Saturday, July 12, 2008

Kafka and Kotiadi

No, I didn't wake up with dozens of legs wriggling in the air or my head transfixed immovably to my abdomen. But I did awaken unexpectedly at 5:45 am, too sloth to get up. I lay groggily watching the rain condense on my window. I picked up 'Metamorphosis and Other Stories', a book I had purchased a few days prior, and flipped through it idly. I became acquainted with Gregor Samsa for the first time. (I was told that an electric guitar at my last school shared the same name)
As I helped myself to lukewarm Mac & Cheese and watched a sorry episode of 'Last Comic Standing' I knew that in the space of a few short hours and negligible kilometers, I would be transported to a completely different world. I was about to go to Kotiadi, the village my grandfather was born in.

Frankly, my trip to 'my village' was not an attempt to get back to my roots as I had been there before and had already come to realize that the attempt was futile. I am as much a stranger there as Gregor Samsa would be - in either Czech or dung-beetle form! It wasn't an attempt to take a break from city-life either as I had just spent the last two years on a hill in rural Maharashtra which was inhabited by wild dogs and poisonous snakes. No, what I was really curious about was the politics in the village.

My previous encounter with village politics was at the Mahindra United World College of India, when I took part in Community Service activities that allowed me to interact with several villages and schools in the region. It was clear from the beginning that fundamentalist Hindutva groups held great sway there as posters and banners of such parties could be found everywhere. Their name was even on the lips of the school children we taught English, as it was groups like the Shiv Sena that funded the schools and high schools of the area. After all, for a party that promotes the cult of Shivaji, the rural Hindu Maratha was the most reliable vote bank and it was only through such massive investment that their continued support could be assured. It had definitely paid dividends, as the sole mosque in the Mulshi-Paud area was relegated to a back alley while the temple was featured prominently. On top of this, none of the school children accepted the existence of Bangladesh as a separate countr.y ("Bangladesh ka rajaxan Delhi hai!" being a memorable taunt) Granted that they were pre-adolescents, but these are dangerous thoughts circulating in their young minds. I didn't feel particularly safe as a Muslim and a Bangladeshi. For practical purposes, I often didn't mention where I was from, shunning my Bangladeshiness into Gregor's room, and allowing them to assume I was Indian.

After all the talk of the rise of political militarism in the Bangladeshi countryside by both foreign and domestic press, I felt that a closer look was needed. As my grandfather was working to get re-elected as the Member of Parliament of the Kotiadi constituency, I saw a trip with him there as the perfect opportunity to examine this. I hoped that the situation did not parallel the one that exists in rural Maharashtra.

The only danger I felt in Kotiadi was when it seemed that a brawl would break out in the political gathering I was sitting in on. Politics there was fractured, even within parties themselves - a long cry from the Shiv domination that I had witnessed. (Even in the greater context of Indian politics, it seems that the Hindu-aligned BJP are gaining ascendancy all over the country - most recently in Karnataka) The meeting had been called to discuss the consolidation of the Awami League so that a strong front could be presented in the upcoming elections. Even though I didn't understand the nitty gritty details of Kotiadi issues, I could surmise from the raised voices, flying spittle and clenched fists that the differences wouldn't be resolved easily. The voices died down every now and then with the dispersal of liquor tea and salty biscuits by my grandfather's aides, only to be reignited by some barbed comment.

But, the deafening noise can get to the best of us and in a cramped room, fit to burst with angry, middle-aged men, such a situation becomes unbearable. I excused myself and retired to the adjoining room to spend the rest of my afternoon reading the book I had brought along.

It was then that I met our Gregor Samsa. He was thin, frail, unshaven and sitting on the edge of a chair in the kitchen. He looked at me blankly through the door that stood ajar. One of my grandfather's aides chose that moment to enter the room to retrieve some papers and caught me staring at Gregor. He smiled and said "That is your grandfather's nephew - your uncle! Have you met him before? Let me introduce you." He brought Gregor over by the hand and I smiled at him stupidly, extending my own. Gregor took it, leaned close to me and said "Can you give me two taka?" His teeth were as grey as his panjabi and the embarrassed aide quickly ushered him away. Before closing the door behind him, he stuck his head back into the room and said "Gregor has some problems, both mental and physical. Your Cha Cha has operated on him but he isn't completely cured yet." I nodded.

I saw him only twice more before leaving. Once when I happened to walk out on the balcony and noticed him squatting on the floor with his lungi pulled up around his thighs, cradling his head in both hands as if torn by some great grief. The las time, he was back in the kitchen, eating while the rest of us sat at the table in my grandfather's room. No one noticed me stare at him, as they were preoccupied by their food. The cook was like Grete, kind to him yet careful not to get to close - as if his illness would pass on to her. He was allowed to wash his hands and use the bathroom last.

After a day of political meetings and canvassing and dispensing medical advice, in all putting up an appearance of a strong MP candidate, my grandfather has to acknowledge his deficiencies in private. My uncle is well-cared for, no doubt, by most standards in this country. Yet, it was the alienation that affected me most - as if we had our very own dung-beetle Samsa locked away in a corner room away from public eye. What would people say if it became common knowledge that a history of mental illness runs through the extended Mannan family?


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