MEHRU JAFFER | 31 JANUARY, 2018
Speak, As Words Are Free, But Is Anyone Listening?
Thoughts on Gandhi Jayanti
Today I am an elder in the family, but fortunately some of my own elders are still around. Inspired mostly by people like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, these elders had inspired us to speak, because words are free. They told us to speak, because our body and our thoughts are our own.
We came of age in a country where we were encouraged to speak so that the government got to know what the people wanted. We were told to speak anyways as even in restrain, time is infinite. If we did not speak how would we know that some of our thoughts are not quite right? How would we realize how little we know and how much more there is to discover in life?
While teaching us to speak, the elders did not want us to ever forget that our life is our own. We learnt to speak because everyone has something to say and someone or the other would surely listen.
These days the elders have become cautious. They do not want us to speak anymore. Not too loud anyways. They caution us about what we read and about writing this, but not that.
“Be careful where you go and when you go…” is their advice. I detect a life threatening concern in their voice bordering on fear. And their soft murmur, furrowed brows and worried voices are contagious. Often a wave of fear at being woman, Muslim or just happy does overwhelm the self these days to create discomfort. Is this because our talk seems to fall on deaf ears today? Am I correct in feeling that there is, really no one listening?
I want to know what I should do with the mantra that I have internalized from childhood about freedom in a home where the mind is without fear, the head is held high and where knowledge is free? Should I not pass on these noble ideas also to my children and to their children, just like my elders had to me? Should I not tell the younger ones not to fragment their world with narrow walls of bias? That they should continue to tirelessly stretch their arms towards perfection, to keep clear the stream of reason and to stay away from the dreary desert sand of dead habits?
Should I not tell them all this?
Should I tell them instead to live as if they did not exist? As cowards?
I lived most of the time during a nearly three-decade stay in Vienna, Austria on a street, and below a cottage that burnt down long ago. But a plaque stands on the same place as Dr Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis and a Viennese Jew had lived there. It was here that the secret of dreams was revealed to Freud in 1899.
German fascists had troubled Dr. Sigmund Freud, forcing him out of his Vienna home and robbing him of cash because he was Jewish, liberal and a professional. Adolf Hitler’s fascist regime had annexed Austria into Germany in 1938. In the mind of German fascists the Jews were not human beings but a germ or a foreign body that poisoned, infected, or emasculated the nation. In 1933 when Freud heard that his books were being burnt, the octogenarian Austrian said that the Germans had made remarkable progress.
“Now they are content burning my books. In the Middle Ages I would have been burnt”.
Dr. Bruno Bettleheim, psychologist had read a lot of Freud. He was born to middle class Jewish parents in 1903 also in Vienna. In 1938 he was confined for a year in two concentration camps as a political prisoner because he was Jewish, secular and an intellectual. He survived the fascist plan to annihilate the entire Jewish population of Europe on the intervention of none other than Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady of the USA, and politician, diplomat and activist in her own right.
Recently I discussed Bettelheim with people at home. When asked about his worst moment in the camps, the psychologist who devoted his life to improving the treatment of severely disturbed children said that after working all day in the hot sun, the inmates had to stand at attention for roll call.
Any movement, any shifting of the feet, could result in a beating. Every now and then, one of the prisoners would slump to the ground. If anyone attempted to assist him, he could be shot on the spot. Out of the corner of his eye, Bettelheim noticed that his cousin, an older physician, had collapsed. Bettelheim was faced with a ‘‘Sophie’s Choice.’’ To aid his cousin meant risking his life, yet to remain still could only induce a feeling of cowardice. Bettelheim remained motionless. Fortunately, his cousin was not killed on that day and ultimately survived. Yet Bettelheim was haunted by this particular memory until the end of his life.
It is experiences like this, worse than being beaten, worse than being stabbed or having the teeth broken, which bring with them unbearable, life-long shame.
‘‘I think I should have helped him anyhow,’’ an elderly Bettelheim told a younger colleague later.
‘‘But look at everything you’ve done since then, look at all you’ve given to the world,’’ she responded.
‘‘So?’’ Bettelheim replied with a huge shrug.
Throughout his life Bettleheim had struggled with depression and in 1990 he committed suicide at the age of 86 years more than half a century after Nazi Germany had annexed Austria also on 13 March 1938.
Today the lynching of fellow human beings by murderers and mobsters stares me in the face. How do I turn away? How do I not speak?
I want to question loudly if the routine slaughter of fellow citizens these days can lead to mass slaughter of many more Indians in the future? That is a fear. That is a fear because those in power do not categorically say, “No, don’t worry it will never be so”.
Under these circumstances how is it possible for mature and responsible citizens to keep alive an active resistance to bloodthirsty mobs, and to a government that watches the murder of many of its citizens in silence?
Speak about this as words are still free.