October 2011

Nandini Ramachandran

Mystic Myna

An Absurd Victim

I sip my tea, and criticise
   The war, from flying rumours caught;
Trace on the map, to curious eyes,
   How here they marched, and there they fought.

In intervals of household chat,
   I lay down strategic laws;
Why this manoeuvre, and why that;
   Shape the event, or show the cause.

“The due of the dead,” William Thackeray

The final week of October was Diwali in India. The festival arrived early in 2011, a portentous matter by any calendar. Whether it is auspicious or ominous depends on which of my grandparents you ask. One told me an early Diwali marked a fresh cycle of years and new endeavours, another that it meant the gods were going to be hasty all year. Either way, they agreed, it was a good year to be devout. The third granted the premises but not the conclusion: it was a bad time to pray, the gods would be nervous. Better to mollify and then forget. Whatever your perspective on worship, there are many reasons to celebrate Diwali. It’s the end of harvest and the birth of a new year. The Ramayana has it as the anniversary of Ram’s return from Lanka. Another story, from the Mahabharata, is reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings. Like the leader of the Nazgûl, the demon Naraka’s impervious to the “hand of man”; he falls, instead, to the princess Satyabhama in disguise.

Diwali is also the birthday of the goddess Lakshmi, who is coaxed into homes across the subcontinent during the festival. The daughter of demons, Lakshmi is a welcome visitor, for she distributes wealth wherever she goes. It is for this tradition -- lighting lamps to invite her across the threshold -- that Diwali is called the festival of lights. As I invited prosperity into my home, I couldn’t help but wonder: what good does Lakshmi do to those who need her most? Diwali brings in the harvest, yet is anyone thinking about those thousands of Indian farmers that quietly commit suicide each year? How are they different from the "terrorists" that convert their suicide into spectacle? Does this question relate to another that haunted me all week: is there a difference between those who die to kill, and those who kill to die? If some people may only be sacrificed and never terminated, can others be merely terminated and never sacrificed?

It was to answer these questions that I read Talal Asad, whose essay On Suicide Bombing was written in response to my turmoil. He carefully explains why there is nothing “Islamic” or even religious about what the world calls “jihad.” It’s a purely modern crime, he insists, insofar as it is one. Martyrdom, he explains, is multivalent. In its strictest sense, that of a person sanctifying himself, it has no cognates in Arabic. Self-sacrifice ennobles Christians and rescues their flailing souls, while Islam rejects such mediation between humanity and Allah. In Hinduism, by way of contrast, sacrifices are an expediency, a way to converse with the gods. This can imply anything from personal austerity to elaborate ritual. Sanskrit employs a different word for each sort of communiqué. English, meanwhile, collapses tapas and yagna and puja all into one flexible word.

Semantics aside, all communities have a vocabulary for sacrifice. In Hindi, as in Arabic, shahid is general usage for someone who has died in unjust circumstances. All my life, I’ve called them “martyrs,” never once assuming that the person is some manner of Christ-figure. I’ve translated qurban or balidaan as “sacrifice” equally often with no intention of invoking the sacred. Some impulses are simply built into language. If I were to call a soldier shahid, as plenty of songs and movies do, will the attendant instability suggest that he was motivated by Shiva to wreak destruction upon the earth?  

The only plane of Indian experience that the "worthy" sacrifice applies to is political: the glory and triumph of death in service of your country. This is a truism of nationalist ideology, all states motivate war. Participating in politics, Asad suggests, imparts secular immortality. One must range farther, into murky metaphysics, to investigate the question behind this essay: who is a suicide bomber, this walking wound alienated by both nation and religion? Why is (s)he defined only in opposition: as fighting against something and not for it? Were all these dead people nihilists? Neither politics nor theology provides a clear frame for their dilemma, while psychology is impossible. Hunting for motive behind suicide bombings is futile without the culprit’s testimony. How can anyone analyse a ghost? Besides, to argue motives is to shift the conversation from meaning to morals, the most intimate of social constructs. Critics of “jihad” blame “Islamic law” for legitimating the murder of innocents. The argument, by their own terms, is founded on the definition of crime. If two legal systems clash, which prevails? The debate turns on a collision between lived experiences, the basis of all morality -- how will it be resolved with moral or legal reasoning?

In search of metaphysics, I ventured into Camus, an unlikely advocate for “Islamic terror” at first glance. Camus, after all, was Algerian like Kipling was Indian. Despite his early anarchism, his reportage of the French Resistance, his disdain for righteousness, Camus proved to be on the wrong side of history. Predictably, the ongoing Algerian revolt is never mentioned within the history of The Rebel. Better, perhaps, to revert to Sartre, who championed Frantz Fanon in the metropolis. “With us there is nothing more consistent than a racist humanism,” Sartre wrote in the preface to The Wretched of the Earth, “since the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters.” Later, he sketches the postcolonial jihadi: “we have sown the wind, he is the whirlwind.” For all this eloquence, it is Camus’s fastidious assassin rather than Sartre’s bewildered native that finds prominent place in Talal Asad’s essay.


Suicide, for Camus, is an expression of despair in the face of absurdity, while revolt is the one coherent philosophy available to those who realise that life is, in fact, utterly absurd. One negates absurdity, the other affirms it. Fusing them together is a perilous business ripe with possibility, because such action constructs boundaries out of calamity. The Rebel uses the Russian Decembrists to clarify:

For them, as for all rebels before them, murder is identified with suicide. A life is paid for another life, and from these two sacrifices springs the promise of a value… (later) In assigning oppression a limit, within which begins the dignity common to all men, rebellion defined a primary value. It put in the first rank of its frame of reference an obvious complicity among men, a common texture, the solidarity of chains... On the level of history, murder is a "desperate exception" or it is nothing. The disturbance it brings to the order of things offers no hope of a future... It is that limit that can be realised but once, after which one must die. The rebel has only one way of reconciling himself with the act of murder if he allows himself to be led into performing it: to accept his own death and sacrifice.

The paradox of the jihadi launched this essay. Do they kill to die or die to kill? Talal Asad answers that suicide attacks are, above all, history. They remain, nonetheless, skewed history, recounted always by victims and never by victors. Success empties the suicidal rebel’s dilemma of all significance, it transforms a shahid into a jihadi. As with the Decembrists in their time, the jihadis in ours are exemplary, if not efficacious. They try to set limits upon atrocity by extinguishing life. The horror of the decision implies that they can never be praised for this desire, but dismissing their warning will only intensify it. If Camus is right, the impulse behind jihad isn’t to be located in politics, or religion, or even history. It is to be found in the climate of the absurd, in the habit of living in a senseless universe.

“I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument” begins The Myth of Sisyphus, setting itself up to elucidate circumstances within which people do precisely that. To live, Camus argues, is to elude mortality and obscurity. It is the art of forgetting everyone always dies and the world never intervenes. The absurd mind acknowledges death with a “weariness tinged by amazement” even as it explores the edges of reason. If anything can be argued, if truths can contradict, how can one reconcile with the status quo? Camus’s answer is simple. One can’t. Sanity demands perpetual revolt. Suicide repudiates this revolt; to die voluntarily is to recognise that the cosmos is crazy without resigning oneself to reality. Echoing The Rebel, Camus suggests that suicide “settles” absurdity by engulfing it in certain death. The absurd life resides in defiance and remorseless logic: “All systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimise or cancel it. A mind imbued with the absurd merely judges that those consequences must be judged calmly. It is ready to pay up. In other words, there may be responsible persons but there are no guilty ones, in its opinion.”

Suicide challenges absurdity by imposing a meaning upon life. Camus, who has little patience with weakness, prefers living in a manner that funnels absurdity rather than confining it. He wants us to derive value from futility and satisfaction from ephemerality. However, all his absurd heroes -- Don Juans, actors, conquerors, creators -- approach the problem from privilege. They depend on civilisational complacence, none of them would survive in a hardscrabble society struggling to persist. Like Sisyphus, who mocked the gods and was punished for it, their miseries are largely self-imposed. They choose, for better or worse, to scorn theology or rationality and embrace chaos. Camus evades the victims of absurdity. He ignores the refugees, the dispossessed, the hungry, the bereft communities that are threatened daily with death. The premise of civilisation is immortality; people die, customs and institutions evolve. Snatched of this certainty, how is any society to respond to a cruel world? Like Camus’s absurd man, all any absurd society can do is deplete itself. It mutilates its young, using their bodies to inscribe a last, desperate message to a silent and unheeding world. And so the choice remains ours, not theirs. Will we listen? To borrow a phrase from Kipling, the odds are on the cheaper man.