How do you make small talk with an image that society has fabricated for you? You can’t. Images don’t talk back
I did not recognise the dung beetle larva at first. It was not the inch-long grub I had seen in manure heaps or in fields where the muck is carried to. In my dream, the innocuous little creature was monstrous, although it started small, lurking underneath a purple-leaved sapling.
The larva manipulated the plant into releasing non-odorous fumes that sent anyone around it into a sweet trance. Controlled by the toxic fumes, people would gently yank the plant out, pulling with it the white bug hanging on to the roots.
No one in the dream was alarmed at the sight of the translucent larva. Instead, they fondled it in their palms and when it started burrowing into their flesh, they laughed, tickled. The non-odorous scent had converted them into willing, hypnotised hosts. Like the spores of cordyceps fungi that control a moth caterpillar and grow out of it, the parasite consumed its host and grew humongous, as big as the host. People did not mind, even when they were being zombified (and even infecting healthy people with their bites) and slowly mummified.
The dream was a result of my writing a story on yarsagumba and playing a simple, silly computer game called Plants vs Zombies. Last week though, during a visit to Saptari, the grub in the dream morphed into a symbol for social constructs that create the ‘us’ and the ‘other’.
Discourses on Madhesis and Pahadis (or on any other groups divided along the lines of gender, ethnicity, regions, nations or what-have-you) are meant to bring down the barriers that separate them, are meant to make it easier for one to understand the other. Unwittingly, these very discourses sometimes sharpen the lines they are meant to delete. By constantly clamouring that the groups are distinctly different from one another, with their own sets of values, the dialectics reduce individuals in a community to caricatures.
Secluded in your own little bubble, these dialogues create for you the image of the other and expect you to react to this image when you meet the other face-to-face. Deep down, you know these images are manufactured and yet they control your interactions. These images take away your freedom to be yourself and to look into the eyes of the other and wait for her, and only her, to come out. In Saptari, I saw the image guiding me, expecting me to play into its expectations and really just paralysing me. How do you make small talk with an image society fabricated for you? You can’t. Images don’t talk back.
We live in a shoddy, little world, full of assumptions and categories and ‘sure-fire’ shortcuts for understanding this society. You do not want to talk about gender, about caste, about ethnicity, about regionalism, about anything that seeks to highlight divisions. You want to erase the lines by refusing to even acknowledge their existence. But they whose voices are louder keep screaming that these divisions are real and the sooner you learn to see them the easier it will be to understand the world around you. And you, like most around you, eventually give up the fight, soak up the construct (like the larva in the dream) and forget that we are all just humans: you, the other and even them.
If there are no shortcuts in life, there surely is no shortcut to understanding it. You need to be wary of any conversations, especially those masquerading as intellectual, that profess to help you understand this society, but are really selling you tainted lenses to see the world through. You need to be alert about every abnormal beat, about every discomfort and awkwardness you feel when you encounter the other. Because if a beat is out of place, out on your throat choking you, it means you are wearing those deceptive glasses, are feeding that specious grub. Throw them out, take a deep breath and remember a person is a person is a person.
Published on 24 May 2014, The Kathmandu Post