Consider this story:
A is a rich person married to B, who is another rich person. They have two children, C and D. There is also E, an underage help or a pet animal, who/which is generally ill-treated by the family but particularly likes B.
A is in a relationship with a colleague, F, who is a not-so-rich person and lives with G, yet another rich person. F and G are of the same gender and face immense pressure from F’s community which is more intolerant to same-sex relationship than G’s community. It is possible that A and F are also of the same gender or perhaps F started to explore the other gender under stress.
Anyway, B eventually comes to know of A’s affair, plots revenge and manages to rope in G who is incensed at the discovery of F’s infidelity. Together, B and G kill A and F in a way that nobody gets suspicious. Afterwards, they draw closer to each other but B does not really like G’s regional accent and G hates B’s unruly children.
As B and G fight their guilt and mutual dislike, E, the underage help or the pet animal, keeps an eye on G, gets a whiff of the crime, and manages to guide C and D, who now repent their treatment of E all these years, in joining the dots.
But G gets to know that the kids are about to expose the crime, panics, and kills both without B’s knowledge. But E, the underage help or the pet animal, escapes and manages to alert B. An enraged and devastated B kills G and commits suicide. Scarred and homeless, E sets out to explore life.
Enough testing your patience, but this is how even the most hackneyed stories may be told in the near future to avoid hurting religious or ethnic communities, income or gender groups, gay or child or animal rights activists and so on.
If our growing insistence on political correctness and the spurt in legal cases of defamation and libel is any indicator, many more will face what Kamal Haasan and Ashis Nandy are experiencing today and what others suffered in the recent past. We are perhaps heading towards a society that may even ban all demographic studies since the results invariably show some sections doing worse than the rest.
Haroun and a sea of stories will possibly be Rushdie’s only book to evade censorship in that future and Hussain’s Saraswati will be renamed “Female form with musical instrument” to escape arson. Even Dhoni may have to think hard before criticising the Nagpur (or Mumbai) pitch again lest his former-Bihari self draws the wrath of the Marathi manus.
Really, why do we feel so easily hurt? Can there be benchmarks for any collective identity since all groups — religious, ethnic, income or gender — have all shades of people? If an unfavourable generalisation happens, the aggrieved can, after discounting for intent, humour, flippancy or all of these, counter it with facts and logic or take legal action.
But if people move court at the very mention of a caste in a fun film song or the portrayal of terrorists as belonging to a certain community or an opinion on the culpability of the poor, they need to be penalised heavily for the frivolity, if not the criminal intent, of their action. While most of these cases are filed by nondescript groups that feign hurt and stage protests to gain quick publicity, some of the outrage is caused by a lack of appreciation and understanding of perspectives different from one’s own.
If losing our sense of humour was not bad enough, we have also lost the appetite for anything even remotely nuanced. Try saying something, anything, like it is.
Say that X has not done well in exams this year, he missed school for over a month due to typhoid and also had too many guests staying over for a marriage in the family before his exams, and he did not score too well last year either when he did not have all these handicaps. At this point you are likely to be interrupted with an impatient question: So what does that mean? Is X a bad or a good student? One must conclude in black and white.
Making a point has become so much less important than taking a side that deciphering every complex discourse is now reduced to a game of associating motive with the use of a few catch words and phrases irrespective of their context. The entrapments of easy face-offs such as Congress-BJP, Modi-Rahul, dalit-brahmin, rich-poor, traditional-modern, commie-corporate, secular-nationalist, growth-green, male-female etc have created an atmosphere that allows even the most thick-skinned to instantly cry victim in the foulest of language, resort to violence if possible and move court in a breath.
Manufactured or genuine, this hyper-sensitivity bordering on paranoia over protecting one’s identities has a ring of cruel irony in a country where everything from election to marriage hinges on religion, caste and class (money). We do not find any of it dishonourable because we associate “honour” with the most cowardly act of killing our own if they defy this repression of identities. When our children do not get a fair hearing from us, what chance does a film or a book or an opinion stand?
The way out of this regressive slide is through both disengagement and engagement. Every time an opportunist or unreasonable group makes public noise demanding something should be banned or someone be punished for hurting their sentiment, we can discourage them simply by not paying attention. But in our private life, among families, relations and friends, we need to engage at every sign of intolerance.
If a friend claims that it is as much part of good parenting to warn her child against marrying outside the community as it is to stop her from touching power sockets, or a family elder bars the household help from using the family bathroom or eating from regular plates, we must talk to them and keep talking till they stop hurting. Not often do we realise how painful the squeeze of so many small identities is.