Day 64: The Idler

I have a feeling that the Rabbi read my last post and decided to test me. Because lo and behold if I did not yesterday receive in my inbox an email from the Rabbi himself informing me, in all caps, that this month is

THE MARCH AGAINST GENOCIDE

SIGN UP AND DO YOUR PART

THANKS FOR LITTERALLY [SIC] PRAYING WITH YOUR LEGS

Originally, I thought that this blog post would be entirely about the phrase, “LITTERALLY PRAYING WITH YOUR LEGS.” But then I realized that this mediocrely ridiculous phrase in no way merited a whole blog post. I mean, yes, I maintain that literally, like misspell or stickler, is one of those words that you must spell correctly in order for it not to function ironically, and yes, the idea of “literally praying with your legs” conjures up for me an imaginary and extremely advanced yoga pose that we’ll call upward-facing perambulating leg prayer; but that’s all I’ve got.

So, let’s move on. The slogan for the walk is “Fight genocide do not stand idly by.” This imperative, naturally, irks the post-structuralist in me with its binary logic. It’s not “participate in this walk or, if you prefer, fight genocide in some other, non-perambulatory fashion.” No, if you’re not walking, then you’re standing idly by.

The imperative “fight genocide do not stand idly by” also, just as importantly, irks the idler in me. I’m an idle bystander par excellence. Ask Marissa if you don’t believe me; wasn’t I an excellent idle bystander when you were running the marathon this year?

I’d argue that much of the reward of participating in some arduous activity like running a marathon depends upon the presence of idle bystanders. [1] We idle bystanders play an important, under-valued, and, yes, selfless role. We stand on the sidelines so that YOU can shine. Where would the virtue lie in doing anything if there weren’t idle bystanders? We are the ground against which you heroic types emerge as figures. The background presence of us lumpish lookers-on throws into sharp relief your noble deeds.

Convinced? Nah, me neither. But here’s another, better reason why “Fight genocide do not stand idly by” is not fair. What if I can’t walk because I don’t have legs? Then “do not stand idly by” becomes cruelly mocking, like saying to a blind person, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” or something like that.

The point is, why must ethical responsibility be yoked to physical labor? Personally, when I want to support a cause, I prefer to engage in an anonymous economic transaction. But I realize that I’m perhaps unusually misanthropic in this respect. The point of walks such as these is the public gesture, the community spirit, the coming together in solidarity.

I’m terrible at solidarity. I feel alienated in crowds.

Sigh. I’m so not a woman of the people.

This is one of many ways in which I would have been a grave disappointment to my father, had he lived to know me as an adult. My father was a passionate socialist. I have this vivid childhood memory in which he articulated his political aspirations for me. I don’t know how old I was but I’m guessing that this was around about the time when I decided that I could not possibly face another Woodcraft Folk meeting, so I would have been 9 or 10. My Dad was running my bath. It’s possible that I had just announced my intention to quit the Woodcraft Folk because I remember my Mum, who was also in the bathroom, saying something like, “Duck-rabbit’s just not very political.” My Dad bristled and exclaimed sharply (and this is the part that I remember perfectly because I somehow came to associate his words with the water gushing from the hot tap): “Nonsense! When she grows up she’s going to be a fiery socialist, just like me!”

I remember feeling proud that he had confidence that my dormant political consciousness would eventually arise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the Woodcraft Folk, and also indignant when my Mum replied, “I’m not so sure about that ….”

Now that I am 40 and must therefore, I suppose, begrudgingly concede to being “grown up,” I can see that there is no way that I can be said to have lived up to my Dad’s vision that I would be a “fiery socialist.” It’s not that I don’t have “socialist” in me; it’s that I don’t have “fiery.” I’m just constitutionally lukewarm. Which is not to say that my political instincts are tepid so much as hot and cold at once, just like the faucets in old English houses in which the hot and cold water refuses to blend in a nice warm stream but rather flows in two stubbornly distinct jets so that you freeze and scald yourself simultaneously when you wash your hands.

My father was a man of the people. There’s a story that appeared about him in The Statesman, the Kolkata newspaper, in 1993, the year after he died. It’s a piece in which the author, Asrumukul Sengupta, recalls what life was like in the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1949. My father, who would have been in his twenties, was one of Sengupta’s friends. They were living at the time in Narayanganj, a city outside of Dhaka. My father appears in Sengupta’s account as a romantic, heroic figure. “His English and Bengali were exquisite,” Sengupta writes, and goes on to recount how my father organized a cultural festival inaugurated by the poet Jasimuddin, and at which my father also spoke, delivering a speech that, according to Sengupta, “punctuated with recitations from Tagore and Nazrul, kept the audience spellbound.”

He goes on to describe an incident that occurred after my father and another friend had been having a heated discussion in a restaurant about Tito. Upon exiting the restaurant some people came up to them and said, as Sengupta tells it, “You will have to go the nearest police station. We have been listening to your discussion. We are sure that you are agents of the Government of India.” Here my knowledge of the political situation at the time gets a bit hazy, but I think that my father’s communist sympathies raised suspicions that he was affiliated with M.N. Roy’s Radical Democratic party, as in fact he was[2]

At this point in the narrative, Sengupta’s account becomes somewhat improbably dramatic. The accusers become a crowd and then the crowd becomes an agitated “mob” … but then my father spoke in “classic Urdu and then in immaculate Bengali, refuting their allegations. The mob calmed down.”

The article concludes with a quotation from my father, words that he apparently uttered some years later when he was taking Sengupta’s parents to the airport after riots broke out in 1950 and they needed to leave East Pakistan. These are the words:

“I am neither a Muslim nor a Pakistani. I belong to humanity.”

Let me pause here. I remember when my Mum first passed this article on to me; I was nineteen. It was only the year after my father had died and it was a fantastic coincidence that a copy of the article ever got into her hands in the first place; one of my Dad’s cousins happened to be visiting what was then still Calcutta and happened to pick up a copy of The Statesman and happened to see this article and recognized his cousin and then sent it to my Mum.

When I came to read the article for myself, shortly after my Mum had received it, its effect was disconcerting. It was the opposite of disillusionment, I suppose. All my life, my father had appeared to me as a mythic sort of character. All of his stories had a legendary quality. In the bedtime tales he told me as a child, the autobiographical blended with the fantastical. There were stories about his dog, Flash, and his pet mongoose, who performed all sorts of amazing feats. These stories rubbed shoulders with tales about Sita and Rama and, my favorite, Hanuman the Monkey God.

As I grew older and learned more about my father’s life, its aspect became more, not less, legendary. Even as a very young boy, he would recall, he spent all his free time reading Marx and Tagore, and arguing about politics in Kolkata coffee houses. As a young man, after leaving India in the late fifties, he went to London and then with the UNHCR to Vienna, where he underwent his training in psychoanalysis. He worked with refugees in Israel following the Six-Day War before returning to London in the late sixties.

My life felt distinctly un-legendary by comparison. I remember when I was doing my A-levels (this would have been a year or two before he died) befriending a Trotskyist who hung out by the school gates on Burghley Road. We would chat, and sometimes she would buy me a cup of milky builders’ tea at the Spaghetti House. I remember my Mum being a bit dubious about the thirty-year old Trotskyist who had befriended her sixteen-year old daughter … but I think my Dad was like, “Finally.” But that was the year I also started reading David Hume and I soon forgot all about the Trotskyist.

The unnerving thing about reading this article, the year after my Dad died, was that it confirmed my father’s own self-mythologizing account of himself. It was like finding an eyewitness report confirming that Baron Munchausen really did ride on a cannonball, just like he said he did.

I mean, who says things like, “I belong to humanity?” It’s funny, because I can just imagine my sixteen year-old self sat in the cab with my twenty-something year-old Dad and bursting out, in a tone of intense exasperation, “what does that even mean?” And then I would have tried to catch Mrs. Sengupta’s eye so we could exchange a “can you believe this guy?” expression.

He wasn’t a myth, though; he was a real person. I have the photographic evidence to prove it. And because I don’t have any clever way to wrap this up, I’ll just end with a picture that I only saw for the first time today when my Mum emailed it to me. It may be my favorite picture ever of my Dad. He looks happy, relaxed, and just a wee bit cocky.

Dad

Notes

[1] And, astonishing as it is to me, I have actually run a marathon, so I can affirm from experience that I was indeed, particularly around mile 24, extremely grateful for the presence of those idle bystanders.

[2] In an article published in The Pioneer, another English-language Indian newspaper, in 2010, the author, Hiranmay Karlekar, recalls how, as a boy in Kolkata, my father (who would have been about 20 at the time) would often collect him from school and take him to the Radical Democratic Party headquarters, where my father and the boy’s mother, Kalyani Karlekar, both worked.

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