Lal on Gandhi

August 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Towards the end of his talk, in answer to someone’s question, Vinay Lal talked about the cultural capital that accumulates under Gandhi’s name – primarily as Mahatma Gandhi, and not as Mohandas Gandhi, the person who lived, breathed, wrote, wore the loincloth, slept in a room with his nieces, marched to Dandi. The person who was sanctified for having fought, and fought persistently, without violence. I’ve been very anti-Gandhi from the beginning. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, it’s just something that grew out my rebelling against this idea of him, as Lal put it, as a sanitized, saintly nutjob. Everyone seemed to want to claim a piece of Gandhi; and everyone who knew nothing about India or Indian people, whether in the country or in its vast diaspora, would blandly parrot out “Gandhi” is response to anything with the word “India” in it. The cultural capital that Gandhi has accrued over the years has now far outweighed his actual arguments and ideas.

So I attended Lal’s presentation on ‘Gandh’s Critique of Modernity’ at Universiti Malaya yesterday not feeling particularly enthusiastic about the Gandhi aspect, only the Lal aspect. But the true worth of an academic presentation lies only in its ability to change your mind, or at least prompt you to consider doing so. And by that, I don’t mean that you’ll have to undergo an epiphany and change your worldview, necessarily (though feel free to indulge in life-changing epiphanies as often as you want), but that you’ll feel compelled to examine one aspect of your perspective on the subject, and be moved to place that tiny aspect of your perspective under the critical lens and go, “By golly, I never thought to think about it in that way.”

Having never read Hind Swaraj, I can’t comment on the text. This should be rectified soon. However, with Lal’s help, I was able to view Gandhi’s contribution to history beyond the “wear-a-loin-cloth-and-practise-weird-sexual-habits” perspective that sort of buzzes in my ear loudly, drowning out everything else, thanks largely in part to the ever-present Gandhi Industry of His Saintliness and Oddness and His Utter Futility. Gandhi’s eminently reasonable and reasoned critique on Western modernity and Western hegemony of history seems particularly resonant now, in 2010, as countries all over the world – Western countries, included – battle it out over whose conception of history is Right. Because, as the saying goes, “whoever forgets history is condemned to repeat it.” Therefore, we march on impenetrably, daring ourselves to remember history and to make the right moves that will absolve us of our past history.

Lal tells us that the Gandhian notion would have been: “whoever remembers history is condemned to repeat it.” It was a small epiphany, in that tiny seminar room, as I reflected on how Malaysia seems to be doomed to repeat May 13 in small and banal everyday ways the more we desire to remember it and entrench it permanently onto the national historical narrative. Events as recent as Muslim protesters using cow heads to protest the erection of a Hindi temple is firmly implanted in all our minds; sometimes, I have wondered – reading the tweets and the blog posts and considering my own steaming pile of thoughts, soaked in vitriol – wouldn’t it be so much more liberating to simply cease to remember?

Perhaps memory should be selective – limited to those who have actually experienced it. The rest of us should forget. As Lal pointed out, “Israel remembers too much.” We all do. In Malaysia, in particular, because it’s the country I know best, we seem to be remembering all the time, and with clear-eyes and clear vision, repeating everything that we remember faithfully and by the book.

I suppose the question would be: But at what price do we forget? I’m not sure. The cost may be a lot more insubstantial than we’d like to believe.  And then, the caveat: to forget, but to forget responsibly. (Note: This isn’t what Lal discussed, but more on where my thoughts meandered after he told us about Gandhi’s sense of ahistoricism.)

Lal also spoke about Gandhi’s fundamental sense of unease with how the knowledge systems of the West subsume all other knowledge systems under its rubric, ensuring that problems or shortcomings within the knowledge systems of the West can only be resolved WITHIN the knowledge systems of the West. Yes. Try reading that again fast, 3 times.

In other words, Gandhi’s problem with the West was not that it simply was the West – a stance that Tun Dr. Mahathir employed with indulgence as and when it pleased or suited him. The idea of the West having had to colonise itself before setting out to colonise others, the elements of surveillance and rationalisation that characterises the West’s project of modernity – including the subsuming of place and space –all these were factors that compelled Gandhi’s critique. Bearing in mind, even, that the phrase “the West” should be used problematically because there is no the West without fissures and delineations and segments and complexities.

And lastly, the idea of Gandhi’s inversion of the “think globally, act locally” catchphrase of the 60s into “think locally, act globally” – which, as Lal explained, had to do with being able to work with indigenous forms of knowledge related to the subject that don’t lead to repression, whether intended or unintended.  This again makes me think of failed modernisation attempts in developing countries, and particularly the quagmire into which Malaysia finds itself sinking, thanks to Tun Dr. Mathathir’s 22 years of exhortation to the Malaysian people to condemn the West, mock the West, castigate the West, and mimic the West.

There were other aspects of Gandhi not covered in this all-too-brief presentation – as it was, it was solely on the critique of modernity and the ability to envision a new cosmopolitanism, and these two topics were broad enough to probably have required a two-day conference by Lal. No doubt Lal would be able to carry a conference all on his own; I look forward to reading his books, especially since he was unafraid to be contentious and opinionated (i.e. “Economists have done nothing useful for us in the last 60 years”, “The field of social sciences should be abolished”, “England does not know what to do with food”.) With the exception of the last remark, I’m sure the other would have drawn rejoinders and counter-arguments had the seminar received more attention from academics, students, and the general public in a larger venue.

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