pushing the envelope…

… on betrayal

row, row, row my boat – boatman on the ferry across the Ravi at the Siphon

we should be able to ask ourselves some questions on this.

we might not like the answers, and that’s all the more reason to ask them, all the more reason to recognise the legitimacy of these questions.

at what point exactly does “simple living” turn into “basic necessities”? and then into “basic comforts”? eventually evolving into “champagne socialism”? how may one arrest the slide? are there markers along the way? is it inevitable? how come I close my eyes to them? why do I not resist harder? who pays the price of the smaller-than-feasible contributions I make?

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in Lahore, I came to know this guy. soft-spoken, mild-mannered, a true gentleman, clearly devoted to his wife and child. works now as a journalist in an Urdu magazine with a markedly  schizophrenic persona – left-to-liberal politics packaged with glam and gloss that undermine a lot of the substance of the politics. he earns just enough to be able to support his small family and give his daughter a decent education. due to his politics, he long ago disinherited himself from the modest family fortune. for around a decade, he gave his life, everything he had to the cause, i.e., to a small, but ambitious and energetic group of Marxist activists. Everything? Yes, all his skills: reading, writing, educating, reporting, editing, fact-checking, slogan writing, graphic design, word- and image-processing. All his time and his energy. Mind and body, the whole package. Half-starving himself when, because there was not enough money coming in from sympathisers and subscribers and urgent action needed to be taken to support some campaign or the other, he would contribute whatever he could from the meagre pocket-money he earned from editing the group’s journal. He hardly cultivated a social life, at least, not outside the circle of comrades whom he loved and for whom he gave everything. Note that he was not simply “willing to give everything”, but that he was literally giving everything. Every day, for almost a decade. Sleeping in shared lodgings with other workers. At one point, it was in a semi-open hut with the street’s open drain running down the middle of it. A clear, analytical mind like his combined with his stamina for work at a time when the media was booming – he would have easily made a career for himself. Respecting, of course, the usual caveats. If he chose to work in the Urdu-language press, he would have had to muzzle or disguise his message and fight off a much more competitive field. If he chose to switch to English, hence “voluntarily” rendering himself irrelevant, he would have made a name for himself even quicker. Would by now be one of any number of the respectable, reputed experts who write op-eds and what-not in the disproportionately large number of English-language newspapers and magazines (given the extremely small minority that has the education, money and time to buy and read them). He might even have moved to Islamabad. Or at least out of the noisy, super-polluted heart of Lahore to a pleasant, green gated colony where “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. But he didn’t. Without self-pity or regrets. What eventually broke him was when the comrades who had started, first cautiously and then avariciously, moving down the slide, decided that the radically egalitarian culture and “structure” of the group had to go, no longer suited their purposes, hence was declared in need of an infusion of “new ideas”, of “re-organisation”, of “tech savvy”, of “open-ness”. As if an actively engaged Marxist group could ever survive in a bubble! After some years of struggle against this trend, of many mistakes stemming from naïveté and an under-estimation of the rot that was consuming his erstwhile comrades (an under-estimation that I suspect was partly deliberate), he called it quits, left.

For several years, shocked at the enormity of the betrayal, he stayed away from the leftist scene, trying to salvage what he could of his personal life, trying to survive in the cold, hard marketplace he now had to contend with on his own terms. He survived, found a niche, minimising compromises by living frugally. Will his daughter own this frugality as honourable, as noble? Will she at least forgive him his ideals?

I should clarify that his is hardly an isolated case. They’re scattered all over the country, these “naïve and sentimental lovers” of high ideals, content with their daal-roti (aalu anday would represent a luxury to them), but utterly disabused of their illusions regarding those of their former heroes and leaders who, at some point, did give in, pulled the cord, bailed out and now presume to pontificate down at us in their propah Oxonian accents.

this is not exactly what I had set out to write about when I started the draft a week ago. I was hoping to articulate honest questions about what it means to be a low-wage worker in a post-industrial, welfare society, vs. part of the elite (or hanging on to its coat-tails) in feudo-capitalist Lahore? what, after all, am I willing to sacrifice? I, who rant and rave in private and a little less often in public, against comrades who celebrate their marriages in two ceremonies – one with the highest echelons of the elite and one with the “workers” of their party/grouplet. Or those who don’t even bother with informing the “workers”? Which is the better approach? What is the criteria for that judgement? Level of honesty or level of condescension? But not just that. That’s just a point of starker comparison, enabled by everyday inabilities, hesitations, the continuing elements of the colonised mentality that essentially amount to the betrayal of the praxis of all those un-named activists of successful movements and revolutions – and semi-successful and failed ones too, come to think of it. another question that occurs: how constrained are these comrades vis à vis their families and how do they match up against their models, Faiz’s generation? or should I not even go there since I have so many doubts about the revolutionary praxis of that generation of leaders?

but then, who am I to call out people on weddings and such-like? I, with my “much-needed breaks” and “need to travel” – never lower than second class, mind you. I with my pretentious collection of books, my relatively expensive flat? My regular exceptions to the rule – I mean, what can a few authentic pizzas/coffee shots/pastries/moroccan mint teas/cupcakes/espanadas/trademarked salsa burgers/chocolates do to hurt the cause? I mean really, get real!!!

When in fact, I’m escaping from the larger reality that my resources are quite clearly limited. you see, the gentleman’s example bothers me, though he himself, much too discreet and circumspect, never called out this disjunction between my supposed ideals and my lifestyle.

am I asking the wrong questions? have you got better, healthier ones? I hope you realise that I am not merely being self-indulgent. There is quite a bit of that, but it doesn’t explain why I would spend the last four hours writing this.

I have a feeling that this will be a recurring theme here.

I almost feel like I should apologise to the suffering reader who made it till this point :$

2 thoughts on “pushing the envelope…

  1. Comment from Qalandar Memon (https://twitter.com/Qalandar_):

    the problem isn’t the lifestyle
    it’s fine for a bourgeois person to work in solidarity with working class people
    the problem is the duping of the working class with notions of, ‘we are with your comrade’, we will stand with you comrade’, etc
    the comrade is then duped into not working for his material benefit and sells his or her labour power to the party at a cheap rate
    the others use the left as a means of making money, including from the working class comrades’ labour power
    so the question isn’t about wealth
    it’s about intention
    and duping people
    if someone accepts they can only work in solidarity don’t fool other comrades
    it’s fine
    they say, i am bourgeois but i want to work with you to change the system
    and this is what i can do
    and this is what i can’t do
    chose what you can do and what you can’t do.

  2. Caution: The pointlessness of the following text will make you suffer.

    Troubling questions.
    Regarding that comrade: Should one’s struggle be a factor (whatever be the extent) of his comrades’ sincerity and commitment for the cause? If yes, this is dangerous, and in extreme is almost like digging a dungeon for oneself. (Thou shalt always pay – PAY!!!! – for your dreams and ideals??). Rest I am over-simplifying things here.

    A peripheral (tangential??) thought: Many a times when we think we are fighting for a more just society, we are doing exactly the opposite – contributing to the perpetuating of injustice by our actions. (I do grocery at METRO religiously even when I am slightly aware of the pitfalls of creating a market that is dominated by one buyer or one seller (Imperfect markets, ECON 101). For vegetables/fruits too, I started visiting a hi-fi shop that offers good stuff at competitive price. Had to visit itwar bazaar this Sunday though and there I saw her, a lady in her 40s or 50s, in shabby clothes, probably a maid/masi at some villa, trying to buy half kg onion. When I asked the sabzi walla about the price of onion, it was 48 Rs per kg. I ordered 5 kg, and he ignored her order, started serving me instead of her and I was embarrassed. Asked him to serve her first and reluctantly (what profit does one yield from half kg?), he started weighing half kg onion. When he handed her the onions, she said take back an onion or two, I want onion for 20 Rs only (and not 24 Rs!). He was aghast, asked her to go to some other shop, and I was more ashamed. Here I am who sometimes buys branded clothes & cool toys for my kids (the frequency is little I believe), and there is this lady, who can’t afford half kg onion. And then I fantasize about branded clothes for myself too (have bought an apparel or two recently). Its fabric is so amazing, the design superb.
    So here I am, a (non- aspiring/pretending to be non-aspiring) Gucci/Hangten/Breakout/Levis non-socialist(?), eyeing sartorial perfection, when a lady (hundreds if not thousands like her living within 4-5 km radius of my flat), who can’t afford to buy half kg onion. Its one thing reading about such comparisons (poverty is always ‘growing’, or ‘sky-rocketing’, its accounts often boring), and another to come into direct, unexpected, sudden, crude contact with it.
    And then there are some (in left, center and right), who in their own ways are struggling – in the most meaningful sense of the word -for their ideals, (struggling, as opposed to tweeting/facebooking about the revolution!). This involves sacrifices – both, opportunity cost walay, others – for a cause is only as sacred as the extent of the sacrifices made for it. The ones who seldom get their sacrifices mentioned in the text books, for the space provided to the historians and the text book writers is often little, and even when they do get mentioned, we never really want our kids to follow such individuals. The sacrifices look nice in the text book; in reality, a branded piece of apparel/shoe/gadget is often more shinning and mesmerizing than an ideology. And there are those who never get a mentioning anywhere (except at blogs like this, with sparse readership). The nameless wretched who struggle for the other nameless wretched. Rest may be, just may be, a branded piece of apparel/shoe/gadget (or for that matter, “authentic pizzas/coffee shots/pastries/moroccan mint teas/cupcakes/espanadas/trademarked salsa burgers/chocolates”) is not at fault and comparing it with an ideology/considering it to be ‘always’ a hurdle is erroneous? (why can’t revolution be fun/have some bits of culinary delights? :D). Things are non-linear, complex (have seen people who cruise in expensive, cool cars and yet are super decent, super helpful; ones who always wear branded clothes and yet ever ready to offer full support if you have a flat tyre and you want them to change it? Who live a luxurious life, apparently at the cost of the thousands of others below the poverty line, but willing to visit the blood bank of a dirty public hospital to donate blood to a complete stranger)

    Buk raha hoon junoon may kya kya kuch! (didn’t you read the caution?)

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