Last week, as I read of IIT Kanpur setting up a committee to see if Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s nazm, Hum Dekhenge, was against Hindus, one phrase flashed back into my head from the distant past: the theatre of the absurd.
In the last few years, we have become accustomed to hearing so many absurd and ridiculous statements by politicians that we barely notice what they say. Their utterances are stupid at best and hateful and divisive at worst and most of the time, we barely notice. Sometimes we normalize these things by drawing them into our conversation, first using inverted commas and then not noticing when those fall off. I am thinking here of terms like ‘presstitute’ or ‘sickular’ or the ‘tukde tukde gang’ or ‘anti-national.’
Misogynist, casteist and communal speech are laughed off as if they are only social gaffes. A short period of outrage, directed at no one in particular and heeded by no one at all, and we return to the business of our lives.
I have been thinking of the only absurdist play I have ever studied, The Rhinoceros. In Ionesco’s play, the protagonist watches as one by one, everyone—actually everyone—turns into a rhinoceros. It begins with disbelief, then denial, then curiosity, admiration and wanting to belong. It does not make sense at any stage and the transformation is an awkward overlay on everyday conversations (or the other way around). At the beginning of the play, the rhinoceros is an anomaly, maybe even an optical illusion. By the end, Berenger, the protagonist, is the anomaly.
Towards the end of the play, one of the characters says, “To understand is to justify.” Over the years, as people have sought to explain to me India’s fascination with right-wing politics, the sense of persecution it taps into and our infatuation with what appear to be strong leaders, I have thought of this. The person who said this turned into a rhinoceros. I have resolutely refused to understand.
None of it makes sense. We use rationality and history and evidence, or even principle, to argue against an amoral universe that makes less and less sense, and this is why it is as if we are trapped in an absurdist play. And then I remember that when I was in college, many theatre groups would perform works from this genre and I realise now that while all of it made sense to me in the moment—each line or exchange as a cluster of words did--I can remember none of them as a coherent plot. There was none. Or if there was, then it eluded me. We are so caught up in each moment that we never get or we lose the plot, until it surreptitiously overtakes us.
Nothing makes sense today either except hazy recollections of moments in our collective past. Violence inside sealed gates. Jallianwala Bagh. The rise of the Nazis and Fascists. Police as mute witnesses. The pogroms in 1984 and 2002 against Sikhs in Delhi and Muslims in Gujarat. Us, mute, helpless, ill-informed, unseeing. In our denial and in our fascinations, we become rhinoceroses too.
[PS: Professor Mohammed Ayoob, Emeritus Professor at Michigan State University, has also been remembering the Theatre of the Absurd.]