“What belongs to whom? Who pays the cost of what is taken and cannot be returned?” – A conversation with writer Annie Zaidi

A nation needs its anthems, flags, soldiers, and statues. But, the function of the writer is something else. Writers are the ones who capture the conflict, the dissonance, and often the lies we are told over and over again. We’re living through a remarkable moment, especially for many of us in South Asia, particularly in India. As we at The Polis Project try to make sense of what is happening today, we decided that we would use the 45thanniversary of the Emergency to take a strong look at the past and the present. We reached out to historians and journalists who covered the Emergency to think about the past. But, when it came to the present, we really wanted to reach out to writers and poets on what they thought of the state of the republic. The conversation you will now hear is an exchange between myself and a writer, Annie Zaidi. It’s a conversation about small mercies and many tyrannies. But, it’s also a conversation about how we think, act, and react in an age where the very act of thinking could become an act of treason.

By Suchitra Vijayan
27 June 2020

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Suchitra Vijayan: Annie Zaidi, thanks for joining us.

Annie Zaidi: Thank you for asking me to be here.

Annie, as a writer who has written about the nature of violence in the past how do you think and write about this moment?

I think my instinct now is as a writer. I am also a journalist and sometimes I feel I’m writing in both my roles at the same time because the instinct of a journalist is different from the instinct of a writer. As a journalist, you just have to put things out, respond to every day, with immediate comments to be a part of the conversation of the day and the moment. As a writer, some part of you wants to step back and not respond to the moment, but also to respond to all the moments simultaneously to feel both the weight and the flow of History through each moment. So, when I do that as a writer and a poet, it becomes impossible to focus on this moment in isolation from other moments. With everything that has preceded, one does not think only of the Emergency, but also of Partition, and of being under colonial rule. One also thinks about small victories against great tyrannies, which is difficult, but one has to do that to make sense in a broader way. One cannot make a microscopic sense of moments.

You talked about these small victories and great tyrannies. Tell us about the small victories, if you feel these victories are happening – both as a writer and a citizen of a republic that is being radically transformed as we speak.

I think one of the small victories is the very fact that citizens continue to engage with the State with the hope and with the expectation and anticipation that they will be heard: this is the crux of democracy. Democracy is not just one man in different waters. It means many different things. The reason we’re having this conversation is because of the Emergency, when we think about it, wasn’t just that the elections were suspended. If the elections had continued, but everything else has been suspended, then we wouldn’t have had to use the big “E” word. The State could’ve just pretended there was no Emergency, suspending all other rights and freedoms. But still, it would’ve been an emergency in every sense of the word. One of the things that citizens do at this moment and every moment since the Emergency is to continue to expect democratic institutions, checks, and balances to function. They don’t always function as well as they should. It seems to us at least sometimes that they’re not functioning at all, but there is still a scant of hope. It’s a kind of crime at these times. It’s not that it’s bestowed upon us. We have to fight for it. Not me, not you, not our generation, not the generation perhaps that came immediately before us either. But, I think there are people at every stage, in every state, in every pocket of society who fought on behalf of everybody else. I wish there were more of us. I wish more of us were fighting actively to hold on to the hope that everybody needs. I wish that we will struggle to retain our freedoms and our privileges. But, I think there are also loyalists. There are people who fire at PILs [Private Interest Litigations]. There are people who file RTIs [Right to Information]. There are people who join movements. There are people who set up movements from the ground up. I looked at them and I think: “This is my hope, that there are people who are fighting on ideals on our behalf.” I wish that one could say that each citizen does its duty by casting a vote, but that doesn’t happen. For this moment, I looked upon these small things as small victories.

And the question of great tyranny is also the question of silence. In the past six monthsI have been reaching out to writers, or thinker whose work, I think, could illuminate this moment. When I ask them: “Will you write for us? Will you talk to us about it?” Increasingly, I hear these voices saying: “It’s not the right time. I think this is not the right moment.” And sometimes, I feel it could also be a perception of being so far away from home and not having a pulse of the ground as one might call it. Do you sense that the silences are becoming louder, the silences of those who can have the capacity to speak?

It’s been getting louder for a while now, to be honest. I think the first shock – I speak for myself here, I cannot claim to speak for anyone else – the first shock was in the wake of the return of the Awards around 2014-16. I think there were a lot of people who were speaking up and returning their awards in protest. Returning awards is not new, either is trying to speak to the State, trying to prevent the state from functioning this way, or simply nudging a person in protest to say that this is not okay. And what can I do? How can I express my disapproval? The general population is waking up, is looking around them, seeing, engaging with an idea of returning the Award as an act of protest. The assumption is, at the very least, that people will stop and think. What happened however just came as a smack in the face. The fact that so many people turned their backs on the writers and artists and blamed them for a bunch of things. Among them were: “Where were you when…? Where were you…? Where were you…?” There’s no end to that. I was born during the Emergency for instance. So, even if I had an Award, I could have not returned it then. I wasn’t around. I was six years old in 1984. I wasn’t around when Gandhi was assassinated for instance. So, what’s the point of saying when? This deflection, when we talk about a public conversation, cuts both ways. Writers and artists cannot have conversations with society if society is unwilling to listen to them and to talk back in a civil and reasonable fashion. Writing is an act of thinking and engaging deeply and trying to put ideas together and trying to point to problems in society if you see them. You write about them and you talk about them. But, if somebody blames you for wanting to do that, then the conversation has broken down. And if the State does it, then it takes a defensive stance. But, ordinary people, sometimes friends, sometimes acquaintances, just sometimes people who have ideological differences with you can completely dismiss your right to protest or they can tell you that you’re a gang or a disruptive gang with all the connotations that “gang” represents. That was a bit of a start-up: I was shaken by that because it signaled that something was breaking down in society. Then naturally, other writers and artists were intimidated by that. I would’ve been intimidated by that. I am intimidated by that. They tell me that what I have to say is invalid, but in fact, they recognize it is valid and they choose in spite of that to deflect and indulge in campaigns of maligning people, impugning moderations to them that does not exists. So I understand that feeling.

I myself on Facebook and elsewhere have publicly said that this is a fearful moment and I am fearful of speaking up. I used to maintain a diary between 2017 and the end of 2018 and I put it up on Facebook. I have written about this. I used it in my book as well. I was maintaining a diary of all the things that I would say in public and then, I wouldn’t say them. I will cancel them out or I would be deleting that often. I just stopped maintaining the diary and resolved that I will not be needing this diary. I will say what I want to say, but that hasn’t happened to be honest. Sometimes, I say it, but much more often I bite my tongue. It isn’t just the fear of legal repressions. There is that, but there is also the fear of just constant hounding, which we can all do without.

And this question I am constantly thinking about, I was reading Prelude to a Riot in preparation for this conversation. And one of the things that stood out for me was the engineering of everyday violence before the big violence happens. I was wondering if you could speak to us about writing Prelude to a Riot, it seems like a scathing indictment of the kind of society that we have continued to produce, recreate, and also maintain?

In Prelude to a Riot, a large part of the violence that was going to happen is rooted in jealousy. People are jealous of what somebody might have achieved no matter how small or simple it is.Yeah, when I wrote Prelude to a Riot I wasn’t thinking actually of writing a book about bigotry, or I wasn’t looking to indict anyone. I was looking to try to make sense of what I have seen and heard. I was traveling to a place, a very beautiful place. I was there for some research. I was talking to a lot of different people, workers, employers and I was taken to some hotels and had conversations with hotel staff, I was overhearing conversations unfolding around me, with people driving me and things like that. I was kind of blindsided by some of these conversations because this was not an area in any way known for having communal problems like bigotry. I was completely … I don’t think shocked is the right word. I don’t know what word I am looking for… I found myself walking into a small town. There was a mosque and there was a bakery there. I was looking at it and I saw an old man slightly hunched over and he was walking across the road. I felt fear gripped my heart, not for myself because I was going to leave that town, but for the old man because when I was looking at him – and I cannot know for sure what he’s thinking and feeling – but something in me felt that this man doesn’t know what’s coming. He has grown up in a place where he assumes a certain amount of amity. He assumes certain rights of expression of freedom of religion. He was coming out of the mosque obviously. He feels that he can, that nobody is stopping him. Nobody is saying anything to him. He doesn’t perhaps feel active fear at this moment in this time, but listening to conversations around him, which he is not privy to, I know he is at risk and this happens when organizations break down in society. People say cruel things. People say bigoted things. People glance towards violence without letting the other person know. It’s a one-sided conversation. When, for instance, people are planning to start a riot, the first thing they’d do is to stockpile weapons and they start collecting people. Obviously, there is a conversation going on among them, but it’s a conversation that is in pockets. You all live in the same town, you all live in the same village, why would one group of people suddenly decide they’re going to stockpile weapons? They do it because somewhere the conversation has broken down. Somewhere, they have stopped feeling like everybody is entitled to do the same things and have the same rights. And that conversation has been replaced with another conversation, in which you have more rights. And then, those people have rights, but they do not actually deserve them. So, that’s the reason such conflicts are created. And these conversations in the book unfolded privately, sometimes internally. That is why I call them monologues because I have made them internal while in fact, most of these conversations – the kind of things I was hearing – were external conversations. People were hearing who I was, they couldn’t be easily placed by just looking at me. I find that the trigger for these conversations, for their external conversations first becoming internal and then coming back again as an external conversation. The political leadership is very important. And there’s jealousy. In Prelude to a Riot, a large part of the violence that was going to happen is rooted in jealousy. People are jealous of what somebody might have achieved no matter how small or simple it is. They might be jealous of the very fact that somebody isn’t what they like them to be. You know, somebody’s difference. It worries you when people disagree or annoys you. These small annoyances, these small acts of envy and jealousy are given a political flavor by someone else and that happens when people start to organize. It starts at a level of obscenity or, like in the novel, I call it self-respect. But, self-respect assumes that nobody else really has the right to self-respect and you’re the only one who deserves self-respect. I have been noticing these things for a long time and I have been watching in some horror the rise of these local groups and the way they tie into the political conversation because political parties and politicians need local organizations. They can’t have huge outreach. They just don’t have the manpower or resources to do that. They need one person who is a local organizer who will amplify their views and promise them support and whom they will protect in turn. And then, they indulge in violence. And this is the pattern that is unfolding. Unfortunately, we have known that this pattern has been unfolding since independence and before. The British Government knew it. There were records talking about this particular violent group. And there are records during the Partition for instance in 1945, 1946, 1947. There were groups from both sides that were taking out armed rallies, not engaging in active violence, but taking out armed rallies, chanting, singing, holding sticks. It would’ve helped if the local political leadership at the time had initiated a conversation that neutralized the political venue. That did not happen. And since then, it has been more of the same, more and more fragmented groups, but most certainly, there are a lot of groups out there.

In a conversation I had with a friend many years ago, she spoke specifically about Apartheid in South Africa. At one point in time, she felt the language had died and broken down. As a South African, she didn’t have the language to speak to anyone else. She couldn’t speak to black South Africans. She couldn’t speak to white South Africans. She said the language has been broken down so much that it was impossible for her to deal with the language, to deal with the pain and the violence. And as a writer, as someone who has witnessed all of this, do you think this is possible of India of today that our capacity to talk to each other is gone? Somehow, this language has died. Is it right to make such comparisons?

That is very interesting. I think that it is true in many ways. The language itself seems to become a problem. It was under the impression that a lot of it has to do with online problems. The fact that conversations that I am listening to are online, and people are much more online and actually not having the face to face conversations as much as they used to. What you say about South Africa is interesting because, at that time, it wasn’t an internally related problem. So, possibly, the problem is something else. I think one of the things that are happening in India today is the absolute refusal to consider the other point of view. And that conversation really has broken down because I feel like I don’t have the language with which I can reach them anymore. But there are people who I don’t have strong differences with; even with them, I feel like we have gotten to this habit of reacting rather than investigating and examining and really listening. When we say deep listening, when we say we want to build solidarity, part of it means surrendering very small differences. These differences can be on questions on gender; it can be questions of minority rights, how many rights, what special rights, not to fight for certain things and fight for certain things to stay and watch and say: “Okay, we don’t agree today, maybe we will find a way to agree with each other in six months. Maybe, I disagree very shortly with you today. Maybe in 2 years, I would have changed my mind.” That has happened to me so often. I am a completely different person from what I was when I was 20. I’m not sure how other people felt about it too. I am sure you were a very different person 20 years ago. So, what I find now is more and more because we react immediately because we must tweet immediately, because someone calls us on our reaction within 5 minutes. If I say that from tomorrow Muslim personal law should not apply in this country. I will stop talking to you. I will unfriend you. If I say that, obviously, I’m pretty sure that a large part of my acquaintanceship, except maybe a handful of people who have an absolute agreement with me on this particular point, will feel like they can’t talk to me any longer, even if they actually were sitting on the fence or didn’t have strong views one way or another. The moment I say that, I said that I don’t really want to have anything to do with you any longer. I may not even mean it, but I’ve said it. When one has said it, people’s instinct kicks in and it becomes so difficult to backtrack. In the last few years particularly, people have completely lost the art of apology, especially in public life.

One of the first things that the late Jaitley said when he was still alive and when they won the elections, one of the first things he said was: “We will not resign. Nobody will resign.” The thing is that until then, there was a time-honored system in place where it was assumed if you do something wrong, you are in some way responsible or if you aren’t personally responsible, you acknowledged that something wrong had happened. Somebody has to take responsibility, so you stepped back. You offer not a resignation, but a public apology, if not a statement of regret, you acknowledge that something is wrong somewhere. People have stopped doing that completely in the political framework and in the personal framework. I saw a tweet where a journalist today had to apologize to something he did wrong. And I found the choice of words so interesting. He didn’t say it was something wrong. He didn’t say I handled this. He even didn’t say: “I regret that certain things were pulled out and it wasn’t correct.” He said: “This mistake had been made.” As if the mistake had nothing to do with him and he was having to say this and there was a risk of some punishment. He did not apologize. But, this separation of the self from one’s decisions, from one’s words and, perhaps, from one’s state of views is problematic because it says that one, you cannot change your mind; two, you cannot bring yourself into an agreement; three, nobody really can then trust you to actually feel any regret. And if you do not feel any regret for the wrongs that you do, then how do you talk to a person like that? I find it very difficult to talk to people who will not express regret for what they have done, for the harm they have done to other people.

But also, I feel everything has become performative. James Scott writes about the idea of a “theater State” where you spend so much time performing that there’s no substance to it. You perform, you build statues; and similarly, in our personal lives, we perform to an audience — internal substance perhaps is no longer important, which means that language breaks down, perhaps because we no longer acknowledge that language has any other purpose than to position ourselves as the brand or the entity. And that brings me to your recent book, “ Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation,” and one thing that really struck me about it is the two sentences that you write: “What belongs to whom?” And then, you say: “Who based the cost of what is taken and cannot be returned?” It’s an incredibly difficult question to ask and to answer. But you have to start with this what belongs to whom? By writing this book, do you feel you have the answers to what belongs to whom and who pays the cost of what is taken and cannot be returned?

So, as a society, we have to negotiate this all the time when it comes to land grab, resource grab, natural wealth, water. Water belongs to everyone. We operate on that assumption, but if you block up the water and if you dam it and if you channelize it and if you pipe it, then we are obviously leaving vast communities without any access to the water that would naturally help them. No, I don’t have the answers, and these are very, very large questions, but I think one answer I’ve come a little bit closer to for my own understanding of the world. The reason why I chose to write a memoir, a kind of commentary on this society, is that my understanding of the world is through understanding what’s going on with me. And through myself, I look at the world. And I’m also wary of commenting on systems and structures without simultaneously commenting on individuals and families and the smallest structures added to the bigger structures. When I say what belongs to whom – I grew up in a certain system with a certain number of assumptions. For instance, when you buy that property, that property is yours. But, if you think about it, who was the property taken from? Was it the person who sold it to you? They have snatched it and therefore, the person whom it was snatched has more right to it. And that person will assert that moral right into it to extent he or she is able, then when that happens, what am I going to do? Then, my moral position is dictated by one, my own need; two, by what force I will have to bring to block the person from whom it was taken. One can’t re-initiate that conversation in a larger, more public way. For instance, at an individual level, if I have stolen property, diamonds for instance – which I do not have, but if I had stolen diamonds – the person who stole those would be arrested or whatever. At some point, I may be asked to return that property because it was stolen. I may even be dictated in trading stolen goods because of the crime and, say, I did it unknowingly, I must now either bear the loss or I may come to a compromise with that person or may ask the State to compensate in some way or the person who stole, that person must surrender his or her wealth to me to compensate. So, as a society, we have to negotiate this all the time when it comes to land grab, resource grab, natural wealth, water. Water belongs to everyone. We operate on that assumption, but if you block up the water and if you dam it and if you channelize it and if you pipe it, then we are obviously leaving vast communities without any access to the water that would naturally help them. If we are not able to have that conversation, if you aren’t able to acknowledge that something was taken in the first place, then we would never be able to negotiate and re-negotiate the terms of rights and access. There are certain things that cannot be returned to people. Time, for instance, is one of them. For instance, when you arrest someone without any adequate proof and evidence – which the police often do – when you keep people in prison, knowing you don’t have adequate evidence, but you keep them for years, and years and years. You keep them in prison for a crime they may not actually deserve the amount of punishment they already got. Or their bodies when they come out with injuries, when they lose their organs and hands or their legs – you are extracting something from them which they never had in the first place. When you do that, that is something that is not returnable. Properties are returnable and re-negotiate, you take something from someone, you can return the land. Maybe you can even return things like mineral water in some other form. Time and health are not substitutable. These are not returnable in any fashion. Money cannot compensate because money will not give your youth back. The money will not give your lungs and your kidneys in the same fashion. So, those questions really trouble me because if something is not actually replaceable, if something is taken from you which you cannot give back – that is when society is in real trouble because slowly – if it happens too often if it happens on a scale that is unprecedented – other systems start to appear hollow to the people who are looking at the other end of it. To someone who has suffered that much, what does the system mean? What does it mean when that person is exonerated after 10 years or 15 years or after 20 years? What happens if your son was exonerated, if he was already dead? When I think about things like these, I think that I don’t have the answers, but I think the question needs to be asked and put into society because when you take things from people that you cannot return, then what should the implication of this fact be? How should the people respond to this knowledge that things can be taken from you against your will and often in an unjustified fashion and that they will not be returned? How does society retain its sanity in the face of this knowledge? And that is only the question I’m putting out there as I don’t have the answer.

Annie, as we come to the end of this conversation, I have one request for you. If there is one thing you would like to say, or put out as the larger question you want people to think about, is there such a question? I know singular questions are problematic, but is there one question you would want us to think about, to contemplate?

I think one question I would like to put out there is… the other day I was listening to this podcast about the difference between Gandhi and the philosophers, who preceded him in the western world particularly. What sets Gandhi apart? In some way, we retain some little fragment of what we call the Gandhian way in our public discourse. But, what sets him apart was that he as a politician and perhaps he would not like that word politician. He would perhaps say leader, but as a leader, he was willing to do what they asked him to do. He was willing to put his mind and body on the line. You may have disagreed with Gandhi. Many people did disagree with him. In many ways, I disagree with him too, but the one thing I deeply admired about him and the reason why I continued to think of him as a father of the nation is that he was willing to physically embody and take the physical hit of the movement in his body, not on the bodies of his children necessarily, not necessarily asking us to do exactly what he did. He did what he thought was right. And I think the question I would like to leave is why have we completely deserted this idea of leadership, of this ideal in our leadership? Why was it that we are no longer are able to expect this and to even look clearly and see clearly about the nature of leadership – our leaders are risking what? I think the idea of the Gandhian way and the idea of India as she envisioned herself at the time of her birth as a modern, independent nation, was that not just about the people who would come to the regular representative for the elections way. But, the idea is that we must look up to our leaders because our leaders do. They don’t say. They do and they are willing to risk their lives and we follow that. I think in our public conversation, and in our democratic systems, that have completely broken down, we really need to re-imagine leadership. Who are our true leaders? Just think about that. Think about Gandhi. Think about who your favorite leader is. I don’t care who that leader is. Maybe it’s Che Guevara. Maybe it’s someone else. But think about who you think is your kind of ideal leader and then think about what kind of leadership we are investing in our country today.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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