While students discovered that the elite civic conscience served to render the Indian “migrant workers” invisible, they felt that a discursive correctness of terms called for debate. This article records their overwhelming sense of ethical quandary as others and othering gained traction in classrooms where English at once endorsed and condemned such usages.
To argue for silence, prayer, the banishment equally of poetry and knowledge, in short, the witness of ‘ineffability,’ . . . is to mystify something we dare not understand, because we fear that it may be all too understandable, all too continuous with what we are—human, all too human.
—Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation
Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture
During the first season/wave of COVID-19, when I began teaching a course in new literatures in English, I found students collecting articles and blogs on migrant labor movements across India during the national lockdown. On a day we were reading Salman Rushdie's Tanner Lecture on Human Values (2002), a student brought the following she had copied from a column by Arundhati Roy (2020) from Lit Hub Daily:
As an appalled world watched, India revealed herself in all her shame—her brutal, structural, social and economic inequality, her callous indifference to suffering. The lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things. As shops, restaurants, factories, and the construction industry shut down, as the wealthy and the middle classes enclosed themselves in gated colonies, our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens—their migrant workers—like so much unwanted accrual.
Many driven out by their employers and landlords, millions of impoverished, hungry, thirsty people, young and old, men, women, children, sick people, blind people, disabled people, with nowhere else to go, with no public transport in sight, began a long march home to their villages. They walked for days, toward Badaun, Agra, Azamgarh, Aligarh, Lucknow, Gorakhpur—hundreds of miles away. Some died on the way.
They knew they were going home potentially to slow starvation. Perhaps they even knew they could be carrying the virus with them, and would infect their families, their parents, and grandparents back home, but they desperately needed a shred of familiarity, shelter, and dignity, as well as food, if not love. As they walked some were beaten brutally and humiliated by the police, who were charged with strictly enforcing the curfew.
We wondered how we would read such passages beside the stories and poems we were reading in the course, mostly grim accounts of displacement and eviction from homes and communities, the perilous borders vast populations were crossing all over the world, long before the pandemic had struck our world. Two concepts/ words that continued to trouble the class were strangers and invisibility. I found myself asking: How helpful, then, is English in understanding our strangers, our invisible others in a language that can, at our will, mask and unmask Indians? Are we, somehow, culpably close to “mystify[ing] something we dare not understand,” as Gillian Rose (1996: 43) suggests, because we use another language? Would English still be more accessible and perhaps “tolerable . . . on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself,” an observation Michel Foucault (1990: 86) once made apropos of power?
The questions that persisted, week by week, seemed to be the same. What circumstances lead some of our people to suddenly disappear from a benign public view? How do those who have been with us for long suddenly become invisible? And, more urgently, does English, given its invidious colonial provenance as a discipline in our schools, play any role in making strangers of ourselves? Is it not, then, very intriguing that only English somehow enlarges and amplifies otherness in Indians who speak twenty-odd modern languages, and yet more and more Indians still turn to English for higher education? What precisely does English offer educated Indians—opportunity or opportunism in their isolated superiority of seeing others differently? The answer is implied somewhat elliptically if embarrassingly in a folktale whose allegory has a peculiarly instructive edge in an English classroom in India.1
An old woman has been looking for her lost keys in a street all evening. The light is fading. A passer-by is curious, even solicitous. He asks where she thought she had lost them, and she says they were perhaps mislaid at home. Then why look for them in the street? Her answer: “Because it is dark in there. I don't have oil in my lamps. I can see much better here under the streetlights.” Students now immediately see the English streetlight and the poorly lit linguistic homes to which they are loath to belong. Are Indians that poor? No. Not certainly in their cultural resources and infinite riches in small rooms, but when English shines its light, why bother to look within their homes where they might have lost things, many indeed, including the priceless stuff they have practically forgotten to look for?
First, let us focus on a few factual details. The ruling party in India that earned an absolute mandate in the last public elections adopted the Citizenship Amendment Act before the parliament, just before the widespread onset of COVID-19, in December 2019. The act proposed a national register of citizens, which led to a series of protests throughout India. Much in evidence in what India and the world read and saw on TV news were deep distrust, widespread misinformation, and worries about how one would see oneself as “Indian” henceforth (and the other as another Indian). The protests by educated youth across the country, especially North and Northeast India, spiraled into a cataclysmic standoff between university students and the police/armed forces. No one was sure how it all ended, but more than fifty lives were reported lost in the violence centered in the capital city. Soon after, the Indian government announced a complete national lockdown by declaring COVID-19 a national health hazard and emergency in mid-March 2020.
That was when students began to notice the frequent use of English words/descriptors to refer to people who do not “belong” in multiple senses. Contagion and culture have strange ways of linking and mutually constructing those whom we know and do not know. While others and othering concepts were widely used, territorial nonbelonging of larger and larger sections of Indians came to be reflected in the insecure and inadequate nominations that kept changing with their progressive (regressive?) displacements across the country during the pandemic. Increasingly, the country started noticing large movements of unsettled migrant labor across towns and cities. What was most challenging for students was to accept that they had never before faced this confusion of categories, the name and nature of eviction and unsettlement that neither spoke its name nor answered to any recognizable order or kind. They were, strangely, invisible as well because in English they came to be identified as varied and variously suggestive “migrant workers,” and in some polite, if politically decent formulation, even “guest workers,” nevertheless othering terms, a catchall category for the unskilled poor without whom the towns and cities would on a normal day look ill served, uncivilized, and unclean. By and large, migrant labor stuck, a phrasal concept that gained currency in the Indian-English press throughout the first COVID-19 wave.2
We were reading James Baldwin's “Stranger in the Village” ( 1965) against this background. India's citizenship rights imbroglio and the exodus of migrants following the first lockdown probably accentuated our compunction and dismay when we began to notice the key terms we found ourselves using in our discussion: invisibility and strangers. Both, we recalled, had special resonance for Baldwin's readers.
Baldwin's stranger story at this stage struck an immediate chord with us, presumably for two reasons. First, students were quick to notice that Baldwin's account of his experiences in a Swiss village was unmarked by the adversarial rancor or spite that usually attends such encounters in the North/South binarist imperial narratives. His, they noted, was rather a shrewdly perceived and humanely rationalized understanding of challenges strangers face. On both sides, ironically, this writer meets strangers—among the villagers as well as within Baldwin himself. This insight works quite naturally, or at least his superb rendering of the events and scenes makes it appear so. Second, Baldwin the writer is as much puzzled as he feels betrayed as a person by the historical circumstances that complicate cultural encounters. Again, Baldwin makes no perspectival error common to the Americans, Europeans, or others who see themselves as unfairly mimicked or stereotyped in postcolonial debates by their cultural and racial others. Very little ressentiment, in other words, if at all.
Perhaps that explains the more immediate appeal Baldwin's essay has had for Indian students. He rejects neat causes and effects to concede rather perplexing and incomprehensible aftereffects of colonial history. His distinctive fairness even led us to a deeper analysis of the COVID-19 reports that breathed the ambivalence and guilt that go with the English-educated classes in India. There is no denying that English is privilege, and students of English in particular have it. That granted, do we, as Baldwin suggests, reckon with its potential to disengage us from, or feel indifferent toward, the social realities of our country? Baldwin's language is, at its subtle best, excruciatingly candid in addressing what ought to make anyone sit up and introspect. Certainly, the English-educated Indians sometimes suffer from that false pride Baldwin detects in the Swiss villagers. The superciliousness of the (English) middle class in India perhaps stems from that educated privilege they share with the elitist few in Anglophone regimes. Our focus, frankly, seldom shifted from a pretty long discussion of such passages in Baldwin where he searingly probes the depths of that false consciousness only European racial pride and hebetude instill in a group of people such as the Swiss villagers:
I know that no individual can be taken to task for what history is doing, or has done. I say that the culture of these people controls me—but they can scarcely be held responsible for European culture. . . . Yet they move with an authority which I shall never have; and they regard me, quite rightly, not only as a stranger in their village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have—however unconsciously inherited. . . . For this village . . . is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. (305)
Nearly everything that follows these remarks seemed to speak directly to the privileges of wealth and English in India, especially when the Black man here strikingly resembles the migrant worker whose description in the Indian English press was inflected with “the white man's naïveté” (306) of which Baldwin speaks. The point driven home in all discussion that followed was that the privilege of language is at once the power to make legends about the less privileged and to put them in wide circulation. (Is English guilty of this in India? Are students of English therefore guilty by association?) The most distressing, if alarming, of Baldwin's remarks on which the class deliberated for a whole session were the following:
Every legend, moreover, contains its residuum of truth, and the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it. It is of quite considerable significance that black men remain, in the imagination, and in overwhelming numbers in fact, beyond the disciplines of salvation. . . . There is, I should hazard, an instantaneous necessity to be divorced from this so visibly unsaved stranger, in whose heart, moreover, one cannot guess what dreams of vengeance are being nourished. . . . When, beneath the black mask, a human being begins to make himself felt one cannot escape a certain awful wonder as to what kind of human being it is. (307)
All we needed to do was to check the details of the mass exodus of migrant labor from the Indian towns and cities and feel rather ashamed that Baldwin's is no mere speculation. Unignorable statistical data from the press told us how, on their long walk from cities to suburbs, the migrant worker families had no motor transport. In makeshift dormitories by the road, laborers could hardly afford social distancing, with bodies packed six or more to a two-hundred-square-foot shed. On their desperate and famished walk continuing for days and weeks, many among the aged and disabled died. Of course accidents and wayside exploitative violence killed even the more resilient youth, not to mention the mishap near Aurangabad when a group of sixteen migrants trying to cross a railway track at night were run over by a speeding freight train. Of course, of these strangers, like the unknown warriors across borders in every country, we shall not ask their names or whence they come. Students and I read and reread that crucial passage in Baldwin that speaks of “the American Negro problem” with which we could possibly align India's “English problem,” so to speak. If it is the necessity of white people “to find a way of living with” Black people in the United States, perhaps educated India ought to find ways of living with English “to be able to live with” itself (311).
The Indian press continued to report more touching stories of the walking migrant labor in towns and cities since late April 2020. The COVID-19 lockdown drove thousands of workers to bus depots and rail stations only to discover that there was no transport available for them. The local and central administrative and planning agencies looked away from their misery. Three separate episodes that shocked readers in India featured how three young people sacrificed whatever little they had to help people and families reach their destination under distressing conditions. The first, Jyoti Kumari, a woman in her late twenties, pillion-rode her injured father on a bicycle some twelve hundred kilometers from Delhi to Darbhanga. Rather than head for Nagpur, his hometown, Anirudh Jhare thought it urgent that he transport the old and disabled Gayoor Ahmed to the latter's home in Uttar Pradesh. And how? On a tricycle, a perilous ride across several towns and cities in North India for five days. More tragic and heartrending was Mohammed Yakoob holding on to the body of a mortally wounded stranger pushed off a truck overloaded with migrant labor. He nursed the dying laborer through days and nights. The column that reported these episodes commented on the bureaucratic apathy and indifference in evidence during these months:
The make-believe world of North Block [knew or cared little about] the real world, [where] it was each man for himself. . . . For millions of workers it was about food and rent, here and now. . . . So the migrants decided to vote with their feet. Better to starve and die at home than in some distant shanty, uncared for and unmourned. . . . “Empathy” and “compassion” are not in the common vocabulary of our languages. They do not quite translate into dayā and sahānubhūti, that are more about charity than self-realisation. But even charity, with notable exceptions, has been absent. (Joshi 2020: 10)
Sampling such reports while reading our texts became the order of the day in our meetings. In the papers students submitted during the semester, it was not unusual to find parallel passages from the texts they recalled (Nadine Gordimer, Alice Walker, Cynthia Ozick, Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Stuart Hall, etc.). One passage that struck a reminiscent bell for most of us reading the sad episodes of the poor struggling, and the equally poor migrants holding out hands to help one another and huddle together, was from Walt Whitman's “To You” (c. 1900), in which he addresses “those who are walking the walks of dreams.” The following, in particular, seemed more to the point as a salute to those unknown Kumaris, Jhares, and Yakoobs:
Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem
. . .
There is no endowment in man or woman that is not tallied in you,
There is no virtue, no beauty in man or woman, but as good is in you,
No pluck, no endurance in others, but as good is in you,
No pleasure waiting for others, but an equal pleasure waits for you
The questions students of English are perhaps loath to ask, and as teachers we ought to persuade them to debate in classrooms across the world, are the following: Is the system rigged? If it is, what social advantage does English give bureaucracy and public administration to rig it? What do they see in English lessons, especially in a country like India: servitude or freedom? Do we make the choices that make us rather than the institutions that teach us (in) English? Perhaps this last question was occasioned by a student's citation of Zygmunt Bauman's (1997: 17) remark that “all societies produce strangers; but each kind of society produces them in its own inimitable way.” If that is true, in what inimitable way do English-educated Indians manage to make more and more of our workers invisible, and more among us strangers? Perhaps we do this unwittingly when much of what the young pay India's elitist schools of learning goes to grease the wheels of an avaricious market. I found it rather urgent to bring this up in my class comprising job seekers in public/private education, the police and the armed forces, banking and business, political parties, or the civil service soon after the completion of their master's degree.
The very last text that we read that semester left us, however, with nothing to discuss—a poem called “Quarantine” by Eavan Boland (2008). Written to commemorate the sufferings of her kinsfolk during the Great Irish Famine of 1847, the tragic scene looked all too familiar to us. Is there anything here “to mystify something we dare not understand, because we fear that it may be all too understandable,” as Rose (1996: 43) grimly puts it? Nothing at all, the class silently agreed, because Ireland of the mid-nineteenth century is “all too continuous with what we are—human, all too human”:
In the worst hour of the worst seasonof the worst year of a whole peoplea man set out from the workhouse with his wife.He was walking—they were both walking—north.She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.He lifted her and put her on his back.. . .In the morning they were both found dead.Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.But her feet were held against his breastbone.The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her. (Boland 2008)
And yet, for those short on cultural memory, and for those who have not quite registered the cognitive dissonance of imperial regimes in dealing with the pandemic within their national territories, Boland's poem is certainly a wake-up call. Giving voice to bodies shut out of the dominant cultural conversations, she alerts us to a wider meaning of democratic institutions: those who do not count otherwise in a democracy now break the silence in the media. Which indeed is another way of opening up a political space in a world that illness and death make legible across the world. Boland's “Quarantine” is certainly of the new pandemic curriculum that encourages readers to ponder the strange uses of an ethical herd immunity.
This South Indian folktale is familiar to many of us here, but it is retold in English by A. K. Ramanujan (originally, in a lecture at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1988; reprinted in Ramanujan 2014).
According to the Indian Union Labour and Employment (UL&E) Ministry, the National Database for Unorganized Workers is a work in progress, even as late as August 2021. The UL&E Ministry's portal aims to register 380 million spanning construction workers, street vendors, domestic help, truck drivers and vehicle cleaners on the Indian national highways, besides farmhands and gig workers (Government of India Ministry of Labour and Employment 2021).