the entire depth of the shock: I am being let go. No. I am being fired. There was a strange moment of clarity in my head. This was the moment I saw what my job was, or what I was doing for my company as my job.

I loved doing my job for two reasons: I loved writing to people and tell them that I wanted to get them paid for their job without making them create extra content and I liked the idea that this product that we were a part of was genuinely one that I would use in order to support artists and creative film makers as well. What it also was – and this took some time for me to figure out – was looking to make “influencers” out of these creatives. This was a drive to get these influencers on-board. I have no problem with someone making a living as an influencer. I am certain many things, like streetwear and fashion, would not have Virgil Abloh or Blazendary without the role of influencers in today’s day and age. However, there is something incredibly strange about asking these people to connect their Twitter feeds, their Tumblrs, their Youtubes and Githubs for them to get paid. There is a narrative here which is then traced with these little links being put up and saying, “Here I am!” For me, this seduction of showing the perfect narrative with one line connecting my Facebook to my Twitter to my blog to my LinkedIn was a moment where I decided that I am consciously going to change the way I put up things online.

If writing things and posting it is so easy, there is a reason for it. People are drowning in information and they do not need another tweet telling about the next Kanye West tweet or the next Trump covfefe moment. The strength does not lie in my tweeting of it. You are making the medium the focus when your tweet about something gives the algorithm the knowledge that something worthwhile must be happening in that Kanye tweet or that Trump tweet.

The problem is that every time I did tweet, I was not only paying the website (not just Twitter) data and attention, but I was also building a narrative about myself. This seduction of the narrative comes from the very simple: “XYZ platform is more fun with friends; check your email to find who are already a part of it”. The moment we are all here, the moment we have all decided to write, joke, taunt, scold, scream and talk about something, we have already become a part of this. This is not just frightening because we should all be afraid of giving our data (we signed up for it the moment we use a website); what is more frightening is the absolute necessity for the profile to work was to put forward an incredibly realistic view of your life where your favorite things on one medium were also your favorite things in the other one. The frightening thing is that we are running between consuming data and presenting a mimetically representable “us” in all media or running the risk of being rather schizophrenic and scatterbrained about it by writing about HTML in one post and Paris Hilton in the other even though that is precisely what our life is like anyway.

So I, the person who was lurking around people’s Twitter profiles to use for work before getting fired, decided I am going to learn how to do things again. I will not be seduced by the joy of presenting a narrative to you or to anyone. This space – this blog that is read by nobody, perhaps – will be the place where I shall learn how to navigate the web anew.

I am learning how to code these days. I am also learning Python 3 and CSS. I might as well learn the elements of the environment I have been inhabiting anyway. In addition to that I am more and more certain that open source and paid content for consuming data on the internet is something we have to get used to. And no, open source and paying for the data you are going to consume are not two completely different things. That argument is for another day, obviously. I am going to have a dedicated page for my process of debugging my online world and use this space – this blog – as a roadmap. If you go to my Twitter right now, there are two tweets. One is a silly self-conscious one and the other one is because my good friend Michael Creighton the poet is fabulous. This is not about getting myself offline again. This is about being more sane online. I am going to be fully responsible about the way I consume the data that is then targeted at me through ads. I am going to be fully responsible about the data I am sending out to the world.

So here we are: Hello World!


Edit: I did add another tweet after writing this post. I suppose that does count as well. Make that three tweets.

Sound Candy 18.02.2017

The great and wonderfully talented Jóhann Jóhannsson died last week in Berlin. It was absolutely heartbreaking to imagine someone so talented and wonderful dead at 48. This reminded me of great episode that Hrishikesh Hirway did with Jóhannsson; the way he spoke of the OST of Arrival makes it one of my favorite episodes. As a tribute, I’d really recommend listening to this episode this week.

My favorite episode that was released this week was the finale of Radiotopia’s Secrets. All the episodes till now had this catharsis where you could understand the secret… you could get it, as it were. The story with El Abed ended with that sense of closure but with the story of Annie and David which really left me astounded. There are such drastic consequences of our secrets that sometimes they do have this sense of complete and ubiquitous emptiness.

The Rolling Stone people had a good discussion on Justin Timberlake this week that I would highly recommend. It was funny and informative at the same time.

The last recommendation on Sound Candy takes us to the soothing voice of Nate DiMeo. I don’t want to spoil the story that he tells me but since reading this article by Alex Carp, the sense that this is a larger historical moment humanized by this story is something that dawned upon me.