I had been doing some work that could be considered as being at the boundaries of what is commonly understood by ‘activism’, by which I mean that the emphasis is on the morpheme ‘act’ and that the act is implied to be physical, such as taking part in a street protest or ‘organizing’ or ‘mobilizing’ or doing any of the things that many environmental activists do, like handcuffing themselves to something that is symbolically associated with the corporations that are doing their best to destroy the planet’s ecology.
I have had little such participation in ‘physical’ protests.
That statement is grossly unfair to me. I will have to rephrase it. I have had little part in such ‘physical’ (aka ‘real’) protest of the conventional kind, which gets some publicity. Whatever physical protest I took part in, was usually a lonely act with no sympathetic onlookers to notice it and record it. Perhaps I should record them myself.
But not now.
Although I may have had little participation in such protests, I had still been doing something or the other, both at the local and the day-to-day life level and on larger forums. Most of it consisted of some form of writing (or compiling, which I consider to be a very important kind of activity).
The great Epics of human civilizations are, after all, compilations by more than one person, in many (or most) cases by a large number of people.
For example, I had started the Hindi version of ZNet. I selected articles, translated them, I put them together in the form of a website. I got this Hindi version online on ZNet (with the help of those at ZNet). At that time I could not afford to host a website on my own. Later on, as soon as I could, I did that.
It was an utter failure. At least in the conventional sense. For I had hoped that once I start this, many others (or at least a few others) would join me. Not a single person did. Neither in the early stage when it was hosted on ZNet and consisted only of translations of articles already there, not later on. So later on, when I was busy with trying to complete my PhD (along with doing various other things) and was not able to translate many articles, I resorted to a form of appropriation. I tried to find all the progressive, dissident voices on the Internet who were writing in Hindi — they were usually on their own blogs, not commercial content in most cases — and I posted those pieces or articles or reports on the Hindi version (which I called Sah-Sanchar). All the expenses were paid from my meager earnings and all the work was done solely by me. I refrained from including my own articles so as not to be accused of self-promotion. Part of the reasoning behind this (appropriation) was the ephemeral nature of such content. A blog (or a website) is there today, gone tomorrow. So is the content on it. I thought if I collect some of it and put it on Sah-Sanchar, it would be read more (indeed it was) and it would be less likely to be lost. In other words, if I couldn’t succeed in building a lively website with novel content, I could at least run an archive, or a ‘blog aggregator’ (as someone called it, because there actually was a blog aggregating section on this website, quite apart from the hand-collected content I am talking about).
Meanwhile, I was also writing on my own blogs.
There is a joke among Hindi (literary and activist) writers that in Hindi there are more writers than readers. The the commercial world has no place for this kind of writing. A certain corporate friendly version of it is now getting a piece of the pie, but in general, if you write Hindi literature or if you write in Hindi and (in your writing or otherwise) damn the capitalistic system, you have to do it in your own unpaid time. You might, in fact, have to pay dearly for doing that. ‘Pay’ being a metaphor here. How much you would have to pay will depend on how much of a threat you are considered to be by the Establishment. Most are not considered much of a threat and can go along nicely, doing it as a kind of hobby. Others have to risk a lot. In objective terms, it is not very clear what the Establishment might see as more of a threat.
Not all these writers are good, obviously, and not all of them are sincere. Many are just bad hacks and many are in a social circle where doing this is cool, so they do it. That is, as long as they are in that circle. Still, there are many who are good as well as sincere, even if some of them have some shortcomings. Who doesn’t?
Oh, so you are not satisfied with the (lack of) figures. You don’t like ‘many’ and ‘some’ because they are not specific numbers? Alright then, how about 2345 for the first case, 3533 for the second case and 1678 for the third case? Does that make you feel better?
The conditions are such that these writers (remember that, in many senses, I am like them, in fact, I am one of them) are desperate to get published somewhere. (Although, in my case, I have never really tried to get published, with an exception or two).
That is partly the reason why there were (perhaps still are, though I am a bit out of touch for some time now) a large number of Hindi literary magazines, most of them with very progressive, anti-right-wing, anti-capitalism agendas. They have no commercial success. Even the most successful one among them barely manage to survive.
I could go on about this, but the point I making here is that there are a large number of such ‘progressive’ (with and without quotes) and even revolutionary writers who would like to get published somewhere. Almost anywhere. Without expecting a remuneration. Many of them do translation too.
However, as I said, not a single person came forward to contribute to the Hindi version of ZNet. Neither as a translator nor as a writer. I had even created a form based submission system for those who wanted to submit articles or translations. The site, however, is still read a lot, at least by the standards of readership of Hindi articles by dissidents.
It was only after reconciling to the fact that no one was going to join me, that I started taking articles from elsewhere and posting them on Sah-Sanchar (with attribution, with the writer’s and the source’s name intact and with a link to the original). Then I started getting some pieces sent to me by email. They were not works of art or scholarship, but they started out as worth posting on the website, and I used them. The persons who sent them to me seemed to send them with the implicit request that they be published on the website. They did not, however, explicitly say so. I went along with that, as there didn’t seem anything wrong with it. Till I realized that I was actually being steered in a certain direction, a softer tone, a diluted and Establishment-friendly form of dissidence. Then I decided to stop, though I have not taken a vow about this.
The site still stands. I pay for it. There is no question of a donation based website. If I can’t even get contributions to be published from Hindi writers who are desperate to get published, what is the chance of getting donations to run the website (or anything else for that matter)? There was no way I could even consider the idea. I am referring to it so that some comparisons can be made.
Let me make it crystal clear that I am not against donations based dissident organizations.
By the way, like many others, I have come to the conclusion that my most avid readers are the ones who hate me and what I do the most. They keep an eye on my every move, so to speak. I had once written several posts about Narendra Modi and in one of them I mentioned a story written by him and linked to it. Sometime later, a supporter of him commented on the blog (politely) to correct the link, as it had changed. You can be sure I was not praising the Indian Mussolini.
The Leftists (definitely in India), with all their talk about organizing and mobilizing, have all but lost touch with most of the population, whereas those from the Right (especially from the Far Right) are overactive. It is no coincidence that with all my desire to participate in meaningful protest, no Leftist ever approached me to work with some leftist organization. The closest I came to it was long ago when I wrote an article (about a rally by the Fascists) for the magazine of a well known progressive NGO. That was perhaps my only article that has been ‘published’ in the usual sense.
On the other hand, those from the Right and the Far Right have gone out of their way to approach me and win me over to their cause, or at least to persuade me to look sympathetically at their cause. Some have even worked with me for considerable time (professionally, not politically). I was not always able to identify them as being so, because they often came spouting left wing rhetoric and quoting Chomsky, briefed as they were about me, Again, going out of their way to do that. My interactions with those from the Right and the Far Right have been like: With O’Brien in Alice’s Wonderland.
Anyway, those days it so happened that I came across many articles that lamented the fact that not many people are actually participating in activities (preferably ‘physical’, conventional acts of protest, as I mentioned earlier). They are, for example, spending their time ‘preening on their Facebook pages’. I wasn’t active on the Facebook, but, who knows!, what I was doing might be considered preening by some. So I thought, if no one would join me, what if I try to join the others? And participate and contribute in that way.
While reading articles on ZNet, I came across one that mentioned one Indian (dissident) website and praised it for the good work it was doing. As I know of few such websites which publish not just articles or pieces by people who consider themselves (literary) writers, like yours truly, but actually do some field work and publish the results of that work. Even if that work is just a study (involving specific entities and specific numbers).
So I went to this website. I read some of the things they had published. I did not find anything that could upset the Indian Establishment. It mostly had articles (not very good ones at that) which were kind of mild criticism of some of the things that are going on. Which is not to say that such things are not worth doing, but just to give you an idea of the kind of content they had. Still, being somewhat desperate to be able to actually contribute something that the real activists would consider worthwhile, I thought it would be better than nothing. And my contribution would be contributions. If it helps at all, that’s not bad.
I must admit that they do have specific figures and data on their website.
I found a contact form on this website. I filled it up. It asked about the kind of contributions I was interested in making etc. Since, being almost a hermit in the cities, I could not think of any conventional physical kind of contribution I could make, I said that I can contribute to writing, editing and similar activities. I mentioned some of my experience in this regard. After a long delay, I received a response. It was a fine response. It mentioned various ways in which I could contribute. It said, since I was in R&D, my skills could be helpful for them. It was a longish mail from the editors and it looked promising. It even said that “we are always on the lookout for people like you”.
So I replied, saying I could contribute by writing articles, especially on topics related to science and technology and that I could do some editing too.
I then received an email saying that they had one person, a ‘public health activist’ ‘working with an organisation in policy research field’, in the city I was working in at that time. Would I like to work with him?
I was not sure about the public health part (as I wasn’t sure how well I could contribute in that area). The ‘policy research’ part also bothered me. But I wrote back saying I can get in touch with him and asked them how to contact him. I was prepared to learn.
More than a month and a half later, I received another mail, saying that it would be great if I could get in touch with a person (who was an ‘assistant’ of the ‘public health activist’). The mail ended like this:
“Mr X has been briefed about your profile and after meeting him you may also like to further strengthen the collaboration with his group Y.”
I had not written much about my profile on their contact form.
This mail had the alarm bells ringing for me. For the tone of the mail was quite different the earlier ones, or so it seemed to me. I didn’t like the word ‘briefed’ and the couldn’t help noticing that the name of the group (the said Y) sounded suspicious for an activist who I had approached after reading a recommendation on the website of one of the most radical leftist dissident media organizations. It was a name that in India would be associated with the Right, especially if it was the name of an organization. It was Hindu religious word that a genuinely progressive organisation is very unlikely to use.
I had almost lost interest in it by then. Nothing happened for a long time. I almost forgot about it.
But one day, as I was working on my laptop and there was some technical problem that I was trying to solve, I got the call. From the ‘activist’. Not his assistant, who I was supposed to contact, but the group leader himself.
He had a Bengali name. So I was expecting a person with a Bengali accent or someone speaking English. He talked mostly in Hindi, though he said one or two sentences in English, as most educated Indians do, even those who are not from the English medium.
And what Hindi! He spoke like a rough policeman or a rougher wheeler-dealer from near the birth place of Hindi, that is, like a rough-talking Delhi-wala.
He started by asking me whether I was who I was supposed to be (that is, my name) and then he introduced himself. He said that I had approached that organization (which was recommended on the ZNet: note however, that ZNet has a fairly liberal policy about allowing articles to be posted there, so it is not as if ZNet itself had recommended it). I said, yes, I had written to them about contributing to writing and editing etc.
This had barely transpired, when suddenly, almost in the middle of a sentence, he seemed to turn his head to someone else (for the sound changed: you know, the Doppler Effect), presumably to his assistant, and said emphatically, “yeh to chutiya hai”. He said, “he is a chutiya”, meaning me.
Now, ‘chutiya’ is an interesting word in Hindi (and in many Indian languages). Literally, it means ‘the one with a vagina’. But as with all curse words, it is rarely used in the literal sense. It is, however, used in an almost literal sense to refer to those who some now respectfully call ‘homies’ (I noticed this usage in an online comment somewhere, perhaps on YouTube and in response to a film video by or about Pasolini). Like all curse words, it is used much more metaphorically than literally.
The most common metaphorical meaning of this ubiquitous Indian word is roughly the same as a ‘village idiot’. Although, it must be noted, even in this sense, i.e., if you are an idiot who can be easily taken advantage of, you virtually become as good (or as bad) as that most marginal of human beings in conservatives societies like India, namely a ‘homie’. The self-boasting torturer of Afzal Guru, the Kashmiri man hanged recently for his ‘role’ in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, used this word for Afzal Guru in this very sense.
But it can also mean many other things.
There is little doubt that he was making this comment about yours truly and it was addressed to whoever was sitting near him at that time. He almost confirmed it later, as you will see.
This was just the start of one of the most bizarre conversations I have had in years. And I had some very bizarre ones over that last two decades.
Since I don’t have a recording (may be someone has) and it is difficult to convey in English exactly what he said (he used very colloquial, slangish Hindi, where the tone and the prosody are extremely important), I try to convey the essence of what passed during this conversation.
But it was basically just a monologue. He did not ask me anything. He did not suggest that I do anything. He did not say anything that could make any sense. It was a conversation whose sole purpose (if it had any purpose at all) seemed to be to warn me against ever trying something similar in future. That is, to try to get involved in such activities.
He weighed (very heavily) upon two main themes. One was about Bill Gates and Microsoft. Don’t ask me what was the relation to public health.
All of what he said was either in the tone with which he said “yeh to chutiya hai”, or (most of it) in an exaggerated faux-conspiratorial tone. He whispered (quite loudly) that Bill Gates was behind everything that was going wrong. He said Bill Gates, through his software, his Microsoft products, was introducing things into people’s computers and was doing horrible things. He went on in this vein for some time.
The second theme was kind of related to public health. He said that the pharmaceutical industry is the most devilish in the world. That it would not stop at any dark deed. That it was indulging in the most horrible acts. He said he had been fighting this industry for a long time. But then he said he had a personal fight against it. “Very personal”, he said, in an even more faux-conspiratorial tone. He said he doesn’t talk about this to anybody. It is his completely personal fight. He said he had been ‘like a vegetable’ for some years. He said (or at least implied) it was not part of his public activities, including his (public health) activism. The way in which he said this to me, I couldn’t help thinking that he had indeed been ‘briefed’ about me, for there are many who considered me (or still do) to be in a vegetable like state. Specifically, there was a time when those looking at me (but not very familiar with me) would have thought me to be in a vegetable like state. They did and they expressed their feelings right in front of me. And there was some truth in it, sort of.
Now, I am no fan of Bill Gates or Microsoft or the pharma industry. After all, a large part of the IT-nerd world refers to Microsoft as the ‘Dark Side’. And the less said the better about the pharma industry. But he was not talking like an activist about them. (What an understatement!).
I don’t think it is necessary to point out that he was talking to me as if he was talking to a ‘chutiya’, a village idiot. Or an idiot in the older sense (often used in world literature), which meant someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.
During this monologue, he also said how Bill Gates was flooding the media with lies (and only Bill Gates for some reason) and how you could not believe anything in the mainstream media. By this time I had a pretty good idea what I had got into. So I just hoped to end the call without having to say much. I just said, a bit irritatedly (but still trying to be polite) that, yes, I know, that I read the dissident media (that is, I don’t rely solely on the mainstream media) and that I am aware of such things.
When he had done enough of this ‘chutiya’-repellent talk, directly addressed to a ‘chutiya’ who was aspiring to be an activist, he finally ended by saying this. He said, thank you, Mr. Singh, for giving time to me. He then said that he was sorry that he had underestimated me.
Let me repeat it. He said at the end that he was sorry to have underestimated me. And I couldn’t think of anything to say except that, no, it’s alright. Perhaps I am what he was calling me.
But it was not the first time someone said this to me. Just the context this time was highly unusual, to say the least.
I never heard from him again, or from his assistant, or from that organisation which was recommended on a ZNet article. An article that may not be endorsed by the ZNet team (who I have great respect for, even if I disagree with them about some things), but it was featured on the front page of ZNet. It was not a very good article in any sense. I just relied on it because it was on ZNet front page.
I have many of my articles on ZNet (on my ZSpace page, posted by myself). None of my articles, as far as I know, has ever made to the front page. If it smacks of resentment, so be it, but I can’t see how many of the articles that appear on ZNet front page are better than what I write. Perhaps I don’t have the credentials.
But ZNet is still among the best (if not ‘the’ best). To the best of my knowledge. The majority of articles which appear on the front page are among the best you could find anywhere.
There are numerous other dissident media websites (and organizations) where the Establishment proxies are peddling their ware and getting away with it without a blemish. Some of them (the proxies) lead respectable lives as progressives, and may be even as revolutionaries.
Many of them (the dissident organizations) are playing the role of the court dissident. I could easily name some, but what good would it do, unless backed up with an exhaustive data based study, something that I am not in a position to do right now? The irony (or the tragedy) is that they are prospering (even in the material sense), while ZNet is struggling to survive.
So am I.
As I post this article on the blog, I find that it is now past midnight and the April Fool’s Day has started.
Is this a cosmic sign that he was right after all?