By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
The key point in Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘The Heart of Darkness’ is how European explorers, raised as good Christians in their homelands where they attend masses at churches every Sunday, end up like cruel savages in the African forest along the Congo River. ‘Exterminate the brutes!’, the explorers recommend after spending years among the natives.
The invention of the gun determined the tragic fate of Africans and other people. A sort of 19th century Solution Finale advocated by European settlers in African lands. Sheer fiction? A high profile Mauritian businessman hailing from the private sector, who was working for an American company, allegedly got involved in the genocide in Congo to defend American interests some years ago. But no one is supposed to talk about it.
Our compatriot, Jooneed Jeeroburkhan, who has settled in Canada, invites us to see Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Django Unchained which is set in the Deep South of the US in the 1850s. For sure, the unconventional portrayal of a black man as a hero fighting his way across the racist South to rescue his young wife, a beautiful young black woman from the grip of the slave-owner, is a sharp contrast with and almost a parody of conventional Hollywoodian western films featuring masochistic cowboys and sexy blonde women. The unbearable scenes of ill-treatment and cruelty meted out to runaway slaves are fortunately interspersed with light short dialogues with a pinch of humour and gorgeous scenes of plantation and forest landscapes.
In classical western films, villains are just shot dead. In Tarantino’s rendering of violence in gory scenes with blood spurting out from different parts of bodies and white villains writhing in pain is almost funny just as the anachronistic featuring of the Ku Klux Klan. movement which started after the Civil War, showing the cowardice of the masked attackers bickering about the bags over their heads and attacking a stagecoach which recalls Indian horsemen enacting similar scenes in conventional western films. The racist discourse delivered by the slave-owner (Leonardo di Caprio) on the inherent servility of Africans, with scientific explanation to illustrate his point, is reminiscent of the ‘Teacher’s’ supremacist theory in African-American writer, Toni Morrison’s novel ‘Beloved’.
No wonder Hollywood and Americans are uncomfortable with the history of the ‘peculiar institution’, one of the most cruel slave systems the world has ever known. Indeed, chained slaves walking barefoot on chilly cold nights across dark forests to be sold like animals, whipping scenes, faces marked by hot iron rods, fierce dogs tearing a young black slave into pieces, metal spikes around the necks of slaves and so on. Yet Tarantino spared us other types of torture which existed under the ‘Black Code’. Maybe the ‘madingo’ scene of two black men fighting to death for the pleasure of white men who watch on, cheering and betting while they sip their drinks, is fictitious, as critics claim in America. Never heard of it, anyway. Maybe it was a deliberate exaggeration to emphasize the extent of cruelty the slave masters were capable of. It recalls the sordid fascination for cruelty and sufferings in shows staging lesser mortals put to death for the pleasure of gods and emperors throughout early European civilization which F. Nietzsche relates in his theory of the domestication of the ‘blond brute’. Hence, the idea of redemption through physical and psychological sufferings finds a favourable echo in religious ideology and which needs no introduction…
Stephen, the good slave, who internalizes the white man’s racist supremacy and despises fellow ‘niggers’, is the caricature of the ‘peau noire masque blanc’ complex of certain Mauritians whom Filip Fanchette has denounced in a recent article. We can understand what he must have felt when his co-religionaries looked down on the black Virgin he brought from Gabon.
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The Indian experience
As regards the Indian film ‘Chakravyuh’ and the armed conflict which opposes Adivasis against Indian forces sent by the government to settle the ‘internal security threat’ issue raised by Jooneed Jeeroburkhan, the official version of external political and religious influences conspiring with tribals to undermine the authority of the Central government tends to overweigh other causes of an insurgency which has turned into a civil war. Public opinion in India and among Apravasis on this topic is quite confused. Neo-liberalism and the greed of capitalists, who dictate the economic policies of the government and give the green light to the exploitation of tribal lands and natural resources, are minimized in the official discourse.
Not seen the film yet. Well, it is unquestionable that Arundathi Roy drew world attention to the plight of the Adivasis, the corruption prevailing among state politicians, industrialists, police forces and the judiciary to further corporate interests, and gang rapes and the killings perpetrated by Indian forces. Often, untrained young men are recruited and left to fight against hostile forces in the vast dark forests, which A. Roy overlooks in her reports, just as well as the horrors committed by Naxalite leaders, e.g., harassment of Adivasis, extortion of money, blackmail, gang rapes and random killings out of revenge. The focus is too often on ‘Naxalite versus Government’ whereas civilians in rural India are also involved in protests against illegal mining. The death of a young swami who went on hunger strike and was allegedly poisoned is one other example.
The Supreme Court officially recognized the human rights of Adivasis, their status as original inhabitants of the lands they currently occupy and declared that the Republic cannot drop bombs on its own children in a statement issued more than two years ago. For the past years, the government has also resorted to diplomacy and negotiations to bring the tribals into mainstream Indian society, and swamis succeeded in convincing some of them to give up violence and return to the Hindu fold. Education and health care are also promoted in tribal regions. What ‘mainstream’ society implies is open to discussion: consume like other citizens and watch Indian films may be part of the package. In the course of time, the struggle of Naxalites has spread outside of tribal lands; supporters have been recruited among other poor as well.
However, despite all her merits, A. Roy is also a controversial Christian Indian writer who has never raised her voice to condemn terrorist attacks which took a heavy toll of Indian lives. She is criticized for playing the minority victim card. Neither did she give any support to the Anna Hazare movement. Her ‘secular’, leftist and anti-capitalist stances are frequently attacked by mostly right-wing supporters. This should not mean that we subscribe to all leftist views expressed by the Chomskys in the world.
Well, Jooneed, you are partly right in saying that Apravasis have an idealized vision of India. In India and among Apravasis, there has always been a tacit official discourse constructed mainly by upper-caste Brahmin élite on what India represents and how we should view its history and evolution, etc. The same élite is influential in every key sector of politics, economy, education, film industry, cultural and religious affairs. It would be unwise to generalize the idealized vision.
But there is nothing wrong with being emotional as regards one’s country of origin as long as a rational approach encompassing its progress and failures prevails. Examples of irrationality and prejudices abound. For example, Dalit status in the intricate caste and outcaste social system reflects Aryan encounter with so-called ‘darkness’ in the pre-Bharat era. It has determined the categorization of indigenous people in the system set up by the invaders. No more no less. Writer Mulk Raj Anand explicitly denounced that Aryans set up the caste system in the pride of their white skin for fear of mixing with local people and hoisted themselves at the top of the hierarchy, and relegated natives to menial employment. In the preface of Anand’s book ‘Untouchable‘, EM Forster underlined the Machiavellian twist of mind which makes Brahmins equate people who clean their dirt with dirt itself! It will no doubt take time to clean up all these prejudices.
V.S Naipaul wrote that Indians have a psychic sickness to darkness. Small wonder that Dalits are dark-skinned! A Dalit leader who met Martin Luther King in the US in the 1960s told him that Dalits suffer worse discrimination than African-Americans. Contemporary Dalit writer, professor and thinker Kanch Ilaya occasionally comes up with historical facts which mainstream Indian society prefers to deny. Change in mindset is slow possibly because educated Indian middle-class is deeply conservative. If anything, there is quite a variety of tragic encounters between people and different narratives of invaders and subdued people.
* Published in print edition on 15 February 2013