It was a surprise, but I woke up from a dream in which I had killed someone. A quiet murder, not messy at all. What methods did I resort to? Like all murderers too clever for their own good, I suspect it was a poison that left no trace. This leads us to the matter of procuring such a chemical, not all of us have opaque bottles labelled POISON, sitting pretty on our kitchen shelves.
I was caught by a proselytizer the other day. She was armed with body odour and pamphlets, and she seemed most offended that I didn’t believe in her saviour. I should have been irritated, but I started laughing, and that seemed to upset her more. You are a cynic, but you will learn, she warned me. This is what my mother told me as well.
I did wonder if the proselytizer was the one I killed. Or maybe it was the attractive elderly gentleman, with a body that suggested he ran every Sunday morning, with silky, white hair that threatened to shadow his eyes. He could be a tax evader, I reasoned. Like any individual who spends too much time in the company of their own thoughts, I tried to get to the bottom of this. Was I simply watching too many Tamil films? That might explain a world where murders have no repercussions, and every city has a vigilante to clean up the streets.
I wondered if this was symptomatic of my quest to feel. As life cruises along, I seem to have been dulled into a state where my emotions are secondhand at best. I try to feel when fictional characters work through their problems, doing my best to suspend disbelief, to be carried away by the moment. But even at the brink, I pull myself back. I sense I was pushed along this path by a sequence of carefully programmed events, words, images, characters.
After I walked around the library with indifference, and after a bird decided to relieve itself on my arm, I decided to go watch a movie. Amidst the glut of entertainment options, I had somehow forgotten for a brief period of time that I could visit a theatre. This is how I found myself among a group of enthusiastic, older black men and women; we had all gathered to watch a documentary on Toni Morrison’s life and work. What did they make of me? Did I represent the average racist Indian who aspired to whiteness, while dismissing African American and Hispanic populations? Maybe they hoped I would learn something about race, structural inequalities, and the “interior pain” of being black in a country that liked to call itself a melting pot. I didn’t know much about Toni Morrison, except she had passed away recently, and I haven’t read any of her books.
I have to admit there is something to be said for watching a film with strangers, to witness their cheers and applause, and allowing their collective emotion to ever so slightly guide your response. I probably don’t need to add this doesn’t always work; people have cheered for worse things, and they will continue to.
Toni Morrison did not shy away from saying she wrote about and for black people. On the (white) writer’s perspective that assumes the reader is white, she says, “…explain things that didn’t need to be explained if they were talking to me.” One of the talking heads in the documentary, the academic Farrah Griffin, says, ” You are only defined by what your oppressor thinks of you. But guess what, there’s a whole other world going on where they aren’t even looking.”
How facile it would be, to watch this documentary, and comment on the American ideas of diversity and inclusion, while luxuriating in the fruits of being an oppressor in India. What kind of mental gymnastics does it take to build a wall that neatly separates geographic spaces and identities, allowing for discrimination on one side, and a victim narrative on the other? People watch Pa. Ranjith’s films and complain that the settings are unfamiliar, the iconography too symbolic, the talk of caste unsettlingly direct. Somehow, to them, the presence of a Buddha figurine or a poster of Ambedkar makes the scope too narrow, taking away from the human condition; whereas these very people would not question visuals of a temple, a pious woman bowing before her gods and celebrating festivals, a child learning the classical arts.