The rioting in London has evoked mixed reactions in the subcontinent. So I was not surprised to read fellow Dawn blogger Caroline Jaine say she was “staggered” by the number of her overseas friends who actually appear happy that London’s burning. She has the right to be staggered. What we’re witnessing is the temporary collapse of law-and-order in the most important city in recent human history. It’s nothing short of macabre to enjoy this spectacle. And yet, many of us seem to be doing exactly that. Why? Well, I have a tenuous theory regarding this, and if you have a taste for speculative psychology, read on.
The subcontinental individual, I believe, sifted the news from London through many subcutaneous layers of his or her soul. The news had to percolate through base layers of thought to reach more evolved and rational layers.
Layer I: Smug satisfaction
The basest layer – now you know how we feel when Mumbai and Karachi burn. You thought it could never happen to you, did you? Has your outlook changed? Are you groping for answers, like we are? It’s well established that a strong economy is a prerequisite for a stable society. Now that your economy is tottering, do you fear descending to our level?
Layer II: Historic oppressor
In this layer of thought, we’re incapable of seeing beyond the black-and-white mosaic of history. We revel in the classic oppressor-oppressed angle. We remind ourselves that you divided us to rule us. You succeeded beyond your wildest imagination, didn’t you? The divisiveness you fomented is evident not only in a tense, disputed international border between India and Pakistan, but also in the manner our society is fragmented within. Of course, we always had a potpourri of castes, languages, classes, religions and sects. You simply heightened our awareness of and taste for these labels. We silly creatures are still fighting over them. Are you happy?
You also looted us blind. We’re still waiting for the Kohinoor and a million other treasures to be returned to us. You built your glitzy nation on the money repatriated from the Raj. And your Queen stopped short of apologising for the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre. If Kevin Rudd could apologise to the Australian aboriginals, why can’t you apologise for your wrongdoings? A few years ago, when Tony Blair visited India and a young girl raised the issue of colonialism on a talk show, he suavely replied, ‘You aren’t going to blame me for everything that has happened, are you?’ We’re paraphrasing, but you get the gist.
Do you expect us to simply wipe the slate clean? Hey, you Western economies aren’t even willing to accept bottom-line responsibility for carbon emissions. You want to keep forgetting, but we remember everything. Everything. And like an irate, estranged spouse, we await opportunities to extract our pound of flesh.
Layer III: Rules changed
When we were the richest civilisation in the world, you sailed into our unsuspecting presence. When you became the richest, you erected a check-post; because you learnt from your conquests. Your 16th century mercenaries could get a toehold on us with their technological superiority on the war field. And now you’re afraid we’ll do the same with our IT prowess and whatnot. The royal boot is on the other foot, eh?
Layer IV: Concern
Positive thinking finally makes an appearance at this level. Let us ask you, dear Britons: why are you emulating our arson-skills? Why are so many of your youth foolishly sacrificing their futures to create token bonfires? Is it unemployment, a widening class divide, a crumbling education system, a crisis of identity or a larger, as-yet unfathomed despondency? Can you identify and implement a humane solution to address the issue?
We may not acknowledge it, but we want to see you implement wonderful solutions. This might help us escape the assumption that no stark problem can ever be solved. Can we not solve our own problems, you ask. Well, you thought you messed us up real good. But once you left, we demonstrated what a real mess up looks like! So, yeah, we can’t find magic bean solutions. You probably can.
Layer V: Adulation
Why do we expect you to find these solutions? Because your institutions are still in working order. Isn’t your society, too, riddled with corruption and greed? Of course, it is. But these issues are addressed in your electoral process. For us, they remain rhetorical themes. We therefore agree that, whatever your past, your society has reached a level of refinement wherein meaningful solutions are within reach. After all, your power centres are accountable. And a great majority of your civil society is responding with aplomb. They aren’t immune to chaos, the way we are. They’re prepared to do their bit to set things right.
Also, we operate on the frameworks you left behind, speak your language, play your sports, enjoy your sense of humour and build superstructures of thought on the literature your writers have created. London is not just a scene of recent violence for us. It reminds us of Dickens and Conan Doyle. (Of course, most of us maintain that we’re culturally superior, but that’s another story.)
In other words, most of us no longer admire your melanin deficiency – that’s just your weather playing a banal trick on your skin tone, we know that now. Meanwhile, our admiration has been redirected to things that matter.
Layer VI: Need for stability
At this level, we see the interconnectedness of the human tapestry. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that violence and chaos travel in a reinforcing spiral, especially in a planet bent upon globalisation. Only a feeble, unimaginative intellect would think that an unstable Occident is good for the Orient. Therefore, the riots in the UK must be condemned and extinguished in the short-term, and the root-causes analysed and resolved in the long-term, for the betterment of everybody.
Once this wholesome selfishness takes over, we paradoxically lose the desire to be petty and vengeful.
As you can see, each layer of thought is a natural progression from the one below it. Combine this with the fact that not all of us have acquired all these six layers of thought. Some of us aren’t able to escape the confines of Layer I. A few amongst us manage to operate at Layer IV and above. That should explain our mixed responses. I’m not offering excuses or asking you to forgive us for how some of us have reacted. Instead, I’m saying that this is how it is. We’re all products of our history, geography and economy.
P.S: My intent is not to speak on behalf of everybody. I resorted to this technique simply to ponder about a historic relationship in a new context.
Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.