The Crab and the Rocket

While we are raking up the past to suit the present, the global citizens are working the present to change the future... for the better. And in our continuing obsession with identity-driven politics and parochial pursuits, we are robbing our young of their opportunity to become part of this grander project and becoming truly global citizens, writes SONA RAI

Sikkim, a place of pristine natural beauty, inhabited by people with sweet, smiling faces who will go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome. Sikkim, a place of bad roads and over-priced food infested by unfriendly, shrewd and racist touts, taxi-drivers, hotel-owners and shopkeepers. Sikkim, an anthropologist’s delight and hence an entity that needs to be captured in print right on time for the pending career advancement and yes, before the innocence of the people and the place is lost forever. Sikkim, the spoilt child of the Indian Union, who is getting more than her deserved share and thus corrupting to the core the people living here. Sikkim, the fast moving, game-changer among the smaller states of India, a place that is perfecting the balance between development and sustainability. Well, we have played our parts - the ‘exotic’, the ‘backward’, the ‘diligent’, the ‘obedient’, the ‘progressive’, the ‘peaceful’, the ‘little one’, the ‘cute but stupid’. These are the images we intentionally and not so intentionally throw out to visitors or outsiders. Inside, we are a different story altogether. But now wait…what is that story?

The ambiguous, blurred story is where the problem starts. In places where memories have been colonized, ambushed and hijacked by every passerby, every migrant group, every ruling clan, every vested interest, every insecure elder, there are to be people who grow up with this confusing tale of ‘how we came to be’ and that future generations, especially those caught in the cusp of tradition and modernity, either retreat and embrace the ones that project their ethnic identity in a favourable light or give it all up, join the present, and grow up with a blank sense of history.

Growing up in Gangtok in the 1980s and 90s, with Russian books, magazines and pen-pals, stamp collections, Tintin and Asterix comic books, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, and then with the bursting into the scene of satellite television and with it, the invasion of MTV and Star channels, the last things we ever thought about or asked our parents about or had the time for was the history of Sikkim and the playing out of past and present day politics. Then came college and university outside where you met people with vivid memories and histories of their own and their, if not physical but mental, participation in the shaping of their communities or societies. Then, it was time to play the ‘cute but stupid’ card while inside we felt an immense feeling of embarrassment about our silence and genuine blankness regarding our history and culture. The distancing of ourselves from everything local, encouraged by the schools we had attended, led us on the path to becoming global citizens and then you meet the rest of India and discover that the skill of insulation from the individual and moving on to the universal was not that ‘cool’. Interspersed within these interactions with young people with a ‘developed’ sense of their own local identities, were horrible instances of racial discrimination and patronizing attitudes emanating from the mainstream population that led to xenophobia being extremely justified in our minds.

Now, the task was to rediscover our roots, know our history, reclaim our past so that you could create a formidable barrier between yourself and the ‘outsiders’. The logical step for many was to rush home with the minimal qualifying degree and claim rightful positions within the occupational hierarchy. That should provide you with the basic sense of security you rather need. Once back home, there is again the rediscovery of Sikkim’s work and public spaces, starting from the point of entry to the actual space, which has been explicitly or implicitly compartmentalized into ethnic groupings. They are the miniature images of the society at large. In the educational institutions, which I am becoming familiar with, exceptions aside, it is not just the clique formation of teachers and students on community lines but often, only a teacher from your own community can inspire you to take up a subject. Even to the point that the various disciplines within a school or a college can often get ethnic tags depending on which group the dominant teachers of a particular subject belong to, with students’ interests, motivations and aspirations dovetailing accordingly.

The ‘mission’ of self-determination on the basis of ethnicity begins at home, at work, during leisure hours, at public meetings and events. Gradually, the ‘others’ within your own society replace the ‘other’ that you so detested during college days. There is selective history making, picking facts and quotes devoid of their contexts from books that have been written on Sikkim, whatever suits your needs to bolster your self-esteem and that of your own community. There are values attached to you as per the (assumed or otherwise) past behaviour of your ancestors over which, as commonsense tells us, the present generation has no control over. Having achieved the colonial and Indian protectors on your side is a ‘good’ thing. Your ancestors having arrived late to the party is a ‘bad’ thing. Proving that your ethnic group is much more backward and more helpless than the rest is a ‘good’ thing. Not attempting to stand by muddled histories along with the rest of the group is a ‘bad’ thing.

I had a school friend who belonged to a well-to-do family and kept telling us that she came from a very ancient lineage to which one of my friends, out of irritation, replied, “So? Do we come from seeds then?” We all secretly laughed, not understanding the implication that retort would have years later when we are adults and we start playing our own games of self-glorification of families, lineages, clans, tribes and communities.

The big question that remains is what happened to the global citizen that many of our schools and teachers were trying to carve out of us during our childhood and young adulthood. That part of our identity somehow got lost in the politics of living. And that is the very thing that we need right now. The community of global citizens is working tirelessly to eradicate poverty, to end violence against women and children, to resolve conflicts, to rehabilitate refugees and victims of violence, to conserve the environment, to provide sustainable sources of energy, to reduce carbon footprints, extend quality education and healthcare to all of humanity, prolong human life, to understand space and beyond, to send humans to Mars in case things do not work out on Earth, to develop artificial intelligence but trying to understand the implications and dangers of it, and the list goes on.

While we are raking up the past to suit the present, the global citizens are working the present to change the future. The global citizens are trying to provide the quality of life to the very children we are indoctrinating at the moment and asking to choose sides. The global citizens have sided with all of humanity which is increasingly appearing to be a tiny dot compared to the expansiveness of space that we are becoming aware of. The global children are learning new skills that will help them adapt to a rapidly changing world, a fact that we cannot wish away, looking at the pace science and technology are accelerating at. Meanwhile, our children are being taught just how to avoid being stepped on their toes by the children of the ‘others’; protect their egos from being trampled upon; become avid consumers of whatever the market throws at us; use the advances made in this century to forward petty agendas and showcase small-mindedness; and greedily increase one’s share of what we can loot off people around us.

It is time for a larger perspective. It is time to rethink what the need of the hour is. It is time for histories to come together without stealing dignity from others in order to elevate one’s own. It is time for communities to come together and work out political solutions that promote democracy. It is time for the majority to understand the insecurities of the minority and for the minorities not to play sly. It is time to upgrade to the needs and vision required of 21st century dwellers. It is time to make our children ready by providing them with an environment where they can innovate and create. It is time to look at the real problems of the society and identify the real people who need a helping hand. It is time to transform oneself from a crab to a rocket.